We know from research (that has been around since the 70s!) that people learn language from hearing/reading comprehensible and compelling input. Comprehensible input means that the learner understands what they hear. They’re not just turning on the radio and listening to a Polish-language station from day one. Compelling input is stuff that students care about. We are not pretending that we are in a train station buying train tickets. There are many different approaches we can take to language teaching that supply the communicatively embedded input that students need in order to learn a second (or third) language. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use a mix of immersion, tasks, story listening, and TPRS in order to teach children and adults Mandarin Chinese. These are all communicative approaches to language teaching. They give students the meaningful input that they need in order to acquire the language.
How Immersion Works
Immersion is a very popular approach to language teaching, especially for children. Immersion works because learners focus on meaning and not on the grammar or structure. It is not a perfect approach to language teaching. Often the teacher uses language that is too advanced for learners, i.e. using too many words that the students can’t understand. However, immersion can be powerful when students can connect the language they hear in the environment with what they are doing. For example, my younger students almost always learn “收一收” （clean up) pretty quickly. This is because we sing the clean up song every class while we clean up. The students hear the words and can immediately associate them with what we are doing.
Games and Immersion
Simple games that the children are already familiar with can be good activities to do in the immersion environment. Since most students begin classes begin with zero knowledge of Chinese, it is important that they already pretty much know how to play the game. If we are doing immersion, and I need to explain complicated rules of a game, they students simply do not have enough vocabulary knowledge in order to understand what they hear. When we play Jenga, put together a puzzle, toss a bean bag, etc., I focus on a few phrases that I repeat during the activity.
Most students are not ready to talk in Chinese while we are playing. They are still at the novice level. All they are really capable of doing is connecting what they hear with what they’re doing. So if we play Jenga, I say “小心” (be careful) over and over again while they are pulling out their wooden blocks. With the strong context (playing a game), and the repetition, I know that these phrases will stick in their brains.
If it looks like we are having fun in a kids Mandarin class while playing games, it is because we are. Although this does not mean that we are not learning the language. With the right lesson design, immersion can lead to language acquisition. Kids are naturally very interested in what they are doing if we play games. It is easy when they are interested for them to make connections between what they hear and the activity.
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.
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):
Last semester, I pointed out to different groups of classes (or their parents) that I was using almost 100% Chinese in class after about ten hours of class time (the exact number of hours was different for different classes and different age groups). These are the kind of results that encourage boosters of immersion or dual-language programs. It looks like evidence that students can be put into an immersion class where the teacher only speaks in the target language and students simply “pick up the language” in a short amount of time. The reality is, a language class that is near to 100% Chinese in the early days uses very different language than a group pf native speakers would.
Immersion as illusion
First, let’s take a look at a poorly done immersion class for kindergarteners, assuming they do not come from families who speak the target language. Italics represent the target language:
Teacher: During circle time today we are going to talk about the parts of a flower. (Pulls out book on flowers). This is a flower, right? Okay, these are petals. (Goes over parts of a flower in target language)… Great, now we are going to make our own flowers with tissue paper. Go get a pair of scissors from the arts and crafts corner and go back to your seats.**
What the students hear: Blah, circle time, blah blah blah blah flower. Blah, book, blah blah blah blah blah blah flower, blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah….. Blah blah arts and crafts corner blah blah blah your seat.
Students do not have a magical way to understand the target language after only a short time of instruction. What outside observers might see is an illusion: students appear to be understanding because they are sitting quietly and looking at the teacher, but they are really not comprehending what is said because it is being spoken too quickly, with too many unfamiliar words and with sentences that are too long.
If a class is going to be conducted using the target language at least 90% of the time, as ACTFL recommends, then teachers need to use language that students can comprehend. After 10 hours or so of class time with a group of young learners, we are not going over the parts of a flower. That vocabulary is way too complicated for them, and it is likely that they do not even have this information in their home language, making comprehension even more difficult.
Appropriate Language for a Beginner Immersion Class
A better approach to conducting a beginner class in nearly 100% target language would go something like this:
Teacher: What is this? This is a flower? Is it a book? No, it is not a book. Is it a tree? No it is not a tree, it is a flower. What color is the flower? The flower is red. Is the flower blue? No, the flower is not blue. The flower is red. It is red.
Students might be able to answer the questions the teacher is asking, or they can follow as she answers herself. This input lends itself to a neat little task for kindergarteners. They can make guesses about the different colors of flowers they might find around the playground, go outside and count, and then make a nice chart showing the results. This task is about more than just language and incorporates counting, which American kindergarteners usually need more practice doing.
Why does immersion work when it works?
Immersion can be an effective approach for language learning because it leads students to attend to meaning when hearing the target language. In a tradition “teach and practice” class, a teacher would introduce target vocabulary and grammar and then have students practice. (Don’t ask me how to do this with kindergarteners, I have no idea). There is no evidence that this “teach and practice” strategy works well to build language acquisition. There is no meaning, or very little meaning, attached to the language in these types of classes. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that language acquisition happens most effectively when students have access to input in the target language that is comprehensible to them. When students are working in the target language in an immersion classes, they are thinking about meaning in the target language. They are not thinking about verb agreement, articles, particles or any of the nuts and bolts of language that teachers tend to focus on in traditional classes. Students in my example above with the task on flowers are colors are busy counting and they only need a small number of vocabulary words (flower, various colors, numbers) in order to do this meaningful task.
Immersion goes wrong when students and parents expect that a student can be immersed in 100% native-like language from day 1 and learn as normally as they would in an L1 class. Immersion education is not magic. The target language used in an immersion environment needs to be comprehensible to the students, or else all they will hear mostly blah, blah, blah, blah.
*I’m conflating immersion classes that happen as part of dual-language programs in k-12 schools and immersion classes that could be part of an FLES program, private classes, Saturday school classes, etc. There are many differences in these types of classes, but their similarities are what I am talking about today.
**I’ve changed the details, but this example is based on a kindergarten immersion class that I observed
What do you think about language immersion education? Share in the comments.