Fluency & Mandarin Immersion: How Much Input are Students Actually Getting?

Fluency expectations for Mandarin Immersion

Many students or their parents have seen ads on the internet that promise fluency in Mandarin Chinese in three months, or maybe one month. These results almost certainly won’t happen. Students may have honest questions about how long it takes to learn Chinese. Many people talk about (or complain about) studying Spanish for two or three years in high school, with dismal results. Many Chinese immersion programs promise high degrees of fluency by a certain grade level. Linking Chinese language fluency to a number of years of study is not really that useful, however. The key to building fluency is the amount of comprehensible input a child gets in a foreign language. This is more accurately measured in hours of exposure to the target language, rather than months or years. Quality of input matters a great deal, but that is a topic for a separate post.

How Much is Enough Immersion?

When I was doing research for my master’s degree at a kindergarten in China, the school had a bit of a crisis. Chinese kindergartens usually have at least three grade levels, analogous to pre-k 3, pre-k4 and kindergarten in America. The school where I was, teaches English as part of its program. They had several teachers from outside China.* The tuition (like many kindergartens in China, this is a private school) is correspondingly expensive: about US$800/month. The crisis came when a group of parents decided that after spending $800/month for two years, their children could not speak any English. Since I was a graduate student in education, they asked for my opinion on assessing English language learning.

Since I was doing research on language acquisition, I had actual data to inform my answer. I had been spending weeks in a classroom, recording the teachers and students talking to each other and taking detailed notes about language use. From what I observed, the students got very little input in English. They heard English for only 20-30 minutes per day. Again, this was not just a casual observation. I was there to observe, record video and take detailed notes on what the children and teachers were doing in the classroom. The parents might have gotten the impression that their children were immersed in English for eight hours a day, but that was not what was happening.

Myths and Misconceptions

The common misconception that children learn languages rapidly and the school’s expensive tuition created a perception amongst the parents that their children should be speaking English as fluently as they did Chinese. No one believed me that the children were generally doing very well with what they had been provided. The students could obey commands, engage in basic conversation, and would spontaneously speak English. On my first day, a girl pointed to the image on the washcloth she was using to clean her face and said “elephant.” This spontaneous use of English for communication was a good sign. The child was building an implicit understanding of English in her head. But she did not say “this is an elephant, my favorite animal.” Her output was limited to one word and this level of language use is what disappointed the parents.

We expect children to be able to have a reasonable conversation with an adult at the age of six. By that time, children have heard about 14,500 hours** of input in their mother tongue.

The kids in the class with the unhappy parents were a bit younger, 4 and 5 years old. They had been in school for about a year and a half. Kindergarten in China runs for twelve months a year. Kindergarteners in China have a few weeks off for vacations around Chinese New Year and other holidays, another week off for sick days. I observed about 30 minutes/day input in English. That works out to 170 hours of English input (68 weeks*2.5 hours of English input/week). This is a rough estimation, but that is just over 1% of the input a child gets in her first language by the age of six. With this kind of discrepancy, it is little wonder that the children in the Chinese kindergarten were not speaking English fluently.

Language Learning is Slow, Ordered, and Complex, No Matter What

Parents, teachers, policy makers and other education stakeholders often have high expectations when children are learning a second language. Quality input in the target language is the necessary ingredient in building fluency in that language. No one wants to waste time in a poorly thought out program. Often, however, parents and others base their expectations on the wrong metric. The key to language learning is quality input in the target language. Only the number of hours that students spend getting this input that can really help us determine whether progress is adequate. The kids in the kindergarten learned English for about a year and a half. They only spent a small portion of the week listening to English, however. It showed. While there is truth in the saying “you get what you pay for,”*** money spent on tuition is also not a metric against which you can measure progress. Language learning is slow, ordered and complex. No amount of tuition dollars can help a student leapfrog the developmental stages of language learning.

kid reading Chinese kindergarten
Kid reading in kindergarten where I did research

*my research had nothing to do with this, my focus was on the Chinese teachers

**I’m getting this number from While We are on the Topic from the great Bill VanPatten

***It is such a good saying that I know three equivalents in Chinese: 一分钱一分货/好货不便宜,便宜没有好货/贱的不贱,贵的不贵. Know any others? Share in the comments!

Learning to Read in Chinese, It is not Memorizing!

Reading is not Memorizing

Learning to read in Chinese is not an exercise in memorizing 3,000-5,000 different characters. Surprisingly to some, learning to read in Chinese is not that different from learning to read in English. In both languages, readers are mapping sounds that they already know to the written word (or character).

But wait! Many adult students say, isn’t it far easier for young children to start reading in Chinese than adults? Not really, children and adults tend to learn Chinese characters the same way. Since children often have more time to spend on Chinese learning, they have an advantage there. It is not a cognitive advantage, however.

So what is going on inside of people’s heads when they start to learn Chinese characters? First impressions of a Chinese character follow a global prior to part principle.* Readers notice the contour of a character and its edges. Many people believe that Chinese is a completely opaque language, and that there is not phonological component to written Chinese. This simply is not true. Eighty to ninety percent (linguists disagree in the exact percentage) of Chinese characters have a phonological component. Phonological awareness is implicated in reading Chinese, just as it is for reading English. There is evidence that the orthography of Chinese characters becomes more important in later reading, but at the beginning, readers are forming more holistic impressions of characters. I am glossing over many details for the sake of brevity, but the takeaway is that speech and sound have a great deal to do with learning to read in Chinese. Chinese reading is not just a visual exercise.

A Proven Approach to Reading in Chinese

In teaching students how to read Chinese, I have borrowed a great deal from Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. Her method involves introducing characters after students have learned the word orally and using lots of repetition. I have been laughed at (in a good-natured sort of way) by adult students who think that I am pulling their leg when I say that they will be reading sentences by the end of their first two-hour class. Without fail, they are reading at the end of the class. We are only reading words that we already know, and there is a great deal of repetition, but students read with a very high level of comprehension and there is no tedious memorizing of Chinese characters. There is much more to cold character reading than what I can cover in a paragraph. If you would like more information, please click around Terry Waltz’s blog, linked to above.

There is some evidence that it is easier to learn Chinese characters which have fewer than six strokes. I think it is more important to focus on learning the most frequently used characters first, rather than just introducing characters based on the number of strokes. For example, 我 (I/me) is a fairly complicated character, but it is one of the most frequently used Chinese characters so students can and will learn it quickly.

Using Text with Pinyin in Chinese Reading

There are many different types of reading resources available for students learning how to read in Chinese. I favor resources that provide pinyin to help students look up unfamiliar words and a glossary. I am reviewing this version of the story of the monkey king below for my intermediate students. This version is great because it has the pinyin on the opposite page and a full glossary in the back. Students can easily check the opposite page for pinyin if they are unsure of how to pronounce a character and easily look up unfamiliar words. They can also read just the characters without referring to the pinyin if they do not need it.

photo of pages of book with Chinese characters on one side and pinyin on the other side
Text with Chinese characters and pinyin

The below image is actually of a text meant for Chinese children. I do not prefer texts that have the pinyin above the characters. Yes, it does provide the same function as having the pinyin on the opposite page which is to provide pronunciation help. With language students, there is a tendency to ignore characters in favor of pinyin if it is right there. Students will generally just read pinyin and ignore characters if they are included together like this. I would rather have students fluently reading characters from the start of their journey learning to read in Chinese (i.e. through cold character reading) than to limp along with mostly pinyin reading.

photo of text with Chinese characters
Poem by Li Bai with pinyin written above the characters

What about Writing in Chinese?

Like reading, writing Chinese characters does not need to include memorization of thousands of characters. Read more about approaches to writing Chinese in another blog post here.

*I am using the research of Hui Li (2015) here, contact me for a full citation.

What are your experiences in learning to read in Chinese or another language? Share in the comments!

Novice Tasks & Classroom Management

What is a Task in Language Learning?

What are good tasks to do with novice students? We should start by defining a task. A task for a language class always has a purpose that is not language. So if we are going around the room naming the colors that students are wearing, that is not a task. We are just naming colors for the sake of using the words for red, blue, green, etc.  A task would be to make a tally of all the colors we are wearing. Then to compare that tally to the school colors. The task has purpose because we are trying to find out something: whether there is a relationship between the school’s colors and the colors that students like to wear. (This might be a very boring task at a school where students wear uniforms.)

Tasks are great for learning languages, but creating tasks for novice students can be a challenge because they just do not have a great deal of language at their disposal. When the novice language learners are young children there is an additional challenge because they do not have the self-control that adults have. Classroom management is a challenge for any teacher, but when we are in language teaching, there is an extra layer of pressure to use the target language while also maintaining order.

A Task for Beginner Students in Chinese

One task that I have done with different groups of children is to read the book 大卫,不可以 (No, David!) with the kids. Then we make a list of things that are okay (可以)and not okay (不可以)to do in class. The book provides a great deal of comprehensible input, it is repetitive and probably already a familiar story to the kids. Once we have gone over 可以 and 不可以 over and over in the story, then it is time for our task. Together, we make a list of things that are okay and not okay to do in class. Children can act out their suggestions and use English if needed. These suggestions all get compiled into a shared document that functions as a list of classroom rules-a classroom management bonus. With a task like this, there probably is not enough repetition for the students to acquire a phrase like 打人 (to hit somebody). They definitely can acquire 可以 and 不可以 and use those phrases with gusto.

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

If they students can use 可以 and 不可以, that means they understand when the teacher uses these words too! This brings us closer to our goal of using the target language for classroom management.

Picture of whiteboard with class rules in Chinese
Class rules should be included in a way that children can understand. A picture of someone raising a hand is more effective than writing: 举手。

Vocabulary in the L2 Classroom: Less is More

Too Many New Words is Too Much

Before discovering comprehensible input for second language learning, I used to be very concerned about packing as many words as possible into each lesson. I did not think that there was a maximum number of words for each lesson’s focus. It is understandable that language teachers want to get as much out of each lesson as possible. Many of my students only have class for an hour or two each week, so they (or their parents) also want to get the most out of their time. Contrary to my previous beliefs, when it comes to target vocabulary words per class, less is more.

Seasoned language teachers who use comprehensible input to teach a target language, however, tend to focus on just a few structures per class. The problem with trying to squeeze as many words as possible into an hour of Chinese class is that there is not enough time to repeat the words the number of times needed for them to really sink in to the students’ brains.

Students Need Repetition

For younger students, a classic story with lots of repetition is a great tool for helping students acquire new words. As I have written previously, I like Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do you See? because of the repetition of the structure “to see something.” After reading this story, the structure “你看什么/我看见XX” can be used to do a task for listing all the things the students see in their classroom.

Just A Handful of New Words Per Class

A unit on family is a must-do for novice classes. Often my adult students would get caught up in nailing down the vocabulary word for every single family member they have. We spent too much time going over the words for “father’s elder brother, ex-wife, older female cousin on my father’s side, and etc.” Undoubtedly, my students wanted to learn the proper terms for important people in their lives, but it just was not possible to include all the different possible family members with sufficient repetition. The solution was to talk about a family (often, I present my family) using just the basic members of a nuclear family, mom, dad, elder brother, elder sister, younger sister, and younger brother. These are just six new words, which is about right for an hour-long novice class. The cool thing about family, is that members can be described in more than one way. For example, Uncle Bob can also be described as “dad’s elder brother,” so students can keep using the simple terms until they are ready to use the actual Chinese word for father’s elder brother (伯伯). Just as with vocabulary acquisition for children, the goal is to work in as many repetitions of the new words as possible.

To recap, a class that starts with a long list of vocabulary words is probably not setting out on the right foot. When it comes to vocabulary learning, less is more. Students need to hear vocabulary words spoken over and over again in order to retain them. There simply are not enough minutes per class to focus on the long lists of “new words” that accompany most legacy method textbooks. Instead, a tight focus on a small group of vocabulary words or structures is a better use of class time.

photo of part of vocab list for advanced Chinese class
Too many new words!