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Transforming Chinese-Language Learning Is Key for Global Engagement

As China's roles and influence in the world have increased and China has become a global leader, the importance of being proficient in the Mandarin Chinese language and culture is widely recognized. The demand for professionals in all fields who are proficient in Chinese and competent to interact successfully in Chinese cultures is on the rise. Shuhan Wang and Joy Kreeft Peyton, with Asia Society's Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network, discuss how language learning is a critical component of global competence education.

By guest bloggers Shuhan Wang and Joy Kreeft Peyton

Chinese language programs are working hard to meet the demand for professionals who are proficient in both Chinese language and culture and are seeking to close the opportunity gap for students and develop global competency for advanced study and careers in our global world.

In this context, language skills are both personal and societal assets and a critical component of intercultural and global competence. In addition to being able to communicate with speakers of the language, students also need to possess content knowledge in different subject matters, skills in problem solving and critical thinking, a strong sense of global citizenship, and the ability to collaborate as well as to compete. 

What programmatic and instructional features need to be in place for programs to both meet the demand and develop students' global competence? How do educators design and implement programs that lead students to attain these skills?

Developing Students' Global Competence

The goal of language learning is no longer narrowly focused on the acquisition of language itself. Rather, it is to prepare students to be linguistically and globally competent in an interconnected and complicated world. To this end, the authors of Educating for Global Competence: Preparing Our Youth to Engage the World point out that, in addition to problem-solving skills, students need a substantive understanding of the world, which is the foundation of global competence. Through awareness of, and curiosity about, how the world works, informed by disciplinary and interdisciplinary insights, students demonstrate their global competency by:

  • Investigating the world beyond their immediate environment, framing significant problems, and conducting well-crafted and age-appropriate research.
  • Recognizing multiple perspectives, including others' and their own, and articulating and explaining such perspectives thoughtfully and respectfully.
  • Communicating ideas effectively with diverse audiences and bridging geographic, linguistic, ideological, and cultural barriers.
  • Viewing themselves as players in the world, taking action to improve conditions, and participating reflectively.

Aligning Language Learning Expectations with Real-World and Career Demands

In the 21st century, we must take a new look at what we expect students to achieve through participation in a language program. While we want all students to have opportunities to learn a world language, not all must achieve proficiency levels required of a language specialist. In The Language Enterprise: Languages for All?, language experts suggest a more nuanced and differentiated approach to language proficiency development, depending on learners' goals.

This vision is shown in the figure below, which is aligned with the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) proficiency levels and adapted from the Languages for All pyramid. ACTFL has also developed these levels for Chinese learners and articulated oral proficiency levels needed to function effectively in specific jobs and roles in the workplace.

To achieve this vision, we must broaden the base of the pyramid by attracting more learners into the system and ensuring that a sufficient number stay for the extended sequence of language learning required by these high levels of ability. At a minimum, all students need to acquire a basic level of proficiency in a language other than English.

Languages for All Pyramid

Integrating Language, Subject Matter, and Culture in a Standards-Based Curriculum 

A real-world Chinese language curriculum reflects a standards-based program with clear proficiency outcomes. The World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages describe in detail what students will learn and be able to do in the areas of communication, culture, connections, comparisons, and communities.

In addition, the Common Core State Standards and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills provide benchmarks for literacy skills in kindergarten to grade 12 and clear guidelines for designing a solid language arts curriculum for Chinese as a world language. In the defined 21st century skills, "Life and Career Skills," "Learning and Innovation Skills," and "Technology Skills" are delineated to prepare future generations to engage successfully in the global community. These and other content standards expand and strengthen curriculum frameworks for Chinese programs.

Applying Best Practices in Instruction and Implementing Student-Centered and Experiential Learning

Research evidence from the most successful Chinese language programs in the country has shown that classroom instruction should adopt the following practices:

  • Set the end goals first, determine acceptable evidence of learning, and plan instructional activities (backward design)
  • Organize instructional content in thematic units
  • Promote student-centered classroom instruction
  • Ensure that language input and output are comprehensible
  • Aim for 90 percent or higher target language use in classroom instruction
  • Maximize target language use inside and outside the classroom

A student-centered approach moves beyond traditional textbook-based, teacher-driven, one-size-fits-all instruction. Students have rich opportunities to improve their language skills, which increases their motivation and prepares them for the future. Language tasks reflect real-world language use, enrich the learning process, and prepare students to use the language in actual situations (e.g., shopping and bargaining; asking for and giving directions; writing an email to a pen pal; planning for an upcoming trip; and discussing social, political, or environmental issues). Through using Chinese in real-life situations, students build friendships; gain cross-cultural understanding; and learn about the cultural, economic, and linguistic diversity within China and in the Chinese-speaking world, including in different communities in the United States.

Employing Multiple Measures and Performances to Assess Learning Outcomes

Programs aligned with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines use formative and summative assessments throughout the semester or year. Teachers and students have a strong sense of where they are, where they are going, and how to get where they are going, and teachers are equipped to design and implement curricula that promote effective and efficient language learning and to track and document that learning over time.

Creating and Sustaining a Teacher Supply and Support System

Finally, programs need highly qualified, professionally trained teachers. Teachers are designers, facilitators, and cheerleaders of language learning who ensure that students stay interested and motivated as they move toward becoming advanced speakers and readers of Chinese. As reflective practitioners, they continually examine their own teaching practices and search for ways to improve.

Programs need to create and maintain a teacher support system that gives teachers the means to carry out their lessons and professional development opportunities so that they gain the necessary skills and knowledge in both Chinese language structures and second language pedagogy and can help students overcome the challenges of learning a non-alphabetic, tonal language.

Recruiting and retaining qualified and effective Chinese language teachers has remained a challenge in the Chinese language field, and the use of guest teachers from China and other Chinese-speaking regions has proven to be a creative short-term strategy, accompanied by some challenges. Stakeholders in the field need to make concerted efforts in the areas of teacher preparation, certification, recruitment, placement, retention, and provide ongoing professional development and mentoring to ensure that the supply of teachers meets the demand in schools.


As our lives have become more intertwined with global affairs and with people and cultures around the world, the need to understand the world and communicate with its citizens has become more urgent than ever. Chinese (and all world language) programs must be transformed to meet the combined goals of equipping American citizenry with linguistic proficiency and deepening understanding of and ability to participate effectively in the world.

For a detailed discussion of this topic and examples of successful programs, see the CELIN Brief, Designing and Implementing Chinese Language Programs: Preparing Students for the Real World. Learn more about the Chinese Early Learning and Immersion Network at Asia Society.

Image modified by the authors with permission from Languages for All.

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