Learning Chinese with Tasks

What are tasks?

Tasks in language learning are activities with a purpose. Many early language classes focus on doing activities with kids, making lady bugs out of paper plates when learning about insects for example. The kids do the activity while the teacher speaks in the target language. How are tasks different? Tasks are activities with a purpose.

Is it Communicative or not?

We know from research that people learn language from communicatively embedded input. In order for us to learn a language, we need to first get the input and it needs to be meaningful. We can’t just listen to someone reading a list of words and their English equivalents and pick up a language. The human mind knows that there is nothing meaningful going on there and will absorb very little.

Some teachers or parents may insist that activities do have a purpose. They are partially correct. If your goal is to make a lady bug out of a paper plate, then your purpose is to make a paper plate lady bug. Activities lack a communicative purpose, however. Students need to be engaged in the expression and interpretation of meaning in order to learn a language through what they are doing. Making an insect out of disposable dinnerware is fun, but there is no expression and negotiation of meaning involved.

Example of a Task with Kids*

Building a lesson around tasks for young children is not easy. It is worth it, however, because children need this kind of communicatively embedded input in order to learn a second language. One task that I have done with students recently is to figure out how many states we have been to as a class. The first step is to put together a floor puzzle of the United States. While we are working on this step, I begin to give the kids the input that they need, by asking “这是什么?” (What is this?) “这是什么? (holding up a puzzle piece) 这是Minnesota。你去过Minnesota没有?” (What is this? This is Minnesota. Have you been to Minnesota?)

Once the puzzle is complete, I begin to ask the students if they have been to different states and keep tally of their answers. The kids do not need a high level of Chinese at all to respond to these questions. They can nod/shake their heads, Since there are so many states (50 of them!), it is easy to get in a great deal of repetition during class. The kids hear and respond to “谁去过XX” over and over again. At the end, we can see how many states we have been to as a class. The purpose of this task is not to practice the verb form 去过 (have gone to). If it were, it wouldn’t be as fun. Our purpose is to find out how many states we have been to as a class. The children learn language through this task, not from it.

photo of students putting together a puzzle
Is this task communicative? Yes, the purpose is for us to find out how many states the students have been to. The purpose is NOT to “practice” a verb form.

Caveats About This Task

One important caveat about this task is that it works because I know that my students have traveled to many different states. My students are fortunate enough that their parents recognize the value of world language classes and pay tuition for them. They are usually from comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds. I realize that this activity would not be as interesting (and would probably lead to some negative feelings) if no one in the class had ever left the state of Texas. Not every task is going to be appropriate for every group of students. That is okay and is something that teachers need to consider when lesson planning.

More on tasks and language learning

*I’ve also done a version of this task with adults

How Immersion (Should) Work

The promise of language immersion

Last semester, I pointed out to different groups of classes (or their parents) that I was using almost 100% Chinese in class after about ten hours of class time (the exact number of hours was different for different classes and different age groups). These are the kind of results that encourage boosters of immersion or dual-language programs. It looks like evidence that students can be put into an immersion class where the teacher only speaks in the target language and students simply “pick up the language” in a short amount of time. The reality is, a language class that is near to 100% Chinese in the early days uses very different language than a group pf native speakers would.

Immersion as illusion

First, let’s take a look at a poorly done immersion class for kindergarteners, assuming they do not come from families who speak the target language. Italics represent the target language:

Teacher: During circle time today we are going to talk about the parts of a flower. (Pulls out book on flowers). This is a flower, right? Okay, these are petals. (Goes over parts of a flower in target language)… Great, now we are going to make our own flowers with tissue paper. Go get a pair of scissors from the arts and crafts corner and go back to your seats.**

What the students hear: Blah, circle time, blah blah blah blah flower. Blah, book, blah blah blah blah blah blah flower, blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah….. Blah blah arts and crafts corner blah blah blah your seat.

Students do not have a magical way to understand the target language after only a short time of instruction. What outside observers might see is an illusion: students appear to be understanding because they are sitting quietly and looking at the teacher, but they are really not comprehending what is said because it is being spoken too quickly, with too many unfamiliar words and with sentences that are too long.

If a class is going to be conducted using the target language at least 90% of the time, as ACTFL recommends, then teachers need to use language that students can comprehend. After 10 hours or so of class time with a group of young learners, we are not going over the parts of a flower. That vocabulary is way too complicated for them, and it is likely that they do not even have this information in their home language, making comprehension even more difficult.

Appropriate Language for a Beginner Immersion Class

A better approach to conducting a beginner class in nearly 100% target language would go something like this:

Teacher: What is this? This is a flower? Is it a book? No, it is not a book. Is it a tree? No it is not a tree, it is a flower. What color is the flower? The flower is red. Is the flower blue? No, the flower is not blue. The flower is red. It is red.

Students might be able to answer the questions the teacher is asking, or they can follow as she answers herself. This input lends itself to a neat little task for kindergarteners. They can make guesses about the different colors of flowers they might find around the playground, go outside and count, and then make a nice chart showing the results. This task is about more than just language and incorporates counting, which American kindergarteners usually need more practice doing.

Why does immersion work when it works?

Immersion can be an effective approach for language learning because it leads students to attend to meaning when hearing the target language. In a tradition “teach and practice” class, a teacher would introduce target vocabulary and grammar and then have students practice. (Don’t ask me how to do this with kindergarteners, I have no idea). There is no evidence that this “teach and practice” strategy works well to build language acquisition. There is no meaning, or very little meaning, attached to the language in these types of classes. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that language acquisition happens most effectively when students have access to input in the target language that is comprehensible to them. When students are working in the target language in an immersion classes, they are thinking about meaning in the target language. They are not thinking about verb agreement, articles, particles or any of the nuts and bolts of language that teachers tend to focus on in traditional classes. Students in my example above with the task on flowers are colors are busy counting and they only need a small number of vocabulary words (flower, various colors, numbers) in order to do this meaningful task.

Immersion goes wrong when students and parents expect that a student can be immersed in 100% native-like language from day 1 and learn as normally as they would in an L1 class. Immersion education is not magic. The target language used in an immersion environment needs to be comprehensible to the students, or else all they will hear mostly blah, blah, blah, blah.

*I’m conflating immersion classes that happen as part of dual-language programs in k-12 schools and immersion classes that could be part of an FLES program, private classes, Saturday school classes, etc. There are many differences in these types of classes, but their similarities are what I am talking about today.

**I’ve changed the details, but this example is based on a kindergarten immersion class that I observed

What do you think about language immersion education? 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!


Acquiring Measure Words

What Are Measure Words?

The other day I got an email with a link to a resource promising to help students learn the 115 most common measure words. Measure words are a feature of the Chinese language. Each noun in Chinese has a measure word that is used between it and a number. For example, in the phrase 三只狗 (three dogs) the character 只 is the measure word. Each noun will have at least one. Some students, especially adults who have limited time in their schedules for language learning like to look at charts that describe grammar. There is very little evidence, however, that looking at a resource like a chart will help a student acquire a second language. While adults may like an orderly description of a language, children, especially young ones, do not like to sit still and read about grammar.

Will A List Help?

Measure words are usually described as one of those tricky things to learn in Chinese. We do not really have them in English. In English, we say “a pair of scissors” or a “cup of water,” but measure words are much more extensive in Chinese. So if looking at a list of measure words*, does not help a student acquire measure words, then what does?

How Should Students Learn Measure Words?

Students will acquire the correct measure words if they hear them repeatedly. As stated above, looking at a chart of measure words is not the best use of learning time. Instead, if students hear a noun paired with a measure word over and over, they will retain that pair. Young children will not sit down and study a chart, but they will listen to a story. The measure word for hat is 顶. The pairing of 帽子 (hat) and 顶 shows up in the classic story Caps for Sale. There are hats in over 20 illustrations in the book. If a teacher reads the story to her students and counts the hats in the pictures the students will hear #顶帽子 over and over. Eventually, that pair will sink in for the students. They will have learned that the measure words for hats is 顶 without sitting down to explicitly learn that the hat measure word is 顶.

picture of Chinese version of Caps for Sale
Students will acquire correct measure words if they get enough input in context

*To be fair, there is a logic to them. For example, objects with a large, flat surface usually take the measure word 张