New Zealand NCEA Chinese is focused on Mandarin Chinese as the dominant dialect spoken in mainland China. You will be learning to hear, speak and understand spoken Chinese, as well as to read and write Chinese characters. For most Kiwi students, learning Chinese can be a struggle as we move away from the familiar characters of the Latin alphabet. However, as you work your way through the NCEA syllabus, you start to become more comfortable working in a different language system things will begin to become clear.
One of the key tips is to stop ‘translating’ as you go, which is incredibly hard when you are first learning. You also need to work out where to focus your study efforts – you can’t know everything in the first year of NCEA! In fact, even by NCEA Level 3, you aren’t expected to be fluent. However, you are expected to communicate your ideas and thoughts with others. Hence, as you work your way through the NCEA Chinese curriculum, keep in mind that the goal is to communicate, not just to memorise a vocabulary list.
Learning to Communicate in Chinese at NCEA Level
As you progress through the NCEA levels, students studying Chinese are expected to communicate more complex ideas and thoughts. While Level 1 introduces more formal forms of communication, by the time you are reaching to obtain NCEA Chinese Scholarship in Year 13, you will be able to hold casual conversations with friends and tell the difference between an informal and formal conversation – and why the difference matters.
Part of learning any language is understanding how the culture affects the language and how the language is shaped by the culture.
One of the learning examples provided in the New Zealand Chinese Curriculum for understanding context is a phone call between two friends, one Chinese and one a New Zealand student learning Chinese. In a casual conversation, they can discuss whether it is OK or expected to bring anything:
Rebecca shows that she understands Pengpeng’s use of 不用 when giving suggestions and advice (你什么都不用带) by replying, 好，明天晚上见。
Understanding informal and causal Chinese is often more difficult than working through a formal and in-depth text because there is a higher expectation that you will understand the cultural implications, humour, and in-jokes.
Resources to expanding NCEA Chinese Understanding
Of course, you will have access to great texts and resources through school. Still, we are lucky to be living in a world with outstanding global communication. This means that you will find Chinese language resources that interest you. You aren’t stuck with the topics that you have been provided at school, if you want to learn more about skateboarding, you can find Chinese skateboarders talking on YouTube, if you are fascinated by Xiqu (traditional Chinese Opera) or history, there are documentaries in Mandarin, English, and a mix of both, available on Netflix or Beamafilm.
It is just a case of looking. If you are struggling to find a resource that connects to your interests, talk to your NCEA Chinese teacher, who will likely be able to point you in the right direction.
Focusing your Study Time
For NCEA Chinese Level 1 students are expected to know around 370 Chinese characters and their meaning. While this can be overwhelming, following the “chunking” technique of repetitive learning, a group of words will become much more manageable each day.
For example, you could use a resource like “Quizlet” to create online flashcards that allow you to practice 7-10 characters every day. Once a week, shuffle the cards and see which words you still need to include in the learning rotation.
The NZQA Chinese Level 1 teacher resource suggests that you will be expected to know:
- Obvious cognates and loan words.
- Numbers, days of the week and months of the year.
- All characters may be used with other characters in this list to form new vocabulary items. The compounds given in the list are examples to show how this can be done.
So, while it may seem like a lot of words to learn, you will be able to use these words in sentences to express your ideas and communicate with others – and that requires a lot less effort than simply memorising a list of words.
Getting Better Chinese Pronunciation
Because Chinese is a tonal language while English is a “pitch-accent” language, Kiwi students can struggle to hear the different tones. One of the classic early pronunciation errors is between ‘horse’ and ‘mother’.
|mā||媽 (trad) / 妈 (simp)||mother|
|mǎ||馬 / 马||horse|
|mà||罵 / 骂||scold|
While there are a lot of apps available to help you learn to hear the difference in tones, by far, the best way to practice is with a real-life human. Learning to hear tones and to be able to pronounce them yourself will be the fastest way to becoming fluent in Chinese, so worth looking at getting a tutor to help you practice.
Tips for Choosing a Chinese Tutor
Before you start looking for a tutor to help you learn Chinese, make sure you are clear about what you need. You are studying NCEA Chinese, not heading to China for a holiday, so while conversational Chinese can be helpful to increase your communication ability, it isn’t going to directly help you pass with flying colours.
Pronouncing Chinese Tones
If you are struggling with hearing or pronouncing the tones, then a tutor who has experience teaching Chinese to English speakers will be helpful. This is often not a native Chinese speaker with little teaching experience. Just as a native English speaker might have difficulty helping a Chinese speaker pronounce R or L sounds, a teacher experienced in teaching the language will understand the difficulty and have techniques that can help language learners overcome it.
Memorising Chinese Characters
While if you are struggling to memorise the Chinese characters, a great tutor can help you see the pictures within the characters, like the author ShaoLan Hsueh and graphic genius Noma Bar managed to do when they created the book Chineasy.
The character for 'fire' can be used to make 'burning hot', 'flames', 'group' and 'to eat'. Photograph: ShaoLan/Thames & Hudson Photograph: ShaoLan/Chineasy
You want a tutor who has experience in the areas you need help with, but you can also connect to. They may be a great tutor, but if they can’t connect the language to how you learn, then you are both wasting your time (and money). Looking through the reviews on Superprof can help you find the person that will fit best with both learning outcomes and personality traits.
Passing NCEA Chinese Exam
If you are nervous about coping with the external NCEA Chinese exam, get exams from the previous years and go through them with your tutor. You will want someone who has had experience with the NCEA system, but this could be someone who has gone through NCEA and is now studying at university or a high school teacher who has experience teaching NCEA.
However, going through the exam with an experienced Chinese tutor will help you understand what you need to know. You will want to work on speed, but your most vital focus needs to be on comprehension. If you don’t know what the exam is asking, you can’t answer coherently. Work with your tutor to ensure you are aiming for the Excellence criteria, which is shown on each exam paper, e.g. “Demonstrate thorough understanding of a variety of Chinese texts on areas of most immediate relevance.”
After working through some of the past exams with your tutor, look at the exam exemplars to see where you could improve. For example, the assessor commentary showing a student that achieved Excellence in the 2018 Level 1 Chinese exam for 90871 “Demonstrate understanding of a variety of Chinese texts on areas of most immediate relevance” said:
The candidate demonstrated thorough understanding and communicated the implied meanings of the text by clearly explaining all relevant information regarding Lanlan’s problems and how her day took a positive turn after she arrived at Chinese class.
For E8, the candidate needed to show evidence of understanding some details, such as when Lanlan intended to catch the bus, when school started, and what time she eventually arrived school.
Working through these examples with your tutor will give you a much stronger understanding of what you are doing and where you can improve.
Don’t Overdo it
Research has shown that there is a limit to how long you can study effectively. Use post-it notes or flashcards and listen to Chinese songs. You are trying to train your ear to hear the sounds and provide an opportunity to practice speaking as often as you can.
One word of caution: when watching movies or TV shows, make sure you are watching things initially created in Mandarian Chinese rather than overdubbed. While many overdubs are excellent, noticing the small facial expressions and mouth movements that native speakers use will help you unconsciously mimic these gestures when you are speaking as well.
You cannot cram language learning into a few hours and hope to become fluent, so make revising and learning Chinese a daily practice.
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