Blog

Never Suffer Learning to Read in Chinese Again

Many Students Resist Reading

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

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.

How to Bargain in Shanghai

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!

photo of sunglasses
Get yourself some Bay Rans at one of the fake markets in Shanghai or Beijing

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.”

photo of police confiscating fake purses
Be careful where you take that Channel bag or Prado. I hear that in some countries the police will confiscate counterfeit goods.

More on Chinese learning tasks for adult students:

Chinese Currency

Chinese Food

Preparing for a trip to China? Check out our China Boot Camp classes here.

* I have Chinese friends who remember when Silk Street was an actual street, but now it is more like a shopping mall.

What have YOU bought at the fake markets? Did you bargain in Shanghai or Beijing)? Share in the comments!

The Chinese Middle Class: Myth and Reality

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.

photo of interior of shopping mall
Lots of companies have big plans to sell their wares to the emerging Chinese middle class

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!

photo of RMB 100 notes
How many Chairman Mao’s does a middle class Chinese person have at their disposal?

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**

Why Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers Can’t Learn Chinese

Who Can’t Learn Chinese?

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can’t learn Chinese? Am I out of my mind for saying this? Nope, I’m just trying to get attention :). Of course doctors, lawyers and engineers can learn Chinese just like everyone else. BUT, in several years of teaching, I have noticed a pattern in my adult students worth talking about. For many professional students, Chinese is an unexpected challenge.

Professional students can learn Chinese. But first, they need to understand one important thing…

Language Learning is Different

Doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals are often good at school. That is how they became doctors and lawyers. Those professions require lots of schooling! The people who get through all that schooling, well, they tend to be pretty good at school.

And therein lies the problem. Learning a language is not like learning other things!

In math, science, history, etc., people take notes. They make flashcards. They study. These are all great things. But they are not what is takes to learn a language. Students need input for that. All the study skills in the world won’t help a student learn a language if they don’t get enough input.

lawyer-28838_640
Can this nice professional learn Chinese? Of course he can! He just needs to get rid of the flashcards!

How Professional Students Get Frustrated

I have had a lot of adult students over the years who are used to being at the top of the class. They are often (you guessed it!) lawyers, doctors, engineers, or they are retired doctors, lawyers and engineers :). Many of these students are suddenly frustrated by Chinese class. They are not at the top of the class anymore!

It is also especially frustrating because the way to learn at the beginning stages, is really just to listen. That is it. That is all you have to do. As long, as your teacher is providing comprehensible input, you will learn the language. Looking for patterns is great and all. Many folks who are traditional good students tend to be quite good at that. With language, however, finding the patterns is actually not that useful in the beginning stages. They don’t know enough language yet to detect a pattern. They see a face when they are really just looking at burnt toast.

The Good News

This is the struggle and beauty of language learning. It is tough, because a lot of people who thought that they would have any easy time actually don’t. It is also really cool, because it levels the playing field. Many people who never though of themselves as particularly good students, can suddenly find themselves doing quite well! All people have the potential to learn a second or third language, even doctors and lawyers and such :).

Interested in classes for professional students? Get in touch here.

More on how language learning actually works.

Concentration: The Evergreen Game

Games for Chinese Class

One of the great joys of working with children is seeing that so many games stick around through the generations. Kids are still playing freeze tag, because it is awesome. Unfortunately, we cannot play freeze tag all day for Chinese class. There are other evergreen games that we can play so the children can learn Mandarin Chinese while having fun. One of those games is concentration (also called memory). 

The Game of Concentration

You remember playing concentration, right? There is a set of cards based on a theme, with matching pairs. They are placed face down on a table or the floor. Players take turns turning two cards over at a time to try and find the matching pairs. I like playing games that the kids already know how to play because then we can spend more time with actual game play and less with explaining directions.

kids playing concentration
Kids in one of my classes playing a homemade version of concentration.

Sure, you could play this game in utter silence, but I have actually found that it works well as a game for Chinese class. I play a few variations with the kids, but this post is about a version that I do with Chinese animals.

How to Play it

First, I introduce the map of China. We Chinese teachers are lucky since we can cover most of the Chinese-speaking world (or least places where Mandarin is an official language) with just a map of China and Taiwan. I honestly don’t know how Spanish teachers manage to cover the geography of the Spanish-speaking world. There are so many countries! Then, I introduce animals that live in China.

In general, kids love animals. They like looking at pictures of pandas, snow leopards, and camels. They don’t even notice that they are learning Chinese while we look at the fun pictures (it’s all part of my evil plan, mwah haha!) Sure, camel is not a high-frequency word. A person could certainly argue that spending precious class time talking going over the word for camel is a waste. In talking about camels, however, I am using lots of high frequency expressions. I ask, “what animal is this?” “Where does it live?” “Is is from China?”

photo of baby panda
If all else fails, a cute picture of a panda will get them to pay attention.

Why this Game is Useful

Some of the animals we talk about are only found in specific regions of China. Some you can find all over. Once we finish with this part of the lesson, we move on to actual game play. Again, a person could argue that talking about exotic animals (well, exotic to Americans) is not a good use of class time. But really, the kids hear lots of high-frequency words during game play. They hear “what is it?” “is it a xx?” “no, it is not xx” “Shelby has two xx” The children hear the words for “to be” and “to have” over and over again.

As we know with language learning, repetition is the name of the game. We can also play the game more than once in class so that the kids can get even more of that sweet, sweet repetition.

By playing concentration with Chinese animals, children learn loads of different things. They learn Chinese geography, the names of different animals, and also the high frequency expressions mentioned above. The best part is, they don’t even realize that we are learning! They think that we are just playing a game!

Do you have suggestions for a game to play in Chinese class? Please share in the comments!

More posts on SPECIFIC activities that we can do in Chinese class:

How well do you know African animals?

Movie talk: Bao (short film)