Deborah Fallows mentioned Miracle Mandarin in her book, ‘Dreaming in Chinese’. The author studied at Miracle Mandarin in Shanghai, and later wrote memories about living in China and learning the language. In our interview, Emma Wang, co-funder of Miracle Mandarin says she would like to thank Fallows for writing about her school.
Miracle Mandarin began in 2003. But the roots of the company stretch back to when Wang taught English as a second language at a Chinese University. She found that Chinese learners can often read and write English well, but falter when it comes to speaking.
Wang’s interest in language acquisition continued when she worked for a consulting company, helping American managers to work and communicate in China. This job helped her to develop her interest, not only in language, but in breaking down the barriers between people. ‘We should help westerners to know Chinese people better,’ she says.
Miracle Mandarin started as one school in Jing’an. The school now has five campuses, three of which are in Shanghai. The success of the school might be due to the ‘miracle’ method of teaching Chinese characters. Some students at the school have learnt to read much faster than average.
For many students of Mandarin, the most intimidating part of the language is the characters. To the uninitiated, Mandarin writing looks like impenetrable pictographs. But making Mandarin accessible for those who thought they could never learn is part of Emma Wang’s mission.
Her business partner and co-founder Lee Ann worked at a kindergarten before the days of Miracle Mandarin. She had a method where she could teach 3-5 year old children to recognize around 1000 characters in around 100 days. This ‘miracle method’, based around the use of flashcards and relevant reading practice, is the same method that Miracle Mandarin uses to teach its students to read.
The reading textbooks at the beginning level emphasize the repetition of similar sentences, vocabulary, and grammar patterns. This means that a beginning learner can read whole paragraphs and pages of Chinese text within the first few lessons of learning to read.
Miracle Mandarin doesn’t ask its students to read before they can speak. ‘The first thing they (the students) want is to be able to speak,’ said Wang. There are 8 levels at Miracle Mandarin. The first level is only speaking and listening. Reading and recognizing characters is introduced at level 2.
The use of English is strongly discouraged in the school’s classrooms, even at the beginner level. ‘A good teacher with method, they know how to teach without speaking (the student’s) native language,’ Wang said.
‘They are not idiots,’ Wang said of learners of Mandarin, adding that there is no need to speak English in class when almost everything can be inferred from context. She gave the example of ‘dúyīxià’, or ‘please read’, indicating that the teacher could point at the textbook to help students understand.
The textbooks are designed to support this method. There might be a picture of a coffee cup with the characters and pinyin reading ‘yībēi kāfēi’, or a photo of a can of Coke and the adjacent pinyin, ‘kěkǒu kělè.’
I asked how a grammar concept such as measure words could be explained to students without using English. Wang explained that once you can learn grammar concepts through practice without relying on English translations. If you have always said yī bēi shǔi, one cup of water, you are unlikely to suddenly say yī gè shǔi, one water.
‘Learning a language is not easy,’ said Wang, adding later that a ‘teacher cannot study for you’. While ultimately learning is at least partly up to the student, she said that a ‘great teacher makes the learning interesting’. Miracle Mandarin also provides phone apps, which Wang described as very helpful for beginners.
In Shanghai, many schools are competing for the Mandarin teaching market. Miracle Mandarin’s main assets are that they encourage classes to be 100 percent Chinese speaking from the very beginning, their unique approach to teaching characters, and the history they have of providing Mandarin education in Shanghai.
Learn Chinese in Shanghai. Learn Chinese at Miracle Mandarin.
An interview done by Shanghai Expat Joe O’Neill