What Babbel Gets Wrong: Learning Sentence Structure Won’t Make You Fluent

What the Makers of a  Language Learning App Don’t Understand

Today’s post is based on a tweet in response to an article from Babbel. Their article suggested that students can learn a language (including Mandarin Chinese) through focusing on sentence structure. There is no evidence that this is true, and plenty of evidence that explicit grammar teaching just does not help students learn a language!

The Problem With Legacy Methods

If you ask most people how they learned a language (usually in high school for the US), they will probably say that they learned a bit of grammar, some vocabulary words, and then combined it all together in “practice.” If you ask a second question, whether this method is effective, most people will probably say that they still don’t speak the language that they spent 2-4 years studying in high school. Why do so few students actually speak the languages that they learned through these legacy methods? Part of the reason is that students do not actually need to learn grammar explicitly in order to speak a language.

Did Someone Teach You English Grammar?

We certainly do not do this with our first language. Students in America speak English fluently long before they start to learn English grammar. Which of these phrases is correct: “the big, red, wooden box” or “the wooden, red, big box.” If you speak English fluently, it was probably easy to see that the first phrase is grammatically correct and the second one is not. Most people don’t learn the rule of adjective order in English, however. It would be hard to write down what the rule is. Most people would have to write down a few sample sentences before extrapolating that adjectives in English go in the order: number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. Very few native English speakers learned this rule from a teacher, but we all know it. What does this teach us about how people learn language?

Our brains don’t actually need to learn rules in order to use them. We take in language, in all of its complexity, and then subconsciously learn the rules. Children in the English-speaking world hear strings of adjectives thousands and thousands of times from birth. From there, they instinctively know that when many adjectives modify a single noun, they go in the order of number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. The same goes for second language acquisition, too.

Will Students Learn Grammar Without Explicit Teaching?

Some students, parents, or administers object to teachers not explicitly teaching grammar as part of a second language class. Many people feel that if students don’t learn grammar through explicit teaching (think textbooks and charts of verb endings) they won’t learn grammar at all. Ironically, through methods like TPRS, students actually get more exposure to different grammatical structures. With legacy method classes, students plod through the textbook, learning one sentence structure after another. This is a frustrating experience for the students, and it is not very effective.

In a Mandarin Chinese class structured around TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and story-telling), students hear far more sentence structures in the early days than they do with the first chapter of a standard textbook. For example, on day 2 of a TPRS-based class, my elementary students can use correct word order in the Chinese sentence “Diego在Pizza Hut 吃比萨”  (Diego eats pizza at Pizza Hut.) It may be hard to believe, but there are students who have studied Mandarin Chinese for several hours a week for a year who make mistakes with this sentence structure. I’m sure that their teachers carefully explained that in Mandarin, we put the location before the verb. The reason that students in legacy method classes keep making this mistake is that those careful explanations don’t work.

Yes, You Can Toss the Textbook

Students learn grammar rules in a second or third language just the way they learn grammar rules in their first languages. They learn rules by repeated exposure to correct language. English speakers would probably blink in confusion if asked to right down the order in which a string of adjectives appear. They still would answer the question in paragraph two of this post correctly every time, however. The human mind is built to learn grammar rules without reading them in a textbook.

photo of grammar rule from Chinese textbook
Reading this page won’t teach you how to use “在” correctly

More on why a good language class does not include explicit grammar teaching.

Have you taken a language class that used legacy teaching methods? What was your experience? Share in the comments!


So You Wanna Study in China

Summer Study in China for Everyone

Many students start out their studies of Mandarin Chinese with the eventual goal of studying in China or Taiwan. Most students will wait until they have at least an intermediate level of Mandarin to study in China or Taiwan, but there are options at all levels**. For students who are still in school/college/university, summer may be an ideal time to study in a Mandarin-speaking environment.

Enroll Directly in a Chinese University

Students can enroll directly in a Chinese university. Some, such as Beijing Language and Culture University, offer summer classes. Although some universities are more prestigious than others, the ranking of the university has little relationship with the quality of the class. Most language classes will follow a similar curriculum. Compared to average tuition in America, tuition in Chinese universities is very inexpensive. Additionally, the costs of renting a room, buying food and buying textbooks will be much lower.

There are some caveats to taking language classes in a Chinese university. Depending on where a student chooses to study, he or she could walk out the doors of the university and not hear any Mandarin at all. Chengdu is a great city in China, but the locals tend to speak their form of Sichuan dialect. This does not create the Mandarin environment that many students are looking for. Second-tier cities in northeast China are the student’s best bet for a balance of cost of living value and a Mandarin-dominant environment. Especially at the lower levels, students might find themselves in an English language environment, not a Chinese one. Even if the other students in the class do not speak English as their first language, it still often becomes the default lingua franca.

Enroll in a Private Language School

Large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have private language schools, such as the Hutong School or Mandarin House. Tuition is often higher than at Chinese universities, but they often have more flexible schedules. Some even offer special summer courses. A private language school might also be a good option for adult learners who would like to be in a class with other professionals. Unlike classes taught in Chinese universities, the instructors might not have formal qualifications in Chinese as a second language(对外汉语)instruction. As with classes at a Chinese university, it is also easy to end up in a mostly-English environment. This is especially true at the lower levels.

Studying in China for High School Students

While most options for studying in China are for students who are at the university level and up, there are some options for younger students who want to study Chinese in China. The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council has a list of summer camps in China here. Even elementary students can study in China. Austin-based Chinese with Meggie runs a two-week summer camp in Beijing that includes both American students and Chinese students. (Disclosure: I used to work for Chinese with Meggie). There are also summer camps in Taiwan for kids. For a look at what it is like to spend part of the summer in Taiwan and directly enroll young kids in both international schools and local summer camp, check out the Mandarin Mama blog.

With all these programs for younger children, a major caveat is that they can be expensive. The supervision that minors require means extra costs for parents. Ancillary costs, such as flights to China/Taiwan for an adult to drop off the students also make the bills higher.

There is Always Backpacking

As discussed in this post, China can be a difficult place to travel for a tourist who does not know the language. But for students with a few semesters of study under their belts. A trip to China can really motivate them to reach the next level. It is also easier to truly be immersed in a Chinese-language environment as a solo traveler. Depending on how good a person is at budgeting, the costs of just traveling around China for a month might be similar to enrolling in a short-term course at a university.

As of this writing (July 2018), there are many options for the foreign student who wants to study in China. They can take language classes at Chinese universities, private language schools or they can just travel around and do their best self-study on the road. More exposure to the language should have great benefits. To truly reach advanced levels of Mandarin Chinese, however, students need to learn content in the language. This is because we don’t learn language by memorizing vocabulary lists or reading about grammar. The human brain is designed to connect language with meaning. If students do not care about the meaning of the target language, they won’t learn. Students in China should work towards taking a Chinese-language calligraphy class, history class, TCM class, etc. This is the type of learning that will really lead to deep language acquisition.

photo of library at Zhejiang University
You Could Be Studying Mandarin Chinese Here!


Did you study in China or Taiwan? What was your experience? Share in the comments!

**Any mention of a specific school in this post is just that, a mention. It is not an endorsement of the school.

How Much Mandarin Do You Really Need to Travel in China?

photo of Jade Girl Peak at Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan)
Go to China and see the Jade Girl Peak in person! (But learn some Mandarin first)

So you want to travel in China…

Many adult students seek out Mandarin Chinese classes in preparation for a trip to China. Lots of American tourists would take a trip to Mexico or France without brushing up on Spanish or French. Many travelers, whether they are going for business or pleasure, however, feel that it is necessary to learn some Mandarin for China. Despite the fact that many people in China spend years learning English, knowing Mandarin is very useful for travel in China.

Leaving Shanghai and Beijing

Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, travel in China can be very difficult. Sichuan Province recently made the list of Lonely Planet’s top destinations in Asia. The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, is a fast-growing city, but it does not nearly have the infrastructure of Shanghai or Beijing. Knowing the language (at least a little) can make it so much easier to travel in places like Sichuan.

Ordering Food

A good reason to learn a few Chinese characters before traveling to China is ordering food. Big restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing have English menus and/or picture menus. If a traveler goes off the beaten path, Anthony Bourdain-style, knowing Chinese characters will help when looking at menus. Even knowing the characters for beef (牛肉) and pork (猪肉) is useful. Going to hole-in-wall restaurants is also easier on the budget.

photo of crab dumplings
Crab dumplings? It is easier to order these if you know some Mandarin

Get off the Beaten Path (there will still be loads of Chinese tourists)

One of the best things to do in China is to climb a scenic mountain, such as Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) or Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan). Places like these require some navigation and that is where knowing Mandarin comes in handy. With a beginner or intermediate level of Mandarin, a tourist will not have elaborate conversations in rural China. They will, however, be able to more easily give directions to taxi drivers, find out room rates and order food.

view at Yellow Mountain (Huangshan)
Getting to see this view is a lot is easier with some Mandarin knowledge

It is not impossible to travel all over China without knowing any Mandarin. It just makes life more difficult (and expensive). One of the joys that knowing the language opens up is getting to know people. An article in Bon Appetit suggests going to the same restaurant more than once while traveling, just to get to know some locals. They are onto something. Eventually all the food, mountain vistas and train rides blur together when traveling. But the people remain distinct if you get to know them.

Can an App Help you Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Do Apps help make language learning easier and more affordable?

The recent $15 million series b funding of a language app called Memrise invites the question: “Can students really learn a language through an app?” Traditionally, language learning happened at home through the family, in school as part of a formal education program, through immersion in the target language environment, or some combination of the three. Learning a language, such as Mandarin Chinese, through an app is tempting because Chinese classes can be hard to find, they cost money and travel to China/Taiwan can also be arduous and expensive. Can an app solve these language learning issues?

What Can an App Help Students Do?

Most language-learning apps are based on the “freemium” model. Users can download the app and use a limited number of features for free, but then must pay to unlock the rest. Many of my students use Duolingo or Memrise. I’ve played around with both in order to understand what they offer. At worst, these apps function like an electronic deck of flashcards. Students think they are studying, but they are not really learning. At best, I think that they can help students reach short term goals with their language learning.

How Do Students Really Learn a Language?

It is important to keep in mind that people learn a language through communicatively embedded input that is comprehensible to them. In other words, people must listen to and read meaningful language that they can understand. Using a app as a deck of flashcards does not give students the right kind of input. A word that shows up in a list on an app with pinyin and an English translation, such as 苹果 (apple), it is certainly comprehensible to the user. The translation is right there. This type of input, however, has no communicative context. A user may remember the word later on. With enough review on the app, s/he probably will. This is not the kind of deep learning that results in the target language eventually falling from a student’s mouth the way that a native language does.

Other Language Learning Resources

Based on what I have seen from my students, the name Memrise says it all. The app can be useful for helping students memorize characters for short term learning, but it is not a program that provides the comprehensible input for language learning. Just because apps so far are not good substitutes for a quality curriculum or an immersion environment, does not mean that there are not good tools out there that can help students outside of the classroom or other language learning environment. Learning Chinese Through Stories provides meaningful content in a convenient podcast form (I suggest for it intermediate students and above).

There are additional resources on the blog here and here.

Do you have a favorite app to support your Mandarin Chinese learning? Share in the comments!

Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app
Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app

The Dialects of China

photo of Shanghai pudong skyline
If you are in Shanghai, you will hear a lot of Shanghaiese, but perhaps not a lot of Mandarin. The locals heavily favor their own dialect.

There is not just one Chinese Language

Summer is almost here and many students of Mandarin Chinese will go to China or Taiwan to do a summer intensive language course. It is quite common for students to step off of the plane and then feel disappointed that they cannot understand any of the local Chinese people. Perhaps these students do not understand Mandarin Chinese as well as they thought they did. Just as likely though, there is another culprit: dialects.

Most students arrive on their first day of Mandarin class knowing that there is a difference between Mandarin and Cantonese. There are actually many, many different dialects spoken in China. We use the English word Mandarin generally as a translation of  the word 普通话 (Putonghua), the official language of the People’s Republic of China. 国语 (Guoyu) and 汉语 (Hanyu) can also be translated as Mandarin. Mandarin or Putonghua is the official language of China and Taiwan*, but in reality every city has its own dialect.

They are Not Just Dialects of Standard Chinese

The word dialect is actually a very misleading term when we talk about the spoken languages of China. It implies that there is mutual intelligibility between the different dialects, and this is very often not the case. A better term is topolect. A long discussion of what a topolect is and why we should use that term instead of the word dialect is here. In short, a topolect is a language of a particular region of China.  Every city or area you go to has its own topolect. Some of the more well-known ones are Sichuanese, Shanghaiese, Hakka, and Cantonese.

Some of these topolects are more closely related to each other than others, but they are not necessarily dialects of Mandarin. They could be just as different from each other as English and Spanish. In theory, all educated people in China speak Mandarin as well as their native topolect. Especially outside the big cities however, this is not always the case. If travelers who are proficient in Mandarin have trouble in China, it is often because they  are speaking to people who do not speak Mandarin fluently.

Keep the Topolects in Mind as You Travel

Even in big cities, proficient Mandarin speakers might have some trouble. Shanghai and Chengdu are two popular cities for foreign travelers. Local Shanghaiese love their local topolect. They speak it at every opportunity, even if it irritates their fellow countrymen and women. Chengdu loves Sichuanese so much that they even discussed making it one of the languages for announcements in their metro system.

The many topolects of China can make life difficult for any traveler in the country, even if they are Chinese themselves. Keep in mind that if your Mandarin skills are not getting you as far as you would like, it might be because those around you are not speaking it!

Have you had any frustrating experiences because of the many topolects (dialects) of China? Share in the comments!

*Taiwanese usually use the term Guoyu