“Rules” For Learning to Speak Mandarin

Some folks love rules, so here they are. Below are three rules for learning to speak Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #1: Don’t force yourself to talk. The same rule goes for parents of children who are learning Mandarin Chinese. Many students (and parents) believe that students should try to repeat what the teacher says. There really is not any reason to do that. At best, students end up feeling like they are doing something that resembles learning. Having positive feelings about language learning is a good thing, but they don’t directly lead to language acquisition.

It is perfectly normal and expected to go through a “silent stage” in learning a new language. There is also a tremendous amount of variation in how long this silent stage lasts. It depends on both the learner, and also how much input the student gets. Adult students often will try to talk, but young children do not do the same. It could easily be months before a student says anything in Mandarin Chinese.

Rule #2: Speaking in full sentences does not matter. Many students (and parents) have it in their heads that students need to start speaking Mandarin Chinese in complete sentences. Just like forced speech, I think that this comes from the mindset that students need to be doing something that looks like learning. Speaking in a complete sentence is not really necessary, however.

To begin with, that speaking in a complete sentence is not how we talk normally. Sometimes we respond with one word. Sometimes we respond with a rambling run-on sentence of sorts. One thing should be clear from the blog by now. That is, we learn to speak by listening and not by speaking. Since speaking is not something that we learn by doing, there is no need to force speaking in a certain way, e.g. in complete sentences.

Rule #3: Speaking is useful, but probably not in the way that you think it is. Although we learn to speak through listening, speaking can be useful to language learners in a narrow sense. When a learner talks to someone who is not the teacher in Mandarin Chinese, the learner’s speech can help the new person realize that she needs to slow down and use simpler words.

The type of speech that we hear from beginner and intermediate learners (stilted, single words, lots of errors) is a good reminder for native speakers to slow down. Slowing down is often the most useful thing that a native speaker can do to make it easier for a language learner to understand them.

More on learning to speak Chinese:

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

Speaking Practice Does Not Help Students Gain Fluency

Are There Four Skills in Language Learning?

What are the Four Skills?

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.

picture of speech bubbles
Do we learn speaking as a skill in isolation from reading, writing and listening? I don’t think so.

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.

photo of student at graduation
We just don’t make speeches like this one too often in our lives

*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

 

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!