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Homeschool Chinese: The Role of Our Lăoshī

November 19 2015
On many occasions when I have mentioned in conversation that my children are learning Mandarin Chinese, the response is, “Really? How do you do that? Do you speak Chinese?”  
They are always surprised to learn that I do not. I explain that we hired a native speaker when we first started on this journey of becoming bilingual. We have in fact worked with a previous instructor, but Lăoshī Shawn has been with us the longest.
Recently, a reader posted the following question:
You mentioned that you have hired a native speaker. I’m curious about his role. Do you prepare the materials and have the native speaker use them with your children? Or does he have a more autonomous role in planning what he does with your children? Or is he not really teaching the material, and instead providing non-structured conversation practice?

We in fact work with native speakers who fill both roles. Let me explain.

老师 – Lăoshī

We have been working with Lăoshī Shawn since 2011 and his role has always been very autonomous. When we first met, I shared with him the Better Chinese My First Chinese Reader curriculum with which we had gotten started with our previous instructor. I explained that I liked how the instructions were in English and thus, as a non-speaking parent, I was able to assist my children if they didn’t understand what they were expected to do within a particular exercise.

At the time, they were just 5 and 7 years old so this was very important to me. Now that they are older and more independent, they require less assistance from me. I only have to remind them on occasion to get their Mandarin homework completed and submitted on time.

We meet with him twice a week (first in his home and now via Skype as he now resides on the East Coast and we remain on the West Coast). He generally works with the kids independently for an hour each – when we first began, my daughter had two years of instruction behind her and thus significantly more vocabulary. On occasion they do cultural and cooking lessons together – I even get to join in on these.

Weekly Lessons

Lăoshī Shawn plans each of the two weekly lessons. They have gradually progressed from the elementary series, My First Chinese Reader and are now using the middle school curriculum, Discovering Chinese. He has also periodically supplemented with other materials and activities to enrich the lessons and keep the kids engaged. Here are a few examples:

Monthly / Quarterly Cultural Lessons

In addition to the weekly lessons that typically focus on vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar, Lăoshī Shawn also plans a monthly cooking lesson as well as a quarterly cultural lesson. Often the cultural lesson stems from a Chinese holiday, our travels as a family, or current world events.

Some of our favorite past cultural lessons include:

助教 - Zhùjiào

Over the years,  Lăoshī Shawn has assigned numerous homework activities that require the kids to engage in a conversation with someone. Typically, he assigns these in anticipation of our family weekend getaways to San Francisco. We have learned through these exercises that the kids are relatively timid and apprehensive about speaking in Mandarin with anyone other than one another, Shawn, or his wife.

I get this. I was the same way when I was learning Spanish in high school and university. I didn’t overcome this barrier until I spent a summer abroad in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. Research has shown that conversation is key to learning a new language. Polyglot Benny Lewis (Fluent in 3 Months) stated,

“I failed learning Spanish for months because of perfectionism, but embracing a ‘screw it, I want to actually use this language, mistakes or not’ approach allowed me to communicate and ultimately make friends.”

Thus, when we moved back to Oregon a few months ago, I reached out to another native speaker (who has in the past taught conversation classes at the local community college). We have just begun working with her on a bi-weekly basis, focusing specifically on conversation skills.

Though they do not collaborate, her role is more of a teacher’s assistant. I have lent her our Better Chinese materials so she is familiar with the vocabulary that the kids are familiar with and what lessons they are currently working on with Shawn. She encourages them to come prepared with questions to ask her and she in turn, asks them questions.

The first couple of times we have met, my son hasn’t been very receptive but he is slowly coming around. Her dialect is slightly different and she uses some unfamiliar vocabulary (intentionally). This is all good but it is challenging. My daughter on the other hand LOVES it! She has really blossomed this past year and has discovered the joy of speaking another language.



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