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.
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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):
Tasks are a great tool for the language learning classroom. A task is different from an activity in that we are actually doing something that has a purpose other than just using the language. More posts about tasks in Chinese language class are here and here. This week I have been doing different versions of a task about African animals with my lower elementary students.
Reading as Task Warm Up
First, we look at the book Draw! by Raul Colon. It is a wordless picture book, so the teacher can talk as much or as little about the pictures as she likes. It is the story of a boy who travels to Africa through his drawings. The book features an elephant, giraffes, gorillas, monkeys and a rhino. While we read the book, I like to talk about what the animals are doing, and what they are eating. It could also work to talk about how they look and their different body parts.
Completing the Task
The next step after the book is the quiz, “Is this Animal from Africa?” I have pictures of different animals on a Powerpoint presentation. We click through about ten different animals and write down the students’ guesses about whether the animal is from Africa or not. Some they are get, like knowing the lion is from Africa and the polar bear isn’t. There are a few that stump the kids, though. So far, no one has know that there are penguins from Africa!
Learning to write Chinese characters is one of the most daunting parts of learning Chinese. This blog has a couple earlier posts about learning how to write in Chinese. They are here and here. Last night, in one of my adult classes, several questions about writing Chinese characters came up. Below is an edited version of the Q & A I had with my students.
Do I have to learn how to write Chinese Characters?
Nope! You do not have to learn how to write Chinese characters by hand, if you are an adult. If you are serious about learning Chinese, even just a little, you should learn how to write in Chinese. For most purposes, however, it is fine to use computer assisted methods for writing Chinese. This basically means learning how to type in Chinese. This article has more information about how to input Chinese on a computer or a smartphone. I do, however, teach all of my kids the basics os Chinese writing and expect them to practice.
Do I have to learn calligraphy?
Well, no. You do not have to learn Chinese calligraphy. That is, you do not have to learn all the different type of dots and strokes that make up Chinese characters. Students can only really capture those with an ink brush. For my kids, I focus on making sure than they can handwrite characters with the correct stroke order. We go over the rules during class and then all the practice that they do is as homework. It really does take a great deal of repetition to learn how to right fluently. We just don’t have enough class time to spend on it.
Are Chinese Characters Basically Random?
No! While they may seem just like a collection of squiggles to new students, Chinese characters really do have rhyme and reason. A small percentage of Chinese characters are pictographic. This means that they come from picture representations of the words that they mean. The vast majority of Chinese characters are formed through the combination of one part that gives the meaning, and another than suggests the sound. There are some characters that are meaning-meaning compounds, and a couple other categories of character that only include a small number of characters.
Don’t quite get how most Chinese characters work? Let’s take a look at an example. If we look at the character 情 qing2（feeling, love), the radical on the left hand side 忄suggests the meaning as it means heart. The right hand side hints at the sound: 情，请，清，晴 & 青 are all pronounced “qing” with different tones.
Interested in learning more about Chinese characters? This book is a personal favorite.
The Lotus Chinese Learning library of books in Chinese and wordless picture books has dozens of volumes. Books are an incredibly important teaching tool. They are what I would bring with me to a desert island where I have to teach :). It is a known problem in the world of children’s literature that there are not enough diverse books out there. For the purposes of this blog post, diverse books means books that feature African American, Asian American, Hispanic and or Native American main characters. There are lots of books, such as my beloved David series by David Shannon that show diverse children, but they are not the main characters. They are still great, but they don’t count as diverse books.
Why are Diverse Books Important?
Just as in the city of San Antonio as a whole, the majority of my students are Hispanic. I also have many Asian American students and African American students. If you’re a white person in American, you probably grew up seeing characters in picture books that look like you. If you’re an adult now, it might be easy to assume that things have changed since you were a kid. This infographic (from 2015!) shows that that this is not the case. Kids deserve to see themselves represented in their books, and there aren’t enough books out there so we have to work a little harder.
Getting Diverse Books
Getting books in Chinese in the US is not super easy to begin with. As I have written elsewhere, wordless picture books can be a good substitute for books in Chinese. All the teacher has to do is point to the pictures as she tells the story in Chinese! Pool by JiHeyeon Lee is a wordless picture book that features Asian characters that I use often. There are lots of things to count in the illustrations, so it is especially fun for the little kids to count along with me. The website China Sprout also has many diverse children’s books. Their shipping costs are a little pricey (cough cough) but when I need to add a couple more books to my collection, I know that China Sprout will have at least a few options.
Using The Books
Yes, February is Black History Month, however we can read books that feature black characters the other eleven months of the year too! This past week (April), I read Alfie the Turtle That Disappeared with some of my kids. The story features birthdays and pets, both hot topics for the lower-elementary crowd. It works all year-round. It is a missed opportunity to only focus on diverse books when the calendar calls for it. The lesson’s topic does not have to be about diversity in and of itself to use diverse books.
On Gender Diversity
There are plenty of books about boys and male animals for kids. Most of the classics that I have on my shelf feature boys and male animals as the main character. I’m looking at you Hats for Sale and the Hungry Caterpillar! The conventional wisdom is that all children will read books about boys, and only girls will read books about girls. This wisdom sucks. Children will read a book about any kind of child. As veteran children’s book author Shanna Hale explains, it is the story that counts. I wouldn’t hesitate to use books that feature girls as the main characters for the whole class and neither should you :).
What are your favorite books with diverse main characters? Share in the comments!
More Sources About Diversity in Children’s Literature:
I am a big fan of using Chinese language story books in class. Students learn new words best when they encounter them in a meaningful context. This means that going over flashcards is not a good way to learn a new language! Stories not only provide a meaningful context for new words, but everyone also likes being read to! This week, I got a new book: 365 Penguins (365只企鹅）.
365 Penguins (365只 企鹅）
There is a new book on the Lotus Chinese Learning bookshelf: 365只企鹅 (Penguins). Originally written in French, it details the story of a family that mysteriously receives a penguin in the mail every day for a year. This story easily lends itself to including talking about math, the calendar and seasons. An English version of the story is available here.
The story, as written, uses language that is too complex for beginner or novice learners. I would not read it word for word with students who are just starting out in their Chinese studies. It is perfectly fine to “read” the story by telling a simplified version of the story to the students instead of reading it word for word.
Incorporating a Math Segment
I like incorporating math into class when I use this story. There are math problems already in the box. For example, one page asks the reader to calculate 6x6x6. This is too hard for most of my young students. But we can always count together. For example, we can chart how many penguins the family has on January 1, 2, 3, and so on.
There are many different jumping off points for a lesson based on the book 365只 企鹅 (365 Penguins.) Different groups of students might be interested in different things. The key to making using the book a successful lesson for learning Chinese is to make sure that the students understand what they are hearing and reading. Adding in tasks like charting the number of penguins is useful for keeping kids engaged and on task.
Some folks love rules, so here they are. Below are three rules for learning to speak Mandarin Chinese.
Rule #1: Don’t force yourself to talk. The same rule goes for parents of children who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Many students (and parents) believe that students should try to repeat what the teacher says. There really is not any reason to do that. At best, students end up feeling like they are doing something that resembles learning. Having positive feelings about language learning is a good thing, but they don’t directly lead to language acquisition.
It is perfectly normal and expected to go through a “silent stage” in learning a new language. There is also a tremendous amount of variation in how long this silent stage lasts. It depends on both the learner, and also how much input the student gets. Adult students often will try to talk, but young children do not do the same. It could easily be months before a student says anything in Mandarin Chinese.
Rule #2: Speaking in full sentences does not matter. Many students (and parents) have it in their heads that students need to start speaking Mandarin Chinese in complete sentences. Just like forced speech, I think that this comes from the mindset that students need to be doing something that looks like learning. Speaking in a complete sentence is not really necessary, however.
To begin with, that speaking in a complete sentence is not how we talk normally. Sometimes we respond with one word. Sometimes we respond with a rambling run-on sentence of sorts. One thing should be clear from the blog by now. That is, we learn to speak bylistening and not by speaking. Since speaking is not something that we learn by doing, there is no need to force speaking in a certain way, e.g. in complete sentences.
Rule #3: Speaking is useful, but probably not in the way that you think it is. Although we learn to speak through listening, speaking can be useful to language learners in a narrow sense. When a learner talks to someone who is not the teacher in Mandarin Chinese, the learner’s speech can help the new person realize that she needs to slow down and use simpler words.
The type of speech that we hear from beginner and intermediate learners (stilted, single words, lots of errors) is a good reminder for native speakers to slow down. Slowing down is often the most useful thing that a native speaker can do to make it easier for a language learner to understand them.