TPRS for Mandarin Chinese Learning

What is TPRS?

Students in Lotus Chinese Learning classes who are at least elementary-aged learn Mandarin Chinese through TPRS. TPRS stands for teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling. It is a teaching method that has widespread grassroots support amongst teachers and researchers. In brief, students in TPRS classes create stories (with strong guidance and support from a teacher) in the target language. For Lotus Chinese Learning classes, this means that students create a stories in Mandarin Chinese. Students work on the stories orally and then they read them, withe support from their teacher.

How do Students Create Stories in TPRS?

Teachers use “story-asking” to help students create stories. They supply the correct target language and they ask questions to move the plot of the story forward. A teacher might ask “Leticia wants to eat something, does she want to eat hamburgers or hot dogs?” The class would answer “hot dogs” and the group continues from there. The key to story creation in TPRS is to repeat the language many times. In teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling, this is called circling. Students need to hear “Leticia wants to eat hot dogs” over and over in order to fully absorb the vocabulary and the structure. More information on why repetition is important in language classes is available here. With kids, a TPRS story inevitably ends up with talking puppies eating pizza on Mars. This is perfectly acceptable, and even part of the fun of TPRS. It does not really matter what the story is about as long as the students are engaged and care about the meaning.

Objections to TPRS

Some parents and administrators object to TPRS because it looks too “teacher-centered.” As a graduate of a teacher preparation program, I can tell you that that a “teacher-centered” classroom is the great boogeyman of modern education trends. Yes, in a TPRS class, a teacher is often at the front of the room, talking to the kids. This does not mean that the class is teacher-centered. On the contrary, every word and phrase the teacher utters is tailored to making sure that the students can grasp the meaning of the story and can increase their ability to speak Mandarin. And let’s be honest, if a teacher were really at the center of a TPRS class, she would probably not be creating a story about a talking puppy who eats pizza on Mars. More responses to objections to TPRS are here (outside link).

Why TPRS?

I’ve taught and been in classes that use traditional teaching methods. I learned very little. If you have taken a language class and after a dozen class hours of instruction can only say something ridiculous like “el mono es curioso,” then on some level you know that traditional teaching methods don’t work. Students in TPRS classes can understand and use more of the target language than students in traditional classes. As TPRS teachers often say “your worst day of a TPRS class is better than any day of traditional methods.” I know it works because my students can create, understand and read aloud stories like the ones pictures below. They can do this after less than 10 hours of class time. I have not seen results like that in “teach and practice” type classes.

photo of story from TPRS for Mandarin Chinese class
My students created this story just hours after beginning a TPRS-style class. They can read what they wrote too!

 

TPRS story 2
Another example of what kids can do in very little class time with TPRS

More info on TPRS for Chinese here (outside link).

Have questions about TPRS? Use the contact page to ask a question or email mary [at] lotuschineselearning.com. A real human will respond to your message within 24 hours (excluding weekends).

Did Science Just Tell Adult Language Learners to Give Up?

Massive Study from MIT About Second Language Acquisition Defines Critical Period

This study, from MIT has gotten a great deal of attention in the past week and a half. It suggests that there is a critical period for people to start learning a second language. Based on data from close to 700,000 English speakers, the study showed that people need to start leaning the language before age 10 to achieve native-like proficiency. This study spawned lots of articles across the web. Some of those articles took a optimistic approach to the results and some felt the study indicated that language learning is nearly impossible past a certain age.

The more optimistic headlines include these:

Ability to Learn Languages Stays Strong Until Late Teens, Study Finds (Education Week)

The Window for Learning a Language May Stay Open Surprisingly Long (Sciencenews.org)

The more pessimistic headlines include these:

To Master a Language, Start it Early (The Economist)

Want to Learn a New Language Fluently? Start Before Age 10, Study Finds (The Telegraph)

Why it is Hard to Learn Another Language After Childhood (Time)

The Difference Between Fluent and Native-Like

While this study looked at the ability of people to learn English at different stages of life, there are implications for all language learning. Should students give up on learning Mandarin Chinese if they are older than age ten? Is there reason for this pessimism?

People can learn a second (or third) language at any age. A great response to the gloomier headlines is here. The author of this response, linguistics professor Monika Schmid, points out that the MIT study is about achieving native-like ability in a second language. The study never even mentions fluency. There are many, many people in the world who speak a second language fluently, but without a native-like ability. As I write this, I am sitting across the table from my husband. English is his second language. He teaches in English. He writes articles in English. Additionally, he uses English in meetings. No native English speaker, after having a conversation with his in English, would assume he grew up in America. And yet he has the high degree of fluency that is necessary for the life he leads in this country.

Adult Students Should Not Give Up on their Language Goals

The pessimistic headlines about language learning ability, and more importantly the articles, miss a key point. Native-like ability is not the same as fluency. So what if a person does not “pass” as a native-speaker? As long as a person achieves the fluency necessary to do what she wants to do, that is enough. Some students might want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to travel. Some students may want to learn Mandarin Chinese for business. Still others may want to bond with family members. All of these students may require different levels of language ability (and literacy). They do not need to seem native-like. Their goals are absolutely achievable.

It is far from impossible to learn a second language past the age of ten. Anyone can do it. The MIT study did not cover language teaching methods at all. With the right input (from a teacher), any student can learn a new language. Students can also learn at any age. They might not achieve native-like ability, but who cares? The goal should be a desired level of fluency, not anything else.

If you are any age, and wish to learn Mandarin Chinese, use the contact form to get in touch.

photo of the word possible with im crossed out
You Can Learn Mandarin Chinese At Any Age

Tips for Family Language Learning

Language Learning and Family

So many people want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to communication better with family members. Or they want their children to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to communicate better with family members. Or they want to learn a language other than Chinese in order to communicate at home. No matter what the details are, this is a great thing, but there are several points to keep in mind to keep the process of learning a new language free from frustration.

  1. We do not learn language by practicing it. Parents and other adults often want the language learner to “practice” the target language. We do not learn language by forcing ourselves to speak. People learn language by hearing (and reading) comprehensible input. Forcing a learner to speak the target language when he or she is not ready is actually counter-productive since the learner is not spending his or her time receiving input.
  2. Since we learn language by receiving comprehensible input, this means that family members who speak the target language need to do A LOT of talking, especially at the beginning. Family members need to expose the learner to the target language. Family members need to talk to the learner slowly, with short sentences, and using (mostly) words that the learner already knows.
  3. Give credit where credit is due. Many adults complain that they talk to their children in the target language that they child answers back in English. They say that the child “doesn’t speak” the target language. But if a child responds accurately to a question, then s/he has understood the question in the first place! Acknowledging that accomplishment will go a long way to fostering positive feelings towards the target language.
  4. Give up the petty arguments. There are many monolingual adults who tell a version of this story:  “My mom is from Mexico and my dad is Puerto Rican, they could never agree on the kind of Spanish to teach me so we spoke English at home.” It can be confusing at the beginning to use both “habichuela” and “frijole” but a petty disagreement is just another hump to get over. Use both synonyms and move on. Do not lose the forest for the trees.
  5. When the time comes that the learner starts speaking (remember, don’t force it!) let the mistakes slide. This is really hard, because our instinct is always to correct learners when they say something wrong. Research shows that explicitly correcting learner mistakes does not work. Worse still, explicitly correcting errors leads to feelings of frustration which deter language learning. Asking for clarification is fine, but try not to offer explicit corrections for the learner.photo of a family in silohuette

Do Mandarin Classes Need to Teach Grammar?

A Teaching Method That Does Not Focus on Grammar

This week, I went to a TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) workshop with Blaine Ray (video). TPRS is an approach to teaching languages using comprehensible input. As with any good workshop, there was just too much content to include in one blog post. I do want to talk about a couple points that Blaine Ray made in the workshop as they relate to Mandarin Chinese classes. Specifically, I’ll be explaining why I don’t teach grammar in my Mandarin classes.

Teaching Grammar Does Not Work

Many students, especially older students, arrive in Chinese classes with some experience learning a second language in school. Often they expect to learn some grammar, learn some new words and then put it all together themselves in a few sentences as practice. This is what we call a legacy model of teaching languages, or the “teach and practice” model. I used to teach this way too. There is lots of evidence from research on second language acquisition that shows that teaching grammar does not help students learn the target language. Instead of rehashing that research here, I am going to share an example from my own career.

A few years ago, when I was still using legacy methods, I was teaching the particle 了 (le) to a group of adult students. This was how it went: me, “The particle 了 shows a completed action. Many people think that 了 indicates the past tense. This is not quite right, an action may be completed in the past, the present or the future. 了 is not a tense marker, it just indicates that an action is complete.” One of my students* asked immediately: ” So 了shows the past tense?” Explicitly teaching grammar does not lead to language acquisition! Now, I just use 了 with whatever we are talking about in class, and after enough repetition, the students will naturally use 了 on their own.

Focus on Meaning Instead of Grammar

During the workshop this week, Blaine Ray explicitly mentioned that we do not teach grammar in TPRS. TPRS teachers use whatever structures that they need to convey their meaning. Students still need to start out with short, simple sentences, but teachers do not need to think “okay, this week we will do past tense, next year we will do the subjunctive.” In good language learning classes, students are focused on getting the meaning of what is being said, not sitting around plugging in their vocabulary words to grammar they have just learned.

How Students Learn Grammar Through TPRS

According to the TPRS approach, students do best in language when they have a “feeling” about what is right. Students have this feeling after they get enough input (repetition) in the target language. If students hear 了 used over and over again, in a meaningful context, they will pick it up. But the kind of explicit teaching that I used in my example above, just does not sink in.

A common mistake for Chinese learners to make with 了 , especially if they are learning with the legacy methods, is to use this particle too much in a sentence. For example, a student might say **我去了北京了 (sort of analogous to saying “I wented to Beijing). Students who learn through TPRS or other approaches that focus on giving them comprehensible input usually don’t make this kind of mistake. They have heard something like 我去了北京, 我去了北京, 我去了北京,我去了北京 over and over again. The sentence structure sinks in and the students get that feeling about what is correct because they have heard the structure so many times the right way and never the wrong way.

photo from TPRS workshop
French and Spanish teachers get ready to practice in TPRS workshop

TPRS also focuses heavily on reading. Learn more about reading and learning Mandarin here, here are here.

What do you think about explicit grammar instruction? Do you think is helps or hurt? Share in the comments!

*In case it matters, this student was intelligent, attentive, studious and had all that traits that can make a teacher’s life easier. She was sincere in her question and not trolling me. I’m not even sure trolling was a thing back then!

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!