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Chinese Language Teaching in Schools - Australia, USA and UK

By Jane Orton - posted Monday, 19 April 2010

Chinese has been one of the six most commonly taught languages in Australian schools for 20 years, although it is by far the smallest of the set. National curricula for primary and secondary levels were developed at that time, along with a large body of resources for teaching the language K-12. In every state there is a highly articulated assessment process linked to assessment in all modern languages and separate courses and assessment procedures have been set up for recently arrived mother-tongue users. Background speakers are also catered for in Saturday morning programs and in a wide range of community schools, many now registered and meeting Department of Education guidelines.

By contrast in the United States, even in cities with strong Chinese immigrant groups such as New York and San Francisco, Chinese was rarely taught in mainstream schools before 2005, with the notable exception of Chicago, although hotly promoted now by government special funds and groups such as the Asia Society. In many respects the flood of Chinese programs opening across the United States (tripling the number of schools offering Chinese in just three years), the fervour and energetic activity discussing how to teach and how to get enough teachers and have them trained, the pouring out of money into any initiative that can offer development, are much more reminiscent of the Asia-literacy drive of the early 1990s in Australia than of the recent National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) under the Rudd Government. Perhaps mindful of how short-lived much that was started here 20 years ago turned out to be, there has been no equivalent flood of new programs as a result of this new drive, at least not as yet.

The National Asian Languages and Studies in Schools Program (NALSSP) is the latest in a series of efforts over the past 40 years, since the Auchmuty Report, 1972, to develop studies of Chinese language and society in Australian schools, along with those of other Asian societies of significance to this country. All have foundered. From the perspective of Chinese, one main factor in this failure has been its constant coupling with other Asian languages and the consequent disregard for the quite particular linguistic and social factors which limit the success of classroom learners of Chinese. It is a situation that also occurs and has a similar impact on Chinese development in the UK, where school graduation and university entrance (GCE and A levels) are closely linked. As in Australia, too, a number of academically strong schools in the UK have decided not to offer Chinese because their students cannot do well in it at senior examinations due to unequal competition from massive numbers of home speakers. Separate courses for home speakers and classroom learners in which all have the chance to do well is the solution but, here and abroad, the basis of allocation to course and examination is a social discrimination legal minefield that all seem reluctant to work through.


Almost all Australian day-school Chinese programs are staffed by registered teachers, who are usually also qualified teachers of the language. In the 1990s, several university teacher education courses offered Method of Teaching Chinese, however, in the past decade these have virtually all been reduced to generic modern language method studies, and this has occurred just as the field of modern languages has been elaborating a set of professional standards which require some dedicated studies in teaching the special features of each language and culture. Until recently student teachers of Chinese usually did professional practice supervised by experienced teachers of Chinese, but here too, corners are now being cut. Chinese teachers in Australia have a national federation, which runs a newsletter and holds an annual conference, and five states and one territory have their own fairly active local association of Chinese teachers. There is also a national on-line Hanyu Laoshi ning open to all.

Nationally, Australia does not have a shortage of formally qualified Chinese teachers, although supply is unevenly distributed, with shortages in places like Western Australia but a surplus of certificated candidates in Sydney and Melbourne, mostly due to job applicants being found unsuitable for work in local schools. Given the cultural shaping of educational systems and practices, and the fact that both the educational tradition and the lived culture in China and Australia in recent decades have been markedly different, it is not surprising that the almost exclusively Chinese society-educated native speaker teachers of Chinese are far less likely to be effective teachers here than their counterparts teaching French, or even Japanese.

The same point is made in a 2007 report, Mandarin Language Learning Research Study, published by the National Centre for Languages in the United Kingdom:

Teachers from China are described as ‘lovely’ but their lack of familiarity with the English system of discipline, target setting etc. is a problem. They also tend to have different, perhaps unrealistic, expectations of pupils. Concerns are expressed about Chinese teachers’ abilities to manage pupils, particularly whole classes or where there is a tendency for students to be disruptive. (CILT Research Report, p. 12)


In the UK, only 13 per cent of secondary schools offer Chinese, of which by far the majority are independent schools, largely as the result of parental pressure. According to the report, only 31 per cent of all surveyed schools offering Chinese had a qualified language teacher (not necessarily qualified in teaching Chinese). A quarter of the schools were using foreign language assistants (FLAs) to teach the language, though not in regular classes but in lunchtime or ‘after school club’ classes. Local teachers learning Mandarin alongside pupils in classes run by FLAs or other visiting Chinese teachers was cited among “innovative and imaginative” efforts to develop Mandarin (p. 13).


UK universities which offer language teacher accredited training programs have expanded their languages set to include Chinese, though practicum places are very scarce, and non-teacher training institutions such as the School of African and Oriental Studies in London and Oxford University have also developed centres for teaching Chinese. As with the American version of this kind of program (at Columbia University, for example), while aimed at those intending to work at the secondary or post-secondary level, the offerings are courses in descriptive linguistics about the Chinese language, which lack any educational or learner perspectives. Generic modern language method is also offered in most American and British university teacher registration programs, taught by staff who are usually expert in a European language. Many of these programs cannot offer Chinese, however, as they have no places for a supervised practicum.

Without many learning Chinese yet close to finishing high school, the US does not face the disincentive of poor results for classroom learners at senior examination levels, so for now, at least, Chinese expansion is in full bloom in the US. As a result, teacher supply is critical. One way to meet teacher demand, advocated by the Asia Society, has been the ‘fast tracking’ of teacher training, where student teachers are given some six weeks of preliminary training, and expected to finish their course over the following two years while also working in schools. These expedient measures have raised the concern of the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), who, like their Australian counterpart the AFMLTA, have only recently completed the complex negotiations required to get national agreement on language teacher standards across the country and its various school boards. Consensus on standards has also meant facilitating considerable internal dialogue among its own associations of teachers of widely different languages. In addition to challenging professional standards, fast tracking Chinese teacher training is unwelcome because it comes at a time when the sudden privileging of a few world languages (e.g. Arabic, Chinese) over others long taught in the US (e.g. French, German) is alarming many veteran teachers and threatening to split the language teaching fraternity along an unfortunate east-west divide.

If we are to build the infrastructure to support a K16 pipeline of Chinese-language learners to meet national needs, three critical issues must be addressed:

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About the Author

Dr Jane Orton co-ordinates Modern Languages Education in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education.

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