San Antonio finally has a Chinese immersion preschool! The International School of San Antonio is a full-time, state-licensed language immersion preschool. ISSA has a French language track and a Chinese language track.
Back to In-Person Learning
The Chinese immersion program and the French immersion program had their soft-opening in January of 2020. We closed temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have since re-opened for the first full academic year. While we did offer online classes during the pandemic closure, we are now back to in-person learning. In addition to keeping in students in very small groups (6 kids or fewer), we have a robust COVID-19 response plan.
A Well-Rounded Curriculum
Both language tracks follow a content-rich curriculum. Children enrolled in the program learn age-appropriate math, geography, history, music, art and physical education. We supplement the curriculum with songs, stories and cultural activities from the Chinese and French-speaking worlds.
This summer I taught a six-week online class for high school students (18 finished the assessment). Part of their final assessment was done via Google Docs. When I realized I had their assessment data all conveniently set up for me thanks to Uncle Googs, I thought to write a blog post about what we can expect in terms of student learning in an online class!
To give some background, this class was originally planned to be in-person, but in the spring it became obvious that it would need to be online. Unlike the online classes that many teachers taught in the spring, the syllabus and plan for the class was modified for the online aspect ahead of time. This was not emergency distance learning, it was an online class that I had time to plan for.
Details on the Class
The class was held over six weeks, the students were split into two groups that met twice a week. Each class period had 40 minutes of instruction in Chinese and 20 minutes of instruction in English about Chinese culture, history and geography. With their final presentations accounted for, the students received about 430 minutes of Chinese language instruction, or 7 hours and 10 minutes. Chinese was the medium of instruction for the Chinese language portion of the class. I know that phrasing seems a little dumb, but what I am trying to say is that during those 7 hours and 10 minutes, the students were listening to Chinese almost exclusively. I wrote English definitions on the whiteboard. They also had access to definitions through their course materials.
Results of Final Assessment
So how did it all turn out? For one of their final assignments, the students had to self-assess on whether they could recognize 38 Chinese words from the class. On this assessment, the Chinese numbers 1-10 were grouped as one term. There were about 50 unique words in their course materials and I selected the 38 most frequently used for this assessment. In my in-person classes, my usual standard is that we can expect students to acquire (understand) about 5 new words for every hour of instruction. With the online class, we actually got pretty close to that.
In a regular in-person class, I would expect students to recognize about 35 words after 7 hours of instruction. The data from my online assessment showed that on average, students said that they could recognize about 77.8% of the 38 words, or about 29 out of 38 words. All students said that they could identify 我 (I, me) and 爸爸 (dad), and at the opposite end, only 7 students (of 18) said that they could identify 下课 (class is finished). The data do not exactly show how many words the students acquired from the class. I do think it is reasonable to say that most students got most of the words listed. This is well within the range of expecting students to acquire about 5 words per hour of instruction.
I think that we got there with this class. Based on the data from the assessment, the students did acquire roughly the same number of words as we would expect. Of course, some students did better than others, but I am sticking to generalizations about the group as a whole for this blog post.
Conclusions for Heading into the Fall with Online Learning
It is reasonable to expect that students can learn equally well in an online language class. What is surprising to me is that I did not hugely modify the instruction from a typical class. I spoke almost entirely Chinese during the 40 minutes of language class and only used English on the board. I used Powerpoints to add visuals. The students did beginning reading of Chinese characters with Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. This is all SOP for my regular in-person classes.
The major difference was that the students were mostly “muted” in the classroom. I think that this is really the big downside of online classes. One of the things that we have learned in the past five or so months of #Zoomlife is that with meetings of more than a handful of people are an audio nightmare. Students occasionally unmuted themselves for short exchanges with me. This really eliminated the spontaneous conversations that we could have in an in-person class. There was also none of the normal chit-chat before or after class. Despite these limitations, I think that the class delivered what the students need to acquire the language.
One More Thing
The students in this class were, by the nature of the program the class was a part of, all low-income and/or from a background that is underrepresented in higher education. They had training and access to Zoom that was organized by other people involved in the program. They still did just as well as more privileged folks who I have had in regular, in-person classes.
Output is generally speaking and writing. Many adult learners measure their progress in terms of output: “I can’t even ask where the bathroom is yet.” Parents also tend to think of their children’s progress in terms of output. They often like to ask, “how do you say X in Chinese?” If the goal of many language learners is to eventually communicate with native speakers of that language, then output is obviously important. But an obsessive focus on output is not helpful in a language class. We need to take a closer look at what output is and what it isn’t so we don’t waste time with goals that are counter-productive.
So, that’s how we say speaking and writing in language teacher jargon?
We will look at speaking today. I will tackle writing in another post. Checking to see what a person can say in Mandarin Chinese is a good way to check how well they know that language, right? Well, it is complicated. In the earliest stages of language learning, we fully expect a silent period. Reasonable teachers in an immersion environment expect a silent period of a few months before students start speaking. That silent period could be shorter or longer depending on the child and many other factors. Throughout the language learning journey, learners will always be able to understand more than they can say. The words that a learner can say are an indicator of how much they know, but they are certainly not the full picture.
A caveat if you’re really loving that app right now
Speaking can also be a false positive of sorts. Sometimes, especially in a testing situation, students memorize words and give the appearance of knowing them. Of course, ask them a few months later what 小丑 means and they won’t know.
Beginners make a lot of mistakes, right?
Non-native-like utterances are also tricky. These are often called mistakes. But a mistake implies that the learner did something wrong. That is not really what is going on. Instead, they are just not there yet. They need more input. The easy reaction to a non-nativelike utterance is to call it a mistake, maybe cross it out, and think about it as evidence about what a learner does not know.
This is the wrong approach. Output that is non-nativelike actually can tell us a lot about what the learner actually knows about Mandarin Chinese. If a teacher asks a question like “where did you eat lunch?” and the student responds “我吃饭了在Luby’s了,” (think a response like: I at Luby’s ated) we can infer a great deal. Since the learner responds appropriately to the question we know they have understood it! Yay! That is great. Understanding is the key to everything and here we have evidence that the learner understands. High five!
It all gets back to input
We also see that the learner has put the location after the action. This is not the nativelike word order in Chinese. So we know the learner has not had enough input for their brain to automatically place location before action. Also, we see the use of 了 for a completed action. It is too much, however. Again, this shows that the need more input in order to understand implicitly how 了 works.
A lot of teachers hear things like the word order issue or the overuse of 了，make a correction and move on. Correcting the student is not really that helpful, and may even be counterproductive. But the main takeaway from these non-nativelike utterances is that the learner needs more input in order to build a more complete implicit system in their head. Are you sensing a theme here?
What is with all those presentations?
Traditional language classes also tend to focus on presentational speeches. You know, like when you get up in front of the class and talk about your favorite dog breed or whatever. How often do people need get up in front of a group and give a speech? Not often… unless you’re a teacher. Maybe this is why teachers love having students give presentations! Most of the time we just want to have conversations with other people. Speeches are great, but it is an odd thing to spend so much time practicing.
You know more than you think you know
Output also always represents less than the total of what a learner can understand. The glass half full version of this is: “wow, Learner can say X, Y and Z now! This is evidence that she knows a lot of Chinese!” Unfortunately, most people see the glass half empty. They hear X, Y and Z and say “Learner has been studying Chinese for weeks/months/years and can only say X, Y and Z. Waaaaaaaaa!”
There are many ways to still evaluate a learner’s Chinese language level without relying on output in Chinese. You can check for comprehension in many ways. For example, an appropriate reply in English tells the teacher than the learner at least understood the question. That is huge!
In addition to giving clues (but not a full picture) about what a learner knows about a language, output can be useful in other ways. Nonnative-like utterances are an important signal to native speakers (if our hypothetical learner is out in the world interacting with native speakers) to SLOW DOWN. Hopefully, the native speaker will use shorter, simpler sentences too. This creates a virtuous circle in which the learner gets more input in the language and can speak more later!
Are you a high school student in Texas? Does your school not offer Chinese? You can still get credit for two years of Chinese through the University of Texas Credit by Exams (UT Credit by Exams). If you have been studying Chinese independently, or if you learned Chinese in elementary or middle school, UT Credit by Exams could be a good way to get Chinese credit on your transcript. It may fulfill your school’s language requirement. It may also be a compelling part of your college applications. If your high school does offer Chinese, you may be able to use your test score to skip a level or two.
First things must come first, however. Check with your school’s guidance office about taking the UT Credit by Exams test in Chinese. They might be very excited about a student taking this test, or they can be bizarrely intransigent about helping you. I’ve seen both. In any case, you will need their help in scheduling the exams and getting your results.
There is More to Learning Than an Exam
For this blog post, I am mostly going to talk about the Chinese 1 exam, for the sake of brevity. Lots of what I have to say about the exam still applies to the Chinese 2 exam, however. The purpose of the exam is to show that a student has achieved the equivalent of passing a high school Chinese 1 class. I teach Mandarin Chinese so that students can use Mandarin Chinese to communicate with Chinese-speaking people. I don’t teach Chinese so that students can pass fancy-sounding exams. Learning a language is a lifelong journey and proficiency exams are the equivalent of getting your passport renewed. It is just proof that you are who you say you are (e.g., a proficient Chinese speaker).
The Speaking Section
The UT Credit by Exams test for Chinese 1 is three hours long and it tests ability in speaking, reading, writing and listening. The study guide for the exam starts with speaking, so we will start there too. The prompts are in English, but the students must respond in Chinese. Some of the prompts in the study guide are great examples of why standardized tests can be lame: “describe a house or a particular room in your house and why you like it.” I have yet to meet a teenager with a keen eye for decor. With speaking evaluations, test-takers are sort of at the mercy of the topic. Not having anything to say gets graded the same as not saying anything. So here is my top tip: make ％¥@！up. No one grading your exam will know if you are telling the truth. If you have to pretend to like soccer for the sake of an exam, graders will not show up at your house to make sure you own a pair of cleats.
Look at the Rubric
The rubric for the speaking portion of the exam is telling. To answer the prompt “satisfactorily,” the test taker must briefly address the prompt, and use three or more words or phrases (emphasis theirs). They may be “understood with great effort” by a native speaker. So… they are really not looking for all that much. Which is realistic. Say through a Chinese 1 class, a student has had 180 hours of solid input in the language (you know I am all about that input). That means they should be able to recognize about 700-900 words MAXIMUM. The number of words that the learner can use in an communicative event will be a much smaller subset of those. So yeah, stringing together a few phrases about hobbies, places in the US, or a room in your house is all that is reasonable to expect. It is a a good thing that the test designers seem to recognize that.
The Listening Section
Like the speaking section, the listening section also uses English. Test takers must listen to the prompt and then answer multiple choice questions that are written in English. I assume that the section is designed this way so for validity, so that it does not accidentally become a test of reading comprehension as well. To prepare for this exam, students really do just need to do a lot of listening. Many classes, do not provide this opportunity. Instructors spend too much time explaining things like grammar in English, and too little time using Chinese to communicate with the students. If this sounds like a class you took, I recommend Learning Chinese Through Stories to make up for it.
If I had to guess, I would say that the simulated conversations part of the exam would probably be the trickiest for most learners. Test takers have to choose the best response to a question or statement in Chinese. The samples given in the study guide show that the test designers expect an almost native-like understanding of how Chinese works in certain situations. For example, how 没关系 (it’s nothing/no problem) is not an appropriate response to thank you. Less than 200 hours of instruction in a Chinese 1 course is just not that much time. There is a big question mark for me about whether this is appropriate for the level.
The Reading Section
Like the listening section, the answers for the reading section are in English. The right preparation for this is of course doing lots of reading in Chinese. A good teacher for high school students will supply leveled reading for beginner students. If you don’t have access to these kinds of materials, read more about them here.
The Writing Section
The writing section, like the speaking section, gives prompts in English. Students will need to handwrite their responses, so knowing how to handwrite a large number of characters is an important part of test preparation. I am not sure if this is a good use of an exam, considering how little we actually write things down with a pencil and paper. I am not in charge of the exam however, so here we are. The best preparation for this section is what I call “swinging the heavy bat.” I am not a baseball fan, but I have heard that they practice swinging with a heavier bat than what they actually use during a game. So in the game, they are prepared to swing harder than they really need to. If you practice writing a several responses to the practice prompts (under timed conditions), when the test comes around, it will be a breeze. Make sure you write much more than you think that you need.
Again, Look at the Rubric
Like with the speaking section, the bar for getting “satisfactory” marks on the writing section is pretty low. Scorers only look for a few phrases strung together that briefly address the prompt. If a test taker writes several complete sentences that fully respond to the prompt, they will probably get full points!
A true test of Chinese proficiency would be to drop a learner in the middle of China (or Taiwan) and to see how they do. Since we can’t do that :), tests like the UT Credit by Exams is what we have. These exams are not really proficiency exams, either. The test is meant to award (or not award) high school credit for doing the equivalent work for a high school class. If you would like assistance in preparing for this exam, please get in touch.
When I first started teaching Chinese, I suggested to a group of adult students that they check out an essay from 1991 by David Moser called “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard.” That was dumb, very dumb. I thought that the students would learn about the Chinese language and get some perspective about how long it actually takes to learn a language. They just ended up feeling discouraged. Several years later, re-reading that essay, I have come to disagree with most of what it says. So not only was it just discouraging, it perpetuates misunderstandings about how language learning actually works! I recommend reading the essay before reading the rest of this post. Please don’t forget to come back!
David Moser has a p.h.D and a book. By many measures, he is more successful than I am so I feel okay about picking apart his essay. I don’t think he will ever read this or get his feelings hurt :). More importantly, the essay is pretty tongue in cheek.
The Writing System Isn’t Ridiculous
Moser lays out nine points for why learning Chinese is allegedly more difficult than other languages, but I won’t go over each and every one of them. Let’s start at the beginning. Moser claims that “the writing system is ridiculous.” Lots of students, like Moser, are initially attracted to the writing system. I guess you can’t have your cake and eat it too. There are a lot of assertions about learning Chinese characters in this paragraph. It is worth going over the claim about how much longer it takes Chinese children to become literate in Chinese than it does other children to become literate in their native languages.
Literacy in Children
So how long does it take Chinese kids to learn and write in Chinese? Interestingly enough, Chinese preschools and kindergartens (幼儿园) are not allowed to directly teach reading and writing.* Teachers still read books to the kids of course. Direct instruction in reading however, does not start until first grade. Why does this matter? Well, if you measure how much an American seven year old knows how to read and write, they may already have 3 years of literacy instruction under their belt. Lots of preschools in America teach reading quite early. It also only takes 4 seconds of Googling to find a book that promises to help you teach your toddler to read. In contrast, a Chinese seven year old has only had one year of literacy instruction. It is certainly possible that parents teach their kids many characters, but it is hard to tell who gets what.
So for comparison purposes, the age of a child is not particularly helpful. It might not tell us how many years it took for that child to actually learn to read and write. Okay, by you still want to know how long does it take to become literate in Chinese? Well, it does take longer than it does in English, but possibly only by a few months.** Out of curiosity, I asked a Chinese friend how long it took him to learn how to read and write in Chinese. He said, “It was pretty hard, it took me a few weeks.”
Misconceptions About Language Learning
Moser has several sections about why Chinese literacy is allegedly so hard to acquire are split into several sections. I am going to talk about most of them all together because I think that there are really only a couple issues that matter. First, let’s start with the easiest: writing Chinese by hand. Did I just say that writing Chinese is easy? Nope, not even close. Moser points out that even Chinese people forget how to write low frequency characters. I, too, remember the childish delight I felt when I saw Chinese people put pen to paper and not be able to write a word like 骰子 (dice).
Different Types of Literacy
Here is the thing, being able to read but not write is nothing new and not even unique Chinese. Less than a year ago, I was listening to a podcast about the Salem Witch Trials. From it, I learned that many of the women of Salem back in 1692 could read but not write. They had a low level of sign literacy. The things you learn, right? So while we often think of reading and writing as an inseparable pair, they are really two different things. It is 2019, I think that not being able to handwrite a character in Chinese is not a big deal. You can still be literate in Chinese. Most of of rarely write by hand in our day to day lives.
Moser talks about encountering the word for president: 总统 and then trying to retrieve it the next day and write it down. The process of acquiring a language is very different from what he is describing here. First, we need to hear a word in a meaningful context, several times over, WAY more times than once or twice. Then, when must map the sounds of that word to its written representation, i.e. reading. We can also use this word in speech appropriately after getting enough input. The very last thing that we should expect ourselves to do with a new word is write it down. Hearing a word and trying to write it down the next day just isn’t how language acquisition works. What about making flashcards you say? This video explains why they are not that helpful.
The Importance of Sound
The biggest misconception at the heart of this essay is about what reading Chinese actually is. Chinese is not the poorer because it does not use an alphabet. Writing systems have their visual representations, whether they be the Roman alphabet, Cyrillic, or Chinese characters. They are “inherently also about phonology and semantics because that is what writing systems represent.”***
About 80% of Chinese characters have some sort of phonetic component. The vast majority of Chinese characters have a semantic component. When we encounter an unfamiliar character while reading, we use both our phonological knowledge and our semantic knowledge of Chinese. This goes for both words we know and words that we don’t know.
Say you’re reading an article in Chinese about climate change and you come across a character you don’t recognize: 燃. The next character is 料 (liao). So the reader sees 燃料 and has to figure out what it means. The radical of the character is the fire radical. The right-hand side, which often suggests the meaning, looks like 然 (ran). Okay so, hmmmm, something with fire, the sound ran, followed by liao, hmmmmm, ah yes, ránliào is fuel! But here is the key, a student would already need to know the word ránliào (the spoken word) in order to read 燃料.
Back to Input
This is the real problem with reading in Chinese, and I think it is at the root of Moser’s problems. You need a really good aural knowledge of Chinese words before you can read them. Think about it, kids have been exposed to their native languages for thousands of hours before they ever start to read. Sure, we learn some words from reading, but the vast majority of words we read are words that we already know. Moser writes about having 20 Chinese dictionaries and talking to tweedy professors, but not really any communication with ya know, Chinese people. It is those thousands of hours of meaningful input that is what helps us learn the language and how to read it.
Cognates Won’t Save You
Yes, Chinese does not really have cognates. Moser mentions being able to comprehend a great deal of a Spanish-language newspaper because of cognates. I have been seriously working on acquiring Spanish for about a year. I spend about 10 hours a week on task. The more Spanish I know, the less convinced I am that they are helpful.
There are of course, the false cognates. Many students have a story about erroneously being “embarazada.” (For the uninitiated, that means pregnant, not embarrassed). But really, there is more to it than that. Are you looking for a sensible man who won’t gamble away your house or bring home five stray pit bulls? Be careful with your Spanish-language dating sites, because “un hombre sensible” is a sensitive man. Even something as simple as “contento/a” is complicated. It means happy, not content. I for one, would never say I am happy when I am merely content. The Spanish language provides a lot of clues to help a learner figure things out (presidente, acusar, económicos) but that is not the same as knowing the language. There is a lot of nuance that relying on cognates won’t get you.
Flipping through a newspaper and making educated guessing about the content is not reading. Cognates and false cognates have that dangerous other side to the coin, which is making learners think they know more than they really do. That happens less often with Chinese :).
Technology Solved the Dictionary Problem, Mostly
When I started learning Chinese, I had a paper dictionary. Moser calls these dictionaries “user-hostile.” I don’t think that is correct. If I have my math correct, Moser was learning Chinese in the 1980s. He mentions looking up characters by radical, which is the method that I will talk about, although there are others. Before you could just scan a character with an app, to look up a character in a paper dictionary, you had to figure out the radical and then look up the individual character by the number of strokes. This is how I still do it, just with my iPhone. I could also scan with Google, but I never do because looking it up the old-fashioned way just is not that hard. So with technology, Moser’s point about looking up characters because it takes too long it is moot.
In any case, the radical + stroke number method does not take as long as he claims. Furthermore, it forces students to consider the components of characters which helps learners recognize them when they see that character again. Lastly, we also lost something when we replaced the paper dictionary with the app. We lost the new things that we learned when we were trying to find out something else. The iPhone killed serendipity. I was dismayed to learn that the first character in my Chinese name is the same character in the Chinese word for syphilis. I learned that looking up that character in a paper dictionary. You better believe I never forgot it!
That Pesky Classical Chinese
Classical Chinese is a bit of a pickle. Moser does a good job of summarizing classical Chinese as “several centuries of esoteric anecdotes and in-jokes written in a kind of terse, miserly code for dissemination among a small, elite group of intellectually-inbred bookworms who already knew the whole literature backwards and forwards, anyway.” The problem he really talks about is an emotional one: feeling embarrassed when someone asks you what something means and you don’t know. That is an ego problem, not a language problem. This is an imperfect analogy, but I wouldn’t expect English learners to understand Shakespeare. Plenty of natives don’t either.
Moaning About Tones
Moser also complains about the tones of Mandarin Chinese. I’ve written about this issue elsewhere. Moser forgets about the same thing that everyone else does: context. He brings up the example of guòjiǎng (“you flatter me”) vs guǒjiàng (“fruit paste/jelly/jam). Sure, if you get the tones wrong, you’ll be saying the wrong word. But really, how often could you confuse flattery for a sandwich spread? I have a student who says “qǐng wěn” （please kiss) instead of “qǐngwèn” (may I ask a question.) I don’t think that he is constantly trying to kiss me because I am not a ding dong. He is a student in class with his hand raised. He wants to ask a question. Context people! Moser also tries to make a point about how the intonation we use in English interferes with correct tone pronunciation. All I can say is, huh? I’ve shouted “Shǎguā wázi!” at people who cut me off without changing all the words to the 4th (so-called “angry tone). I’m sure they understood me. They probably ignored me, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t understand what I was saying.
Bridging the Cultural Divide
I’ve saved the best for last. Moser makes one really good point, and it is the last one too. He suggests that one of the reasons that learning Chinese is do damn hard is because our cultures are so different. Bingo. Comprehension, whether it is listening comprehension or reading comprehension, depends so much on background knowledge. I wrote about that issue here. It matters for reading comprehension in our native languages too.
The Five Great Mountains, Guanyin (the goddess of mercy), and the monkey king are just a few examples of things that I have taught my students in the past seven days along that are part of Chinese cultural literacy. Just recognizing the characters in the words 五岳，观音，猴王 (Five Great Mountains, Guanyin, and the Monkey King, respectively) is not enough to understand what they signify. You need background knowledge for that. If you are an average American college student in a Chinese 1 class, you’re just not gonna know these things. That is why I teach western stories that are already familiar to my students. Once they are a bit further along, they will need a lot of information about China, its history, and culture in order to understand the language. They will get that later, or in English, if needed. Lots of foreign students feel self-conscious about their limited vocabulary, tone pronunciation, or whatever, but it is really not knowing where Xi’an that makes them look silly.
* To be fair, this law was enacted many years after “Why Learning Chinese is So Damn Hard” was written. I do not know as much about early education in China prior to the 21st century.
** McNaughton and Ying, Reading and Writing Chinese (Revised edition)
*** Mark Seidenberg, Language at the Speed of Sight (2017)