“Rules” For Learning to Speak Mandarin

Some folks love rules, so here they are. Below are three rules for learning to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #1: Don’t force yourself to talk. The same rule goes for parents of children who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Many students (and parents) believe that students should try to repeat what the teacher says. There really is not any reason to do that. At best, students end up feeling like they are doing something that resembles learning. Having positive feelings about language learning is a good thing, but they don’t directly lead to language acquisition.

It is perfectly normal and expected to go through a “silent stage” in learning a new language. There is also a tremendous amount of variation in how long this silent stage lasts. It depends on both the learner, and also how much input the student gets. Adult students often will try to talk, but young children do not do the same. It could easily be months before a student says anything in Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #2: Speaking in full sentences does not matter. Many students (and parents) have it in their heads that students need to start speaking Mandarin Chinese in complete sentences. Just like forced speech, I think that this comes from the mindset that students need to be doing something that looks like learning. Speaking in a complete sentence is not really necessary, however.

To begin with, that speaking in a complete sentence is not how we talk normally. Sometimes we respond with one word. Sometimes we respond with a rambling run-on sentence of sorts. One thing should be clear from the blog by now. That is, we learn to speak by listening and not by speaking. Since speaking is not something that we learn by doing, there is no need to force speaking in a certain way, e.g. in complete sentences.

Rule #3: Speaking is useful, but probably not in the way that you think it is. Although we learn to speak through listening, speaking can be useful to language learners in a narrow sense. When a learner talks to someone who is not the teacher in Mandarin Chinese, the learner’s speech can help the new person realize that she needs to slow down and use simpler words.

The type of speech that we hear from beginner and intermediate learners (stilted, single words, lots of errors) is a good reminder for native speakers to slow down. Slowing down is often the most useful thing that a native speaker can do to make it easier for a language learner to understand them.

More on learning to speak Chinese:

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

Speaking Practice Does Not Help Students Gain Fluency

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?

 

 

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.

 

It is Okay to Just Listen

Some of my students start classes with me with some bad habits. One of these habits is a tendency to just repeat whatever I say. Many of these students do not realize that we are supposed to be having a conversation (limited as it may be). They’re not supposed to just parrot back to me what I say. Real listening is so important and just parroting back words is not something that students should spend their time doing.

We learn languages through communicatively-embedded input. Listening to a teacher and then repeating exactly what she says is not communication. I’m not sure what it is, but it is not communication. What is communication? Communication is the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. When students just repeat stuff, they’re not getting any meaning. It is not real communication and students won’t really learn much from this type of interaction. It is also pretty boring.

Since it is a waste of time to be just repeating whatever the teacher says, what else should students do? It really is okay to just listen. Many people want to “see” some evidence of learning. They want to know if the classes are working or not. There are ways to get an idea if students are learning without forcing them to talk. Students can show their comprehension through pointing, nodding, following directions, laughing, drawing.. the list goes on. A good lesson plan for students, especially beginner, will have lots of opportunities for students to show what they know.

 

Using Picture Talk in Chinese Classes for Kids

What Is Picture Talk?

Picture talk is one way of giving learners the input that they need in order to learn Chinese. We know that we don’t learn language by practicing speaking. We also know that we do not learn language without proper communication. We learn language through getting lots of comprehensible input. The idea behind picture talk is simple. The teacher shows the students a picture (or slowly reveals a picture) and talks to the students about what they see.

How to Do Picture Talk

In theory, a really good teacher could spend a 45 or 60 minute class talking about one picture with the students. Since I teach younger children, I think that it is really only reasonable to spend 10-15 minutes on one thing, such as picture talk. Some kids can stay on task for longer. Others still need to develop their attention spans to get to the point where they can focus on one thing for 10 minutes. Ten to fifteen minutes is about right for most young students, however.

To make it more interesting, the teacher can cover up all but just a small piece of the picture and then ask students questions about it. For example, if all the students can see of a picture is a bit of yellow, the teacher can ask: “What do you think that this is, a sun or a yellow house?” The students don’t need that much knowledge of Chinese in order to answer a question like this. If students are a little more advanced, the teacher can ask them “What do you think this is?” and other more open-ended questions.

What to Use for Picture Talk

Any interesting picture or photo can be good content for picture talk. A photo from a recent vacation might be good, or an illustration from a book can be good. Jimmy Liao is an illustrator from Taiwan. He makes really interesting pictures like this one which can be great for picture talk. There are so many elements to the picture to talk about. Who are the people? What are they looking at? What is the dog’s name? A class could easily talk about this picture for 10-15 minutes.

I also like using illustrations by Jimmy Liao because he is from the Chinese-speaking world. In general, I like using books and other materials that my students are already familiar with, such as the David books, and anything by Eric Carle. While these books are great for interest and comprehension, unfortunately they tend to lack diversity. I teach Chinese and I want the materials that I use to include authors from the Chinese-speaking world and Chinese/Chinese-American characters. If you’re interested, there is more information about the lack of diversity in children’s books here.

More information about picture talk from a Spanish teacher’s perspective