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.
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.
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.”
When people talk about language classes, they often reference building up four skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. In the early days of Lotus Chinese Learning I used to talk about the language skills that my students would learn. I did this because I thought that was what people expected. While we often put our languages in the skills section of a resume or CV, language is not a skill. Language is a complex and abstract system. It is not a skill that you learn like knitting.
But wait! Many students say, language is a skill that you can learn. It is exactly like knitting. You learn the rules, then fill in sentences with the vocabulary words. Rules are great for textbook publishers, but they don’t adequately describe language. I promise you that you know more about English than what you could put in a textbook about English grammar.
Language is a Complex and Abstract System
Say that you want to paint your house. You paint it and decide you hate the color. Can you repaint your house? Yes, of course! Then, you go inside and you decide you hate how your living room looks, can you redecorate it? Yes, of course! Then, if you go into the kitchen and bake a cake that doesn’t taste good, can you rebake the cake? Nope! Reading that last sentence, I’m sure your brain protested the use of the word. I’ll bet $5* that no one ever taught you that you can’t use the word “rebake.” But you knew this anyway. That is what we mean when we say that language is more complex and abstract than rules in a textbook.**
Can We Work on Skills in Isolation?
Furthermore, it is not really that useful to separate language into the four skills or speaking, listening, reading and writing. This implies that in a language class, we spend some time working on our speaking, some time working on listening, some time reading and some time writing. This is not how a good language class works. Teachers should know that it takes a long time before students are really ready to speak the target language beyond a few words or phrases. This does not mean that they won’t be communicating from day 1. Rather, they will start with a few yes/no type responses, nodding, etc., before they are ready to speak in full sentences. Especially at the beginning, students need to spend far more of their time listening than anything else.
Language is too complex and abstract to be described as a skill. Speaking, reading, listening and writing are also not really discrete skills that students can work on in isolation. We learn to write from reading and listening and we learn to speak from listening and reading. A language is not a pie that you can slice into four equal pieces called speaking, listening, reading and writing.
One more thing
World language classes often also focus much of their “speaking practice” on presentational speech. Presentational speech is basically when students stand up in front of the class to talk about something. Students can often do fairly well at this, even when they are beginner or intermediate students. They can memorize chunks of speech and just get through whatever they have to do. We already know that memorization is not really language learning. But there is a different reason to do less presentational speech in a language class. The reason is that we don’t just do that much presentational speech in our lives. Teacher do lots of presentational speech… but everyone else, not so much.
*If you can honestly remember someone telling you that “rebake” is not a word, I will Paypal you $5. Email me.
** Hat tip to Bill VanPatten for inspiring this example
When students/parents think about language learning, they often think about students “practicing” certain skills. They imagine students listening to recorded dialogues to “practice” listening. Or they might picture students standing up in front of a classroom to give a presentation to “practice” speaking. Knowing a language, however, is not skill that we can learn and practice, like knitting. It is much more complicated and abstract than that. In Mandarin Chinese language schools and programs, the speech contest is often an important event of the year. It can be nice to have a goal to work towards, but speaking practice for this type of presentation does very little to help students learn.
In the beginning stages of language acquisition, students can always understand more than they say. We know this is true for children. They understand what the people around them say far sooner (years sooner!) than they start uttering their first words. Yet in language classes, students (or their parents) often expect to start speaking in full sentences from the first ten minutes of class!
Why Students Want Speaking Practice
Most students who want to “practice” speaking want to do so to make sure that they are not making any mistakes. They assume that if they say something incorrectly, they will hear helpful feedback and then not make the mistake again. This is not really an effective way to learn a second language. It is also not really how language learning works. To make this case, let’s look at an extreme example of a class oriented towards giving students speaking practice. In this class, students have to speak in the Chinese as much as they can, and every time they make a mistake, the teacher will correct them. How will students know what to say? They can memorize lists of words and try to fit them into grammar structures that they try to remember from a textbook. Of course they will make loads of mistakes and hear a constant stream of correction from the teacher. This sounds like a nightmare class, right? Only the very most motivated students will want to stick around.
We Learn to Speak from Hearing Input, Not From “Speaking Practice”
Hearing lots of corrections is not how you learned your native language either. You didn’t learn your first language by hearing a constant stream of correction for every mistake that you made. Also, you probably did not make that many mistakes either. You heard lots of input from your environment. Then, after a long time, you started to speak and did generally a pretty good job of it. You learned grammar without really learning it.
Think about it, what is a shorter way to say “she is not”? “She isn’t” probably came into your head pretty quickly. What is a shorter way to say “they are not”? “They aren’t” also probably occurred to you pretty quickly. Can you say “I amn’t” instead of “I am not”? No, we don’t say that in Standard English. Did anyone ever sit you down and teach you that rule? My guess is probably not. Furthermore, you did not have to make this mistake, hear a correction and then “practice” the structure in order to get it right. The human brain does all the work without us even noticing!
Be Patient! True Speaking Fluency Takes Time
In a beginner language class, students need to hear lots of input before they can significant speaking in class. If students do end up speaking a lot in class, such as by practicing dialogues, they are not really speaking. They are memorizing chunks of language and parroting them back. This may be useful in a narrow set of circumstances, but it is not the type of true, deep, language acquisition that we want.
Beginner students need to listen much, much more than they need to talk. They need all that good input in Mandarin Chinese before they can speak it with a similar ease and fluency as their native language. Speaking can still have a roll in the classroom, however. Even from the very beginning, students can answer simple yes/no or true/false questions in class. This helps to convince them that they are leaning and also keeps them awake :). I will also often ask students to translate a short burst of speech into English. This helps me to verify that they understand what we are doing. Comprehension is an essential part of language learning. Speaking practice, in and of itself however, does not really help students acquire a new language.