More Tips for Adult Language Learners

How Adults Can Get the Most Out of their Chinese Classes

Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese really want to speed up the learning process. Unfortunately, language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. There really is no way to make the process go faster. It takes about the same number of hours to learn language no matter what an app promises. Students cannot “leap frog” the different stages. Sure, you can quit your job, move to China, sign up for language classes, and live with a host family. Your progress will be greater in one year than someone who just has class in the US for one hour per week. It will still take the same number of total hours to master the language, however. In any case, there are ways that adult learners can give their studies a shot in the arm. Below are a few tips.

Tips for Listening

Many students worry about their speaking. Output (speaking), however, comes long after input (listening). In other words, students need a flood of input in order to produce a trickle of output. Almost every adult student thinks that speaking practice is important. In fact, we do not learn to speak through practice, we learn through listening. Okay, okay, you say, that is great, but I REALLY want to improve my speaking, how can I do that? One way that students can get the most out of their listening (and thereby improve their speaking) is to pay close attention to how teachers and native speakers talk to them in Chinese. A good teacher will not spend much time at all on correcting grammar or pronunciation errors. More on that here. Instead, she will just use the more native-like structure or pronunciation in her response. Here is an example in English:

Students: “I goed to the store yesterday.”

Teacher: “So after you went to the store yesterday, what did you do?”

Note, that the teacher does not explicitly correct what the student said. She just uses the correct formation (“went” instead of  “goed”) in her response. So for students who are worried that they are making lots of mistakes when they speak in their second language, listen carefully to the response. Do you hear your teacher (or someone else) saying something a bit different? Paying attention to these differences might be useful to you.

Tips for Reading

Just like listening, reading is input. Input is how we learn language. We need to do lots of reading in Chinese in order to improve our language abilities. The problem with reading in Chinese is that students don’t want to do it :). It seems exhaustive and overwhelming. Because of these problems, students don’t even get started with it. Students can do two things to improve their reading experience in Chinese. Firstly, they should choose readings that are meant for language learners. Secondly, they should try to read shorter things.

Many ambitious students want to start reading authentic resources as soon as possible. Authentic resources are written by native speakers for native speakers. These are unfortunately too complex for beginner and intermediate students. They get frustrated and give up. A better choice for lower level students are graded readers. I’ve had great success with books like Susan You Mafan for beginner advanced and intermediate low students.

Students also get frustrated when they bite off more than they can chew. Instead of trying to read an entire book in one sitting, they should read shorter passages. Spending 15 minutes at a time reading is plenty for beginner and intermediate students. Social media often has nice, short options for reading.

 

Montessori tools and Mandarin Chinese

Why Montessori tools?

The Montessori method has been around for over a hundred years. Education is full of trends (remember New Math or the Open Classroom?). So it is worth paying attention to what stands the test of time in education. When working with children in early childhood, many of the tools developed in the Montessori approach adapt really well to Mandarin Chinese classes. Below are a few examples.

Three Part Cards

As written in an earlier post, three part cards are a great tool for introducing Chinese literacy. With three part cards, students have a card with an image, a card with the word that matches to that image and a card that has both the image and the word. The job of the students is to match all three cards together. When using the three part cards, students learn implicitly some of the important facts of Chinese literacy. For example, when matching the three part cards for colors, they notice that 粉红色 (pink) and 咖啡色 (brown) have three characters in their names instead or two, like the other colors. In this way they learn that each Chinese character represents one syllable.

photo of child using Montessori three part cards family
Putting together the words for different family members using Montessori three part cards

Practical Life Trays

Young children love practical life trays. These Montessori tools are also quite easy to put together. They are a great teaching tool for language because they are all about… practical life, i.e. things that we do every day. When students use practical life trays, I can talk to them about pouring water, cleaning up, counting, and using different utensils. In short, I can give them input about things that they probably do every day.

photo of Montessori practical life tray
Montessori practical life transfer activity tray

Sandpaper Characters

Sandpaper letters are a Montessori tool that parents and teachers can buy off the shelf. Sandpaper characters, on the other hand, take much more work. I have to make them myself. It is worth it however, because when children first hold the sandpaper characters in their hands, they immediately get it. One of the basics of teaching Chinese literacy is to make sure that children understand that Chinese characters must be written with a prescribed order. With the sandpaper characters, students get this immediately and we don’t have to spend too much class time on teaching this one feature of Chinese.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

The Pink Tower

The pink tower is one of the most iconic Montessori tools. When using the pink tower, we can talk about what is big/small, make comparisons, and use numbers. These are all great things to talk about with a novice student. The pink tower is also useful because everything is the same color. Sometimes lots of colors can be nice, but other times it can be distracting to have a bunch of different colored blocks. With the pink tower, they are all pink so we can focus more easily on other features.

Earlier posts on Montessori and language learning:

Mandarin and Montessori

Do you have any suggestions about using Montessori tools in the classroom? Please share in the comments!

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch.

#Authres vs Graded Readers: What to Read in Chinese

What are Graded Readers

For most Americans, the words “graded readers” probably bring the Dick and Jane series to mind. Graded readers, also known as basal readers, use a very controlled set of vocabulary words to tell a story, typically in a series. While many schoolchildren in the US encounter graded readers in English, they are also available in Chinese.

How Graded Readers Work

Graded readers are a great resource for students learning to read in Chinese. Many adult students are highly motivated and want to start reading in Chinese right away. So they pull up an article in the New York Times in Chinese and try to read it. But they have to look up every other word. With copy, paste, and Google Translate, this is not too difficult, but it is not reading. Students just don’t get the fluency that comes with reading. To a fluent reader, graded readers seem really repetitive. It is this repetition however, that helps students learn. This guiding reading about Mid-Autumn Festival is an example of how repetitive a reader should be. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, you can still see that the same characters are repeated over and over again.

Why Use Graded Readers?

In contrast, some adult students really don’t care about learning to read. This is unfortunate because it really limits their ability to learn later on and leads to misunderstandings later on. I recall one person who was fairly fluent in Chinese telling meant that the word for shark was “killer fish.” It’s not. They’re both sha1yu2 in pinyin, but shark is actually 鲨鱼 NOT 杀鱼. With graded readers, students can learn to read in Chinese as they acquire their oral proficiency. This is far less daunting than building a vocabulary in written Chinese much later.

All About Authres

So where does that leave authentic resources? Authentic resources (or #authres on teacher Twitter), are those texts written by native speakers for native speakers. Many teachers love using authres because they give students a glimpse of the target culture(s). The trouble with authres is that they are often too difficult for beginner and intermediate students. Some adults try reading children’s books only to find that they too are filled with words that they don’t know. Furthermore, children’s books often contain low-frequency words. The example below has a lot of high-frequency words like 吃 (eat), but also low-frequency words like 粽子 (a type of food).

Mid-Autumn Festival Song Lyrics Chinese
Dragon Boat Festival Song

Make it Short and Use Pictures

While it is challenging to use authres for beginner and intermediate students, it is worth it for the cultural knowledge. To work around the issue of authres having too many unfamiliar words, I usually use very short texts. This way students don’t get overwhelmed from having too many words. In an hour-long class, we definitely have enough time to go over a few short texts.

photo of Chinese cartoon
This is authres because it is a cartoon by Chinese people for Chinese people. The illustrations aid student comprehension

I also like to make sure that my authres have a strong context. If there are accompanying photos/illustrations it is so much easier for students to figure out the meaning. Remember, students need to connect the words that they see and hear to meaning if they want to acquire language. If they don’t “get” what they are reading, it just will not sink in.

Two is Better Than One

In order to acquire reading proficiency in Chinese, students should use both graded readers and authres. Graded readers help non-native speakers read fluently (without checking the dictionary every other word). Authres give students a view into the target culture and by their very nature, are interesting to students.

Graded Readers in Chinese:

Ignite Chinese

Mandarin Companion

Why Are There Toys and Games in Your Child’s Mandarin Class?

Approaches to Language Teaching

We know from research (that has been around since the 70s!) that people learn language from hearing/reading comprehensible and compelling input. Comprehensible input means that the learner understands what they hear. They’re not just turning on the radio and listening to a Polish-language station from day one. Compelling input is stuff that students care about. We are not pretending that we are in a train station buying train tickets. There are many different approaches we can take to language teaching that supply the communicatively embedded input that students need in order to learn a second (or third) language. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use a mix of immersion, tasks, story listening, and TPRS in order to teach children and adults Mandarin Chinese. These are all communicative approaches to language teaching. They give students the meaningful input that they need in order to acquire the language.

How Immersion Works

Immersion is a very popular approach to language teaching, especially for children. Immersion works because learners focus on meaning and not on the grammar or structure. It is not a perfect approach to language teaching. Often the teacher uses language that is too advanced for learners, i.e. using too many words that the students can’t understand. However, immersion can be powerful when students can connect the language they hear in the environment with what they are doing. For example, my younger students almost always learn “收一收” (clean up) pretty quickly. This is because we sing the clean up song every class while we clean up. The students hear the words and can immediately associate them with what we are doing.

photo of students putting together puzzle in Chinese class
Students putting together a puzzle in Chinese class

Games and Immersion

Simple games that the children are already familiar with can be good activities to do in the immersion environment. Since most students begin classes begin with zero knowledge of Chinese, it is important that they already pretty much know how to play the game. If we are doing immersion, and I need to explain complicated rules of a game, they students simply do not have enough vocabulary knowledge in order to understand what they hear. When we play Jenga, put together a puzzle, toss a bean bag, etc., I focus on a few phrases that I repeat during the activity.

Most students are not ready to talk in Chinese while we are playing. They are still at the novice level. All they are really capable of doing is connecting what they hear with what they’re doing. So if we play Jenga, I say “小心” (be careful) over and over again while they are pulling out their wooden blocks. With the strong context (playing a game), and the repetition, I know that these phrases will stick in their brains.

photo of kids playing Jenga in Chinese class
“Be careful!”

If it looks like we are having fun in a kids Mandarin class while playing games, it is because we are. Although this does not mean that we are not learning the language. With the right lesson design, immersion can lead to language acquisition. Kids are naturally very interested in what they are doing if we play games. It is easy when they are interested for them to make connections between what they hear and the activity.

 

Where to Start if You Want to learn Handwriting in Chinese

Handwriting is Different than Listening, Speaking and Reading

Learning to write Chinese characters is a different endeavor than learning to read or speak. Some students want to study Mandarin Chinese without learning how to read Chinese characters. I do not recommend this approach as it is nearly impossible to progress past a certain level without knowing how to read Chinese. Handwriting is a different story however. Students can “write” in Chinese via a smartphone or computer without ever really knowing how to handwrite Chinese characters. While handwriting Chinese characters is a beautiful thing, in the 21st century it is not necessary to have this skill in order to communicate.

Materials

First graders in China learn to write Chinese characters by writing on paper called tian zi ge. The paper has a grid pattern for students to practice writing their characters. The grid pattern looks like the character 田 (pronounced “tian”) hence the name of the paper. There are plenty of options for students who want to buy practice notebooks like the ones that kids use in China. Or you can just print off a free version from the internet.

Learning Stroke Order

Before students start to practice writing Chinese characters, they need to understand stroke order. Each unit of a Chinese character is called a stroke (think brushstrokes). Each character has a prescribed order with which to write each stroke (generally speaking we go top to bottom, left to right.) There are many websites that feature little videos that show stroke order. I like this one. Look up a character or word and you will be able to see a video that shows how to write the character.

still shot of video from Line Dictionary
Videos like this one show stroke order for Chinese characters

Start with the Most Frequently Used Characters

The process for learning how to write Chinese characters is not that different from how kids in China learn how to write. Students need to write the characters over and over in order to build up the muscle memory of writing each character. Often practice books for writing Chinese characters start with the simple, pictographic characters, like 木 (wood, tree). I suggest that if adult students want to learn how to write Chinese characters, that they instead focus on the most frequently used Chinese characters. These include 我,想,是,有,在 etc, to start with. This poster can be a useful guide to the most commonly used Chinese characters. Adults who are interested in handwriting Chinese characters often enjoy the process of learning how to write them.

Handwriting for Kids

Kids are a different story to adults. While adults have the intrinsic motivation that they need in order to sit down and practice writing, young children generally do not. In order to teach young children how to write Chinese characters, I borrow from the Montessori method. Little kids like the tactile sensation of using the sandpaper characters pictured below. They practice with these until they are old enough to be able to concentrate on writing using a pencil and paper.

photo of Chinese sandpaper character
Sandpaper characters, like this one, can help young children learn how to write Chinese

Older children, especially if they have chosen to learn Mandarin Chinese, often have the motivation to practice writing Chinese characters on their own. For these students, it is important to keep encouraging them in their writing so they don’t get frustrated. Learning to write Chinese characters takes time. It is okay for students to write the pinyin while writing a longer passage in Chinese. They should keep up their momentum so they don’t get frustrated.

More on writing Chinese characters