Do you have two and a half minutes? Do you want to understand why Lotus Chinese Learning (and other high-quality programs) do not use textbooks? We don’t spend a lot of class time teaching grammar rules or encourage our students to memorize new vocabulary words (aka teaching using traditional methods). Watch this short video to learn why it is okay to ditch the textbook.
Want to learn more about classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch via the contact page.
This post is for any students or parent who wants to understand what makes Mandarin classes at Lotus CHinese Learning different. It answers the questions about why so many parents and students are frustrated with typical language classes. It also explains what comprehensible input is, and why it is crucial for language learning. (7 minute read)
Common Frustrations in Language Teaching and Learning
While I was working at a school that used a combination of immersion and traditional (legacy) teaching methods for Mandarin Chinese classes, a colleague turned to me after class one day and said “I think that we are teaching the students to be mute.” She was frustrated with the fact that her students were not picking up the language. The way she phrased her disappointment was so striking to me that I have remembered it ever since. The students who had just walked out of the room where upper elementary/middle school aged kids. Some of them had been taking Mandarin Chinese classes for years.
My colleague was energetic and talented. She grew up in a large city in southern China and then pursued an education degree in the United States. On paper, there was no reason that the students in her class shouldn’t be picking up Chinese. My colleague knew the language, she was a native speaker after all, and she had a degree in education. The students were also the type of bright kids who took an extra language on the weekends and had parents who made sure that they did their homework.
Research shows students need comprehensible input
There is a simple explanation for why these students did not appear to be acquiring Mandarin Chinese: they were not getting enough comprehensible input. There is forty years of research to support the hypothesis that students learn a second (or third) language most effectively when they receive lots of comprehensible input in that language. Comprehensible input is simply spoken or written language that the students can understand. Depending on how much a learner already knows, comprehensible input might be a very simple story told by a teacher, or it might be a chapter book with an extensive glossary in the back. In the words of the scholar most associated with the theory of comprehensible input: “comprehensible input is the crucial and necessary ingredient for the acquisition of language” (Stephen Krashen).
A Typical Language Class
In a traditional language classroom, teachers introduce grammar points and vocabulary and then usually ask the students to practice, by making sentences or dialogues. If you studied a foreign language such as Spanish in high school, you probably remember a beginner lesson about time. The teacher would say: “ lavé los dientes a las ocho y media.” Then the students will go around the room saying what time they brush their teeth. One student might say “lavé mi dientes a las ocho y media” and then hear the teacher correct her by saying “los dientes not mi dientes.” Maybe a student will say “me lave los dientes a las ocho y media de camino a la escuela” and that will be the only moment of levity for the whole lesson.
One of the problems with this method is that students do not hear enough of the target language. The teacher will explain verb conjugations. She will explain that they don’t use a possessive article in Spanish. She will explain that it is literally “brush the teeth,” not “brush my teeth.” But the teacher will only say the target structure a handful of times. Based on what we know from the research, students really need to hear a piece of language repeated dozens of times before it really sinks in. Hearing a teacher say “lavé los dientes a las ocho y media” a couple times, then having to “practice” the structure is not nearly enough repetition.
Are Immersion Programs the Answer?
Immersion programs have emerged over the last few years as a potentially more effective way to teach learners a second language. There is plenty of research out there showing that immersion programs work. But there are many caveats. In the legacy methods covered in the previous paragraphs, students simply do not get enough input. They understand what they hear, but they don’t hear enough repetitions for the words. With immersion, a common problem is that there is not enough comprehension happening in the classroom. If a teacher begins an immersion kindergarten class on day one by reading a book meant for native-speaking children, there is no way that the children will understand what she is saying.
Common pitfalls in immersion classes
The language that immersion teachers often use is just too complex and abstract for beginners to understand. Think about how we talk to very young children. We use short sentences, simple structures, and simple, concrete words. Think about the last time you spoke to a baby. Did you say “Mommy is going to work now” or “Grandpa has a toy for you”? We instinctually leave out pronouns because they can be confusing and hard to follow. “But wait,” many parents say, “I did not use baby talk with my kids and they learned English just fine.” I trust that these parents did not often say “goo-goo, ga-ga” to their babies. They also probably did not come home from work every day and try to have conversations with their children about bilateral trade or nuclear war. Without even consciously thinking about it, they spoke to their babies using comprehensible input.
In his excellent book, While We are on the Topic, language acquisition expert Bill VanPatten illustrates the kind of language that parents use when talking to babies:
Parent: Ok. Where are your eyes [touches the child’s eyes] There they are!
Child: [squirms and giggles]
Parent: Where’s your nose? [touches the child’s nose] Yep. There’s your nose! [kisses the nose]
Child: [squeals and laughs]
Parent: Let me see your ears. Where are your ears? [gently rubs both ears…]
It is not goo-goo, ga-ga, and it is not the way adults talk to each other. It is language appropriate for a language learner, which is exactly what a baby is. There are too many immersion classes in which teachers use too-complex language. They talk to the children as if they are native speakers of the target language. These students are not native speakers, however. Students get a lot of input in the language, but there is so much wasted effort in the immersion class. So often the learners don’t comprehend what they hear.
Students Acquire Language Through Comprehensible Input
A major problem with traditional method classes is that students do not get enough input in the target language. On the flip side, in immersion classes, students get a lot of input in the target language. They often they don’t understand the vast majority of it, however. They are in over their heads and as a consequence, don’t learn as much as they could. There are the fundamental problems with both approaches, as they relate to comprehensible input.
Mandarin Classes with LCL Are Effective
Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning focus on making sure that kids get enough input. This happens through listening and later reading). Classes also focus on making sure students understand what they hear. Supporters of traditional method classes want to hear students speaking in phrases from the first day of class. Supporters of immersion models often want to make sure that the class doesn’t use any English. Students in thoughtfully designed classes do actively participate. We spend very little time speaking English. Lastly, we do not succumb to the downsides of a traditional or immersion class. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use task-based activities, simple stories, TPRS and other methods to give the comprehensible input that they need to acquire Mandarin Chinese. While every student is different, they all steadily acquire the language because they learn through research-supported methods.
More on how Lotus Chinese Learning classes are different (and more effective):
Last month I did a presentation at Texas State University about China and young professionals’ careers. Gone are the days when the only people whose careers intersected with China were diplomats and manufacturers. My classes for adult students are filled with people who work in tech, medical devices, oil & gas, sourcing, and other industries. They either go to greater China for work or they work closely with Chinese colleagues here in San Antonio. Many students are interested in how greater China might be a part of their career and others realize that the region will be a part of their future based on their career interests. It is just as common to travel to China for work now as Japan was in the 80s.
Since I was talking to undergraduate students, I decided to keep things interesting by talking about real people I know whose careers have had some connection with China. Below are the slides from my presentation a long with some comments. I called these “mini case studies” but they really are just the personal stories of early career professionals who work a little or a lot with China. I’ve changed details in every story except my own to keep people anonymous.
Case studies of Young Professionals and China
My adult students always ask me where I learned Chinese. The short answer is China. The slightly longer answer is that I learned through language classes at Chinese universities and immersion in Chinese society. Eventually, I translated my language abilities (heh :)) into a job in marketing at a consulting firm in Shanghai. When it was time for me to come back to the United States, I thought that I would probably stay in the marketing field and that no one would care about my experience in China. I’ve never been more pleased to be wrong. Turns out that my knowledge and skills in Chinese were way more interesting than my experience in marketing. More on how that turned into Lotus Chinese Learning is here.
Borja’s career has a lot to do with China because he lives there. He works for one of the world’s largest wine companies and he focuses on expanding their market share in mainland China. China is important to his company because there are almost 50 million wine drinkers in China. For comparison, the entire population of Spain (where Borja is from) is 46 million.
Mr. M’s Career
Mr. Miller is based in the Washington D.C. and while he does not go to China anymore he still is involved in the region every day. When I interviewed him for this project he made an interesting comment about how important it is to have a deep background knowledge of Chinese culture in order to do business there. He said that of course people can get away with just hopping off of a plane and heading into a business meeting. They still might be successful. Spending the time to really learn about the background of Chinese culture will pay off for people looking to be successful doing business in China.
Like many folks in sourcing, Kirsty travels to China at least twice a year. Sourcing in China is so much more than just the Canton Fair. As factories move farther and farther inland to reduce costs, sourcing managers will have to travel away from the beaten path. A little knowledge of Chinese language and culture goes a long way when you are not in Shanghai or Guangzhou anymore, Toto.
In summary, there are lots of jobs and careers that will take people to China. There are also lots of jobs in which people will find themselves working closely with colleagues who are based in China. I’m sure that there are plenty of professionals who work in China regularly who never dreamed that China would be such a big part of their careers.
Are you an adult who has to travel to greater China? Check out our class options here.
In language learning, tasks are activities that have a purpose other than just trying to learn the language itself. In an activity, students are just using the language without a real purpose. For example, asking everyone in the class what their favorite food is. This is just an activity, not a task, because no one really cares what the answers are at the end. Additionally, if students feel pressured to come up with a food in the target language, they might not even give an honest answer. Instead, a task might include taking a survey of all the students in the class to ask what their favorite food is, and then compare the answers to an article that shows the most popular food in every state. The students can find out if they are representative or not of the people in their state.
Which Tasks Work With Kids?
The key to doing tasks with kids is to make sure that the topic is something interesting to them and something relevant to their lives. For example, a task about pets is usually a hit because kids like animals. On the other hand, I wouldn’t design a task around which movies won Oscars in 1999 because my group of 8 year olds just won’t care. One task that I have done with my kids is about fears and what they are afraid of.
A Task about Fears
Language learning is all about getting that comprehensible input. We need to talk to students using the language in a way they can understand. I start this task by establishing the meaning of the phrases “I am afraid of XX” and “I am not afraid of XX.” Then, I read the story I Used to Be Afraid in Chinese (pictured below). Then, we make a chart of the things that the character in the book says that she is afraid of and compare if the kids in the class are afraid of the same things. To extend this task, we can compare what we think are the most common fears in the class to the most common fears of Americans in general.
The distinguishing feature of tasks is that we are trying to do something other than just use the language in class. We can make sentences about what our fears are all day long, but there is nothing really meaningful there. Tasks work for language learning because they are about something other than the language itself. Language learning happens on the subconscious level while kids busy doing something else.
The year of the pig is right around the corner! Every since I have been back in the US I have been surprised at how many references to Chinese New Year (CNY) I see here. This year, I saw a mailer from Office Depot, special CNY mums at Trader Joe’s (?) and an ad from Kate Spade. The lunar new year is probably one of the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see references to it everywhere. Yet, it still is part of our job as Chinese language educators to teach our students and communities about the holiday.
Chinese New Year Or….
Chinese New Year is more commonly known as Spring Festival in China. That is direct translation of the most common Chinese name for it: 春节. People also often refer to the holiday as the lunar new year. This is also an umbrella term that includes the holiday as it is celebrated in other countries. These include Korean New Year or Tet in Vietnam. Here is San Antonio we have the annual Asian Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures which coincides with the lunar new year and it includes a variety of different cultures.
Students should at the very least know that Spring Festival is another word for Chinese New Year. They should also know that it is the first day of spring in the traditional Chinese calendar. There is of course so much more to learn. It really depends on time and other factors how much we explore this holiday. I write more here about why it is okay to use English when learning about culture in class sometimes. Just knowing the basic facts about this holiday is the absolute minimum, and where we go from there depends on how much class time we have, student interest, and what their prior knowledge is.
More than Just Lip-service
It used to be that even including something about Spring Festival in k-12 was a check box on a list for including diversity. Now, educators, students and parents are a lot want more than just lip-service towards diversity. We are not just ticking boxes anymore. In recent years there has been a push to do more than just talk about “food and flags.” That is a great goal and good lessons about culture will always do more than just ask students to identify what foods we eat at Chinese New Year.
Including Chinese New Year in a Meaningful Way
We know that a good use of class time is to give students comprehensible input in the target language. That means that playing board games with Chinese characters on the spaces or coloring pictures of dragons is not really a good use of time. The students are not hearing or reading anything in Chinese that they can understand. One idea for a class that is looking to do something meaningful for Spring Festival is to have the students first learn about the holiday through videos/slide shows/pictures/etc and then plan a party. They will get the input they need through the introduction of the holiday in Chinese. Then they actually get to make something (a party) that is meaningful to them.
Have a suggestion for how to include Chinese New Year in a language class? Leave it in the comments!
Some of my students start classes with me with some bad habits. One of these habits is a tendency to just repeat whatever I say. Many of these students do not realize that we are supposed to be having a conversation (limited as it may be). They’re not supposed to just parrot back to me what I say. Real listening is so important and just parroting back words is not something that students should spend their time doing.
We learn languages through communicatively-embedded input. Listening to a teacher and then repeating exactly what she says is not communication. I’m not sure what it is, but it is not communication. What is communication? Communication is the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. When students just repeat stuff, they’re not getting any meaning. It is not real communication and students won’t really learn much from this type of interaction. It is also pretty boring.
Since it is a waste of time to be just repeating whatever the teacher says, what else should students do? It really is okay to just listen. Many people want to “see” some evidence of learning. They want to know if the classes are working or not. There are ways to get an idea if students are learning without forcing them to talk. Students can show their comprehension through pointing, nodding, following directions, laughing, drawing.. the list goes on. A good lesson plan for students, especially beginner, will have lots of opportunities for students to show what they know.
Picture talk is one way of giving learners the input that they need in order to learn Chinese. We know that we don’t learn language by practicing speaking. We also know that we do not learn language without proper communication. We learn language through getting lots of comprehensible input. The idea behind picture talk is simple. The teacher shows the students a picture (or slowly reveals a picture) and talks to the students about what they see.
How to Do Picture Talk
In theory, a really good teacher could spend a 45 or 60 minute class talking about one picture with the students. Since I teach younger children, I think that it is really only reasonable to spend 10-15 minutes on one thing, such as picture talk. Some kids can stay on task for longer. Others still need to develop their attention spans to get to the point where they can focus on one thing for 10 minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes is about right for most young students, however.
To make it more interesting, the teacher can cover up all but just a small piece of the picture and then ask students questions about it. For example, if all the students can see of a picture is a bit of yellow, the teacher can ask: “What do you think that this is, a sun or a yellow house?” The students don’t need that much knowledge of Chinese in order to answer a question like this. If students are a little more advanced, the teacher can ask them “What do you think this is?” and other more open-ended questions.
What to Use for Picture Talk
Any interesting picture or photo can be good content for picture talk. A photo from a recent vacation might be good, or an illustration from a book can be good. Jimmy Liao is an illustrator from Taiwan. He makes really interesting pictures like this one which can be great for picture talk. There are so many elements to the picture to talk about. Who are the people? What are they looking at? What is the dog’s name? A class could easily talk about this picture for 10-15 minutes.
I also like using illustrations by Jimmy Liao because he is from the Chinese-speaking world. In general, I like using books and other materials that my students are already familiar with, such as the David books, and anything by Eric Carle. While these books are great for interest and comprehension, unfortunately they tend to lack diversity. I teach Chinese and I want the materials that I use to include authors from the Chinese-speaking world and Chinese/Chinese-American characters. If you’re interested, there is more information about the lack of diversity in children’s books here.