Learning Chinese in English or learning Chinese in Chinese?

There is always a debate. Which is better – learn Chinese in English (or your native language) or learn Chinese in Chinese?

Learning Chinese in English (or your native language) means the teacher mainly uses English (or students’ native language) to teach Chinese and communicate with students; Learning Chinese in Chinese means the teacher uses almost solely Chinese, the target language, to conduct a class.

Before I started with Chinese at Ease, my own Chinese school, I have worked for several different language training centers. I found that schools are teaching Chinese drastically different. In terms of the language the teachers should use, some centers ask specifically Dutch (as I’m located in the Netherlands), some English, and some specifically Chinese, that is I was not allowed to speak any word of English in class from the very beginning. As you can imagine, to speak with students from the first moment only in Chinese was quite challenging, not only for me, but more for the students. Even with my simplest Chinese and body gestures, the students were still quite confused. Part of the reason was also because students weren’t expecting this.

On the other hand, I find teaching through English (or Dutch) very ineffective most of the times, whether or not the teachers speak fluent English (or Dutch) or not. Simply because there is a conscious thinking for students that they are LEARNING a language.

There is a difference here. Learn a language vs. use a language. In classes conducted fully in Chinese, students are encouraged to listen and speak as much Chinese as possible. Students are guided to think that they are using a language actively, rather than learning a language.

The obstacles with learning Chinese in Chinese are mostly at the beginning. For example, students get frustrated not understanding the teacher; teacher’s explanations are not clear and need to be repeated many times, taking a lot of time; students can’t reply well with limited Chinese, etc. Therefore, learning Chinese in Chinese from day one is not always beneficial.

However, I do believe that teachers should really reduce their use of English to the minimum as soon as possible. Before you switch to fully Chinese, it’s very important to make clear a few things in English to your students:

  1.  let your students know that you are going to use mainly Chinese starting from the very near future (for example: 10 minutes later)
  2.  explain clearly the reason why you are doing so (to expose them to Chinese as much as possible)
  3.  explain that you are going to use many gestures and explain what they mean (read below some common gestures I use to help in my class)
  4.  tell your students that you DO NOT expect them to follow you perfectly; as long as they know what to do is good enough. And they will get used to you and understand you very soon
  5. help them to master some useful Chinese phrases for them to use later ( 我不懂,我懂了,再说一遍, 对,不对,没有问题,我有问题,etc).


Some of my gestures used in class:

  1. open your book: take out a book and open it. Then point to students’ book. (Later, you can simply open your hands, they’ll understand)
  2. close your book: close your book, and point to students’ book (or close your hands)
  3. listen: point to your ear
  4. you speak: point to your students, then to your mouth
  5. repeat after me:  point to students, then yourself, then mouth
  6. any questions?: make a question mark in the air
  7. Write now: pretend you have a pen and write in the air
  8. Discuss with each other: point to two or more students, then mouth
  9. Time is up: use your two hands and make a stop sign


One important thing to keep in mind is, try to use simple expressions and sentences, and preferably with words they already know, particularly for beginner students. For example, if I want to ask them open their book and turn to page 20, I will say:

看你的书第20页 (instead of: 把书翻到第20页): 看 is a common used word, whereas 把…is not.

Also, pay attention to your speed. Don’t talk too fast. Every word should sound clear and steady.

From my experience, it’s not a difficult thing to switch to complete Chinese in class. Of course, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use English at all. For some words / grammar points explaining in English may be needed. If so, make sure you give many Chinese examples after your students understand the words / grammar points.

So what is your feedback? How have you learned your Chinese? Or how have you taught Chinese in class?

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