Approaches to Language Teaching
We know from research (that has been around since the 70s!) that people learn language from hearing/reading comprehensible and compelling input. Comprehensible input means that the learner understands what they hear. They’re not just turning on the radio and listening to a Polish-language station from day one. Compelling input is stuff that students care about. We are not pretending that we are in a train station buying train tickets. There are many different approaches we can take to language teaching that supply the communicatively embedded input that students need in order to learn a second (or third) language. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use a mix of immersion, tasks, story listening, and TPRS in order to teach children and adults Mandarin Chinese. These are all communicative approaches to language teaching. They give students the meaningful input that they need in order to acquire the language.
How Immersion Works
Immersion is a very popular approach to language teaching, especially for children. Immersion works because learners focus on meaning and not on the grammar or structure. It is not a perfect approach to language teaching. Often the teacher uses language that is too advanced for learners, i.e. using too many words that the students can’t understand. However, immersion can be powerful when students can connect the language they hear in the environment with what they are doing. For example, my younger students almost always learn “收一收” （clean up) pretty quickly. This is because we sing the clean up song every class while we clean up. The students hear the words and can immediately associate them with what we are doing.
Games and Immersion
Simple games that the children are already familiar with can be good activities to do in the immersion environment. Since most students begin classes begin with zero knowledge of Chinese, it is important that they already pretty much know how to play the game. If we are doing immersion, and I need to explain complicated rules of a game, they students simply do not have enough vocabulary knowledge in order to understand what they hear. When we play Jenga, put together a puzzle, toss a bean bag, etc., I focus on a few phrases that I repeat during the activity.
Most students are not ready to talk in Chinese while we are playing. They are still at the novice level. All they are really capable of doing is connecting what they hear with what they’re doing. So if we play Jenga, I say “小心” (be careful) over and over again while they are pulling out their wooden blocks. With the strong context (playing a game), and the repetition, I know that these phrases will stick in their brains.
If it looks like we are having fun in a kids Mandarin class while playing games, it is because we are. Although this does not mean that we are not learning the language. With the right lesson design, immersion can lead to language acquisition. Kids are naturally very interested in what they are doing if we play games. It is easy when they are interested for them to make connections between what they hear and the activity.