Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese learning

Scaffolding is a common metaphor in education. The idea is that temporary support allows the learner to perform at a more advanced level, then this support is gradually reduced until the student can manage without it entirely. A little bit like using support wheels when learning to ride a bicycle.

Another way of looking at scaffolding is to say that there is an optimal difficulty the material you approach should be at (even if that varies), and that when learning Chinese, this is often too high. Scaffolding is then any tool or service that lowers the difficulty to a manageable level.

8 great ways to scaffold your Chinese learning

In this article, I want to discuss ways of scaffolding your Chinese listening and reading practice. While it’s certainly possibly to scaffold any learning activity, I think the need is much bigger for listening and reading, so that’s what I will focus on today.

Like most articles on Hacking Chinese, this article takes a student perspective. However, when it comes to scaffolding, it’s usually the teacher who provides scaffolding, but it’s possible to provide this for yourself as well.

I would also like to hear about how you scaffold your learning. This article is by no means exhaustive, so if you have other suggestions for how to make listening and reading practice easier, please leave a comment!

4 ways to scaffold your Chinese listening practice

When it comes to listening ability, many of the problems experienced by students are not actually directly related to listening ability. Instead, other areas such as vocabulary is often to blame. However, there are some things that can be done to scaffold listening practice:

  1. Slow down the audio – Using programs like Audacity, it’s easy to slow down any audio you have recorded. It’s technically not possible to do this as much as you want, but decreasing speed by a third usually gives good results and is considerably easier to understand. Make sure you use the function called “change tempo” and not “change speed” (the former will not alter the pitch, but the latter will, making any speaker sound drunk). Other programs and services offer this too, including YouTube.
  2. Listen many times – This should be obvious, but some students still overlook the fact that when you study on your own, you can listen many times. They give up after listening just once, thinking the content too difficult. It probably is, at least for casual listening, but if you want to study it anyway, listen to it five, ten or twenty times. Unless you’re really out of your depth, you will gradually understand more and more.
  3. Use written support – Listening is difficult partly because it’s instantaneous; if you don’t understand something it’s gone after a few seconds. You can’t linger on a specific word until you get it like you can with reading. For this very reason, using written support can sometimes be a good idea. This could be subtitles for a movie, the lyrics to a song or a transcript of a podcast or news broadcast. However, as I have pointed out in another article (Listen before you read: Improve your listening ability), make sure you listen before you read!
  4. Visualise the audio – This is a non-linguistic version of the above. Instead of relying on written support, you rely on other visual input, such as pictures, video or similar. A movie is much easier to understand than a radio play, a news broadcast on TV is not as hard as one on the radio, and so on. This could also be extended to very specific things such as tones. Having a visual aid to tones could help you hear them (you can draw tone curves with programs like Praat, although that’s not something I really recommend for the average student).

There are more ways to scaffold your listening practice, but these broadly cover the ones you can do on your own. With a competent teacher, you can of course do much more. If you have further suggestions for outside-the-classroom situations, please leave a comment!

4 ways to scaffold your Chinese reading practice

Scaffolding for reading is a bit more direct and you’re probably already using some of these methods. Let’s go through them to make sure you know about the tools you have available!

  1. Pop-up dictionaries – This is by far the most important tool of all. As David Moser points out in this article (The new paperless revolution in Chinese reading), it’s something that has revolutionised Chinese reading. I elaborated this point further in an article about reading Chinese texts on your phone, something you should definitely do if you haven’t tried it already. The main point is that if you can look something up in a fraction of a second, you can suddenly deal with texts that would have been impossible without them. This type of scaffolding is so powerful that you might be tempted to use it too much. Remember the analogy about using support wheel to learn to bike? I think most people understand that you won’t learn if you never take them off!
  2.  Spoken text – For people who have more problems with reading than listening, being able to hear the written text can help a lot. There are many ways of doing this. To start with, you can use the same type of resources as you do for listening provided that they have transcripts, but instead focus on the written text first. Text to speech is also becoming better by the day and is now at a level where it actually works well for understanding. I wouldn’t dream of teaching pronunciation based on it, but it does aid understanding if that’s what you’re after.
  3. Visualise the text – Most I said above about visualising audio can also be done for text, such as reading news articles with pictures or using the subtitles of a TV series or movie as your main focus (turn off the audio to remove scaffolding, turn it on to add it). My favourite example of this is, without a doubt, reading comics/manga to learn Chinese. It’s an excellent example of how pictures can help your reading practice!
  4. Annotate the text – There are multiple ways you can annotate the text to make it easier to understand. This includes generating custom word lists (check Mandarin Spot) adding pronunciation in Pinyin, Zhuyin or just tone marks (check Purple Culture). However, remember the support wheels! If you include Pinyin next to the characters, you might end up not even trying to read the characters and you won’t improve your ability to do so.

Conclusion: Scaffolding is an important part of learning

I strongly believe that it’s very important to adjust input to a level which is suitable for your current level, your current stated of mind and the specific situation you’re in. This vastly increases the material available to you and it also helps you learn. Sometimes you might want to make it harder for yourself, but in the majority of cases, you want to make it easier. Far too much time is spent on difficult text and audio. Use the proper scaffolding to make it more manageable!

Finally, I would like to hear what you think. Are you using some kind of scaffolding I haven’t mentioned here? Do you have a clever approach that perhaps fits in one of the categories, but you want to share with me and others because it’s so useful? Leave a comment!

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  1. For reading Chinese text on Android devices, you can consider our Hanping Chinese Popup app. This app works on top of whichever app you happen to be using so you don’t need to take a screenshot and/or leave the app you are using.

    You can find a video demo in the app store listing: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.embermitre.hanping.app.popup


    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good point! I’ll wait a bit longer until there are more suggestions for things I have missed and then update the article.

  2. Ayse says:

    FlipWord is a great app for learning effortlessly. It is quite simple and effortless yet also quite different from other apps. It is currently available as an add-on for Google Chrome. https://flipword.co/

  3. Luke says:

    Great article. For more advanced learners, try the app ”得到“ by 罗辑思维‘s presenter 罗胖. You can download tonnes of little free snippets of audio talking about various interesting topics betwen 3-5 mins each. The audio can also be slowed down to 0.7x speed instead of the more common 0.5x speed, which makes a world of difference (as in the narrator sounds chilled out, not drunk!).

    If you do intend on slowing the audio though, I would advise you change the settings to only download the guest narrators audio as 罗胖’s 安徽 accent makes him hilariously inebriated.

    Here’s the best part: You can download everything and play it over and over, and also read any article you’re listening to at the same time.

    This might be something you’d like to use yourself Ollie, if you aren’t already. It’s been very useful to me as a source of truly engaging advanced content on the go.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      That’s a great suggestion; I’ll be sure to check it out!

  4. Fearchar says:

    Actually, a “drunkard” is someone who is habitually drunk – and might be capable of speaking quickly. Someone who has over-imbibed is just at “drunk”. Yes, it’s nitpicking, but in the absence of an editor, you’ll have to put up with me. 😀

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for the correction! I must have missed your comment when you posted it, but now, four years later, I’m referring to this article in a podcast and saw your comment. I always appreciate help with fixing mistakes!

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