Top Resources for 2018

Top Resources for 2018

Today’s blog post is something that is a little bit different. It is a list of the resources (e.g. books, toys, games, etc.) that were the most useful in class this year. I will probably realize in early 2019 that I left something important off of this list! For now, here are my top five resources from 2018.

Wordless picture books

photo of illustration from Journey
Illustration from Journey, a wordless picture book

Story books and stories in general are great resources for learning a second language, including Mandarin Chinese. Unfortunately, Chinese teachers have slim pickings for Chinese-language books available in the United States. The alternative is to bring home books from annual trips to China or Taiwan. Most teachers do this too, but as everyone know, books are heavy! It is certainly possible to use English-language books in class and just tell the story in Mandarin Chinese. The drawback to doing this is that it can be a little distracting when kids are already starting to read in English. Enter wordless story books. Teachers can use them to tell a story in Chinese, and they have the added benefit of not having distracting English text. There are many, many wordless picture books out there and they can quickly increase the size of your library.

Story Listening Stories

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

Story listening is a great use of class time. The beauty of story listening is that it is very easy to modify stories for different proficiency levels and different age groups. For teachers who have a decent drawing ability (illustrations help students get the meaning), prep for story listening is also very little. If teachers tell stories from the culture of the target language they also can kill two birds with one stone, or two eagles with one arrow as we say in Chinese*. This way, students get both cultural knowledge and input in the target language.

Susan You Mafan

Cover of Susan You Mafan
Cover of Susan You Mafan

Books that are written for language learners are worth their weight in gold. The novel, Susan You Mafan, is great for first year language classes. The story and characters appeal to middle and high schoolers. This year, I tried it out on adults. To my delight, they really enjoyed reading this novel, even though it is about a 14 year old. We learn to read by reading. The struggle for students is to have appropriate material for them to read. It is great that Susan You Mafan works for students of all ages.

The David Series

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

These books are a bullet-proof resource for my classes with young children. I think that there really is something about the character of David that really resonates with the little ones. Chinese-language versions of the David books are in the Lotus Chinese Learning library. They are great for learning Chinese because children often already know the story. This way they can focus on matching the new words into the story that they already understand.**

Map of China

photo of map of China in classroom
Map of China in beginner Mandarin class for adults

While my main task with students is to teach them Mandarin Chinese, it is also important that they learn a bit about the culture and geography. This map of China does not have any Chinese characters, but it does have nice illustrations that pique the students’ interest. It is also super useful for adult classes when we talk about where the students have been in China and where they would like to go!

The Importance of Stories

Is there a theme here? Yes, with the exception of my pretty map, all of my favorite resources for 2018 have to do with stories. Stories are perfect for language instruction for two reasons. Firstly, they give students the input (i.e. hearing the language) that they need in order to learn. They are also interesting to students. Students have an easier time paying attention and staying engaged when the class content is something interesting to them. Stories are inherently interesting, pretending to buy tickets in a train station is not.

*一箭双雕

** Many of these books are also available in Spanish and French

Resources Roundup: Intermediate & Above

It has been a few months since the last post on resources for learning Mandarin Chinese outside of class. Today I am including a roundup of resources that would be useful for students who are at least at an intermediate stage of language proficiency. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides definitions for the different stages of language proficiency here. Many parents and adult students want to have resources to help them learn Mandarin Chinese outside of class. Since students learn language through comprehensible input, it is important that whatever students listen to or read is at the appropriate level of difficulty. If a student is looking up every other word, the material is definitely too difficult. To facilitate learning, reading and listening should feel fun and enjoyable, not like a struggle.

Mandarin Companion Graded Readers

I have recommended this publishing company’s series of books before. They publish versions on western classics like Sherlock Holmes and Jane Austen (and a few Chinese stories!) that use limited vocabulary and simple sentences. They have added more books since I last recommended them. It looks like they are building their catalogue enough so that a variety of students can find a book they’d like to read.

Chinese-language movies on Netflix

Netflix doesn’t have a foreign-language category, but you can search “Chinese” or “Mandarin) and browse Chinese-language movies. I haven’t found any movies that also have Chinese subtitles (like they have in China), but it is perfectly fine to keep the English subtitles on. I recently watched This is Not What I Expected (喜欢你). It is a enjoyable romantic comedy with nothing that is too mature for a tween/teen audience.

Short Stories on Chinese-Stories.com

The website www.chinese-stories.com recently crossed my desk. First, the bad: this website is clunky and really difficult to use. It also falls into the same trap that claims a lot of content producers: their “novice” content is way too difficult for actual novice language learners. On the plus side, the website uses a freemium model, so there are some free readings. The short stories also have an accompanying audio track, so students can listen to the stories as well as read them.

screen grab of chinese stories
If you can get past the clunky website, there are some cute stories with audio narration on www.chinese-stories.com

More roundups on resources for learning Mandarin Chinese:

Resources for When There is no Mandarin Class

Advanced and Intermediate Resources

Have any suggestions for intermediate language learners? Share in the comments!

Can an App Help you Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Do Apps help make language learning easier and more affordable?

The recent $15 million series b funding of a language app called Memrise invites the question: “Can students really learn a language through an app?” Traditionally, language learning happened at home through the family, in school as part of a formal education program, through immersion in the target language environment, or some combination of the three. Learning a language, such as Mandarin Chinese, through an app is tempting because Chinese classes can be hard to find, they cost money and travel to China/Taiwan can also be arduous and expensive. Can an app solve these language learning issues?

What Can an App Help Students Do?

Most language-learning apps are based on the “freemium” model. Users can download the app and use a limited number of features for free, but then must pay to unlock the rest. Many of my students use Duolingo or Memrise. I’ve played around with both in order to understand what they offer. At worst, these apps function like an electronic deck of flashcards. Students think they are studying, but they are not really learning. At best, I think that they can help students reach short term goals with their language learning.

How Do Students Really Learn a Language?

It is important to keep in mind that people learn a language through communicatively embedded input that is comprehensible to them. In other words, people must listen to and read meaningful language that they can understand. Using a app as a deck of flashcards does not give students the right kind of input. A word that shows up in a list on an app with pinyin and an English translation, such as 苹果 (apple), it is certainly comprehensible to the user. The translation is right there. This type of input, however, has no communicative context. A user may remember the word later on. With enough review on the app, s/he probably will. This is not the kind of deep learning that results in the target language eventually falling from a student’s mouth the way that a native language does.

Other Language Learning Resources

Based on what I have seen from my students, the name Memrise says it all. The app can be useful for helping students memorize characters for short term learning, but it is not a program that provides the comprehensible input for language learning. Just because apps so far are not good substitutes for a quality curriculum or an immersion environment, does not mean that there are not good tools out there that can help students outside of the classroom or other language learning environment. Learning Chinese Through Stories provides meaningful content in a convenient podcast form (I suggest for it intermediate students and above).

There are additional resources on the blog here and here.

Do you have a favorite app to support your Mandarin Chinese learning? Share in the comments!

Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app
Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app

Mandarin Learning Resources for Intermediate and Advanced Students

TV Shows, Podcasts and Books to Help Students Learn Mandarin Chinese

For students who are learning Mandarin Stateside (or any non-Mandarin speaking region) it can be a struggle to get enough input in Mandarin Chinese. Students who learn the language in China or Taiwan are immersed in the target language, but students here must seek out listening and reading materials in Mandarin Chinese. I’ve posted here and here some links to videos to help students get more input in Chinese, but there have not been so many resources for intermediate to advanced learners until today. Below please find some links to resources (tv shows, movies, podcasts, books) that may help intermediate and advanced learners of Chinese get the input they need to acquire the language.

Viki

A couple of my adult students turned me onto Viki.com. It has dramas and movies from all over Asia, but you can search by Chinese/Taiwanese options. I like Viki because it has subtitles with Chinese characters, this is very helpful for students. I suggest skipping the soap operas set in ancient China because they use a great deal of archaic language that is not very useful to the modern leaner. Viki.com is free with advertising.

Dramafever

Dramafever is similar to Viki.com, although I find it harder to navigate. Top tip, look for Chinese characters in the titles to find Chinese-language dramas. Free with advertising.

Learning Chinese Through Stories

This podcast has content for three levels: novice, intermediate, and advanced, which are further subdivided into three levels. The content for novices is frankly a bit too difficult for actual novice learners of Chinese, but would work for intermediate and above. Getting lots of comprehensible input only works for language acquisition if students actually understand what they are hearing and are not struggling and straining to “get it.” Free.

The Three-Body Problem (Chinese version)

For students who want to master academic Chinese, reading fiction is the way to get to that next level. If you are a sci-fi fan, the work of Cixin Liu is highly regarded and popular. In any case, free reading (for pleasure) is practically a guaranteed way to increase your language acquisition.

Any other resources to suggest? Share in the comments!

More YouTube Resources for Mandarin Learning

Many of my students ask for resources to hear and read Mandarin Chinese between classes. Below are links to some YouTube videos that can be helpful for learning Mandarin. Note on YouTube for parents: YouTube is a great place to find language-learning resources BUT the content is not heavily monitored for appropriateness for children. Children should use YouTube with adult supervision.

Preschool Level

Little Fox has some great Mandarin Chinese videos. Many of them do not have Chinese characters, unfortunately, but this video with a song for learning numbers does!

Preschool, Elementary & Up

Many of the Little Fox videos are based on stories that children already know, such as Little Red Riding Hood. This is very helpful for their comprehension and eventual acquisition of the language.

Elementary & Up

Like the Little Fox videos, the downside of the Muzzy series is that there are no Chinese character subtitles. The Muzzy videos are very slow placed, which is exactly what language learners need. These videos tell the story of an alien coming to earth. At fifteen minutes, Muzzy is a little long for preschoolers to sit through, but is appropriate for slightly older children.

Middle School & Up

If a student has been studying Chinese at the intermediate and above level, s/he might be ready for content created for native speakers. This does not mean that watching a Chinese-language movie will be the same experience as watching a movie in your native language. Pause, look up words, re-watch scenes as needed. The King of Masks, linked to below, is a great all-ages movie. One caveat, it takes place in Sichuan, so some characters have a heavy accent. The link below has Chinese-language subtitles. Versions of this film with English subtitles are available. If you are a parent and would like to read a review of the film so you know what is going on, a review from the late, great Roger Ebert is here.