From the Lotus Chinese Learning Mail Bag

I get many emails from parents who are frustrated with their children’s current or previous Mandarin Chinese classes. These parens often say that they don’t like how the teachers teach the classes. They also often complain that their children did not really learn much from the class. Those two complaints are probably related. Students don’t learn much from most language classes because many language teachers use methods that don’t work.

What the Wal-Mart Test Tells Us

Through some teacher professional development (I can’t remember exactly what) I learned of something called the Wal-Mart test. The Wal-Mart test basically involves going to a Wal-Mart, tapping a stranger on the shoulder, and asking two questions. The first question is: “What language did you study in high school?” The second question is “Do you speak it?” Most of the time the answers are “Spanish” and “no.” Why do so few Americans retain a language they probably spent at least a few years studying? Is it us or is it the system? I think that it is the system. The human brain is built to learn languages. So where are we going wrong?

Some Problems with Legacy Teaching Methods (There are More!)

Most students in the US learn a foreign/second language in school through legacy methods. This is the old “teach and practice” model. The teacher will teach a grammar point, such as “In contrast to English, in Mandarin, we often put the question words at the end. For example we ask 你喜欢喝什么?” (What do you like to drink?). Then the teacher will ask the students to practice by coming up with their own sentences. There are several reasons why this does not work. One of the most important reasons is that students do not get enough input in the target language. They only hear the structure a couple times and then they need to repeat it. In reality, students need to hear words and structures repeated dozens of times before they “sink in.” Students are not ready to use language after hearing a word or phrase just a few times.

Another reason that “teach and practice” does not work is because the practice usually has no purpose. Students just say things in Mandarin Chinese because they need to tick a box. The students are not actually trying to learn something about each other or themselves. If language has no purpose, then there is something in our brains that shuts off and the words the students say don’t “stick.” Many teachers and parents might say, “but wait, isn’t the purpose to practice saying what we like to drink?” It is an understandable objection, but the purpose of what we say in class must be something other than language. We can talk about what we like to drink all day, but unless we are trying to find out the most popular drink in the class, or find out if more girls than boys like sweet tea.

Good Classes Don’t All Look the Same, But They Have a Few Things in Common

A blog post is not long enough to go over every single problem with legacy methods. This post covers just two: asking students to use words and structures before they are ready and asking students to practice language without a real purpose. A better class will make sure that the students hear input (speech) dozens of times before they need to actually produce language. A good teacher can repeat a word or structure 50-100 times within an hour long class. After that hour, most students will be able to use that word or structure, although there are individual differences. A good class will also not use language just for the sake of using language. Pretending to order pizza is not a good purpose: it is not real. Actually planning a real pizza party that could happen in class could work. The task has a real objective (one that the students will surely be interested in, too!)

What was the best language class you’ve taken? What was the worst? Share in the comments!

For more on why “traditional” or legacy teaching methods don’t wont for languages, check out:

Do Mandarin Classes Need to Teach Grammar?

Repetition in Mandarin Chinese Classes

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