Once Is Not enough, Students Need Repetition

Students need repetition in Mandarin Chinese classes. This is true for all language classes, too. It is a myth that young students pick up language effortlessly and can absorb a word by hearing it once or twice. Adults who want to learn Chinese similarly need lots of repetition so they can retain the language. Far from being boring, a class in which students can follow along is engaging and fun. When teachers move too quickly and use too many new words, students get frustrated and lose interest.

How Does TPRS Approach Repetition?

In the TPRS workshop last week, we practiced circling. Circling is the method that TPRS teachers use to make sure that there is enough repetition happening in class. When language teachers “circle” they ask repetitive questions about the same statement. For example, in English if I were circling the sentence “Tiffany likes to eat cotton candy in the park” I would ask, “Who likes to eat cotton candy in the park?” I could also ask, “Does Tianxi like to eat cotton candy in the park?” or “What does Tiffany like to eat?” A teacher can ask at least 5-6 questions about a single, fairly simple sentence before struggling for ideas. Adding in new alternatives, like “Does Tiffany like to eat cotton candy in the park or at the zoo?” can easily stretch out the practice. A caveat to circling is to mix up the order, so that the questions do not become predictable. If a teacher consistently asks questions about the subject of the sentence first, her students will not listen for meaning. Instead, they will know from memory to answer with the name of the subject first.

Circling and Mandarin Chinese

When using circling for Mandarin Chinese, using proper nouns in English is extremely useful. I would go so far as to say that using only proper nouns in Chinese is not a good use of class time. So for characters in Spanish or French class, teachers can use names like Pedro or Pierre because their students are likely to be familiar with them. Chinese teachers have it harder, if we call a person in a sentence Guoqiang, we are likely to hear “Is that a name?” “Is that a boy or a girl’s name?” “Oh, I didn’t know that was a name.” Instead, I suggest sticking with Mason, Abraham, or Jessica for character names. For places such as Dallas, London or Sao Paolo I also suggest using English names. Dálāsī sounds to me pretty much like Dallas, but I have never had any success convincing my students of that. Class time is a zero sum game, so every minute spent off topic explaining how Dálāsī really is the Chinese word for Dallas, or that Guoqiang is a man, is a minute wasted.

Additionally, when circling a sentence, I will sometimes use a English noun if the word is very low frequency in Chinese. I want my students to learn words like jiǎozi (dumplings) because the dish is common in China. Dumplings also have cultural importance and eventually they will need to understand homophones in China and their cultural relevance. These reasons do not hold up for using the Chinese word for pulled pork in class. If my students go to China or Taiwan someday, their experience will not be poorer if they do not know how to order a pulled pork sandwich. These countries are not bursting with Texas barbecue restaurants and frankly, I think students are better off diving into the local cuisine in those countries!

Is that Too Much English (L1)?

But wait, is that too much English use in Mandarin Chinese class? I’ve worked in programs where teachers who use English are practically drawn and quartered. I’ve also developed my own program based on making sure that students understand the vast majority of what is being said in class, which means providing English definitions. Students pick up language much faster when they know what is going on. I’ve seen students who after a month of spending 6 hours a day in a Mandarin-only class have not reached the same milestones as students who have had 12 hours of comprehension-based classes. Programs that forbid the use of English do not necessarily help students acquire Chinese (or any target language) faster. Based on my own practice and research, they probably actually slow students down. There is more information on the use of English in Mandarin class here.

TPRS workshop posters
Posters for circling made by Spanish teachers in my TPRS workshop

Additional reading:

Waaaay more information on TPRS and Chinese than I have here: http://tprsforchinese.blogspot.com/

Leave a Reply