As part of the Beijinger’s Mandarin Month series that runs all June, we present Hao Laoshi, a series of Q&As with Mandarin teachers across town. Today we introduce Li Na, who teaches at The Hutong School. Below, she tells us how students can hit the ground running during their first class, common mistakes that pupils should avoid, and more.

Tell us a little about yourself.
I graduated from Harbin Normal University and have taught Chinese for over 10 years. My major was teaching Chinese as a foreign language.

Any funny examples of how your students have used the Chinese they learned in your class?
We all know that pronunciation is very important. On the first day of class, we learn how to ask: "How many people are in your family?" (你家有几口人 Nǐ jiā yǒu jǐkǒu rén)?

The answer could be: liǎngkǒu (two), sānkǒu (three) or more, depending on the situation. One night, a student went to a restaurant and the waiter asked him: "Do you have any dietary restrictions?" (你有什么忌口吗? Nǐ yǒu shénme jìkǒu ma?) My student said: liǎngkǒu (two people). That made the waiter laugh, because jǐkǒu and jìkǒu have similar pronunciations, but the meanings are completely different. 

Tell us more about your teaching approach.
The most important thing is teaching for practical use. I have an extensive knowledge of Chinese, and I will always adopt suitable teaching methods to each student. In the process of teaching, I use detailed examples and choose examples close to real life, in order to better help my students.

What about classroom management? How do you discipline lazy students that fall asleep?
I'll just let the student take a break, drink some coffee or tea, eat some food, or share some funny stories with them. Sometimes I'll share some 清凉油 (qīng líang yóu, Chinese essential balm) with them. When I was a student, I used it when I felt sleepy.

What should a student do to prepare before their first Mandarin class?
There’s two things. First, establish learning goals. Learning Chinese is not easy, so every student should set clear learning goals. Ask yourself: What do you want to learn? For how long? Which level do you want to reach? Such an attitude will help students succeed. Second, once you've settled on your goals, be determined to achieve them.

What are some common bad habits that students have while studying Mandarin, and how should they be avoided?
In the early stage, it is common for students to not understand that adjectives in Chinese can function directly as predicates. For example, when students want to say 我很忙 (wǒ hěn máng, I am busy), they'll say instead 我是很忙 (wǒ shiì hěn máng) even though there is no need to add the 是 (shì). The best way to teach students to avoid this? Provide detailed explanations, choose interesting and vivid examples, and set the context.

What are some of the techniques you use to make studying Mandarin fun?
I always use a simple game in my class called “Yes or No Questions.” It is motivating and fun, builds class cohesion, and helps students review and extend their learning.

The student can ask: 你喜欢看书吗 ( xǐhuān kàn shū ma?, Do you like reading)? The teacher can answer: 是 (Shì, Yes).
Or the student can ask: 你喜欢看电视吗 ( xǐhuān kàn diànshì ma?, Do you like watching TV)? The teacher can answer: 不 (, No).

This game can help students review learned verbs and extend new verbs. The winner gets a small gift. This is very popular with the students.

I also ask them to choose sentences they like, or that they think are useful or funny, and I'll write them on the small blackboard, to share with other students.

Like “吃醋”(chī cù, jealous). A might girl might say to her Chinese boyfriend: "Don’t look at other girls! I am jealous (别看别的女孩,我吃醋了 Bié kàn bié de nü hái! Wǒ chī cù le). That should remind her boyfriend of how lovely she is.

Tell us about one of your students that showed the most improvement.
I have a student named Mark. At first he only wanted to focus on speaking, and had no interest in learning to read or write Chinese characters. When he got to the HSK 2 level, he found that he had some difficulties reaching the next stage. He realized that a lot of words had very similar pronunciations, the teaching materials didn’t have pinyin, and he had difficulty remembering words for a long time. So he decided to learn Chinese characters. At first he didn’t know a single character. But I reminded him to pay attention to a sign visible outside our classroom’s window. It read: 小心高空坠物 (Xiǎoxīn​ gāokōng zhuìwù, Caution, falling objects). After a week of learning some characters, he began to know the meaning of 小 (xiǎo) and 心 (xīn​), and quickly realized that 小心 (xiǎoxīn​) means “be careful.”

During the second week, he learned 高 (gāo, high), and became more curious about that billboard. By the third week, he knew 物 (wù, object) and on the fourth week, he learned that 空 (kōng) means “sky.” Although there were still characters he didn’t know, Mark was still able to infer that the sign meant he should protect his head!

I try to stimulate students' curiosity about the things around them. That way, they get a sense of accomplishment from being able to use Chinese in real-life contexts.

Li Na is a teacher at the Hutong School, one of the schools participating in our June 25 Mandarin Mixer at Home Plate Barbecue. Come meet the Hutong School and a dozen other Mandarin schools at our free event. Pre-registration is required; click here to take advantage of free booze and other goodies.

In the mean time, follow our month-long Mandarin Month series here.

Photos courtesy of The Hutong

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