Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Task based Chinese learning and teaching

I was introduced to task based learning and teaching roughly ten years ago when I studied to become an English teacher. It was an approach that made a lot of sense to me, and was very different from how I had been taught languages in school.

I still think this approach has many merits, so in this post I will introduce the basics of task based learning and teaching. The article is meant for both students and teachers, so it will be slightly broader in scope than the average Hacking Chinese article.

Task based Chinese learning and teaching

In short, task based learning and teaching focus on performing meaningful tasks in the target language, which means that the focus is on using the language to communicate in situations that are either real or at least could have been real.

However, it’s not a just-use-the-language-and-you-will-learn-it method. Instead, it’s fairly rigorous in that it stresses the importance of both preparing or priming students, and following up activities that focus on form (such as vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and so on).

The general principle is function before form, meaning that language is used to communicate and accomplish something first, and that exactly how it’s done only comes in later.

Tasks for language learning and teaching

There are different definitions of a task, but the following criteria, based on Ellis (2003) make a lot of sense to me:

  1. Each task must focus on meaning (not form)
  2. Each task has a “gap” that needs to be bridged
  3. The students themselves choose how to solve the task
  4. Each task has a goal unrelated to language learning

I will return to each of these below, but let’s look at where tasks are placed in the general structure first.

Pre-task, task, review

Normally, tasks are inserted in a simple structure of pre-task, task and review:

  1. Pre-task: Students’ previous knowledge and skills relevant for completing the upcoming task are primed. In some versions, linguistic form might also be highlighted if necessary, but seldom explicitly taught.
  2. Task: The second part is the task itself, but more about that below.
  3. Review: This is where focus on form takes place. That’s where the teacher helps the students, or the students help each other (or indeed themselves), to improve how they can use the language to communicate.

Now, let’s take a closer look at tasks, since they are the core of the approach.

A closer look at tasks

Regardless of how tasks are employed, I think the criteria above are useful for judging whether a language learning activity is good or not. Let’s have a look at them again, one by one, in more detail:

1. Each task must focus on meaning (not form)

This makes sure that the focus is primarily on communication. The student is not meant to think too much about how something is pronounced or if the word order is correct while engaged in the activity. It’s unlikely that such conscious effort during a communicative task will actually help anyway.

Also, in a real-world situation, you seldom have the option to get immediate feedback or correction on how you say something. This makes learning a lot more realistic, and, in my opinion, a lot more fun. The goal is to accomplish the task; language learning comes as a result of this.

2. Each task has a “gap” that needs to be bridged

This is essential for any pair or group work in class, but also if you have a tutor or language exchange partner. A gap is simply a difference between what you know and what someone else knows. To bridge that gap, you need language.

There are many types of gaps, such as information gaps (you know when the bus leaves, but your partner does not) and opinion gaps (you know what you think about stinky tofu, but not what your partner thinks).

The point is that these gaps create a genuine need to communicate! You have to use the language to bridge the gap. Compare this to reading dialogues in a book or asking questions when you already know the answers. That’s not communication! Using language in a scripted manner is neither fun nor very useful.

3. The students themselves choose how to complete the task

This means that students themselves use whatever means they have available to solve the task, not just using some list of predefined terms given by the teacher or sentence patterns A, B and C. This is great because it’s the way real communication works.

I also like it personally because I really hate when teachers give exercises where I’m supposed to achieve something arbitrary (meaningless and without a gap), and then, to add insult to injury, also requires me to use certain expressions or words. Encouragement and support, yes, but no coercion, please.

At an advanced level, constrained speaking and writing can be a great way of learning, but that’s more akin to a game with certain rules and feels completely different.

4. Each task has a goal unrelated to language learning

This is perhaps the most important criteria of all. So much language learning in classrooms all over the world is done for the sole purpose of language learning. Yes, that might indeed be the end goal and the reason for why you are in class at all, or why you’ve chosen to learn the language in some other way, but it shouldn’t be the immediate focus of activities in the classroom.

Language learning should be the result of doing other things, not the focus of the activity! For example, writing ten questions using a question particle has no purpose beyond practising how to use that question particle, but if you use the same questions to learn more about a classmate or a native speaker, there is a purpose beyond the language itself.

I have trick I use to quickly spot if an activity is good or not in this regard. Ask yourself this question:

Would the activity have been interesting (albeit perhaps easy) for a native speaker?

If the answer is no, then it’s a bad task. If it’s yes, then it’s probably okay. No native speaker would enjoy something like writing ten arbitrary questions on a piece of paper, but asking the same questions to an actual person could very well be interesting.

This is actually related to playing games to learn languages as well, because a game like Codenames is definitely interesting for native speakers as well as language learners!

Focus on form

Once you have completed the task (bridged the gap), you can then focus on form. This could be done in many ways, but since working with form is what most learners and teachers do all the time, I’m not going to do more than give a few examples; “you” here means either the student, a classmate or the teacher.

You could listen to recorded audio or read something that was written during the task, and then consider how it could have been improved or adjusted to better suit the communicative need.

You can focus on any area you want, but stay close to the task! If pronunciation problems make it unlikely that a native speaker would actually have understood what you said, then you need to work on that. If strange word order was the main problem, you have your work cut out for you.

Conclusion

I like task based language learning and teaching because it is very student oriented and puts the focus on communication and potential real-world scenarios, but to be honest, the main reason I like it is because it’s fun.

Even if you don’t follow all the guidelines about how to create a task or don’t use the same structure, I think the ideas presented in this article really makes learning more interesting!

References

Ellis, Rod (2003). Task-based Language Learning and Teaching. Oxford, New York: Oxford Applied Linguistics.

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One comment

  1. Myles MacVane says:

    Your article on task-based language learning makes great good sense to me. As a long-time practitioner of taijiquan, I think that it is now time for me start translating directly into English the Chinese versions of the works of my teachers. I thank you for the inspiration.

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