We have exciting news for 2020! We are finalizing plans to open a Mandarin Chinese immersion preschool and kindergarten program. (If you are interested, fill out this form here.) For this new program, I have been doing a lot of research on what makes a quality preschool curriculum. It turns out that the same elements that make a quality language program, are the same ones that make a quality regular curriculum. It is the content! I’ll get to the details, but in short, the problem with most language classes is the same one that afflicts the general curriculum: the kids are not learning anything.
What We Do All Day
An average (read: mediocre) language class is based on teaching students grammar rules, and a list of vocabulary words. Then, the students will have to demonstrate that they can use both of these things by making sentences or acting out some kind of dialogue. The major reason that classes like these don’t really teach languages effectively is because students do not get enough comprehensible input. Students need to hear (and later read) language that they can understand in order to learn a new language. It is important for students to be able to understand everything. This usually means shorter sentences, lots of repetition, slow speech, and lots of visual clues. I have written about that here and here.
Language as a by-product of the lesson
Students need that slow, repetitious speech with lots of visual clues, but there also needs to be content. With little kids, we can talk about the colors on their clothes, and the numbers of chairs in the classroom, but we also need content to keep them learning new words. We can teach kids about lots of different things, from classic stories to facts about animals, but we need to teach them something in the desired language. They will learn the language as a byproduct of learning the content. This is how good language immersion programs work. They teach kids math, science, social studies and from these lessons, children learn Spanish, Chinese or French.
Having good content for kids to learn from is vital for language classes. For my classes that typically meet for one hour per week, we talk about animals, Chinese geography, classic Chinese stories, Western stories, food, and lots of other topics. The need for good content does not end there.
The Content Crisis
Perhaps you have read a headline recently about how terrible American public school children do on accountability tests. In case you haven’t, here is one article about reading scores to dampen your spirits. One explanation for why American kids don’t score well on reading tests is that they lack the background knowledge in order to comprehend a wide variety of texts.
A Long Time in the Making
American educator E. D. Hirsch has been talking about this problem in American education since the 1980s. His book Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know was criticized for being elitist at best and discriminatory at worst. The evidence that students need more than just empty skills in order to be able to read is mounting. And of course reading is the key to advanced study in any field.
Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap (2019) takes up the case again. She demonstrates that American kids are doing so poorly in school because they are stuck learning “how to find the main idea” instead of actual knowledge. E.D. Hirsch may have seemed like an elitist by suggesting that all Americans know about Cotton Mather, Andrew Mellon, and Herman Melville, but he wasn’t wrong. We need good content for the kids to actually learn something. If we do it in a second language, they will learn that too.
Story time: When I was in high school, many of my teachers (perhaps all of them) went to a training about learning styles. They came back, clutching this newfound knowledge, ready to make a difference in the unfolding lives of the teenagers in their charge. The teachers gave us quizzes to asses our learning styles at the beginning of the semester. Curiously, I never seemed to get the “right” result. My answers never pointed to one learning style for me*. They were always pretty evenly distributed. I think that there is a reason for this: those quizzes don’t work because learning styles don’t exist.
If you are wondering what all this has to do with language learning, or learning Chinese, stick with me! I promise I will get to it
The BS Quizzes
To illustrate just why quizzes like these are BS, let’s look at a few example questions. This quiz, assigns one of three learning styles: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most learning style quizzes focus on these three, however, some inventories of learning styles count up to 70. Here we go:
Ummmm, how many students (assuming they are at least high school aged) would cop to preferring picture books? Are books of word searches and crossword puzzles even really considered books? They are great and all, but isn’t asking people to chose between Pride and Prejudice and Sudoku kind of an idiotic way to see if they like to read?
But wait, there is more!
This quiz isn’t hosted on Geocities. The copyright says 2019. I am assuming that this is not some dusty corner of the internet that is still worried about Y2K. And yet, the writer of this quiz is seemingly unaware of smart phones. Maybe they do know about smart phones, but need to force some other choice for the sake of the quiz.
Let’s look at the options then. I understand that we need to pretend that smart phones don’t exist for the sake of this silly quiz, but surely if you can’t use a phone your next choice is not CHATTING TO THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. I can’t think of a faster way to alienate my fellow humans than trying to chat them up at the checkout line. Maybe talking to oneself about how “everything must burn” will be slightly more alarming to strangers, but only slightly more.
This next questions is truly deranged:
Where do I even start with this question? Its just… so dumb. I think that I got dumber just by reading it. But why it is it so dumb? I think because it is a really good example of the problems with these kind of quizzes. The creators decide on whatever learning styles they believe in, and then crowbar in some questions that seem to “fit.” I don’t know any adult who would answer “act really hyper” in response to the question “what do you do when you are happy?” But you can see how each answer is supposed to align with visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning (in that order).
The Experts Are on my Side
This one quiz is a great example of silly nonsense. I am aware there is no shortage of pointless quizzes on the internet. There are also probably others that come off as more rigorous. I probably wouldn’t be able to tear those apart quite so easily. But I don’t have to, because some prominent psychologists and neuroscientists have done that for me. This is a letter that they wrote to the Guardian (the British Newspaper) in 2017 about how educators shouldn’t waste their time thinking about learning styles.
What I like about this letter is not that they explain that the supposed science behind learning styles is complete hokum. The problem with learning styles, as the authors point out, is not that they don’t exist. The problem is that every minute we waste talking about them, we are not doing something else. This is the opportunity cost of educational quackery.
What Does All This Have to Do With Language Learning?
When we are spending time taking bogus quizzes and thinking about how to make a lesson more kinesthetic for all those made-up kinesthetic learners out there we are not spending out time doing more valuable things.
This is what I think is really harmful for language learners. Folks who have really bought into the learning styles nonsense lose valuable time on task. Time spent on getting comprehensible input in the target language is really the name of the game in language learning. No amount looking at pictures is going to make up for not listening to Chinese, spoken at the appropriate level.
Everyone Needs to Listen, Whether You Think You Need to or Not
It gets worse. Beginner students really do just need to listen. Thinking about how to learn Chinese through interpretive dance is not going to help. Unfortunately, I think that the focus on learning styles has convinced a lot of people that they learn best by doing almost anything else other than listening. Every semester, I’ve got someone telling me that they’re a “visual learner” or that they need to make flashcards, or that they need a list of rules in order to learn. They don’t.
For better or for worse, we all learn languages the same way. If you are wondering if I am going to talk about comprehensible input again, you are correct! You learn language by listening to (and later reading) language that you can understand. Your brain doesn’t care that an online quiz told you learn best by drawing pictures, or chewing gum while studying.
Listening is they Key for EVERYONE
I get a lot of resistance from students when I say they just need to listen in class. Of course they should tell me if they don’t understand something). I promise that is what you need to be doing, though.
If you have an auditory learning style (just kidding! :)), this podcast explains why they are bunk. More on the origin of this pernicious myth is in this article from the Atlantic.
Today’s topic is all about learning how to read in Chinese. When I first talk about learning how to read with adult students, most students respond with some variation of @#$! that. I’m serious. You would think I am try to teach people how to chew tinfoil or something. No one even wants to try. With young kids, they don’t realize it is “supposed to be” hard, so they don’t resist reading in Chinese as much. The struggle with learning to read in Chinese really is not the characters. It is something else. But we will get to that later.
Basics for the Littles
So, how do we teach people to read in Chinese? Let’s start at the beginning, with young children. Most preschool-aged children are pre-readers. What we do to teach them how to read in Chinese at this stage is similar to what we do for all pre-readers. We teach features of print. Features of print are things like: what is the beginning of a sentence? What is the end of a sentence? We read from left to right and top to bottom. Now, if you are learning to read in English, you will also learn that that there are spaces between words. Also, you will learn about capital letters.
So there is a lot of overlap in the early stages of learning how to read in English and in Chinese. I should also note that while modern Chinese texts go from left to right, older texts go the opposite way. Sentences are also on vertical, not horizontal, lines. I think that this is not really worth going over until later.
Readers Need to Read
Preschoolers will learn features of print in the early stages of reading instruction. There is considerable, but not complete, overlap between features of print in English and modern Chinese. At this stage, teachers need to read to students. A LOT. Eventually, students are going to need to read on their own. This usually goes much more smoothly if they like reading and think of it as a pleasurable activity.
What comes next? In English, most students start their reading journeys know many “sight words.” Often non-expert adults think that sight words are just simple words in English, like I, me, the, or she. Any word can be a sight word. Sight words are high frequency words that learners recognize “on sight.” They do not have to sound them out. For most kids learning to read in English, sight words end up being words like he, said, can, etc.
The highest frequency words in Chinese are nearly the same. Children who see 我、他、说 (I, he, say) over and over again will likely recognize them on sight, without any specific instruction.
An Important Tangent on Phonics (that you can totally skip if you don’t care)
Most children learning to read in English will need instruction in phonics. Now, people often refer to learning how to “decode.” I personally hate calling it “decoding.” I have a couple rational reasons for this and one that is more of the “old lady shouting at clouds” variety.
My first rational reason for disliking the word “decode” is that it is a case of rebranding. Many people believe that phonics lost the reading wars. Calling the same old thing by a new term in hopes of making it appealing again strikes me as a bit pathetic. Use phonics and let the results speak for themselves. Why else do I not like the word “decode” for sounding out words? Well, I think it makes it sound harder than it is. That puts people off, and then they don’t even try.
And what makes me an old lady shouting at clouds? Well, that gets back to the rebranding issue. The word “decode” sounds more… scientific? Technology-ish? I think it is a sad attempt to make learning how to read sound sexy and important. Just like all the STEM stuff that is so fashionable right now. It is not. Reading is the most important academic skill a child will ever acquire. Making Lego robots isn’t. There, I said it. If you would like to skip to the comments section and tear me apart, go right ahead!
Phonics or decoding is all about about the connection between words are their sounds. This can be pretty simple. “M” sounds like mmmmmm. “R” sounds like rrrrrrrrr. (Often the liquid sounds are easier). But English does not make things easy. Sometimes we produce a “g” like in signal. And sometimes we don’t, like in “sign.” Learning to read through phonics is not a walk in the park. This is why it must be complemented with other reading experiences, like listening to someone read a story. Little kids will need the reminder that reading is not a totally laborious process.
English, like any other language, has a limited number of sounds. Phonics is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word.
Back to Chinese
If it seems like I have forgotten that I write a blog about learning Chinese, I haven’t. Just like English, Chinese has a set of sounds. Chinese reading is all about learning how those sounds map to the written word too!
How Kids Learn to Read in China
Let’s look at how children in China learn how to read. Chinese children learn how to read in first grade. It is actually illegal to teach reading in Chinese preschools/kindergartens.* When a Chinese child learns how to read, they already know all of the words that they are reading AURALLY. That is, they know what all the words mean by sound. When they are learn to read, they begin to recognize that q+ing+falling then rising tone (meaning of please) maps to 请 in text. That is a lot of information to connect in less than one second, but the human brain is a wondrous thing.
Chinese children learn to read about 400 characters by the end of second grade. Chinese students also learn pinyin. This is the phonemic awareness part that is so important. A college-educated Chinese person knows about 4,000 characters. I’ve heard a minimum numbers for basic fluency in Chinese reading of anything between 500-2,000 characters. The HSK 6 tests about 2600 Chinese characters.
What is Different for our Learners
This is the key point: Chinese children already know the words that they are reading. For students learning both the spoken language and reading at the same time, the situation is different. These learners don’t have a fairly compete sound system for Chinese the way that Chinese first graders do. They’re learning the sounds and the visuals concurrently, and not sequentially.
So my students don’t know very many words in Chinese. That means that they can only learn a small number of words in Chinese. What they will be capable of reading is really just a subset of the words that they know aurally. This may seem simple and logical to you, but the number of people who don’t get this is…. er… high. Very high.
The way that many teachers, particularly TPRS teachers, tackle this is through micro fluency. They teach students some language and then have them read only those words.
Keep is Simple at the Beginning
Readers for students learning to read in English use simple, short sentences. They should also mostly include words that the students can sound out. Readers in Chinese should also use simple, short sentences. I do mean simple. Painfully simple. If students are expected to read independently, their readers should have a glossary with 100% of words in the text listed.
Yes, students need to be able to understand 100% of the words in a text (or very close to that) in order to read it on their own. Of course they can read texts with more unknown words, but that needs to include teacher support.
The Real Challenge of Learning to Read in Chinese
This brings us to the big challenge of teaching reading in Chinese to non-natives: the dearth of appropriate materials. There are just not enough readers out there for students learning to read in Chinese! Diane Neubauer has a blog post here that highlights a few options that are out there for beginning readers.
Diane mentions Terry Waltz and Haiyun Lu, both authors whose books I use in my classes. I also use books from Imagin8 Press, which are both appropriate for intermediate readers AND they also teach about Chinese culture. I could go one about books and other materials that are appropriate for students learning to read in Chinese, but this post is already 1400 words! This must be a record for me! Any suggestions for reading materials in Chinese? Share in the comments.
* If you would like a source on this, email me and I will send you my master’s thesis. Be careful though, I might die of shock if anyone actually wants to read my thesis.
What You Need to Know if You Go to the Fake Market in Shanghai (or Beijing)
Any person who has been to the tourist magnets of Beijing and Shanghai is familiar with the fake markets. There have been changes to the various markets over the years, but the most famous one that I know about are Xiushui Jie (aka Silk Street*) in Beijing and the market at the Science and Technology Museum metro stop in Shanghai. At these markets, you can buy anything from fake Ferragamo to fake Fendi, but you have to bargain in order to walk away with both a knockoff and you dignity. Of course, many students have no idea how to bargain in Shanghai!
So how do you bargain in Chinese? To be honest, you don’t really need to know how to speak a word of Chinese in order to bargain at the fake markets. All vendors will have a calculator handy, and you can use that to go back and forth. Many vendors will also be able to speak a bit of English. I wouldn’t rely on their English though. It tends to be mostly memorized phrases and the pronunciation is often poor. If you are reading this post, I assume that you do actually want to be able to say a few words in Chinese on your own, so onwards!
A Task for Learning About Bargaining
I developed a task for my adult students that teaches both what to expect when trying to bargain in China. If students want to visit the fake markets in China and haggle on their own, they need both a knowledge of numbers in Chinese and also an idea of how much they need to bargain.
To make this task, I surveyed about a dozen people who had recently gone to the fake market in Shanghai. I asked them what they bought, what the original asking price was, and how much they ended up paying. If I was really a super star teacher, I would have found some pictures online to illustrate each item. But I want to do things like eat a home cooked meal and read books, so I did not bother to prepare any visuals.
What is the Typical Asking Price?
We spent about 45 minutes on this task in class. First I introduced each item that one of my survey respondents bought. They were all things like handbags, sunglasses, and watches. Then, I asked the students how much they thought the original asking price was. Sometimes, a student would guess correctly, or close enough. Other times, I had to tell them what the original asking price was. Then I asked them what they thought the person eventually ended up paying. Again, sometimes they guessed correctly and sometimes I had to tell them.
How Much “Should” You Pay?
From this task, the students got a sense of how much they should expect to pay at the fake market vs. the asking price. They also got a lot of input on the numbers in Chinese. If I had more time, I would also include an explicit discussion of the discounts that each person got. In Chinese, we don’t say “70% off” we say something more like “30% of the original price.”
More on Chinese learning tasks for adult students:
American Students are Interested in Learning about China
While most Lotus Chinese Learning students are children, I still teach adult students who are interested in learning Mandarin Chinese. Many of these adult students have plans to travel in China for business or China is a big part of their company’s future.
Anyone who reads the news knows that China is a growing consumer market with a large middle class. In my previous life, I was a marketing manager for a consulting company that assisted foreign companies in China. We had a steady stream of clients who were interested in selling everything from Belgian waffles to North American yoga pants in China.
Is China’s Middle Class What you Think it Is?
Almost invariably, I could tell that the products would be less successful than their makers dreamed that they would be. Often, a cheaper, local option was already available. Or the product had very little appeal to the local market. If you wouldn’t try selling marinated chicken feet in America, pitching artisan Greek cookies in China is just as foolish. I know the size of the Chinese middle class inspired big ambitions in these clients, but the truth about the Chinese middle class is not what you think.
Most of my adult students think either one of two things: Chinese people are still running around in Mao jackets living the lives of subsistence farmers or Chinese people drive their Lamborghinis to the Louis Vuitton store to buy a new handbag for every day of the week. Many businesses with interests in China are hoping that the second scenario is the one that is closer to the truth. Well… China’s population is still 43% rural.
There are people cruising around Shanghai in their Lambos, but those folks are the elite of the elite. If you are interested in learning about China’s ultra rich, check out the Hurun report.
The Gap Between Rural and Urban
Anyway, back to the rest of the country. Not only is China’s population still 43% rural, but there is a big difference between the lives of rural and urban people. In America, people in rural areas average about 4% poorer than urban people. In China, rural people are on average 63% poorer than urban people. There is a huge gap between the lifestyle of professionals in Beijing and famers in Anhui.
What counts as “middle class” in China, is also a bit different that what we think of the middle class in America. The raw numbers are promising: by certain measures, China has a middle class population of about 330 million. The entire population of the US is about 327 million!
Seems like a lot of middle class people, right? Not so fast, that figure includes people with household incomes of $8,000 a year. They are not subsistence farmers, but they don’t buy a lot of iPhones either.
Still Interested in Doing Business in China?
If, after reading these sobering facts the Chinese middle class, you are still convinced that China is in your business’s future, get in touch. You can also read about class options for adult learners here.
**Big thanks to Mario Gonzalez Fuentes, phD (aka Mr. Lotus Chinese Learning) for the statistics in this post**