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!

What is the Skill-Building Hypothesis

The Skill-Building Hypothesis VS Comprehensible Input

The rival to the comprehensible input hypothesis for language learning (the one that I follow) is the skill-building hypothesis. The skill-building hypothesis of language acquisition theorizes that learners acquire language by learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary. Next, they combine their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary by speaking and writing. Learners refine their knowledge of the language be receiving feedback from a teacher or perhaps native speakers. Most Americans probably subscribe to some version of the skill building hypothesis. I do not think that this is because most people read the research on second language acquisition. Rather, I think it is just a default assumption.

What Happens in School

How do we learn most subjects in school? Teachers provide instruction in skills (multiplication, essay writing, volleyball) and then the students practice these skills. Most Americans learn a world language in school, so it is not unreasonable to assume that language learning happens the same way.

There are supporters of the skill-building hypothesis in academia. The research, however, time and time again shows that students learn better through receiving lots of comprehensible input (through listening and reading language that they can understand). A longer response to the skill building hypothesis is here.

Typical Language Classes

Most Americans should be skeptical of the skill-building hypothesis, even though the content to most language classes seems to be aligned to this hypothesis. Why? Because most Americans can barely string a sentence together in the language that they learned in high school. Most language classes are still a combination of explicit grammar instruction, memorizing vocabulary, and then asking students to eek out a few sentences to make sure that they are “learning.”

This dismal state of language fluency that students have after 4 years of high school Spanish should be enough to convince most people that there should be another way. It is likely, however, that most people don’t put that much thought into how language learning works. So when it comes time to learn another language, they just assume that there will be a textbook with grammar rules and lists of vocabulary.

How Are Lotus Chinese Learning Classes Different?

Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning are designed based on the idea that language is too complex to learn by learning grammar rules and memorizing words. There are plenty of books (like the ones mentioned here, here and here), but no textbooks. I also use the grammar that I need to use to express my meaning. I “shelter” words (that is, provide their meaning through pictures or English translations). In contrast, I do not shelter grammar. Think of how absurd it would be to only speak in the present tense to a young child! No parent would instinctually do that, and yet many teachers try to only speak to students in “simple” grammar. It is hard for the teacher to do, and frustrating for the students.

Unfortunately, I think that the skill-building hypothesis has its supporters by default. Learners think that language classes should be like other subjects in school. So they do not question it when teachers start lecturing about grammar and hand out a text book. Students, however, do learn better by getting lots of input in the target language, no textbook or grammar lesson required.

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

Learner Errors

Against Correcting Learner Errors

Most students (and parents) who sign up for Mandarin Chinese classes are pretty motivated. They want a challenge and they want to do a good job. They are also usually familiar with other language classes in which students who make a mistake get an immediate correction from the teacher (or perhaps a particularly eager classmate.) In general, however, I do not correct learner errors in Lotus Chinese Learning classes. There are several reasons why I do not correct learner errors in class.

Why I Usually Don’t Correct Errors

Firstly, class time is a zero sum game. Every minute we spend doing one thing is a minute that we do not spend doing something else. We know that students learn a language like Mandarin Chinese through comprehensible input. My focus in class time is making sure that they get as much comprehensible input as is possible. If I spend 5 minutes talking about why XYZ is wrong, that is 5 minutes that the students do not get comprehensible input.

Secondly, students don’t really learn from explicit correction. An error that beginner students often make in Mandarin Chinese has to do with sentence order. They will often place the location after the verb when it should go before the verb. The way to make sure that students get it right is to speak to them with the correct verb order using meaningful language. It is not to write the rule on the board and hope that students get it. In fact, in my experience, students acquire Chinese sentence order much faster if they pick it up from listening and reading than if I try to teach a rule.

Another important reason to not explicitly correct students has to do with the social-emotional aspect of learner. Students probably will not like a class in which they hear a constant stream of correction. Students acquire language more easily if they feel relaxed, and positive. According to Stephen Krashen’s theory, when the affective filter is high, because of anxiety, low self-esteem, etc., students have a harder time learning languages.

photo of child with head in hands
Chin up! Don’t worry about errors in language learning

When Correcting Errors is Actually Helpful

There are times however, in which error correction can help students better acquire language. If a teacher notices a misunderstanding on the part of the learner, correcting that error can help refine the understanding of language in a student’s head. A common phrase that I use in class with the kiddos is 我们回家了 (We are going home). A student with a more literal (and incorrect) understanding of Chinese might think that this phrase means “We have gone home.” In this case the 了 does not mean that we have completed the action of going home, as is might in other contexts. Rather it means that we have now transitioned to the activity of going home. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that needs correction so a student can refine their understanding of what a phrase or word means. However, most of the time they just need more and more input so that they can successfully acquire the language.

I find that not only do students learn more if we just focus on getting the input, but class time is much more pleasant!

More on why Lotus Chinese Learning Classes might be different than how you learned a language in high school

 

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.

Learning Chinese with Tasks

What are tasks?

Tasks in language learning are activities with a purpose. Many early language classes focus on doing activities with kids, making lady bugs out of paper plates when learning about insects for example. The kids do the activity while the teacher speaks in the target language. How are tasks different? Tasks are activities with a purpose.

Is it Communicative or not?

We know from research that people learn language from communicatively embedded input. In order for us to learn a language, we need to first get the input and it needs to be meaningful. We can’t just listen to someone reading a list of words and their English equivalents and pick up a language. The human mind knows that there is nothing meaningful going on there and will absorb very little.

Some teachers or parents may insist that activities do have a purpose. They are partially correct. If your goal is to make a lady bug out of a paper plate, then your purpose is to make a paper plate lady bug. Activities lack a communicative purpose, however. Students need to be engaged in the expression and interpretation of meaning in order to learn a language through what they are doing. Making an insect out of disposable dinnerware is fun, but there is no expression and negotiation of meaning involved.

Example of a Task with Kids*

Building a lesson around tasks for young children is not easy. It is worth it, however, because children need this kind of communicatively embedded input in order to learn a second language. One task that I have done with students recently is to figure out how many states we have been to as a class. The first step is to put together a floor puzzle of the United States. While we are working on this step, I begin to give the kids the input that they need, by asking “这是什么?” (What is this?) “这是什么? (holding up a puzzle piece) 这是Minnesota。你去过Minnesota没有?” (What is this? This is Minnesota. Have you been to Minnesota?)

Once the puzzle is complete, I begin to ask the students if they have been to different states and keep tally of their answers. The kids do not need a high level of Chinese at all to respond to these questions. They can nod/shake their heads, Since there are so many states (50 of them!), it is easy to get in a great deal of repetition during class. The kids hear and respond to “谁去过XX” over and over again. At the end, we can see how many states we have been to as a class. The purpose of this task is not to practice the verb form 去过 (have gone to). If it were, it wouldn’t be as fun. Our purpose is to find out how many states we have been to as a class. The children learn language through this task, not from it.

photo of students putting together a puzzle
Is this task communicative? Yes, the purpose is for us to find out how many states the students have been to. The purpose is NOT to “practice” a verb form.

Caveats About This Task

One important caveat about this task is that it works because I know that my students have traveled to many different states. My students are fortunate enough that their parents recognize the value of world language classes and pay tuition for them. They are usually from comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds. I realize that this activity would not be as interesting (and would probably lead to some negative feelings) if no one in the class had ever left the state of Texas. Not every task is going to be appropriate for every group of students. That is okay and is something that teachers need to consider when lesson planning.

More on tasks and language learning

*I’ve also done a version of this task with adults