Communicating in Chinese VS Thinking in Chinese

Learning another language is not just a matter of learning to speak differently, it is also learning to think differently. That means we need to encourage and reward Chinese ways of thinking in our students, rather than just trying to get them to reproduce characters and words accurately. Such positive affirmations will increase their progress and motivation, as well as the ability to use their knowledge in the real world.

Language and word choices have a significant impact on the way we think, feel and make sense of the world in our day to day lives. For example, what English word would you use to describe the colour of the water below? You might say green or blue. What Chinese word would you use? Probably “青”.

“青” is a colour in between green and blue. Why does the Chinese language have a word specifically for this colour that does not exist in English? We ask ourselves this question and have come to think that the significance of “青” lies in its ability to convey the emotional connection the Han Chinese had with their environment. As most of the population resided in the country’s grassy plains, the fertility of their land differed from the deserts and glaciers of other regions. Hence a distinct word is created to describe well-watered grass (青草), luscious mountains (青山) and clear skies(青空), and one can easily notice that while the colour green can wither and wilt, 青is exclusively used to capture vibrancy and a sense of life.

When we look beyond a word’s literal meaning, we discover how they not just map to objective things, but also to specific thoughts and feelings. When Chinese speakers see the colour “青”, a cognitive and emotional connection is triggered that English speakers do not feel. Such delicate differences have immediate implications for learners and teachers of foreign languages. Stroke order and tones can be learnt through rote memorisation and repeated practice, which students can easily carry out on their own. What is more difficult is to help our students understand and relate to the thoughts of Chinese speakers. Finding out the underlying meaning and human logic behind words like “青”  is the first step to assimilating a Chinese mindset. This ability to think from a different perspective is a process that requires the guidance of teachers.

When this is not fully understood by students, often their immediate reaction to something unfamiliar is “This way of doing things is stupid”. Ultimately, a wall is erected between them and the language which becomes extremely difficult to crack. For example, many foreigners struggle with the four tones used in Chinese and think they make the language unnecessarily complicated. However, what they believe to be stupid is in fact the genius of Chinese, because recycling sounds using tones means the Chinese is able to make as many words as English but with just 10% of the number of sounds. As a teacher, it is important that we see such reactions as provocation for us to help students reorient. Learning another language is not about projecting what is in our heads onto other people but to progressively decode what is going on in other people’s heads and see things from their perspectives.

This is why we believe that when a student adopts a Chinese mode of thinking, we should reward them as everything in their own language is pushing them towards the opposite direction. When a student resists their natural instinct and start thinking a in Chinese way, don’t underestimate the massive achievement they have made in their language learning journey. Accuracy should come after Chinese thinking as language is first and foremost a thinking mechanism.

Apart from how we think in a language, it is also key to understand the importance of how we feel about a language. Compare our emotional response to hearing “an omelette made of eggs” and “an omelette made of unfertilised chicken periods”, which one sounds more appetising? Although unfertilised chicken periods are exactly what eggs are, no restaurant would be able to sell their omelettes if that’s how they name their dishes. It does not matter whether a student knows 10, 100, 1000 or 10000 characters, what is going to bring about a positive language learning experience is how they feel about Chinese and by extension, about Chinese speakers. Allowing students to use their existing knowledge to construct creative expressions form positive affirming experiences, which help Chinese become a welcome and desired part of a student’s identity. Due to the strong link between language and identity, if a student feels a sense of authenticity when speaking in Chinese, this could increase their motivation as well as confidence to apply their knowledge in the real world.

Try shifting the focus of feedback from imperfect recall/reproduction to rewarding correct thinking. We would love to know if you observe a difference in your students because it has definitely made a difference for ours. share with us via We look forward to hearing from you.