Speaking Practice Does Not Help Students Achieve Fluency

Do Students Need to Practice Speaking?

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!

photo of child holding microphone speaking
This little guy is probably wasting his time practicing for a speech contest.

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.

More on how language learning works:

Do you need to learn grammar?

Why Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning Different

Do you disagree with this post? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Story Listening with Mid-Autumn Festival

What is Mid-Autumn Festival?

This year (2018), Mid-Autumn festival falls on September 24. For Mid-Autumn Festival, we gather with our families, looks at the moon, and eat mooncakes. Mooncakes are the fruitcakes of Chine: a holiday-oriented dessert that some people love and some people love to hate. In China, companies give boxes of mooncakes as gifts to their employees. Even when I was a student, one year the university gave all the foreign students boxes of mooncakes (probably because we paid so much more in tuition than our Chinese counterparts:)). Like many traditional festivals in China, Mid-Autumn Festival has an associated legend. The legend of Chang’e, like many other traditional stories, can be a good basis for story listening.

photo of mooncakes from Mid-Autumn Festival
Mooncakes! Pictured are the popular Guangdong-style mooncakes. There are many other varieties available in China.

What is story listening?

In story listening, a teacher tells the class a story (often a legend or folktale), using pictures, gestures, and sometimes translation to help the students understand the story. The goal is for the students to fully understand the story. It is not necessary for them to be able to retell it in the target language, although that may be part of some lesson plans. Critics of story listening say that it is too teacher-centered. While the teacher usually does stand at the front of class and talk to the students, everything she does is oriented to their level. It is actually completely student-oriented.

The Legend of Chang’e and Houyi

A teacher can modify the telling of the legend of Chang’e and Houyi for students of various levels. One challenge for story listening is helping students keep track of the characters. Chang’e and Houyi are the main characters of the legend of Mid-Autumn Festival. I pre-print out illustrations of them to help with the story telling. Houyi is supposed to be a man of exceptional strength, so a photo of a muscly guy helps get the point across. There are several other characters that may be included in the telling of the legend, but to keep things simple for beginner students, I leave them out. There is something remembering names in a second language that is difficult. Having the character illustrations with the name illustrations really helps students keep track of who is who.

photo of white board from story listening lesson on Mid-Autumn Festival
Pictures of the characters help students keep track of who is in the story

Formative Assessment with Story Listening

After I tell the story, I want to make sure that the students understand pretty much everything that I said. There is a very easy way to do this. I just ask the students to repeat the story back to me in English. Lots of people believe that in a good language classrooms, students should use English as little as possible. I believe that classroom time is precious and students should get as much input as possible. Efforts to completely stamp out the use of English are misguided, however. Simply put, it is easier to ban English (or any other L1) than it is to ensure quality teaching. Furthermore, the goal for beginners is not to have them speaking Mandarin Chinese all the time. They can’t do it anyway. Rather, the goal is for them to understand everything that they hear. An easy, fast, an straightforward way to check for this is to have them summarize the story in English. If there are mistakes in the summary, then I know that I have not told the story in the best way for their level.

Teaching Culture with Story Listening

Story listening is great for teaching language, but it is also great for teaching culture. Folktales are great source material for story listening. Chinese culture certainly has many to choose from. Sometimes when traditional holidays roll around, the students are just not ready (either in terms of their language ability or their maturity) to listen to a folktale in Chinese. This is especially true for younger students. If one of the goals of a program is teaching about culture, it can be perfectly time to take a break from the language component and just focus on the culture. There are many books available in English that teach students about Mid-Autumn Festival. Teachers can use them to do a quick segment in English on that aspect of the culture.

More on Story Listening

Making illustrations to go with stories

Story listening and culture


Speed and Language Learning

Speed Anxiety

How many times have you heard someone say that So-and-so’s Spanish is rapid? How many times have you heard a person say that they would understand what another person was saying, if only that person would just slow down a little? There is something about the speed of speech that causes a lot of anxiety for students who want to learn a second language, including Mandarin Chinese.

photo of speedometer in car
Yes, some language sound faster than others. But don’t panic about speed, you will catch up

What the Research Says About Speed

Is there anything to the idea that some languages are faster than others? It turns out that researchers have tackled this question. They looked at eight different languages, including Spanish, Japanese and Mandarin to see compare how many syllables people said per second. The research subject read from a pre-determined text. It turns out that in terms of syllables spoken per second, Spanish is faster than other languages. At the other end of the spectrum, Mandarin is much slower.

There is an interesting caveat, however. Different languages seem to convey the same amount of information in the same amount of time. A language like Spanish may use more syllables to do it, but Spanish speakers are not saying anything more in a minute than English or German speakers. The “fast” languages are not actually more efficient than others at conveying information. There is perhaps some sort of biological speed limit in our brains that keeps the flow of information to the same pace.

It Is Okay to Go Slowly

Whether a language seems fast, like Spanish, or slow like Mandarin and German, the ultimate goal is to understand native speakers in normal communication. This means keeping up with whatever the pace is. It takes a long time, however, to acquire a language. We also know that students do not acquire language at all if they do not understand what they hear. When students are just starting out in their language studies, listening to people (including teachers) speak the target language at a normal pace is just too difficult. Teachers need to slow down if they want students to understand them. Understanding language at a slower than normal rate of speech is a necessary part of language acquisition.

We know that students will learn a new language if they receive input (through listening and reading) that they understand in that language. For beginner and intermediate students, this means that they need to read texts and listen to speech that has a limited number of words, shorts sentences, and in the case of listening it needs to be slooooow. People who have about an intermediate level of a second language will often say that they are more confident in their reading skills than they are in their listening. There could be lots of reasons for this, but I think that it has something to do with pacing. With reading, a reader controls the pace. She can read as quickly or as slowly as she likes. This is not the case with listening, as the speaker controls the pace.

Focus on Understanding and You’ll Catch up to the Native Speakers

Beginner and intermediate students should embrace a slower rate of speech. They should not feel frustrated that they are not ready to understand Spanish or Mandarin at the rates they are truly spoken. That will come with time when they have a more solid foundation in the language. To build that solid foundation in the language, they need to listen to that slower than normal rate of speech. There is absolutely nothing wrong with listening to language that comes at a slow rate of speed. It is just another part of the slow, ordered and complex process of language acquisition.

photo of elderly people talking
What are these two talking about? If you’re just starting to learn their language, it is totally normal if you can’t follow a regular pace of speech.

Story Listening Part 2: Language and Culture


A Listening Activity That Teaches Culture Too

Language learning starts with good input. Students need to hear the target language, and understand its meaning, if they are going to be able to retain it for later use. Story listening is a great way to combine Mandarin listening with information about Chinese culture. Conveniently, Chinese culture is rich with stories that explain the origin of holidays and festivals, teach traditional values, and also explain the numerous Chinese sayings known as chengyu. There are hundreds of options to chose from for a story listening activity in Mandarin Chinese.

What is Story Listening?

Beniko Mason, a professor in Tokyo, developed story listening as a way to help her students learn English. Story listening involves using simple vocabulary, short sentences, pictures and occasional translation to tell a story. Mason originally told her students folktales using this method. Critics of story listening might say that it is too teacher-centered. True, the teacher is often at the front of the class talking to her students. This does not mean that this listening activity is teacher-centered, however. Rather, everything that she says is specifically tailored for her students’ comprehension.

The goal of story listening is not to have students learn every single word in the story by heart. It is important to note that language learning is a slow, piecemeal process. Story listening is just one way to give students the comprehensible input that they need as part of this process. If chosen carefully, students will get both the language input that they need in order to learn and some cultural knowledge.

Story Listening in Mandarin Chinese

With 5,000 years of history, Chinese civilization is a rich source of myths, folktales, origin stories and more. By using these stories as a basis for a story listening activity, a lesson becomes a two-for-one. Students get both the input in Mandarin that they need to learn the language, and they also learn about the culture. The story of the cowherd and the weaving girl explains the origin of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day). The story of the Empty Flower Pot (link to English version of the story) is a good jumping off point for discussing cultural values.

The Empty Flower Pot

The key to making story listening a beneficial and enjoyable for the students it to make sure the language is pitched right to their level. For example, in telling the story of The Empty Flower Pot to beginners, the teacher should repeat key structures frequently. Beginner students should hear the verb “to have” used in context many, many times so they can acquire this structure and use it themselves. Working with the story of the Empty Flower Pot, a teacher can say: “The king did not have a child. He did not have a child. Did the king have a child? No, he did not have a child.”

Looking at this in English, the story seems a bit boring and repetitive, but this is exactly the type of language that students need to hear in order to learn. It does not seem boring to them. On the contrary, this type of storytelling holds their attention because they can easily follow along.


photo of white board from story listening activity
In story listening, a teacher explains new words with photos, drawings, and sometimes translations.

Chinese Valentine’s Day

Using a story such as the origin story of Qixi (Chinese Valentine’s Day) can be challenging. The story uses many words that are not very common. How often do we talk about cowhers, the Milky Way, spirits and weavers in our everyday lives? Probably not very often. To make this story appropriate for story listening, especially at the beginner levels, teachers need to tell it with frequently used words. “He likes her” and “she likes him” are good phrases to repeat with this story. “To like” is one of the super seven words and the phrase is appropriate for the story. As long as the focus is on more common structures like this one, the story will be a good use of class time.

Recently, I’ve begun to tell a story only, to have the students tell me that they already know it. This really is not a problem. If students already know the story in English, they will have an easier time understanding it in Mandarin Chinese. Furthermore, this can be a jumping off point for further discussion. After the students hear the story in Mandarin Chinese, the teacher can ask how each version is different. As with everything that we do in class, comprehension is the goal. Knowing the story already actually just makes it easier.

An article from Language Magazine on how story listening works to help students acquire a second language is here.

Check out a previous post on story listening.

Is Listening to the Radio Good Input?

A couple questions from adult students inspired this post. It is about comprehensible input, language learning, and where to get comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese, especially for beginner students.

Q: Is it helpful to listen to a lot of Mandarin, even if you don’t understand it? Should I listen to talk radio in Mandarin as a beginner student?

A: Lots of students think that it might help them learn Mandarin Chinese if they just listen to a lot of the language. They are probably hoping that language learning happens the way it does for Bart Simpson. He is immersed in French in one episode of the Simpsons and then suddenly starts speaking French (he speaks French at about the 2 minute mark). Language learning does not really work this way. Listening to large amounts of language that you do not understand is not effective. Students need to understand what they heard in order to learn a language.

This is what we call comprehensible input, language that students understand. The comprehension hypothesis states that students acquire language when they understand what they hear and read. If students do not understand what they hear and read, they will never get any meaningful language acquisition from it. This is why listening to the radio in Chinese (or a podcast, or a book on tape) as beginner student is not helpful. It will just be blah, blah, blah in the student’s ear. Stephen Krashen is the most famous researcher of comprehensible input. More information on comprehensible input is available on his website.

Q: Okay, so if I need comprehensible input to learn Mandarin, where can I get it?

A: Good comprehensible input can be tough to find! Authentic materials (i.e. readings meant for native speakers) are very trendy in language education right now. They are often too difficult for beginner students, however. They are not comprehensible.

There are several posts on this blog that can point students towards good input in Chinese for beginners. Each individual student will have to poke around and see what works best for his or her level.

YouTube Videos (mostly for kids, but adults can watch too!)

Graded Readers (intermediate and above)

More YouTube

Remember that comprehensible input is relative to the individual. A book that is comprehensible to one student may not work for another. The important thing is to spend time listening and reading language you can understand. Do not waste time listening to language that is too difficult. It is just blah, blah, blah and will not help you learn the language.

photo of adult students in Chinese class
Some Fabulous Adult Students