The Ugly Truth About Learning Styles

Story time: When I was in high school, many of my teachers (perhaps all of them) went to a training about learning styles. They came back, clutching this newfound knowledge, ready to make a difference in the unfolding lives of the teenagers in their charge. The teachers gave us quizzes to asses our learning styles at the beginning of the semester. Curiously, I never seemed to get the “right” result. My answers never pointed to one learning style for me*. They were always pretty evenly distributed. I think that there is a reason for this: those quizzes don’t work because learning styles don’t exist.

If you are wondering what all this has to do with language learning, or learning Chinese, stick with me! I promise I will get to it

To illustrate just why quizzes like these are BS, let’s look at a few example questions. This quiz, assigns one of three learning styles: visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Most learning style quizzes focus on these three, however, some inventories of learning styles count up to 70. Here we go:

learning styles quiz question 1

Ummmm, how many students (assuming they are at least high school aged) would cop to preferring picture books? Are books of word searches and crossword puzzles even really considered books? They are great and all, but isn’t asking people to chose between Pride and Prejudice and Sudoku kind of an idiotic way to see if they like to read?

But wait, there is more!

learning styles quiz question 3

This quiz isn’t hosted on Geocities. The copyright says 2019. I am assuming that this is not some dusty corner of the internet that is still worried about Y2K. And yet, the writer of this quiz is seemingly unaware of smart phones. Maybe they do know about smart phones, but need to force some other choice for the sake of the quiz.

Let’s look at the options then. I understand that we need to pretend that smart phones don’t exist for the sake of this silly quiz, but surely if you can’t use a phone your next choice is not CHATTING TO THE PERSON NEXT TO YOU. I can’t think of a faster way to alienate my fellow humans than trying to chat them up at the checkout line. Maybe talking to oneself about how “everything must burn” will be slightly more alarming to strangers, but only slightly more.

This next questions is truly deranged:

learning styles question 10

Where do I even start with this question? Its just… so dumb. I think that I got dumber just by reading it. But why it is it so dumb? I think because it is a really good example of the problems with these kind of quizzes. The creators decide on whatever learning styles they believe in, and then crowbar in some questions that seem to “fit.” I don’t know any adult who would answer “act really hyper” in response to the question “what do you do when you are happy?” But you can see how each answer is supposed to align with visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning (in that order).

This one quiz is a great example of silly nonsense. I am aware there is no shortage of pointless quizzes on the internet. I am sure that there are also others that come off as more rigorous. I probably wouldn’t be able to tear those apart quite so easily. But I don’t have to, because some prominent psychologists and neuroscientists have done that for me. This is a letter that they wrote to the Guardian (the British Newspaper) in 2017 about how educators shouldn’t waste their time thinking about learning styles.

What I like about this letter is not that they explain that the supposed science behind learning styles is complete hokum. The problem with learning styles, as the authors point out, is not that they don’t exist. The problem is that every minute we waste talking about them, we are not doing something else. This is the opportunity cost of educational quackery.

When we are spending time taking bogus quizzes and thinking about how to make a lesson more kinesthetic for all those made-up kinesthetic learners out there we are not spending out time doing more valuable things.

This is what I think is really harmful for language learners. Folks who have really bought into the learning styles nonsense lose valuable time on task. Time spent on getting comprehensible input in the target language is really the name of the game in language learning. No amount looking at pictures is going to make up for not listening to Chinese, spoken at the appropriate level.

It gets worse. Beginner students really do just need to listen. Thinking about how to learn Chinese through interpretive dance is not going to help. Unfortunately, I think that the focus on learning styles has convinced a lot of people that they learn best by doing almost anything else other than listening. Every semester, I’ve got someone telling me that they’re a “visual learner” or that they need to make flashcards, or that they need a list of rules in order to learn. They don’t.

For better or for worse, we all learn languages the same way. If you are wondering if I am going to talk about comprehensible input again, you are correct! You learn language by listening to (and later reading) language that you can understand. Your brain doesn’t care that an online quiz told you learn best by drawing pictures, or chewing gum while studying.

I get a lot of resistance from telling people that they just need to listen in class (and of course they should tell me if they don’t understand something). I promise that is what you need to be doing, though.

If you have an auditory learning style (just kidding! :)), this podcast explains why they are bunk. More on the origin of this pernicious myth is in this article from the Atlantic.

*I think that I just… liked learning.

The Chinese Middle Class: Myth and Reality

American Students are Interested in Learning about China

While most Lotus Chinese Learning students are children, I still teach adult students who are interested in learning Mandarin Chinese. Many of these adult students have plans to travel in China for business or China is a big part of their company’s future.

Anyone who reads the news knows that China is a growing consumer market with a large middle class. In my previous life, I was a marketing manager for a consulting company that assisted foreign companies in China. We had a steady stream of clients who were interested in selling everything from Belgian waffles to North American yoga pants in China.

photo of interior of shopping mall
Lots of companies have big plans to sell their wares to the emerging Chinese middle class

Is China’s Middle Class What you Think it Is?

Almost invariably, I could tell that the products would be less successful than their makers dreamed that they would be. Often, a cheaper, local option was already available. Or the product had very little appeal to the local market. If you wouldn’t try selling marinated chicken feet in America, pitching artisan Greek cookies in China is just as foolish. I know the size of the Chinese middle class inspired big ambitions in these clients, but the truth about the Chinese middle class is not what you think.

Most of my adult students think either one of two things: Chinese people are still running around in Mao jackets living the lives of subsistence farmers or Chinese people drive their Lamborghinis to the Louis Vuitton store to buy a new handbag for every day of the week. Many businesses with interests in China are hoping that the second scenario is the one that is closer to the truth. Well… China’s population is still 43% rural.

There are people cruising around Shanghai in their Lambos, but those folks are the elite of the elite. If you are interested in learning about China’s ultra rich, check out the Hurun report.

The Gap Between Rural and Urban

Anyway, back to the rest of the country. Not only is China’s population still 43% rural, but there is a big difference between the lives of rural and urban people. In America, people in rural areas average about 4% poorer than urban people. In China, rural people are on average 63% poorer than urban people. There is a huge gap between the lifestyle of professionals in Beijing and famers in Anhui.

What counts as “middle class” in China, is also a bit different that what we think of the middle class in America. The raw numbers are promising: by certain measures, China has a middle class population of about 330 million. The entire population of the US is about 327 million!

photo of RMB 100 notes
How many Chairman Mao’s does a middle class Chinese person have at their disposal?

Seems like a lot of middle class people, right? Not so fast, that figure includes people with household incomes of $8,000 a year. They are not subsistence farmers, but they don’t buy a lot of iPhones either.

Still Interested in Doing Business in China?

If, after reading these sobering facts the Chinese middle class, you are still convinced that China is in your business’s future, get in touch. You can also read about class options for adult learners here.

**Big thanks to Mario Gonzalez Fuentes, phD (aka Mr. Lotus Chinese Learning) for the statistics in this post**

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.

So You Wanna Study in China

Summer Study in China for Everyone

Many students start out their studies of Mandarin Chinese with the eventual goal of studying in China or Taiwan. Most students will wait until they have at least an intermediate level of Mandarin to study in China or Taiwan, but there are options at all levels**. For students who are still in school/college/university, summer may be an ideal time to study in a Mandarin-speaking environment.

Enroll Directly in a Chinese University

Students can enroll directly in a Chinese university. Some, such as Beijing Language and Culture University, offer summer classes. Although some universities are more prestigious than others, the ranking of the university has little relationship with the quality of the class. Most language classes will follow a similar curriculum. Compared to average tuition in America, tuition in Chinese universities is very inexpensive. Additionally, the costs of renting a room, buying food and buying textbooks will be much lower.

There are some caveats to taking language classes in a Chinese university. Depending on where a student chooses to study, he or she could walk out the doors of the university and not hear any Mandarin at all. Chengdu is a great city in China, but the locals tend to speak their form of Sichuan dialect. This does not create the Mandarin environment that many students are looking for. Second-tier cities in northeast China are the student’s best bet for a balance of cost of living value and a Mandarin-dominant environment. Especially at the lower levels, students might find themselves in an English language environment, not a Chinese one. Even if the other students in the class do not speak English as their first language, it still often becomes the default lingua franca.

Enroll in a Private Language School

Large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have private language schools, such as the Hutong School or Mandarin House. Tuition is often higher than at Chinese universities, but they often have more flexible schedules. Some even offer special summer courses. A private language school might also be a good option for adult learners who would like to be in a class with other professionals. Unlike classes taught in Chinese universities, the instructors might not have formal qualifications in Chinese as a second language(对外汉语)instruction. As with classes at a Chinese university, it is also easy to end up in a mostly-English environment. This is especially true at the lower levels.

Studying in China for High School Students

While most options for studying in China are for students who are at the university level and up, there are some options for younger students who want to study Chinese in China. The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council has a list of summer camps in China here. Even elementary students can study in China. Austin-based Chinese with Meggie runs a two-week summer camp in Beijing that includes both American students and Chinese students. (Disclosure: I used to work for Chinese with Meggie). There are also summer camps in Taiwan for kids. For a look at what it is like to spend part of the summer in Taiwan and directly enroll young kids in both international schools and local summer camp, check out the Mandarin Mama blog.

With all these programs for younger children, a major caveat is that they can be expensive. The supervision that minors require means extra costs for parents. Ancillary costs, such as flights to China/Taiwan for an adult to drop off the students also make the bills higher.

There is Always Backpacking

As discussed in this post, China can be a difficult place to travel for a tourist who does not know the language. But for students with a few semesters of study under their belts. A trip to China can really motivate them to reach the next level. It is also easier to truly be immersed in a Chinese-language environment as a solo traveler. Depending on how good a person is at budgeting, the costs of just traveling around China for a month might be similar to enrolling in a short-term course at a university.

As of this writing (July 2018), there are many options for the foreign student who wants to study in China. They can take language classes at Chinese universities, private language schools or they can just travel around and do their best self-study on the road. More exposure to the language should have great benefits. To truly reach advanced levels of Mandarin Chinese, however, students need to learn content in the language. This is because we don’t learn language by memorizing vocabulary lists or reading about grammar. The human brain is designed to connect language with meaning. If students do not care about the meaning of the target language, they won’t learn. Students in China should work towards taking a Chinese-language calligraphy class, history class, TCM class, etc. This is the type of learning that will really lead to deep language acquisition.

photo of library at Zhejiang University
You Could Be Studying Mandarin Chinese Here!

 

Did you study in China or Taiwan? What was your experience? Share in the comments!

**Any mention of a specific school in this post is just that, a mention. It is not an endorsement of the school.

How Much Mandarin Do You Really Need to Travel in China?

photo of Jade Girl Peak at Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan)
Go to China and see the Jade Girl Peak in person! (But learn some Mandarin first)

So you want to travel in China…

Many adult students seek out Mandarin Chinese classes in preparation for a trip to China. Lots of American tourists would take a trip to Mexico or France without brushing up on Spanish or French. Many travelers, whether they are going for business or pleasure, however, feel that it is necessary to learn some Mandarin for China. Despite the fact that many people in China spend years learning English, knowing Mandarin is very useful for travel in China.

Leaving Shanghai and Beijing

Outside of Beijing and Shanghai, travel in China can be very difficult. Sichuan Province recently made the list of Lonely Planet’s top destinations in Asia. The capital of Sichuan, Chengdu, is a fast-growing city, but it does not nearly have the infrastructure of Shanghai or Beijing. Knowing the language (at least a little) can make it so much easier to travel in places like Sichuan.

Ordering Food

A good reason to learn a few Chinese characters before traveling to China is ordering food. Big restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing have English menus and/or picture menus. If a traveler goes off the beaten path, Anthony Bourdain-style, knowing Chinese characters will help when looking at menus. Even knowing the characters for beef (牛肉) and pork (猪肉) is useful. Going to hole-in-wall restaurants is also easier on the budget.

photo of crab dumplings
Crab dumplings? It is easier to order these if you know some Mandarin

Get off the Beaten Path (there will still be loads of Chinese tourists)

One of the best things to do in China is to climb a scenic mountain, such as Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) or Wuyi Mountain (Wuyi Shan). Places like these require some navigation and that is where knowing Mandarin comes in handy. With a beginner or intermediate level of Mandarin, a tourist will not have elaborate conversations in rural China. They will, however, be able to more easily give directions to taxi drivers, find out room rates and order food.

view at Yellow Mountain (Huangshan)
Getting to see this view is a lot is easier with some Mandarin knowledge

It is not impossible to travel all over China without knowing any Mandarin. It just makes life more difficult (and expensive). One of the joys that knowing the language opens up is getting to know people. An article in Bon Appetit suggests going to the same restaurant more than once while traveling, just to get to know some locals. They are onto something. Eventually all the food, mountain vistas and train rides blur together when traveling. But the people remain distinct if you get to know them.

 

Headed to China? Learn some Chinese before you go! Get in touch via the contact page. Skype classes available.