Learning to Describe People in Chinese

  • Learning
Spencer Baron, Upper Division Chinese Teacher

My Intermediate Chinese class recently learned a unit about describing a person. Detailed description is one of the paramount skills in foundational Chinese. It requires knowledge of storytelling and explanation in basic conversations. The more advanced a student becomes in their language facility, the more accurate and nuanced the description becomes. We divided our descriptions of people into two layers: physical features and personality. In studying how to describe physical features, we had a great opportunity to learn the names of all different parts of the body. Using the instructional grammar of 把 (bǎ), which we learned in our food unit, we played what became a very heated game of Simon Says. Students quickly acquired the necessary words to physically describe a person.

But words can be deceptive. To demonstrate this, I had students work in pairs, with one person describing someone they know and their partner drawing the person being described. At first, many thought they were giving accurate descriptions of someone. But as the drawings began to take shape, the students found that, although these illustrations matched the descriptions, they didn’t really capture the thoughts of the describers.

Describing people in Mandarin Chinese

Describing people in Mandarin Chinese

At the end of class, I took the drawings from each student, mixed them up, and then passed them to random students. Their job was to describe the figure in the drawings for homework. Students naturally found themselves describing things much more carefully than they were in class.

Describing people in Mandarin Chinese

Next came the second layer: personality. The following day, we discussed personality and what that encompasses. We found that it is difficult to capture the complexity of a person with just a sentence or two. To do so would be an overgeneralization, so instead students wrote essays for their description of someone near and dear to them. They were told to do this in as much detail as they knew how. Many students found that it was easier to create a snapshot of their person with a story. The following class was largely spent telling each other quirky and thoughtful stories about their friends and loved ones. The catch with this activity was that they had to present their partners’ story to the class afterward.

It’s easiest to tell your own story. It is trickier to tell a story about someone else. But it is always most difficult to tell a story far removed from your own reality, especially after hearing it only once. Given the circumstances, students found themselves utilizing their new language skillset to embellish the stories of their friends when they forgot details. This made for more interesting and funny stories, but it also allowed students to see how well they understood these stories and how well they could describe that which is unfamiliar to them. Some students were frustrated at their stories being changed and others were happy with how well their partners listened.

Throughout this small unit, it became clear that words are very powerful, and expressing oneself accurately can make a big difference. When we say the wrong thing, it can alter the lived experience of those around us.


  • 10th Grade
  • 9th Grade
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Upper Division
  • Upper Grades Program