Written by Jane Orton.

Across all the English-speaking countries (ESCs) in the twenty-first century, education departments and individual schools have responded to calls from politicians and social commentators for an increase in the teaching of Modern Standard Chinese (Mandarin). After some years, however, reports written in the UK and in Australia raised a number of concerns about the dropout rate from Chinese courses and the quality of teaching on many programmes. Less than a decade later, and after being joined by hundreds of new programmes in the US and Europe, the field is still troubled by low levels of achievement, high dropout rates (including at undergraduate level), and in school education especially, concerns about the need for teachers who can present a quality curriculum and manage their classroom satisfactorily:

In their 2014 report, Teresa Tinsley and Kathryn Board find that ‘the teaching of Chinese as a school subject in the UK … lacks the depth of shared expert understanding of “what works” that other languages enjoy’.

Similarly, according to a study of Chinese Language Education in the United States, ‘the lack of success in the majority of K-12 programs in terms of helping students attain a functional level of proficiency has become a challenge for CSL programs in US elementary and secondary schools’.

Among the languages commonly taught in ESC schools, Chinese is unique in that virtually all the teachers are native speakers, usually graduate English majors from Chinese universities.  In the UK and the US many have not qualified as a teacher locally, but instead have undertaken postgraduate training in the teaching of Chinese as a Foreign Language at home before moving overseas to take up 2- or 3-year contracts.

Some have done this independently, but many more work under the auspices of the Chinese government’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (Hanban). From early on, the most common response in all ESCs to problems in maintaining quality Chinese language programmes has been to propose pre- and post-service professional education for these teachers.

Thus Tinsley and Board proposed that ‘to enable them to work effectively in schools across the UK and to contribute more broadly to the school, teachers from China …  need support and training from UK-based experts who understand what works in a UK primary or secondary school context’. In the United States, educators have been clear about demanding that teachers meet their published standards, frank about what they see as lacking in the practice of those from other educational cultures – notably those from China – and active in efforts to coach their development as competent teachers in the American system.

In the US, the UK and in Australia (where teachers from China have generally had to train or retrain locally in order to teach), there has been no shortage of candidates willing to obtain or extend their professional qualifications as teachers of Chinese. A major outcome of this has been the increasing contribution by Chinese teachers through in-class discussions, conference papers and articles of their experience of the problems of establishing and maintaining quality Chinese language programmes, resulting in a clearer picture for both sides of the scope of what is at stake. For example:

My neighbour walks her 8-year-old son to school every morning at the same time as I am leaving. In China the mother would say to her child: ‘Now study hard and obey the teacher’.  But at the school gate my neighbour kisses her son goodbye and says, ‘Have a good day.

I don’t know what she means: what will happen if he has a good day – or if he doesn’t?  I have no idea! [Chinese teacher engaged in postgraduate studies in Australia]

Zhou and Li sum up what many have also said:

In China, the majority of students would be motivated to achieve good performance in exams, and therefore [the teachers we interviewed] did not perceive motivating students as a major responsibility of the teacher.

Influenced by Confucian philosophy, they originally understood the role of a teacher as a knowledge provider who feeds students with knowledge through teacher-dominated lecturing.

Teachers struggled with their lack of effective strategies for managing American classrooms and [of facility with] kid-friendly language.

More recently, Yue concurred and detailed the consequences:

The conflicts … manifest themselves in a large number and range of difficulties, including designing curriculum; selecting appealing lesson themes and choosing classroom activities, strategies and materials that motivate students; managing student behaviour; and working with parents.

Furthermore, and most significantly, Yue reported that even when her interviewees recognised their professional approach did not match their colleagues’ and students’ expectations, and despite a great deal of well-meaning support and coaching, ‘in their hearts, they could not discard their belief in rote learning and the Chinese way’.

These reports reveal the goodwill of all involved, and many of them evidence some varied incremental benefits. But they also reveal that the desired changes go beyond practical strategies to the very core of beliefs and values about the nature of human beings, the concept of learning, and social roles and relationships.

Raised in a society where public face must be maintained at a premium, and a cut-throat assessment schedule is in place from kindergarten, most Chinese teachers only know a distant teacher and teaching and learning fixated on content and perfection. The depth of the intellectual, emotional and practical contradictions inherent in proposing that they appreciate as sound education what looks to them like messy lessons and time wasted making students think of their own ideas and projects, or listen to fellow students whose knowledge is a great deal less than the teacher’s, have to be recognised and explored if professional development for the teaching of Chinese in ESCs is ever to achieve common ground.

Powerful learning experiences that allow them to imagine theories of action that generate networks of meaning very different from those underpinning the uniform practices they know will be essential, and only achieved by ESC educators who are willing and able to subject their own theories of action to critical intercultural scrutiny and seek to engage in long-term dialogue.

Dr Jane Orton is an Honorary Fellow of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. She came to the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne in 1989 as Senior Project Officer for the Asian Languages in Teacher Education Project. From 1992–2008 she coordinated Modern Languages Education in the Faculty, during which time she taught language and culture, non-verbal communication in second language learning, and research methodology to postgraduates, as well as language teaching methodology to pre-service teacher candidates. During much of that time, Jane was also an Executive Member of the Australia-China Business Council (Vic), including five years as a Vice-President. Image Credit: CC by Marco Klapper/Flickr.


  1. Having persevered through studying Mandarin for several years at college in America and Taiwan in the 1960’s and 70’s, and still studying today and using it in my work, the challenge for Western speakers is daunting. The ear must be retrained to differentiate between the tones. The eye must be retrained to perceive the characters. The memory must be strengthened in every respect. The dropout rate in my first year of college was about 75%. Of those remaining into the second year, only about two-thirds continued into the third year, and those all continued into the fourth year. I credit my most essential, not my initial, Mandarin teacher with having a wonderful sense of humor and acceptance of how difficult these challenges were for his students. We have remained good friends to this day.

  2. Sorry I didn’t see this until today.
    Your experience is mirrored all around the world. And it shows what we all know: that learning is the outcome of a relationship not simply ‘the delivery (!) of content’.
    But there is more we could do in teacher education to make the poor outcomes you write about less common.

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