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Modern Chinese Teaching at Cambridge

Modern Chinese Teaching at Cambridge 


The ultimate aim of our Modern Chinese Programme is to develop our students' communicative skills in Chinese and train them to become independent and competent users of the language. Although competence in communication in a language involves more than just linguistic competence, linguistic competence is nevertheless an essential element in communicative competence. As our students are learning Chinese in an English-speaking environment, it is difficult for them to acquire the grammatical rules intuitively. With this in mind, we adopt a proportional approach in designing our Modern Chinese Programme.

In the 1st year, we put more emphasis on linguistic forms (e.g. grammar, lexicon, etc.) in order to provide our students with basic tools for using the Chinese language. This emphasis on linguistic forms gradually decreases in later years as non-formal components (e.g. functions, themes, etc.) are given correspondingly more prominence. The 1st year is treated as a transitional stage between language learning in secondary schools, where vocabulary and structure lists are provided, and language learning at the university level, where the aim is to train the student to become an independent user of the language. Although grammar instruction is still provided after the 1st year, the teaching focus will be more on the use, rather than the grammatical rules, of the language. Language materials used in the 1st year are simplified for pedagogical purposes, but authentic materials are gradually introduced afterwards.

Our Modern Chinese Programme aims at providing students with all the communicative skills necessary for them to function in Chinese-speaking communities, which include listening, speaking, reading, writing, translating and interpreting. It is recognised that students may have various professions and occupations in mind for their future career and may wish to learn business Chinese, Chinese for diplomacy, etc. which may not be taught specifically in our Modern Chinese Programme. However, we believe that a solid foundation in common-core Chinese is essential for students to pursue their future study of Chinese. It gives them an advanced proficiency in the language that is transferable to any specific field of language use or professional walk of life.

We believe that the spontaneous use of language derives from subconscious or implicit knowledge, while conscious or explicit knowledge comes into play in situations where the focus is on form rather than meaning. Explicit knowledge here refers to the technical aspects of language, such as grammar, but we want to get students beyond the stage of reliance on explicit knowledge and promote their capacity for implicit knowledge. A consequence of this view is that activities designed to promote fluency should involve an emphasis on meaning. Drills are considered useful exercises in classroom teaching, particularly at early stages, but students benefit from an increasing number of activities designed to encourage creative and independent language use as they move to more advanced stages. These activities have the effect of (a) maximising opportunities for use; (b) creating a more natural environment; (c) simulating natural language settings and promoting the development of language-use strategies; (d) enabling students to convert what they have learned consciously into the subconscious knowledge which supports the spontaneous use of the language.

Learning Chinese to an advanced level requires a huge commitment and investment in time on a daily basis. The proficiency we aim to achieve at Cambridge goes far beyond the utilitarian day-to-day use of Chinese one might wish to pick up to travel or to order a meal.  Students are required to commit to an amount of language work that will far exceed what they may have been used to in learning foreign languages in secondary schools. Likewise, once students have passed the initial stages, being able to look up and master vocabulary independently is an indispensable skill for anyone aspiring to be an expert user of Chinese. Do expect, therefore, to be working on your Chinese several hours each day inside and outside the classroom. In return, you will gain not only a linguistic and communicative proficiency that sets you up for life and is admired by your future employers, but, most importantly, you will learn to speak and ‘think’ Chinese and understand this fascinating culture and part of the world ‘from within’.