Bridging Gaps: Promoting Differentiated Instruction for Both Heritage and Non-Heritage Mandarin Learners in CHIN244/338

Heritage Mandarin learners are frequently faced with particular challenges such as identity confusion, language barriers, doubled sense of cultural alienation, and so on. These difficulties often arise from the ambiguous cultural spaces they are situated in and their shared diasporic experiences. This has precisely been how Selina Guo, a third-year Political Science student, felt when she grew up in Canada, often finding her Chinese heritage background confusing. What kindles her passion for learning more about her heritage, however, are the Chinese courses she has taken at UBC. There, she suddenly found herself surrounded by those with similar backgrounds to herself, which reinforced her desire to learn more. This strong sense of community in turn fuels the improvement of her Chinese and helps strengthen her connection to her family and relatives. 

“I found myself in the center of a community where I felt like I finally belonged, and I was able to form connections with people who were eager to learn about my culture as well.”

“Coming to UBC, where there is a large Asian community, I found solidarity and comfort in courses such as Chinese and Asian Canadian and Asian Migration (ACAM), especially when discussing shared experiences among my classmates and new friends. Language classes like CHIN 244/338 provide an environment where diasporic Asians like myself can reclaim their identity and create a stronger cultural foundation.”

Over the past summer, Selina took one distinctive course titled CHIN 244/338: Intensive Basic Chinese II, which stood out because of the co-presence of both heritage and non-heritage students in the same class. Soon after joining the class, she gained enough confidence to willingly raise her hand and give answers. She felt that her Mandarin improved tenfold. For example, only last year, Selina was unable to text her mother in Chinese, but now, she is able to message her family and relatives in the language with ease. She no longer needs to reply to them in a scripted way, and such refreshing experiences make her feel as if she has been given a new, liberating voice. What underlies such magic transformation? 

Differentiated Instruction 

One of the most pivotal factors that boosted Selina’s Mandarin proficiency in CHIN244/338 is the differentiated instruction that the course instructor Li-jung Lee adopted. This is especially important considering that this intensive course featured both heritage and non-heritage learners as the target audience. Selina appreciated that her instructor was always attentive to varied learning needs in the classroom and understood that each student had different learning goals and language backgrounds.

“It was a very welcoming experience, especially during COVID, where classes were often asynchronous. I think that the smaller class size offered in language courses helps you get to know people easier, compared to my other larger classes, where there are around 200 people per class. I think that Lee Laoshi helped encourage our class to be more communicative with each other, by doing things like asking people to turn on their cameras.”

Thanks to the co-presence of both heritage and non-heritage students, the course fostered a blend of diverse cultures. The two groups of students were able to approach the course topics from differing perspectives by sharing their own experiences with their peers. These cross-cultural interactions created meaningful learning opportunities and diversified the class immensely. To further promote differentiated instruction, CHIN244/338 featured self-reflective assignments such as “Personal Challenges” to provide opportunities for students to self-assess their learning progress and explore their own topics of interest.

Selina’s improvement after the course and reflection in Mandarin on gender equality in Canada

Collaborative rather than Competitive Classroom Environment

Besides the differentiated instruction, CHIN244/338 further featured a collaboration-based class environment that was competition-free. The warm and friendly class atmosphere made students feel lighthearted and pleasant, and thus, was conducive to mutual learning. Indeed, instructor Lee made sure to implement a “curriculum focused on flexibility and building empathy.” For example, she encouraged students to come up with some more considerate ways to facilitate mutual understanding during conversation practices. Audrey Chan, a CHIN 244/338 student, “enjoyed the new format of hybrid classes,” because there wasn’t any pressure to speak “perfect Chinese.” Indeed, mistakes were not embarrassing to make, given that both groups of learners’ language skills frequently complemented each other. This also fostered a sense of teamwork among the students. Instructor Lee emphasizes that “there is no sense of competition within the class; the students focus on how to make progress, what requirements they have for themselves, and whether they can successfully support their peers who are in need of help.” 

“In CHIN 244/338, through continuous communication and interaction, every student helps to discover each other’s skills that need improvement, which also helps them appreciate each other’s strengths. ”

Heritage and non-heritage students alike provided timely support to each other in addition to that from the instructor, TAs, and OP volunteers. Breakout rooms, for example, became judgement-free zones, where students all strived to work together and help each other improve their Mandarin. Selina Guo emphasizes how this diverse environment allowed her to appreciate her classmates even more. Moreover, the course promoted peer-learning by encouraging both heritage and non-heritage students to express their point of view and actively engage in their classmates’ work. For instance, Selina especially enjoyed such moments when her Korean classmates shared their experiences of celebrating certain traditional holidays that were also important in China. 

“This relaxing environment helped my peers and me build close bonds with one another. Learning in a mixed format class like CHIN 244/338 allowed me to meet others who shared my experiences. Additionally, the mixture of different cultural perspectives allowed me to connect with my peers nonetheless, fostering a marvelous multicultural environment.”

Students of CHIN244/338 

Instructor Lee observes that the interactions between the heritage and non-heritage students created a unique learning environment. She explains that “heritage students see the enthusiasm that non-heritage students have when learning Chinese, which helps them appreciate their native language even more.” On the one hand, non-heritage students frequently approached their heritage peers, who were arguably more proficient in speaking and listening, for help with refining their skills in conversation and pronunciation, which in turn gave the heritage students the motivation to learn more. On the other hand, non-heritage students often excelled at reading and writing, which complemented their heritage peers’ language skills and was conducive to mutual learning.

To sum up, CHIN244/338 pioneered the efforts in bridging many gaps in language teaching. Its mixed student group facilitated the complementary learning between heritage and non-heritage Mandarin students. The differentiated instruction it adopted promoted individualized learning and helped the students fill in their own knowledge gaps. The welcoming and encouraging class environment nurtured a strong sense of community that dissolved language barriers and fostered mutual connections and understanding between the students. Courses such as CHIN244/338 are bound to constitute diverse communities in which students can make new friends, learn from each other, and above all, appreciate a kaleidoscope of perspectives that complement their own understanding of the world. 

“Taking the course has given me the ability to bridge the language gap I had, and thus bridge the gap I had with my culture.”


Written and Cover Art by: Selina Guo

Edited by: Shih-wei Wang