【Media Interview】Proud of my students (Li Ai)

Proud of my students

"Can you believe it? This is homework of a student who has been studying Chinese for just three months, and his Chinese characters are already at this level." Ms. Li Ai had a pleased look on her face as she showed me her student's homework. I saw the student's neat handwriting, with Pinyin, and over 600 Chinese characters categorized by radicals, including all the basic structures of Chinese characters.

Ms. Li has been teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Beijing Language and Culture University since 1975. She has been teaching in Uruguay, Spain and Cuba during this period, and has also worked as a foreign correspondent for the Global magazine. At the beginning of the interview, Li gave me a warm hug, a hearty laughter, wearing an orange and yellow sportswear, and I could not tell that she had reached the age of retirement. She said, "In more than 30 years of experience teaching at home and abroad, I have students from more than 50 countries around the world, especially students whose native language is French and Spanish. The students range from dynamic college students to working professionals of all ages, the oldest of whom is seventy-two years old. Among them are entrepreneurs, diplomats, bank employees, government servants, university professors, etc. Learning and spending time with them has made me feel that my life is fulfilling and meaningful." Ms. Li said emotionally.


(Left to right) French student Julien, Beninese student Maurice, Prof. Li Ai, Burundian student, performer of face changing in opera Tchiegue Gracois, Ambassador of Serbia in China.

Li took out several composition books from the bag she was carrying and pointed to one of them, saying, "Her name is Maria, a 52-year-old tan-skinned Cuban with a medical doctorate. She started learning Chinese from zero and wrote a 1,543-word composition in just a year and a half. In this composition she used a lot of specialized medical vocabulary that is only used in upper-level texts and is not currently taught in the classroom. It was all completed by Maria by looking it up in her own dictionary and learning it on her own." Pointing to another composition book, she said, "This student is called Angel, 23 years old. Also a student from ''zero'', he wrote a lively and interesting composition of over 900 words." I looked through the pages and felt that not only did they write clearly and carefully in Chinese characters, but the content was really interesting. Ms. Li also told me that she started teaching her students to look up the dictionary from the fourth lesson of the phonetic stage. The purpose is to develop their ability to learn Chinese characters on their own. She says teaching Chinese to foreign students, especially to adults, is in no way equivalent to teaching Chinese elementary school students, which is a second or third language acquisition process. Most overseas Chinese learners have a better educational background, they have a high level in their first language, think logically and clearly, and have strong comprehension and self-learning ability. As long as the learning purpose is clear and the motivation is sufficient, they can have better learning results. The point is how the teacher guides.

In the classroom with Korean, Japanese, Indonesian and other international students in BLCU

To enable the students to master the rules of Chinese character recognition as quickly as possible, Ms. Li took a lot of effort to first remove the intimidation for them. She told her students that there are 33 letters in Russian, 28 in Spanish, 26 in English and 68 in Cambodian. Chinese characters have only 8 basic strokes, and two or three strokes make up a single-syllable character with a specific meaning, and characters with high grouping ability can be combined into more characters. You can read Chinese newspapers if you master the 3000 basic Chinese characters. We don't have articles in Chinese, there are no feminine or masculine nouns, and there are no morphological changes in verbs... Would you say Chinese is difficult, or your language?" She believes that it is very important for students to build up confidence in learning, to make the whole into zero and the complicated into simple.

She added: "We need to introduce more country-specific series of teaching materials, and the teaching content should focus on teaching sentence patterns, putting the explanation of words in second place. First, students should be taught to speak and communicate on a daily basis, and only then should the words be used in an appropriate and refined manner. Nowadays, most students use English textbooks, which makes students who don't know English or don't speak English have to spend double the time looking up two or three dictionaries in order to preview. In a 45-minute class, the time for effective learning is greatly compressed by the fact that what the teacher teaches depends on students to cross talk among themselves and not fully understand after two or three translations." Li called for a new and more effective platform for teaching Chinese and for efforts to create a better pedagogy.

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