AP Chinese Language and Culture Course Perspective

In Iron and Silk, a 1987 book and later a movie, a young college grad, Mark Salzman, goes to China to teach English and study martial arts. Eventually Mark learns that "gong fu" does not refer to martial arts, but to a mind-set to acquire competence through effort. Gong fu is "an attitude to be applied to everything one does." Moreover, one undertakes learning something, not with the intention of gaining an advantage or recognition, but to become truly skillful. AP is about the attitude of "gong fu."

Fifteen years ago when I first began teaching Chinese in a rural, non-heritage high school, the district was excited by the prestige of a Chinese program. A school administrator pulled me aside and told me it was OK to lower standards if needed to encourage enrollment. In the following years, experimenting with different approaches, it became apparent that reasonable but high standards, combined with flexibility in methods, materials, and pacing, encouraged higher enrollment as well as higher performance.

The goal of the AP Chinese Language and Culture course is language proficiency. Language proficiency means that the student can perform in Chinese to accomplish tasks, and interpret and exchange information. Language proficiency is a broad skill. It is not limited to memorizing a word list, filling in a worksheet and using structures in a textbook. Language proficiency, from the AP perspective, includes the ability to interpret difficult authentic materials (meant for native speakers), and communicate in a culturally appropriate manner. AP students should acquire linguistic and cultural knowledge, as well as strategies that help them understand context, infer meaning and make correct choices in communication. AP students should utilize analytical skills, in addition to other skills, to function in Chinese.

The AP teacher can promote analytical skills in conjunction with linguistic and cultural knowledge. The teacher makes use of a variety of authentic materials in various media, and trains students to work with them. For example, give students a piece of authentic text, but provide no vocabulary list. Students then use their knowledge of character construction to figure out vocabulary, and use their knowledge of structures, particularly word order, to establish context. Students could then access their cultural knowledge to reveal additional meaning. If further help is required, give a few context clues, or a few terms. Students then locate these terms are in the passage. Keep in mind that the goal is not simply a translation of the material. The goal is the development of a repertory of analytical interpretive skills and the confidence to work with them.

Demonstrate to students that they can make informed interpretations of authentic materials that initially appear too difficult for them. The AP classroom is a place for adventures with Chinese materials. Have students discover as much as they can on their own. Sometimes allow them only a limited number of questions. Good language learners develop a sense of what they can intelligently guess, what they don't know, and what they need to ask. Vary activities and approaches. High standards mean rigorous curriculum, not a rigid curriculum. Do what works and improves your students' proficiency and confidence. AP Chinese students should be trained to develop skills that help them eventually function without their teachers or their textbooks, or even without their dictionaries.

Another goal of AP is to expose students to the challenge of rigorous course work, similar to, or even exceeding college level work. AP students should learn how to learn, and develop habits of mind that prepare them to tackle and master difficult material. Ideally, AP can influence how other levels of Chinese are taught—a trickle down and maybe a trickle up—which will result in higher proficiency and higher interest in language learning.

AP is about developing a courageous attitude to acquire competence through effort. AP is about learning how to learn. It's all about "gong fu."

Authored by

  • Diane Mammone
    Quabbin Regional High School
    Quabbin, Massachusetts