Tips for Adult Language Learners

Is language learning hopeless for adult students?

photo of adults learning
Should these folks just give up? No! Adults can learn a language too.

So you are an adult who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese. It probably seems like the cards are stacked against you. Lots of people think that it is hopeless for adults to become fluent in a second language. It is also hard to find the time to learn a language when you have a busy adult schedule. The good news is that while there is evidence that older learners will likely not become native-like speakers, they can still achieve high levels of fluency. There is plenty of hope for adult learners. Below are some tips for adult students who want to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Motivation counts for a lot

Most of my adult students lament the fact that they are not starting as young kids. Most people believe that young children have an easier time learning a second language. While young kids (i.e. children <8 years old) may have some advantages, they lack the motivation of adult students. Motivation drives students to sit down an study for hours, attend classes in their spare time, and seek out resources for language learning. Highly motivated students really can achieve high levels of proficiency. Many of my adult students feel self-conscious on their first day of class. What they don’t realize is that just being there already says a lot about them. Adult students who seek out Chinese classes are usually very motivated people who are high achievers in other areas of their lives. Slackers never make it in the door.

venn diagram of showing adults who learn Chinese
If you are in a Chinese language class, you probably already have many qualities that will help you in the learning process, such as drive, discipline and motivation.

Don’t try to speak right away

Highly motivated students often have a couple bad habits that don’t help them in the language learning process. They are so eager to learn that they usually want to speak right away. They fret over their pronunciation and want to “practice” to get it right as quickly as possible. To really have good pronunciation, learners need to listen. Only with lots of input (i.e. hearing something over and over again), can students really say something correctly. It may seem too “passive” to just sit there and listen, but this is exactly what students must do in order to improve.

It is a marathon, not a sprint

Language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. Learners simply cannot leap-frog the steps of language learning. Sometimes students can fake their way through complex interactions in Chinese, but they can’t fool their brains. Becoming proficient in Mandarin Chinese does not happen over night. Students need to be patient and accept that their progress will probably be slower than they’d like.

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Favorite Books for Kids’ Classes

It is Read a Book Day!

Social media is overrun with lots of unofficial official “days,”  such as #nationalunleadedgasolineday, #nationallichenday, or #nationalrefilltheicecubetrayday. Okay, I made those up. But you get the idea, there are lots of mundane, made-up “days” out there. Today, however, is Read a Book Day (September 6). This is a made-up holiday I can get behind since books are so important to the language learning process. Below are a few of my favorite books for teaching Mandarin Chinese, especially for kids.

No, David!, by David Shannon (大卫,不可以)

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

This book is great for a few reasons. First, is it hugely popular so most kids already know the story. This really helps kids pick up the language if they already know the content. The book is also very repetitive. Repetition really helps language “sink in.” The reader (teacher) says the phrase “不可以” (not okay) on almost every page. By the end of the book, kids in my classes kids are saying 不可以, wagging their fingers, and laughing their heads off at the antics of little David in the story. I also like to use the book for classroom management. It starts a conversation about what is okay (可以) and not okay (不可以) to do in class.

Journey, By Aaron Becker

This is a wordless picture book. I have a few wordless picture books that I use in class, but this one has the most beautiful illustrations. Wordless picture books are great for language classes because the teacher can tailor the content (story) to suit a variety of different levels. It can also be difficult to find books in your target language. Wordless books are a great option because they can be in any language! This book is also great because the main character is a girl. It is mind boggling how few children’s books feature girls as the main character, or at all. Half of my students are girls (no surprise) and I want them to see themselves in our books.

photo of illustration from Journey
Illustration from Journey, a wordless picture book

Go Away, Big Green Monster, By Ed Emberley (走开,绿色大怪物!)

photo of cover of Chinese language version of Go Away Big Green Monster
Cover of 走开,绿色大怪物

This book is great because it covers content that many parents and school administrators expect to see in beginner class: colors and body parts. I like it because it has a monster! Young kids often like books, movies that are just a tiny bit scary to them. They enjoy the feeling of pushing boundaries with things that scare them just a little bit. Kids love going through this book and seeing how the illustrations build up to show the monster’s face. They don’t even notice that they are learning words for colors and body parts!

More on learning Mandarin and books:

Learn Mandarin with Chinese Books

Books for Older Kids







So You Don’t Have A Lot of Time to Learn Chinese

Can you Learn Chinese in Less Time than You Spend on Your Daily Commute?

If you found this blog through Google or another search engine, you have seen the advertisements that promise that you can learn Mandarin Chinese in 30 days (or something like that). Hopefully you have the good sense to know that is this is not really possible. What those programs can do is to teach a student “survival” language, so that they can navigate certain situations. A student who learns Chinese “in 30 minutes a day” won’t be able to have a free-form conversation, but they will be able to memorize useful phrases. Language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. No matter how flashy the app, you cannot leap-frog the stages of language learning.

Is Immersion the Answer?

So if you can’t learn Mandarin Chinese in a month, or 30 minutes a day, or in 5 minutes a day, what is a time-pressed student to do? The good news is that when it comes to language learning, quality is more important than quantity. The quantity of simple exposure to Mandarin Chinese does not determine how much a person can speak. If all a learner needed to do was just listen to Chinese, then expats who have lived in China for years would all be fluent. I promise you that there are many expats who have lived in China for a decade or more and cannot say more than a few sentences. There are many reasons for this. The most relevant reason that just being in an environment is not enough is that the person needs to understand what they are hearing. They need input, but it needs to be comprehensible input.

You can’t learn Chinese in a month. You can’t learn it just by living in China and not doing anything else. The good news for language learners who don’t have loads of time to learn a second language is that when it comes to language learning, is that quality is more important than quality. You will need more than 30 minutes a day for a month, but you also don’t need to hire someone to follow you you around all day speaking Chinese.

Classes With Comprehensible Input Are the Best Use of Your Time

According to the research, instruction (i.e. classes) really do help students acquire a language. If done well, a class will make it easy for the students to understand the input they’re getting. This is the missing piece of the puzzle if you just go and live in China/Taiwan. There is plenty of input around there, but students won’t understand what they hear. Classes also supply input that is compelling and interesting to students, if they are well-designed. With an app, or a survival program, students just memorize phrases. That is enough input to help students get through common situations. It is not, however, enough to achieve true fluency. It is also kind of boring.

Most students don’t have a great deal of time to learn a second language. Many language learning apps promise to help save time. Students, however, won’t learn true communication just by using an app. Jumping into a language environment is not enough either. A thoughtfully designed class can work with the limited time a student has and help them acquire a language without memorizing.

More on how language learning actually works:

A brief outline of the theories of Stephen Krashen, phD.

Why Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning Are Different

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes? Use the contact page to get in touch!

Speed and Language Learning

Speed Anxiety

How many times have you heard someone say that So-and-so’s Spanish is rapid? How many times have you heard a person say that they would understand what another person was saying, if only that person would just slow down a little? There is something about the speed of speech that causes a lot of anxiety for students who want to learn a second language, including Mandarin Chinese.

photo of speedometer in car
Yes, some language sound faster than others. But don’t panic about speed, you will catch up

What the Research Says About Speed

Is there anything to the idea that some languages are faster than others? It turns out that researchers have tackled this question. They looked at eight different languages, including Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin to see compare how many syllables people said per second. The research subject read from a pre-determined text. It turns out that in terms of syllables spoken per second, Spanish is faster than other languages. At the other end of the spectrum, Mandarin is much slower.

There is an interesting caveat, however. Different languages seem to convey the same amount of information in the same amount of time. A language like Spanish may use more syllables to do it, but Spanish speakers are not saying anything more in a minute than English or German speakers. The “fast” languages are not actually more efficient than others at conveying information. There is perhaps some sort of biological speed limit in our brains that keeps the flow of information to the same pace.

It Is Okay to Go Slowly

Whether a language seems fast, like Spanish, or slow like Mandarin and German, the ultimate goal is to understand native speakers in normal communication. This means keeping up with whatever the pace is. It takes a long time, however, to acquire a language. We also know that students do not acquire language at all if they do not understand what they hear. When students are just starting out in their language studies, listening to people (including teachers) speak the target language at a normal pace is just too difficult. Teachers need to slow down if they want students to understand them. Understanding language at a slower than normal rate of speech is a necessary part of language acquisition.

We know that students will learn a new language if they receive input (through listening and reading) that they understand in that language. For beginner and intermediate students, this means that they need to read texts and listen to speech that has a limited number of words, shorts sentences, and in the case of listening it needs to be slooooow. People who have about an intermediate level of a second language will often say that they are more confident in their reading skills than they are in their listening. There could be lots of reasons for this, but I think that it has something to do with pacing. With reading, a reader controls the pace. She can read as quickly or as slowly as she likes. This is not the case with listening, as the speaker controls the pace.

Focus on Understanding and You’ll Catch up to the Native Speakers

Beginner and intermediate students should embrace a slower rate of speech. They should not feel frustrated that they are not ready to understand Spanish or Mandarin at the rates they are truly spoken. That will come with time when they have a more solid foundation in the language. To build that solid foundation in the language, they need to listen to that slower than normal rate of speech. There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to language that comes at a slow rate of speed. It is just another part of the slow, ordered and complex process of language acquisition.

photo of elderly people talking
What are these two talking about? If you’re just starting to learn their language, it is totally normal if you can’t follow a regular pace of speech.

Social Media as Authentic Resources

What Are Authentic Resources?

Authentic resources, as used in language education, are anything from the target language/culture, that is produced for native speakers of that language. TV shows, newspaper articles, novels, billboards, recipes, movies, social media… these are all authentic resources.

Caveats for Authentic Resources

Many teachers are huge fans of authentic resources. Authentic resources prepare students to study or travel abroad in places where the locals speak the target language. They also provide a window into the target culture. There are downsides to authentic resources, however. They are often too advanced for beginner and intermediate students. With the internet, it is not difficult to find authentic resources. It is however, difficult to find appropriate authentic resources that won’t frustrate the students.

If teachers hand out texts or assign listening activities that are too difficult for their students, the result is both a waste of class time and can it potentially de-motivate the students. There are good reasons for seeking out high-quality authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students. To start with, authentic resources let the target culture speak for itself. Students do not need to rely on secondhand information from their teachers. Additionally, using the right authentic resources can help motivate the students. Just as authentic resources can de-motivate students if they are too difficult, they can also get students excited about the target culture if they are at the right level. It is very thrilling for students the first (and second and third) time that they read or hear something meant for native speakers that they can understand.

Choosing the Best Authentic Resources

Authentic resources for beginner and intermediate students need to have short sentences, few words, and preferably a strong visual component. Social media posts can be great authentic materials. The text is generally short, there are usually photos and even emojis can add context clues about the meaning.

Both of the posts below are authentic resources that I would use with beginner and intermediate classes. The text is very short and the words are few. Students will not spend time struggling. They will understand the meaning fairly quickly and then we can move on to having a more involved discussion.

photo of Chinese language social media post
This social media post is an example of authentic resource that is appropriate for beginner students.
photo of Chinese language social media post
This is a social media post that I would use with an intermediate class.

**These posts are from the massively popular Chinese social media platform WeChat

More on why not all authentic resources are right for every language class.

More reading on how to best use authentic resources.

Do you have any authentic resources to recommend to other Mandarin Chinese language learners? Share in the comments!