Second-Language Studies and College-Level Chinese-Language Textbooks in the United States

By Ning, Cynthia Y. | China Review International, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

Second-Language Studies and College-Level Chinese-Language Textbooks in the United States


Ning, Cynthia Y., China Review International


The interface between research and practice in foreign-language teaching has been a slippery slope. Studies in second-language acquisition (SLA) as often as not use a scientific, positivist methodology, first positing hypotheses and then testing for them by using experiments that, in order to target specific criteria, must so finely control the experimental environment that it ceases to resemble any real teaching context. As a result, most classroom foreign-language teachers (and textbook writers, who generally emerge from the ranks of classroom teachers) are hard-pressed to find the connection between SLA studies and the exigencies of the Monday morning language lesson. Add to this disconnect the further unhappy reality that SLA studies focus predominantly on European languages, and it is not surprising that teachers of Chinese as a foreign language have for the largest part (with some exceptions) dismissed SLA studies entirely as being irrelevant to and incompatible with their own work.

A majority of the textbooks for Chinese as a foreign language currently on the market in the United States continue to support vocabulary and grammar drills, generally by presenting first a text (a dialogue, narrative, report, or essay: in the lower levels these tend to be teacher-made concoctions tightly controlled in terms of how many vocabulary items are included; at the higher levels they may be extracts from the Chinese press), followed by a vocabulary list, followed by grammar explanations and drills. At least two generations of Chinese-language pedagogues since the Cold War have been nourished on this approach and continue to adhere to it, at the same time cautioning that Chinese is a very difficult language that is best tackled only by elite students with a long-term commitment to learning it.

In the face of a growing populist demand in the era of internationalization, and of an increasing volume of output from SLA researchers (which influences administrators both of academic departments and of funding sources, if not always classroom practitioners), Chinese-language teachers, like their counterparts in other languages, are under tremendous pressure to change. But change can be excruciating, and is sometimes only implemented, if at all, at what appears to be glacial speeds. Even in desperate situations, anecdotally happening more and more often around the country, in which a classroom teacher is told by a principal or a department chair, "Change or be fired," the teacher has to fight her own convictions in order to try to change, or may be willing to, but simply does not know how.

This review is driven by an acknowledgment of the present reality, and a desire to spur change, however glacial.

Current Pedagogic Principles

At least since the late 1970s, individual SLA researchers and foreign-language pedagogues such as James Asher, H. Douglas Brown, Theodore Higgs, Stephen Krashen, Diane Larsen-Freeman, Michael Long, David Nunan, Jack Richards, Wilga Rivers, Sandra Savignon, Richard Schmidt, Earl Stevick, and Tracy Terrell among many others have written positively about approaches to language teaching that are compatible with what are called learner-centered, communicative, and task-based principles. Subsequently, organizations such as the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages and the Modern Languages Association have themselves promoted and further influenced funding agencies such as the U.S. Department of Education's Office of International Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities to support a general approach to language teaching that has come to be loosely called "performance-based instruction."

For the purposes of this essay, I will here provide in broad strokes a rough outline of the type of curriculum generally promoted by current SLA research. For a finer-grained discussion of nuances and specificities, I refer the reader to some key works listed in the bibliography. …

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