74. Theresa Munford, Chinese teacher

Dr Theresa Munford, probably the most experienced teacher of Chinese to secondary school students in the UK, retired this summer. Her 8-lesson blog on teaching Chinese literature in the classroom – “Teaching The Ventriloquist’s Daughter” – has just been published by The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing. We’re delighted she agreed to an interview with us.

Theresa Munford

Theresa Munford

Hi Theresa, please tell us about yourself! What would you like our readers to know?

I took what used to be the traditional route into Chinese, learning it at Durham University in the 1970s, where there was a heavy emphasis on classical Chinese and not a great deal of modern spoken language.  That nurtured in me a love of Chinese language and literature but left me speechless when I finally got to China in 1979 as a British Council student! I went on to do a PhD at the Australian National University in Chinese history and then lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years, mainly as a business journalist.  It was only when I moved back to the UK that I trained to be a teacher and found my spoken Chinese improved as I taught it. I was lucky to get involved in teaching Chinese when it was starting to take off as a secondary school language about 15 years ago and it has been wonderful watching the pedagogy and resources improve year on year as the numbers studying it continue to grow.

Why Chinese? 
A childhood obsession with things to do with China, I think, and also a love of languages.

Could you tell us about the teaching of Chinese in schools? In the past Chinese was taught as a “community language” rather than a “modern foreign language”. Could you tell us how the change came about and the impact of that change?

The last decade has seen a huge growth in Chinese teaching in schools to non-native speakers   At first it was often extra-curricular,  with schools offering after school or lunch time Chinese language clubs.  Students could often do low level qualifications (such as OCR and AQA Breakthrough).  Gradually schools started to get braver about offering on-timetable lessons and higher level exams like GCSE.  There were and still are obstacles: for example,

  • Financial: Small classes can’t be justified unless there are specific pots of money, like the old Specialist School funding for language specialist schools, and currently the Mandarin Excellence Programme funding. 
  • Results: Schools are judged by exam results and some fear that unless high grades can be guaranteed, this might impact on their overall statistics. This is still a big problem especially because most students doing Chinese GCSE and A-Level are native speakers, who have come to study in the UK. Grade boundaries are set by algorithms that don’t take this into account so it is harder for non-native speakers to get high grades.
  • Shortage of teachers: Although there is no shortage of enthusiastic native-speaker teachers, they often encounter problems with Western teaching methods and behaviour management. Huge improvements have been made in this now and schools are more and more confident that they will be able to find qualified teachers. There has also been an influx of young teachers who have learnt Chinese after living in China. Though they may not have the fluency or literacy levels of a native speaker, they bring their own experience of learning Chinese as a foreign language to their teaching.

Overall the situation has improved greatly in the last decade, and there are now so many good resources, text books, on line support and cross-cultural teacher training that the future looks bright.  Also, increasingly parents are demanding Mandarin on the curriculum and schools are responding to this.

Another change has been the government policy that language teaching should include reading literature in the language being learned. As a teacher, how have you responded to this? Have you noticed any changes in students as a result of this policy?

Personally I welcome this.  I did the old fashioned language A-levels where we read lots of literature and I feel my education was enriched by it.  Many of the books and authors we studied have remained important to me throughout my life.

 I appreciate that some teachers feel that it is an extra burden in an already crowded curriculum but I think that if taught with imagination it makes language learning less dry and broadens the general education of our students. 

With Chinese, we can’t access a great deal of literature because, compared to European languages, our students’ reading levels  are  lower.  But by introducing tiny bits of authentic texts and encouraging them to read in translation, hopefully we can achieve something.  And of course, Chinese poetry is succinct and fascinating and offers a huge amount of imaginative potential, especially in terms of character recognition and cultural learning.

It’s too early to say how this new emphasis will impact on students.  I know from the bits and pieces I’ve done with my students, they really enjoy the challenge and the change.  And for us teachers, it gives us a chance to do something more exciting too, a bit ‘off piste’,  as a break from the humdrum curriculum requirements.  I just wish we had more time!

Could you tell us what really motivates (and demotivates) your students of Chinese? 

In schools where Chinese is optional, the students who chose it  are often already drawn to it as something different and exciting.  But even where it’s obligatory, I’ve found that students enjoy the excitement of something completely different from the languages they may have already encountered.  They feel proud that they can read and write something that their parents are unlikely to be able to do.  They get such a buzz the first time they see a Chinese character on a sign or a menu that they recognize.  

Demotivation?  Some lose heart if they think that they are not able to recognize characters or tones.   I always assure them that it takes time and practice ( I often confess that I couldn’t hear or  reproduce tones accurately for almost the first 10 years of learning Chinese!).  I use the analogy of an airplane taking off.  Learning another European language is like flying a small plane, you soon take off; learning Chinese is like a 747, it needs a longer runway, it’s all a bit slower at first but once you take off , the flight is a lot more exciting, the views a lot better!

Wall-display by Theresa Munford’s students following 8 weeks of lessons inspired by The Ventriloquist’s Daughter

If an avid secondary school reader were to ask you to recommend a few books by Chinese writers to read over the holidays, what would you recommend? And why?

My favourite is The Ventriloquist’s Daughter (LIN Man-Chiu, tr. Helen Wang). It struck such a chord with the young readers I’ve known and deals with so many issues that are important to them such as family relationships and mental health. Another one is Bronze and Sunflower (CAO Wenxuan, tr. Helen Wang) which also gives them an insight into recent Chinese history. I’m currently reading Young Babylon (LU Nei, tr. Poppy Toland) and think that would make a really interesting book for older students such as 6th-formers. It is about working as a young man in a factory in the 1990s. It’s funny, perceptive and has a lot about the anxieties of growing up and also recent Chinese history.

You’ve just retired . What now? We hope you’ll continue to be active in the field!

I’m loving being released from the daily grind of lesson planning, target setting, exam cycles and so on!  I want to do a lot more about Chinese poetry, try my hand at translating and also think of ways of making it more accessible to learners of Chinese. And I’m enjoying having time to read, there are so many interesting writers in China now to explore!

Many thanks, Theresa. We look forward to hearing more from you in the future!



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