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MovieTalk: Bao (Short Film)

What is MovieTalk?

The short film Bao, recently won an Oscar. Since it is about a Chinese-Canadian family, and is also a really good, cute little movie it is great material for MovieTalk. MovieTalk is a technique for language classrooms. With MovieTalk, a teacher shows the class a short movie with the sound/dialogue turned off. She narrated what is happening the the movie and asks lots of questions along the way. For a 45 or 60 minute class, a 5 minute-long movie is about right. At 7ish minutes, the movie Bao is a little long, but it still works.

still shot from movie Bao, characters go shopping
Mom and Bao buy sweet buns

How Does it Work?

For zero-beginner students, the teacher can just narrate what is happening in the movie. The students will be able to understand what is happening because they will be able to match what the teacher says to the images. This is a version of the comprehensible input that students need in order to learn a second language. Most of my students are still beginners, but not zero-beginners. With the movie Bao, I ask basic questions that I know the students can answer. These include: “Who is she? Who is she? Where are they.” For beginner students, it is fine for students to answer in English. As long as they understand the question, we are doing fine.

Why is the Movie Bao Good for MovieTalk?

Using a movie like Bao is also great for the content in Chinese class. Many of my adult students are interested in learning about Chinese culture. With the movie Bao, we can talk about different kinds of Chinese food, the relationships between parents and children and many other things.

still shot from movie Bao, family making baozi together
A teacher can ask the same question four times (who is s/he?) and give students a lot of repetition in target structures.

Final Thoughts

MovieTalk is effective for a couple different reasons. Firstly, it is fun. Since it won the Oscar, I’ve shown Bao to groups of kids, individual students and also to adult students. The film has a wide appeal. This is helpful because students really do learn more when they are having fun. Stressed out and anxious students do not learn as much as students who are relaxed and happy. The other reason it works is because the students can hear the target language at a slower than normal pace (which is whatever the teacher is saying) accompanied by strong contextual support (the movie). It is that comprehension that is important. Students need this kind of comprehensible input to learn a language. MovieTalk is fun technique to use for them to get it.

still shot from movie Bao, baby baozi
Who wouldn’t want to watch a movie about this lil guy?

 

 

You Don’t Need to Learn Grammar. Really.

Adult Learners Often Want to Learn Grammar

Kids don’t usually question what we are doing in class because they are having fun. Adult students, however, often panic in early Chinese classes because they think that they should be “studying grammar.” Understandably, most adult students (and high schoolers too) are used to opening up a textbook in a language class. The textbook lays out the grammar rules, and then lists vocabulary words. Chinese textbooks often have dialogues for the students to practice in each chapter. If you’re a language nerd like me, learning about grammar is interesting. For the vast majority of people, however, there really is no need to sit down and learn a bunch of grammar rules.

You Don’t Need to Know the Grammar to Speak a Language

If you are a native English speaker, when did you start learning the rules for English grammar? Late elementary school? Middle school? Maybe you learned the parts of speech in fifth grade. Maybe you learned how to diagram a sentence in middle school. You were probably quite fluent in English by the time you were five, but you didn’t start learning grammar as its own topic until half a decade later at least. So why do so many people think that they need this explicit kind of knowledge to learn a second language when they obviously did not need it for their first?

The Rules Don’t Hold Up Anyway

Rules are reassuring. Students, especially adults, don’t like feeling like they are “saying it wrong.” Unfortunately, grammar rules are not really rules. They don’t hold up under scrutiny. In this video, I talk about the difference between ser and estar in Spanish (both mean to be). The textbook would have you believe that we use ser for something permanent and estar for something that is temporary. Yet, we say things like “El es joven” and “El esta muerto.” Language is too complex to be boiled down to just a few rules.

If you don’t take my word for it, maybe you will listen to David Sedaris. In Me talk Pretty One Day he writes about his struggles to learn French. French includes a gender system for its nouns and of course the rule he learns does not really make sense:

I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it. Hysteria, psychosis, torture, depression: I was told that if something is unpleasant it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache, and rollerblade. I have no problem learning the words themselves, it’s the sexes that trip me up and refuse to stick.

Grammar Rules Don’t Become Fluency

Early on in my adult classes, students often get tripped up by measure words. In Chinese, measure words are the little words between numbers and the nouns that they describe. In English, we say “three people.” In Chinese, however, we say “three (pieces) people.” Each noun has an associated measure word. We could summarize measure words by saying something like, “we use the measure word 张 for flat objects.” But when we are doing that, we are giving students the illusion that they can memorize this rule and then use measure words flawlessly. They really can’t. It just does not work that way.

We learn language through communicatively-embedded input, not through reading about rules in textbooks. While it is tempting to think that reading about grammar will turn into fluency, it just does not work that way. I know that my students want to see a list of all the measure words in Chinese next to rules for how to use them, for example. But reading that list and trying to memorize will not really help. They are better off just listening to the input and making sure that they understand the overall meaning.

China and Your Career

The Rise of China

Last month I did a presentation at Texas State University about China and young professionals’ careers. Gone are the days when the only people whose careers intersected with China were diplomats and manufacturers. My classes for adult students are filled with people who work in tech, medical devices, oil & gas, sourcing, and other industries. They either go to greater China for work or they work closely with Chinese colleagues here in San Antonio. Many students are interested in how greater China might be a part of their career and others realize that the region will be a part of their future based on their career interests. It is just as common to travel to China for work now as Japan was in the 80s.

IMG_0635

Since I was talking to undergraduate students, I decided to keep things interesting by talking about real people I know whose careers have had some connection with China. Below are the slides from my presentation a long with some comments. I called these “mini case studies” but they really are just the personal stories of early career professionals who work a little or a lot with China. I’ve changed details in every story except my own to keep people anonymous.

Case studies of Young Professionals and China

my career and China

My adult students always ask me where I learned Chinese. The short answer is China. The slightly longer answer is that I learned through language classes at Chinese universities and immersion in Chinese society. Eventually, I translated my language abilities (heh :)) into a job in marketing at a consulting firm in Shanghai. When it was time for me to come back to the United States, I thought that I would probably stay in the marketing field and that no one would care about my experience in China. I’ve never been more pleased to be wrong. Turns out that my knowledge and skills in Chinese were way more interesting than my experience in marketing. More on how that turned into Lotus Chinese Learning is here.

Borja’s Career

borja

Borja’s career has a lot to do with China because he lives there. He works for one of the world’s largest wine companies and he focuses on expanding their market share in mainland China. China is important to his company because there are almost 50 million wine drinkers in China. For comparison, the entire population of Spain (where Borja is from) is 46 million.

Mr. M’s Career

Mr M

Mr. Miller is based in the Washington D.C. and while he does not go to China anymore he still is involved in the region every day. When I interviewed him for this project  he made an interesting comment about how important it is to have a deep background knowledge of Chinese culture in order to do business there. He said that of course people can get away with just hopping off of a plane and heading into a business meeting. They still might be successful. Spending the time to really learn about the background of Chinese culture will pay off for people looking to be successful doing business in China.

Kirsty’s Career

Kirsty

Like many folks in sourcing, Kirsty travels to China at least twice a year. Sourcing in China is so much more than just the Canton Fair. As factories move farther and farther inland to reduce costs, sourcing managers will have to travel away from the beaten path. A little knowledge of Chinese language and culture goes a long way when you are not in Shanghai or Guangzhou anymore, Toto.

In summary, there are lots of jobs and careers that will take people to China. There are also lots of jobs in which people will find themselves working closely with colleagues who are based in China. I’m sure that there are plenty of professionals who work in China regularly who never dreamed that China would be such a big part of their careers.

Are you an adult who has to travel to greater China? Check out our class options here.

More on traveling in China for business is here.

What Are You Afraid of? : A Language-learning Task

Activities Vs Tasks

In language learning, tasks are activities that have a purpose other than just trying to learn the language itself. In an activity, students are just using the language without a real purpose. For example, asking everyone in the class what their favorite food is. This is just an activity, not a task, because no one really cares what the answers are at the end. Additionally, if students feel pressured to come up with a food in the target language, they might not even give an honest answer. Instead, a task might include taking a survey of all the students in the class to ask what their favorite food is, and then compare the answers to an article that shows the most popular food in every state. The students can find out if they are representative or not of the people in their state.

Which Tasks Work With Kids?

The key to doing tasks with kids is to make sure that the topic is something interesting to them and something relevant to their lives. For example, a task about pets is usually a hit because kids like animals. On the other hand, I wouldn’t design a task around which movies won Oscars in 1999 because my group of 8 year olds just won’t care. One task that I have done with my kids is about fears and what they are afraid of.

photo of spider in web
Are you afraid of spiders?

A Task about Fears

Language learning is all about getting that comprehensible input. We need to talk to students using the language in a way they can understand. I start this task by establishing the meaning of the phrases “I am afraid of XX” and “I am not afraid of XX.” Then, I read the story I Used to Be Afraid in Chinese (pictured below). Then, we make a chart of the things that the character in the book says that she is afraid of and compare if the kids in the class are afraid of the same things. To extend this task, we can compare what we think are the most common fears in the class to the most common fears of Americans in general.

photo of book cover "I Used to Be Afraid" (Chinese version)
Cover of “I Used to Be Afraid” in Chinese

The distinguishing feature of tasks is that we are trying to do something other than just use the language in class. We can make sentences about what our fears are all day long, but there is nothing really meaningful there. Tasks work for language learning because they are about something other than the language itself. Language learning happens on the subconscious level while kids busy doing something else.

 

Chinese New Year 2019

Happy Chinese New Year!

The year of the pig is right around the corner! Every since I have been back in the US I have been surprised at how many references to Chinese New Year (CNY) I see here. This year, I saw a mailer from Office Depot, special CNY mums at Trader Joe’s (?) and an ad from Kate Spade. The lunar new year is probably one of the most widely celebrated holiday in the world, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see references to it everywhere. Yet, it still is part of our job as Chinese language educators to teach our students and communities about the holiday.

photo of red lanterns
It’s Chinese New Year Y’all

Chinese New Year Or….

Chinese New Year is more commonly known as Spring Festival in China. That is direct translation of the most common Chinese name for it: 春节. People also often refer to the holiday as the lunar new year. This is also an umbrella term that includes the holiday as it is celebrated in other countries. These include Korean New Year or Tet in Vietnam. Here is San Antonio we have the annual Asian Festival at the Institute of Texan Cultures which coincides with the lunar new year and it includes a variety of different cultures.

Students should at the very least know that Spring Festival is another word for Chinese New Year. They should also know that it is the first day of spring in the traditional Chinese calendar. There is of course so much more to learn.  It really depends on time and other factors how much we explore this holiday. I write more here about why it is okay to use English when learning about culture in class sometimes. Just knowing the basic facts about this holiday is the absolute minimum, and where we go from there depends on how much class time we have, student interest, and what their prior knowledge is.

More than Just Lip-service

It used to be that even including something about Spring Festival in k-12 was a check box on a list for including diversity. Now, educators, students and parents are a lot want more than just lip-service towards diversity. We are not just ticking boxes anymore. In recent years there has been a push to do more than just talk about “food and flags.” That is a great goal and good lessons about culture will always do more than just ask students to identify what foods we eat at Chinese New Year.

photo of person making dumplings
Making Dumplings for Chinese New Year

Including Chinese New Year in a Meaningful Way

We know that a good use of class time is to give students comprehensible input in the target language. That means that playing board games with Chinese characters on the spaces or coloring pictures of dragons is not really a good use of time. The students are not hearing or reading anything in Chinese that they can understand.  One idea for a class that is looking to do something meaningful for Spring Festival is to have the students first learn about the holiday through videos/slide shows/pictures/etc and then plan a party. They will get the input they need through the introduction of the holiday in Chinese. Then they actually get to make something (a party) that is meaningful to them.

photo of me with red envelopes for Chinese New Year
Getting the red envelopes ready for the kids!

Have a suggestion for how to include Chinese New Year in a language class? Leave it in the comments!