Do you have two and a half minutes? Do you want to understand why Lotus Chinese Learning (and other high-quality programs) do not use textbooks? We don’t spend a lot of class time teaching grammar rules or encourage our students to memorize new vocabulary words (aka teaching using traditional methods). Watch this short video to learn why it is okay to ditch the textbook.
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Can you learn new words through labels on your stuff?
There are many places to spend your money if you want to learn a second (or third!) language. There are classes, tutors, paid apps, Rosetta Stone, etc. You can even buy stickers to label all the stuff in your house in the target language. If you would like to learn a language such as Mandarin Chinese, should you buy stickers and spend the time and money to put them all over your house?
The short answer is no. Sticking labels on your fridge, coffee pot, and television won’t help you learn those words. There are two reasons for this. The first reason has to do with how we actually learn new words. The second reason has to do with how our minds work in general.
How we acquire new words
We learn new works when we encounter them in a meaningful context. Say that you are a highly motivated adult student or a parent who wants to help her child learn Chinese. You look up the words for sofa, lamp, table, computer, etc and then print out the words and paste them around the house. You’ve got the words, but you are missing the meaningful context. You don’t look at a sofa and think “yep, that is a sofa.”
We can’t even learn a new word in our native languages without a meaningful context. Say I told you that the word “puce” means a purplish brown color. If I asked you one year from now what the word “puce” means, then maybe you would remember, but more likely you wouldn’t. Say instead that your Aunt Mavis knits you a sweater for your birthday. You open up the gifts and see the lumpy bundle of yarn and she tells you, “the color is puce.” Your birthday is a memorable context. You’ve got the color right in front of you. Add to that the emotional resonance of the awkward birthday present. I promise you’ll remember that the color puce is a purplish brown.
Looking without seeing (or reading)
There is another reason that putting stickers with vocabulary words around your house does not work. Our brains are very good at ignoring what is in our visual environments. We just do not “see” what is there. Very quickly, those stickers will fade into the background and you or your child won’t even notice that it says 洗碗机 on your dishwasher. This psychological phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Maybe a highly diligent student will look at the sticker and say 冰箱 every time she opens the fridge, but most of us won’t.
Save your time and money. Labelling stuff around your house won’t help you learn new words in Mandarin Chinese (or any other language). You are better off seeking out compelling input (through listening and reading) to build your vocabulary in Chinese. The impulse to label stuff around your house is understandable. Learning a second language is a big undertaking and students want to feel like they are doing something. It is not worth the effort.
The TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) approach to language teaching focuses on teaching the most commonly used words in a language. Although originally used in Spanish classes, TPRS works for teaching just about any language. TPRS focuses on the most commonly used words in a language. TPRS experts suggest using frequency dictionaries in language instruction. Frequency dictionaries can be a powerful tool for language learning. What about Mandarin Chinese? Do we have lists of the most frequently used words in Mandarin Chinese to use in classes? Yes we do!
A list of most frequently used words in Chinese is not a document that should be used to evaluate student learning. Teachers should also not give a list of words to students for them to memorize. Instead, teachers can use a frequency list to plan instruction and design assessments. For example, in my beginner lessons with both adults and kids I tend to focus on the most commonly used verbs. These include 有、是、and 喜欢 （to have, to be and to like, respectively). I would not for example, include the word 抽 （to take out from between two things) in a lesson at this level because it us just not common enough.
Where to Find a Frequency Dictionary
So for the curious, where can we find frequency lists? Teachers may be interested in this frequency dictionary from the Mandarin Institute. It might help adults determine whether a book is appropriate for a child. A parent who does not speak Chinese could also use the list with a bit of effort, as long as the book she is looking at has a glossary in the back. Most good books that are meant for L2 learners do have a glossary.
Physical frequency dictionaries are available on Amazon or other major bookselling websites. This frequency dictionary has an average of four stars from eight reviews as of writing. Older learners (middle school and up) might enjoy the poster of the 1000 most common characters from Mandarin Poster. I wouldn’t use the Mandarin poster as a teaching tool, but it could be a good motivational tool for a learner who is at least 12 years old. Tracking progress by checking off characters with a dry erase marker could be a great motivation for a student. It could also have the opposite effect. Be careful!
Should Students Only Focus on the Most Frequently Used Words?
Teachers should not focus on only frequently used words to the exclusion of all else. Learning the most frequently used words is a good use of student time. Class time is also very limited. That doesn’t mean that there is not time to talk about exotic animals or cooking techniques (lots of rare words for that topic in Chinese!). If students want to learn about those topics, then they should. As I have written about on this blog, I have seen preschool Mandarin classes which attempt to teach really complicated vocabulary to little kids. I am sure that there are preschoolers who can handle it, but is that really the best use of time in a language class?
Instead of that, how about a task in which students decide whether to get a fish for a class pet? Think about all the language they will hear and use for that discussion: we will need to feed the fish, what does the fish eat, what color fish do we like the best, where do we buy a fish, do we want a big fish or a small fish? The words such as 要、吃、大、小 （want to/need to, eat, big, small) are amongst the most commonly used words in Mandarin.
Be careful when looking at frequency dictionaries for Chinese or at a list online of the 100/200/1000 most common Chinese words. Mandarin Chinese is a heavily context dependent and words often have many, many meanings. If the definitions given in English are brief, a reader might not get the full picture of how a word is actually used in Chinese. In this list the definition for 后 is given as “queen” 王后 does mean queen. But 后 as in after, behind or rear is a much more common use. Check another dictionary if it seems suspicious that the word “queen” is used all day long in Mandarin!
Read more about learning vocabulary in Mandarin Chinese:
Students need repetition in Mandarin Chinese classes. This is true for all language classes, too. It is a myth that young students pick up language effortlessly and can absorb a word by hearing it once or twice. Adults who want to learn Chinese similarly need lots of repetition so they can retain the language. Far from being boring, a class in which students can follow along is engaging and fun. When teachers move too quickly and use too many new words, students get frustrated and lose interest.
How Does TPRS Approach Repetition?
In the TPRS workshop last week, we practiced circling. Circling is the method that TPRS teachers use to make sure that there is enough repetition happening in class. When language teachers “circle” they ask repetitive questions about the same statement. For example, in English if I were circling the sentence “Tiffany likes to eat cotton candy in the park” I would ask, “Who likes to eat cotton candy in the park?” I could also ask, “Does Tianxi like to eat cotton candy in the park?” or “What does Tiffany like to eat?” A teacher can ask at least 5-6 questions about a single, fairly simple sentence before struggling for ideas. Adding in new alternatives, like “Does Tiffany like to eat cotton candy in the park or at the zoo?” can easily stretch out the practice. A caveat to circling is to mix up the order, so that the questions do not become predictable. If a teacher consistently asks questions about the subject of the sentence first, her students will not listen for meaning. Instead, they will know from memory to answer with the name of the subject first.
Circling and Mandarin Chinese
When using circling for Mandarin Chinese, using proper nouns in English is extremely useful. I would go so far as to say that using only proper nouns in Chinese is not a good use of class time. So for characters in Spanish or French class, teachers can use names like Pedro or Pierre because their students are likely to be familiar with them. Chinese teachers have it harder, if we call a person in a sentence Guoqiang, we are likely to hear “Is that a name?” “Is that a boy or a girl’s name?” “Oh, I didn’t know that was a name.” Instead, I suggest sticking with Mason, Abraham, or Jessica for character names. For places such as Dallas, London or Sao Paolo I also suggest using English names. Dálāsī sounds to me pretty much like Dallas, but I have never had any success convincing my students of that. Class time is a zero sum game, so every minute spent off topic explaining how Dálāsī really is the Chinese word for Dallas, or that Guoqiang is a man, is a minute wasted.
Additionally, when circling a sentence, I will sometimes use a English noun if the word is very low frequency in Chinese. I want my students to learn words like jiǎozi (dumplings) because the dish is common in China. Dumplings also have cultural importance and eventually they will need to understand homophones in China and their cultural relevance. These reasons do not hold up for using the Chinese word for pulled pork in class. If my students go to China or Taiwan someday, their experience will not be poorer if they do not know how to order a pulled pork sandwich. These countries are not bursting with Texas barbecue restaurants and frankly, I think students are better off diving into the local cuisine in those countries!
Is that Too Much English (L1)?
But wait, is that too much English use in Mandarin Chinese class? I’ve worked in programs where teachers who use English are practically drawn and quartered. I’ve also developed my own program based on making sure that students understand the vast majority of what is being said in class, which means providing English definitions. Students pick up language much faster when they know what is going on. I’ve seen students who after a month of spending 6 hours a day in a Mandarin-only class have not reached the same milestones as students who have had 12 hours of comprehension-based classes. Programs that forbid the use of English do not necessarily help students acquire Chinese (or any target language) faster. Based on my own practice and research, they probably actually slow students down. There is more information on the use of English in Mandarin class here.
Waaaay more information on TPRS and Chinese than I have here: http://tprsforchinese.blogspot.com/
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.