Why Mandarin Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning Are Different

This post is for any students or parent who wants to understand what makes Mandarin classes at Lotus CHinese Learning different. It answers the questions about why so many parents and students are frustrated with typical language classes. It also explains what comprehensible input is, and why it is crucial for language learning. (7 minute read)

Common Frustrations in Language Teaching and Learning

While I was working at a school that used a combination of immersion and traditional (legacy) teaching methods for Mandarin Chinese classes, a colleague turned to me after class one day and said “I think that we are teaching the students to be mute.” She was frustrated with the fact that her students were not picking up the language. The way she phrased her disappointment was so striking to me that I have remembered it ever since. The students who had just walked out of the room where upper elementary/middle school aged kids. Some of them had been taking Mandarin Chinese classes for years.

My colleague was energetic and talented. She grew up in a large city in southern China and then pursued an education degree in the United States. On paper, there was no reason that the students in her class shouldn’t be picking up Chinese. My colleague knew the language, she was a native speaker after all, and she had a degree in education. The students were also the type of bright kids who took an extra language on the weekends and had parents who made sure that they did their homework.

Research shows students need comprehensible input

There is a simple explanation for why these students did not appear to be acquiring Mandarin Chinese: they were not getting enough comprehensible input. There is forty years of research to support the hypothesis that students learn a second (or third) language most effectively when they receive lots of comprehensible input in that language. Comprehensible input is simply spoken or written language that the students can understand. Depending on how much a learner already knows, comprehensible input might be a very simple story told by a teacher, or it might be a chapter book with an extensive glossary in the back. In the words of the scholar most associated with the theory of comprehensible input: “comprehensible input is the crucial and necessary ingredient for the acquisition of language” (Stephen Krashen).

A Typical Language Class

photo of students in China in Mandarin Classes
Millions of teachers in China are still learning language through traditional methods

In a traditional language classroom, teachers introduce grammar points and vocabulary and then usually ask the students to practice, by making sentences or dialogues. If you studied a foreign language such as Spanish in high school, you probably remember a beginner lesson about time. The teacher would say: “ lavé los dientes a las ocho y media.” Then the students will go around the room saying what time they brush their teeth. One student might say “lavé mi dientes a las ocho y media” and then hear the teacher correct her by saying “los dientes not mi dientes.” Maybe a student will say “me lave los dientes a las ocho y media de camino a la escuela” and that will be the only moment of levity for the whole lesson.

One of the problems with this method is that students do not hear enough of the target language. The teacher will explain verb conjugations. She will explain that they don’t use a possessive article in Spanish. She will explain that it is literally “brush the teeth,” not “brush my teeth.” But the teacher will only say the target structure a handful of times. Based on what we know from the research, students really need to hear a piece of language repeated dozens of times before it really sinks in. Hearing a teacher say “lavé los dientes a las ocho y media” a couple times, then having to “practice” the structure is not nearly enough repetition.

Are Immersion Programs the Answer?

Immersion programs have emerged over the last few years as a potentially more effective way to teach learners a second language. There is plenty of research out there showing that immersion programs work. But there are many caveats. In the legacy methods covered in the previous paragraphs, students simply do not get enough input. They understand what they hear, but they don’t hear enough repetitions for the words. With immersion, a common problem is that there is not enough comprehension happening in the classroom. If a teacher begins an immersion kindergarten class on day one by reading a book meant for native-speaking children, there is no way that the children will understand what she is saying.

Common pitfalls in immersion classes

The language that immersion teachers often use is just too complex and abstract for beginners to understand. Think about how we talk to very young children. We use short sentences, simple structures, and simple, concrete words. Think about the last time you spoke to a baby. Did you say “Mommy is going to work now” or “Grandpa has a toy for you”? We instinctually leave out pronouns because they can be confusing and hard to follow. “But wait,” many parents say, “I did not use baby talk with my kids and they learned English just fine.” I trust that these parents did not often say “goo-goo, ga-ga” to their babies. They also probably did not come home from work every day and try to have conversations with their children about bilateral trade or nuclear war. Without even consciously thinking about it, they spoke to their babies using comprehensible input.

In his excellent book, While We are on the Topic, language acquisition expert Bill VanPatten illustrates the kind of language that parents use when talking to babies:

Parent: Ok. Where are your eyes [touches the child’s eyes] There they are!

Child: [squirms and giggles]

Parent: Where’s your nose? [touches the child’s nose] Yep. There’s your nose! [kisses the nose]

Child: [squeals and laughs]

Parent: Let me see your ears. Where are your ears? [gently rubs both ears…]

It is not goo-goo, ga-ga, and it is not the way adults talk to each other. It is language appropriate for a language learner, which is exactly what a baby is. There are too many immersion classes in which teachers use too-complex language. They talk to the children as if they are native speakers of the target language. These students are not native speakers, however. Students get a lot of input in the language, but there is so much wasted effort in the immersion class. So often the learners don’t comprehend what they hear.

Students Acquire Language Through Comprehensible Input

A major problem with traditional method classes is that students do not get enough input in the target language. On the flip side, in immersion classes, students get a lot of input in the target language. They often they don’t understand the vast majority of it, however. They are in over their heads and as a consequence, don’t learn as much as they could. There are the fundamental problems with both approaches, as they relate to comprehensible input.

Mandarin Classes with LCL Are Effective

Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning focus on making sure that kids get enough input.  This happens through listening and later reading). Classes also focus on making sure students understand what they hear. Supporters of traditional method classes want to hear students speaking in phrases from the first day of class. Supporters of immersion models often want to make sure that the class doesn’t use any English. Students in thoughtfully designed classes do actively participate. We spend very little time speaking English. Lastly, we do not succumb to the downsides of a traditional or immersion class. Lotus Chinese Learning classes use task-based activities, simple stories, TPRS and other methods to give the comprehensible input that they need to acquire Mandarin Chinese. While every student is different, they all steadily acquire the language because they learn through research-supported methods.

photo of whiteboard with task from Mandarin Classes
This is an example of a task in class with lower-intermediate students. Click the link below to learn more about tasks in language Mandarin classes

More on how Lotus Chinese Learning classes are different (and more effective):

Do Mandarin Chinese Classes need to teach grammar?

Story Listening

An introduction to TPRS

Tasks and Language Learning

Have questions? Use the contact page to get in touch. All emails receive a response within 24 hours (excluding weekends).

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).

Keeping Students Engaged In Mandarin Chinese

The Challenge of Keeping Students Engaged

Keeping students engaged is so important. Mandarin classes often attract a diverse group of learners. Some students learn Mandarin because they are deeply interested in Chinese culture, some students have a family connection to China/Taiwan, some are already fluent in a language other than English and are looking to add another, and there are probably lots of other reasons too! With this diversity in the classroom, it can be difficult to keep all learners engaged. The first step to keep learners engaged is to make sure that the language that they get is comprehensible to them. Students should understand 100% of what is being said in class. The second step is to use topics that are of interest to the students.

Student Interests Are the Key to Student Engagement

This Tweet came up in my feed today: “Talk to students about their lives, their TV shows, their sports teams…” I could not agree more! It is so important to include topics that the kids are interested in as part of the classroom conversation. I have to do a bit of research to know about video games, etc that the kids like and mention in class.

My classes, especially for older elementary students and up use the TPRS method. TPRS is a language teaching method that uses collaborative storytelling to help students acquire the target language. TPRS uses lots of suggestions from the students to create stories. Because the twists and turns of the stories come from the students, they are automatically more engaged. It also pays to do a little research about what the students want to include. They are so delighted when their teacher asks informed questions about their favorite video game or their favorite restaurant.

screenshot
Tweet that inspired this post from language learning expert Martina Bex

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!