Why My MIL is a Good Language Teacher

How Do You Teach Languages?

My mother-in-law, Tere Fuentes, is a great Spanish teacher. Why? Because she talks to me in Spanish. She also talks slowly and uses gestures, pointing and rephrasing when I don’t understand. That is it really. I did not know any Spanish when I met her son in 2014. I’d never taken any Spanish classes. I’ve learned all the Spanish that I know in the past through year through listening to people speak Spanish.*

photo of me, husband and MIL
I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from my MIL

Learning a Second Language Vs. Learning A First

Learning a second language is very similar to learning your first. How did you learn your first language? Your parents talked to you. Maybe other adults or older children talked to you too. You learned to say a few words within two years, and were reasonably fluent within five years. No one sat you down at a tiny chalkboard to teach you how to conjugate verbs. Sure, some parents spend their money on flashcards. Millions of children, however, seem to learn words perfectly well without any flashcards.

My mother-in-law taught three kids how to speak Spanish. Now she is teaching me using pretty much the same method. She just talks to me. She doesn’t get annoyed when I answer with one word, or in English. Like all other learners, I will learn Spanish through hearing and reading it.

Letting Mistakes Slide

My mother-in-law has another great teaching habit that helps language learning. She does not explicitly correct my mistakes. If I make a mistake in Spanish, she either uses the correct wording in her response to me or she just ignores it. This is effective because explicit error correction does not help students learn a language. If anything, it hurts the language learning process by raising a student’s affective filter.

While she is not a language teacher by training, Tere is a teacher. She has owned her own dance school in Monterrey for forty years. Although not every teacher is a great language teacher, and not every person who speaks a language can be a teacher, I do think that her experience has been useful to her. As evidenced by her willingness to speak slowly and use words that I know, she is very patient.

*I took one 8 week Spanish class three years ago. I’ve written elsewhere that the only thing I learned was “El mono es curioso.”

The Case Against Traditional Methods (Video)

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.

Want to learn more about classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch via the contact page.

Humor and Story Listening

Story Listening Basics

Story listening is a great use of class time that can both build student vocabulary and also help students learn about the culture(s) of your target language. In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story in the target language using a pictures, drawings and sometimes translations to convey the meaning. I use story listening to teach students about traditional Chinese stories and holidays, like the Empty Flowerpot and Mid-Autumn Festival. Another strategy that I like to use is Chinese is to tell students a humorous story. They students may not learn anything extra about Chinese culture, but they will still get valuable input in the language.

A Caveat about Humor

We know that language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. One of the last pieces of the puzzle to fall into the place is humor. Because there is such a huge cultural component to humor, it is possible to speak a second language with a high degree of proficiency without really “getting” the local jokes. So if I tell a funny story in class, it will have an American sensibility (and not a Chinese one necessarily), but that is okay. We can’t always do everything at once.

Why Humor Helps

Several years ago, I was on a tour bus in Vietnam. I was traveling alone, so I actually listened to the tour guide give his spiel. I noticed that he punctuated every fact and warning that he wanted to tell us with a joke. It occurred to me then that this was a good strategy to check if the people on the tour were paying attention. The same principle works for story listening. If the story is supposed to be funny, and no one laughs, then you can be sure that the audience did not understand.

An Example of a Story that Uses Humor

A story that I have used before in class is about how my father-in-law (a consummate bargain-hunter), once served a group of friends cat food by accident. The punch line of the story is the last line, I know that if the students laugh after they hear it, then they “get it.” Remember that comprehension of the input is a key part of language learning. If students don’t understand what the teacher says to them, they won’t learn. We can’t just turn on the radio and hope that we will learn language by osmosis.

photo of cat hiding in shame
Be sure to check the labels next time you think you are getting a good deal on people food!

 

More on story listening as a method:

From the grande dame of story listening herself, Beniko Mason

Story listening and Chinese

 

Short Activities for Chinese Classes (Kids)

Why Short Activities?

With short attention spans in young children, often doing short “bursts” of activity works best. Lots of activities that children already do in their regular classes can work for a Mandarin Chinese class. By short activities, I mean an activity that takes around 5-7 minutes. There just need to be a few adjustments so that kids understand what they hear/see and get enough repetition so that everything sinks in enough to stick. Below are a few short activities that work well in Chinese classes with young kids.

Where’s Waldo

Since they are so popular, the Where’s Waldo (Wally in the UK original) books are available in Chinese as they are in many other languages. Their Chinese name is 寻找威利 (lit. looking for Wally). The beauty of using books like Where’s Waldo in class, however, is that you don’t really need a Chinese-language edition. The point is to look at the only the pictures. By looking for Waldo, the children hear lots of repetition of commonly-used phrases. These include: Waldo在哪里?(where is Waldo), Waldo在这里 (Waldo is here), 他是Waldo吗?(Is he Waldo?) 她不是Waldo (She is not Waldo.) It is such a simple, short activity, but it gives students a lot of good input in Chinese.

photo of Where's Waldo
Where’s Waldo can be a basis for a good short activity

Jenga

When kids see the Jenga tower, they think that they are going to be playing a game. It is true that they will play a game in class. They will also get good lots of input of a key phrase: 小心!小心 means “be careful.” This will be useful later on when we do activities that use scissors, paint, and other potentially messy materials. Other short activities based on familiar games can teach kids the phrase “be careful.” These include Operation, Monkeying Around, the Balancing Pizza Game, and more.

photo of kids playing Jenga
Kids playing Jenga in Chinese class

Games and Keeping Score

I hate the name “corn hole” but that is what the game pictured below is called in English. It doesn’t have to be corn hole, any game in which players quickly rack up points can work. Students can count their points in Chinese as we keep score.  To extend the activity, the teacher can demonstrate writing the numbers in Chinese (一、二、三。。。) as the class moves along. Advanced students can practice writing the numbers in Chinese themselves. The game of corn hole technically only goes up to 21 points, which could be perfect for a class. Or it could be too high a number. If students can only count up to 10 or less, Connect 4 could be a good alternative. In that game, students really only have to count up to four.

photo of corn hole game in Chinese class
corn hole game in Chinese class

Short activities often really work well for young kids because longer activities are too much for them. An hour-long class can include several of these “bursts” and then maybe a longer story. Students like playing games that they already know. Because they already know the basics of how to play the game, it is easier for them to put together the Chinese words with the meaning.

Have your own ideas for short activities that can work for young kids? Share in the comments!

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Get in touch via the contact page.

Learning Large Numbers in Chinese with Real Estate Ads

How are Large Numbers in Chinese Different?

Chinese numbers can be annoying for language students. The numbers for 1-100 seem easy enough. Twenty (二十) is literally “two ten” and thirty (三十) is literally “three ten” and so on. It is the large numbers that give students trouble. In English, one million is 1,000,000 but in Chinese we write it as 100万, which is more like “one hundred ten thousand.”

For students, thinking one million as “one hundred times ten thousand” can seem like… a lot of math. This can be especially distressing for students who chose to study Mandarin Chinese because they want a challenge that is not a STEM class. So do students have to do multiplication problems with large numbers just to use numbers in Chinese? No they don’t. Just like any other aspect of language, students will be able to use the correct words as long as they have heard and read enough input that includes those numbers. Students can learn anything with enough repetition.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Even though students can learn anything (when it comes to language) with enough repetition, we still have what Stephen Krashen calls the affective filter. As mentioned in an earlier post, high levels of anxiety, embarrassment, etc. can raise students affective filters and make it more difficult for students to learn. When students first encounter large numbers the Chinese way, they often resist because they are different to how we write large numbers in English. Giving students lots of input that included large numbers in context is one way to lessen the natural feelings of anxiety about Chinese numbers.

Getting Input with Real Estate Advertisements from Chinese Cities

The key to language acquisition is comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is language that students hear/read and (crucially) understand. For adult students, one way to give students a lot of input that includes large numbers is through…. real estate advertisements! Looking at real estate ads, we see the “easy” numbers. For example, the apartment is on the 16th floor, and it is 80 square meters. Ads also have large numbers for the prices. If you look at real estate ads for Shanghai or Beijing you are guaranteed to see prices that are in the millions and tens of millions (RMB).

Real estate ads are also a way to use authentic resources (authres) in the classroom. They are short so the students do not get overwhelmed. They are also a good spring board for further cultural discussions. Buying a home is very important in both American and Chinese cultures. But there are differences in the age of first time home buyers, living arrangements and what people value in a home.

photo of Chinese real estate ads
This could be a basis of a discussion on buying a home in China vs the US

Conclusion

As with everything else in language learning, students learn through getting input in a meaningful context. When we focus on creating meaning and using repetition, students can acquire anything. Even something as annoying as large numbers in Chinese!

 

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Please get in touch!