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.*
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 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.
This post is for any students or parent who wants to understand what makes Mandarin classes at Lotus CHinese Learning different. It answers the questions about why so many parents and students are frustrated with typical language classes. It also explains what comprehensible input is, and why it is crucial for language learning. (7 minute read)
Common Frustrations in Language Teaching and Learning
While I was working at a school that used a combination of immersion and traditional (legacy) teaching methods for Mandarin Chinese classes, a colleague turned to me after class one day and said “I think that we are teaching the students to be mute.” She was frustrated with the fact that her students were not picking up the language. The way she phrased her disappointment was so striking to me that I have remembered it ever since. The students who had just walked out of the room where upper elementary/middle school aged kids. Some of them had been taking Mandarin Chinese classes for years.
My colleague was energetic and talented. She grew up in a large city in southern China and then pursued an education degree in the United States. On paper, there was no reason that the students in her class shouldn’t be picking up Chinese. My colleague knew the language, she was a native speaker after all, and she had a degree in education. The students were also the type of bright kids who took an extra language on the weekends and had parents who made sure that they did their homework.
Research shows students need comprehensible input
There is a simple explanation for why these students did not appear to be acquiring Mandarin Chinese: they were not getting enough comprehensible input. There is forty years of research to support the hypothesis that students learn a second (or third) language most effectively when they receive lots of comprehensible input in that language. Comprehensible input is simply spoken or written language that the students can understand. Depending on how much a learner already knows, comprehensible input might be a very simple story told by a teacher, or it might be a chapter book with an extensive glossary in the back. In the words of the scholar most associated with the theory of comprehensible input: “comprehensible input is the crucial and necessary ingredient for the acquisition of language” (Stephen Krashen).
A Typical Language Class
In a traditional language classroom, teachers introduce grammar points and vocabulary and then usually ask the students to practice, by making sentences or dialogues. If you studied a foreign language such as Spanish in high school, you probably remember a beginner lesson about time. The teacher would say: “ lavé los dientes a las ocho y media.” Then the students will go around the room saying what time they brush their teeth. One student might say “lavé mi dientes a las ocho y media” and then hear the teacher correct her by saying “los dientes not mi dientes.” Maybe a student will say “me lave los dientes a las ocho y media de camino a la escuela” and that will be the only moment of levity for the whole lesson.
One of the problems with this method is that students do not hear enough of the target language. The teacher will explain verb conjugations. She will explain that they don’t use a possessive article in Spanish. She will explain that it is literally “brush the teeth,” not “brush my teeth.” But the teacher will only say the target structure a handful of times. Based on what we know from the research, students really need to hear a piece of language repeated dozens of times before it really sinks in. Hearing a teacher say “lavé los dientes a las ocho y media” a couple times, then having to “practice” the structure is not nearly enough repetition.
Are Immersion Programs the Answer?
Immersion programs have emerged over the last few years as a potentially more effective way to teach learners a second language. There is plenty of research out there showing that immersion programs work. But there are many caveats. In the legacy methods covered in the previous paragraphs, students simply do not get enough input. They understand what they hear, but they don’t hear enough repetitions for the words. With immersion, a common problem is that there is not enough comprehension happening in the classroom. If a teacher begins an immersion kindergarten class on day one by reading a book meant for native-speaking children, there is no way that the children will understand what she is saying.
Common pitfalls in immersion classes
The language that immersion teachers often use is just too complex and abstract for beginners to understand. Think about how we talk to very young children. We use short sentences, simple structures, and simple, concrete words. Think about the last time you spoke to a baby. Did you say “Mommy is going to work now” or “Grandpa has a toy for you”? We instinctually leave out pronouns because they can be confusing and hard to follow. “But wait,” many parents say, “I did not use baby talk with my kids and they learned English just fine.” I trust that these parents did not often say “goo-goo, ga-ga” to their babies. They also probably did not come home from work every day and try to have conversations with their children about bilateral trade or nuclear war. Without even consciously thinking about it, they spoke to their babies using comprehensible input.
In his excellent book, While We are on the Topic, language acquisition expert Bill VanPatten illustrates the kind of language that parents use when talking to babies:
Parent: Ok. Where are your eyes [touches the child’s eyes] There they are!
Child: [squirms and giggles]
Parent: Where’s your nose? [touches the child’s nose] Yep. There’s your nose! [kisses the nose]
Child: [squeals and laughs]
Parent: Let me see your ears. Where are your ears? [gently rubs both ears…]
It is not goo-goo, ga-ga, and it is not the way adults talk to each other. It is language appropriate for a language learner, which is exactly what a baby is. There are too many immersion classes in which teachers use too-complex language. They talk to the children as if they are native speakers of the target language. These students are not native speakers, however. Students get a lot of input in the language, but there is so much wasted effort in the immersion class. So often the learners don’t comprehend what they hear.
Students Acquire Language Through Comprehensible Input
A major problem with traditional method classes is that students do not get enough input in the target language. On the flip side, in immersion classes, students get a lot of input in the target language. They often they don’t understand the vast majority of it, however. They are in over their heads and as a consequence, don’t learn as much as they could. There are the fundamental problems with both approaches, as they relate to comprehensible input.
Mandarin Classes with LCL Are Effective
Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning focus on making sure that kids get enough input. This happens through listening and later reading). Classes also focus on making sure students understand what they hear. Supporters of traditional method classes want to hear students speaking in phrases from the first day of class. Supporters of immersion models often want to make sure that the class doesn’t use any English. Students in thoughtfully designed classes do actively participate. We spend very little time speaking English. Lastly, we do not succumb to the downsides of a traditional or immersion class. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use task-based activities, simple stories, TPRS and other methods to give the comprehensible input that they need to acquire Mandarin Chinese. While every student is different, they all steadily acquire the language because they learn through research-supported methods.
More on how Lotus Chinese Learning classes are different (and more effective):
In beginner Mandarin Chinese classes, talking about family is a foundational topic. When I first started teaching, I would show a class of adult learners a photo of a Chinese family and teach the different words for family members. This approach did not work for two reasons. One reason is that many of my American students could not tell the relative ages of the people in my photo. This made it difficult to distinguish parents, grandparents, spouses and siblings. More importantly, the whole exercise was not meaningful for the students. They were just trying to memorize terms while looking at an artificial family.
Students need comprehensible input in order to learn language. That input needs to be compelling, too. For beginner students, comprehensible input uses short sentences, has a slower pace, uses appropriate pauses, has repetition, is concrete, and also engages the learner.* On top of this, comprehensible input should be interesting to the student. Obviously, not everything in class can have students on the edge of their seats. Talking about a fake family in a photo can be slow, and use lots of repetition, but it is definitely not interesting.
Respect the Authenticity of the Classroom Itself
Good input should respect the authenticity of the classroom. The classroom is not a restaurant, it is not a train station, it is a classroom filled with students. There are many reasons why lessons built around pretending to sell train tickets or take orders for soup do not work. Students need to be interested in the content they hear during class, and a fake train ticket is just not very compelling.
Now, instead of talking about a made-up family in class, I talk about my own family. I show the students a picture of my family and I talk about us. I also talk about my husband’ family and tell a little story. I come from a family of three daughters and he comes from a family of three sons… It is not Hemingway, but it is vastly more interesting than pointing at strangers. My students can talk about their own family members after many fewer classroom hours now. They learn the words for family members faster because they heard those words through compelling comprehensible input.
Lots of language teachers who focus on providing comprehensible input to students, do not like forced output. Forced output happens when teachers pressure students to speak or write in the target language before they are ready. I want to see and hear Mandarin words just fall out of students mouths. I don’t want to pretend to be a baker and push a student to ask me for a loaf of bread. Those types of language classes do not work. Focusing on giving students language that they can understand does not mean that there is no room during class for students to participate actively. We just have to be careful about what we ask the students to do. One activity that I like to do with students is to have them make illustrations for a story that I tell them.
Is Storytelling Too Teacher-Centered?
Thanks to some inspiration from another blog about teaching Mandarin Chinese, I have done some story listening recently. Story listening is when the teacher tells the students a story using lots of picture, gestures, and words the students know. Using these ingredients means that the students get lots of comprehensible input. Recently I have done the story of Mulan with my younger students. It takes a lot of work to edit the story so that I only use words and phrases that they understand. Ultimately, this is what teachers have to do to make sure that the story is comprehensible to the students, however.
Story listening activities seems very teacher-centered at first blush. In story listening, the teacher stands at the front of the classroom and the students listen to her. It does not seem very student-centered. In fact, every word the teacher says and everything she does is tailored for the students. It is 100% student-centered, but it just looks teacher-centered. Still, many parents and administrators want to see students actually do something.
Activities that Do Not Force Output
Again, we do not want to force output. Kids should create with language because it feels natural and enjoyable. Teachers should not put kids on the spot by asking them to use language in ways that they are not comfortable with yet. It would be too much to ask my students to re-tell the story that they learn through story listening. Instead, I ask them to illustrate the story as we go along. First, they hear the story at least once through regular story listening, then we do the illustrations.
How It Works
Each child gets one part (often just a sentence) of the story to illustrate. I give them one minute to make their drawing on the white board. This keeps the pace moving fairly quickly. While each child is drawing, I repeat that part of the story. If appropriate, we read the characters for that part of the story, too. By making the illustrations, students engage in the story in a different way. The drawings also show that they understand the story. It is a quick and easy comprehension check.
Keeping Input in Mind
The main focus of a language class should be to give students comprehensible input. Students may seem passive in classes, but they are not. Their brains are slowly but surely building up knowledge of Mandarin Chinese. Output activities, like making illustrations, can be a beneficial part of class. Teachers just need to be careful about using them. Making illustrations is fun for students and is evidence that the students “get it” for the teacher.