So You Don’t Have A Lot of Time to Learn Chinese

Can you Learn Chinese in Less Time than You Spend on Your Daily Commute?

If you found this blog through Google or another search engine, you have seen the advertisements that promise that you can learn Mandarin Chinese in 30 days (or something like that). Hopefully you have the good sense to know that is this is not really possible. What those programs can do is to teach a student “survival” language, so that they can navigate certain situations. A student who learns Chinese “in 30 minutes a day” won’t be able to have a free-form conversation, but they will be able to memorize useful phrases. Language acquisition is slow, ordered and complex. No matter how flashy the app, you cannot leap-frog the stages of language learning.

Is Immersion the Answer?

So if you can’t learn Mandarin Chinese in a month, or 30 minutes a day, or in 5 minutes a day, what is a time-pressed student to do? The good news is that when it comes to language learning, quality is more important than quantity. The quantity of simple exposure to Mandarin Chinese does not determine how much a person can speak. If all a learner needed to do was just listen to Chinese, then expats who have lived in China for years would all be fluent. I promise you that there are many expats who have lived in China for a decade or more and cannot say more than a few sentences. There are many reasons for this. The most relevant reason that just being in an environment is not enough is that the person needs to understand what they are hearing. They need input, but it needs to be comprehensible input.

You can’t learn Chinese in a month. You can’t learn it just by living in China and not doing anything else. The good news for language learners who don’t have loads of time to learn a second language is that when it comes to language learning, is that quality is more important than quality. You will need more than 30 minutes a day for a month, but you also don’t need to hire someone to follow you you around all day speaking Chinese.

Classes With Comprehensible Input Are the Best Use of Your Time

According to the research, instruction (i.e. classes) really do help students acquire a language. If done well, a class will make it easy for the students to understand the input they’re getting. This is the missing piece of the puzzle if you just go and live in China/Taiwan. There is plenty of input around there, but students won’t understand what they hear. Classes also supply input that is compelling and interesting to students, if they are well-designed. With an app, or a survival program, students just memorize phrases. That is enough input to help students get through common situations. It is not, however, enough to achieve true fluency. It is also kind of boring.

Most students don’t have a great deal of time to learn a second language. Many language learning apps promise to help save time. Students, however, won’t learn true communication just by using an app. Jumping into a language environment is not enough either. A thoughtfully designed class can work with the limited time a student has and help them acquire a language without memorizing.

More on how language learning actually works:

A brief outline of the theories of Stephen Krashen, phD.

Why Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning Are Different

More on learning a second language as an adult:

Tips for adult language learners

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes? Use the contact page to get in touch!

What Babbel Gets Wrong: Learning Sentence Structure Won’t Make You Fluent

What the Makers of a  Language Learning App Don’t Understand

Today’s post is based on a tweet in response to an article from Babbel. Their article suggested that students can learn a language (including Mandarin Chinese) through focusing on sentence structure. There is no evidence that this is true, and plenty of evidence that explicit grammar teaching just does not help students learn a language!

The Problem With Legacy Methods

If you ask most people how they learned a language (usually in high school for the US), they will probably say that they learned a bit of grammar, some vocabulary words, and then combined it all together in “practice.” If you ask a second question, whether this method is effective, most people will probably say that they still don’t speak the language that they spent 2-4 years studying in high school. Why do so few students actually speak the languages that they learned through these legacy methods? Part of the reason is that students do not actually need to learn grammar explicitly in order to speak a language.

Did Someone Teach You English Grammar?

We certainly do not do this with our first language. Students in America speak English fluently long before they start to learn English grammar. Which of these phrases is correct: “the big, red, wooden box” or “the wooden, red, big box.” If you speak English fluently, it was probably easy to see that the first phrase is grammatically correct and the second one is not. Most people don’t learn the rule of adjective order in English, however. It would be hard to write down what the rule is. Most people would have to write down a few sample sentences before extrapolating that adjectives in English go in the order: number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. Very few native English speakers learned this rule from a teacher, but we all know it. What does this teach us about how people learn language?

Our brains don’t actually need to learn rules in order to use them. We take in language, in all of its complexity, and then subconsciously learn the rules. Children in the English-speaking world hear strings of adjectives thousands and thousands of times from birth. From there, they instinctively know that when many adjectives modify a single noun, they go in the order of number, quality, size, age, shape, color, material (or origin), and qualifier. The same goes for second language acquisition, too.

Will Students Learn Grammar Without Explicit Teaching?

Some students, parents, or administers object to teachers not explicitly teaching grammar as part of a second language class. Many people feel that if students don’t learn grammar through explicit teaching (think textbooks and charts of verb endings) they won’t learn grammar at all. Ironically, through methods like TPRS, students actually get more exposure to different grammatical structures. With legacy method classes, students plod through the textbook, learning one sentence structure after another. This is a frustrating experience for the students, and it is not very effective.

In a Mandarin Chinese class structured around TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and story-telling), students hear far more sentence structures in the early days than they do with the first chapter of a standard textbook. For example, on day 2 of a TPRS-based class, my elementary students can use correct word order in the Chinese sentence “Diego在Pizza Hut 吃比萨”  (Diego eats pizza at Pizza Hut.) It may be hard to believe, but there are students who have studied Mandarin Chinese for several hours a week for a year who make mistakes with this sentence structure. I’m sure that their teachers carefully explained that in Mandarin, we put the location before the verb. The reason that students in legacy method classes keep making this mistake is that those careful explanations don’t work.

Yes, You Can Toss the Textbook

Students learn grammar rules in a second or third language just the way they learn grammar rules in their first languages. They learn rules by repeated exposure to correct language. English speakers would probably blink in confusion if asked to right down the order in which a string of adjectives appear. They still would answer the question in paragraph two of this post correctly every time, however. The human mind is built to learn grammar rules without reading them in a textbook.

photo of grammar rule from Chinese textbook
Reading this page won’t teach you how to use “在” correctly

More on why a good language class does not include explicit grammar teaching.

Have you taken a language class that used legacy teaching methods? What was your experience? Share in the comments!


Can an App Help you Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Do Apps help make language learning easier and more affordable?

The recent $15 million series b funding of a language app called Memrise invites the question: “Can students really learn a language through an app?” Traditionally, language learning happened at home through the family, in school as part of a formal education program, through immersion in the target language environment, or some combination of the three. Learning a language, such as Mandarin Chinese, through an app is tempting because Chinese classes can be hard to find, they cost money and travel to China/Taiwan can also be arduous and expensive. Can an app solve these language learning issues?

What Can an App Help Students Do?

Most language-learning apps are based on the “freemium” model. Users can download the app and use a limited number of features for free, but then must pay to unlock the rest. Many of my students use Duolingo or Memrise. I’ve played around with both in order to understand what they offer. At worst, these apps function like an electronic deck of flashcards. Students think they are studying, but they are not really learning. At best, I think that they can help students reach short term goals with their language learning.

How Do Students Really Learn a Language?

It is important to keep in mind that people learn a language through communicatively embedded input that is comprehensible to them. In other words, people must listen to and read meaningful language that they can understand. Using a app as a deck of flashcards does not give students the right kind of input. A word that shows up in a list on an app with pinyin and an English translation, such as 苹果 (apple), it is certainly comprehensible to the user. The translation is right there. This type of input, however, has no communicative context. A user may remember the word later on. With enough review on the app, s/he probably will. This is not the kind of deep learning that results in the target language eventually falling from a student’s mouth the way that a native language does.

Other Language Learning Resources

Based on what I have seen from my students, the name Memrise says it all. The app can be useful for helping students memorize characters for short term learning, but it is not a program that provides the comprehensible input for language learning. Just because apps so far are not good substitutes for a quality curriculum or an immersion environment, does not mean that there are not good tools out there that can help students outside of the classroom or other language learning environment. Learning Chinese Through Stories provides meaningful content in a convenient podcast form (I suggest for it intermediate students and above).

There are additional resources on the blog here and here.

Do you have a favorite app to support your Mandarin Chinese learning? Share in the comments!

Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app
Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app