Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

A student’s guide to comprehension-based learning

In two previous posts, Diane Neubauer has discussed what comprehension-based teaching and learning is and why it’s useful. In this third and last article in this series, the focus is much more practical: If you think a comprehension-based approach is the right thing for you as a student, what should you do? How can you make use of the underlying principles in your own learning? Can you train your teacher to use this approach with you? Before you read, make sure you’re a little bit familiar with parts one and two!

Now that we have looked at what comprehension-based approaches are and some of their benefits, let’s look at what this means for you as a student. If you already have a teacher using such a method, you may focus on engaging in class, but what if you don’t have that kind of instructional opportunity?

In this article, I will do my best to help you, first by discussing some things you can do on your own, then by talking a little bit about teachers and courses.

How can comprehension-based learning help me as a student?

The big idea is to give yourself plenty of input you enjoy and can understand without painful struggle, both listening and reading. There is no need to stress about memorizing vocabulary — if your goal is Chinese proficiency, that is. If you are taking Chinese classes, you may need to keep up with other class expectations, too.

But if you are learning Chinese on your own, there is no need to stress about grammar or rules. Learn about Chinese grammar if it interests you (the Chinese Grammar Wiki is a good place for that), but know that it offers minimal benefit in terms of your listening comprehension, reading comprehension, speaking, and writing.

Some ideas for finding comprehensible input on your own

Hacking Chinese has many posts about valuable sources of comprehensible input in Chinese (check the reading and listening categories, or browse Hacking Chinese Resources), so I will not attempt to recreate the helpful information already shared here.

Read graded readers at your level:

Listen to graded listening content

Hacking Chinese has a number of good articles about developing listening comprehension. It may be easier to find extensive reading material than it is to find sources of comprehensible listening material with lengths longer than a short podcast.

One way to overcome the limited length of a lot of learner-friendly, graded listening content is to find several podcasts on the same topic. In that way, some words and phrases naturally are heard again in slightly different, but generally familiar, contexts. There are many rather short podcasts for listening, such as Chinesepod.com (review here), SlowChinese.com, and The Chairman’s Bao, all of which also provide transcripts. I am sure that there are others: if you have additional suggestions, please suggest them in comments.

I also like FluentU.com (review here) videos for listening comprehension purposes: the visual cues of a video sometimes make listening material more easily understood than audio alone. In that respect, video might be a little more like in-person opportunities to hear Chinese, where you also have some visual cues to help you understand.

For those with more advanced Chinese, of course, YouTube, Youku, and other social media sites with video can be very helpful. Make use of the YouTube Settings feature that allows playing videos at .5 slower speed while retaining clear audio.

If you are open to watching cartoons, Peppa Pig in Mandarin has plenty of episodes available, a rather predictable plot, and quite high-frequency language overall since it is designed for young children with smaller vocabulary sizes.

Find a “language parent”

In Chris Lonsdale’s TEDx talk, “How to learn any language in six months,” he draws heavily on his successful experience with Mandarin Chinese. His suggested action #5 is to find a language parent: someone who is willing to speak more slowly with you, in simpler language, without making too much a fuss about errors you make unless they cannot tell what you meant.

Sometimes a “language parent” presents himself or herself as a person you visit regularly in a market or shop you visit often. You may also consider more directly asking for help from Chinese-speaking friends.

Relationships that involve which language to speak can add complexity and even power struggles at times; having some friends who are supportive of your Chinese language goals, and happy to adapt their Chinese to your level of comprehension, is a real gift.

Carefully… perhaps share ideas with your current tutor or teacher

This suggestion must really be done carefully, if the situation even allows. As a Chinese teacher myself, I find it a bit jarring if students ask for certain activities of their preference (though most often in K-12 classes, that means games of some kind or another).

Of course, I want my students to be happy and enjoy class, but I also feel more informed than my students about language acquisition and how it works. So, I offer this suggestion with the caveat that you will need wisdom to see how or if to apply it to your own situation. If you have a tutor who asks for student input on how to use your time together, it will be easier.

Remember to be culturally sensitive and allow your teacher to save face. A few years ago, I was part of a summer Chinese course in which students in another section appealed to the teacher for some changes to the course, and she made changes accordingly.

Instead of directly confronting their teacher, they spoke to a third person who acted as a mediator with the teacher on their behalf. Not only was direct conflict between the teacher and students avoided, but the mediator was respected. His role included addressing the needs of students in our summer program. You may be able likewise to make some requests about activities you would like to do more in your classes or tutoring.

Increase your exposure to comprehensible input in the classroom

Perhaps one way to increase your exposure to comprehensible Chinese in class is to let your tutor or teacher know how much you appreciated activities that provided more of that, especially if you can offer details about how you sensed benefits

Did you get a feel for the language in a deeper way? Could you intuitively grasp when and how you would want to say something that you used to confuse, simply through hearing and reading the language in several contexts? Did you notice your reading speed or listening speed increase?

These factors may help a teacher who may not have theoretical reasons to emphasize comprehensible input to rely more on it simply for practical reasons, by seeing their students’ growth and enjoyment. You may enjoy the story of a professor who changed teaching style in response to students’ requests for change.

If reading comprehensibility is an area of concern, an example may help native Chinese language teachers get a feel for how difficult reading can be for us non-native learners. Remember in article two where that 98% comprehensibility was mentioned as a guide for extensive reading to work well?

John Pasden has made a simulation of various levels of comprehensible reading designed for Chinese native speakers. He used rarely seen, obsolete characters for the incomprehensible percentage of text. It is a brilliant way for Chinese people to feel what learners feel.

At a language teacher conference in 2016, I attended a presentation which showed these examples. When we were shown the 80% comprehensible example, I overheard a native-speaking Chinese language teacher in the row ahead of me say, “So that’s how painful it is for our students!”

Perhaps there would be an opportunity to give your Chinese teacher this link if they are consistently expecting you to read material that has so many new words you end up spending a lot of time looking up words instead of understanding the flow of meaning in the reading. They may be more understanding of your needs.

Find a tutor or a class

As far as I know, there is no directory of Chinese teachers or classes that would directly help you find a teacher who emphasizes comprehension-based methods of teaching Chinese. I know of a few CI-based Mandarin language teachers who tutor online, and a beginning course in Mandarin available online through Fluency Fast, which also offers in-person intensive classes and teacher training (mainly in the USA).

However, if you cannot find tutors or teachers who describe their approach as comprehension-based, before engaging a tutor or enrolling in a class, you may be able to talk with the instructor about what they emphasize in class. Questions such as these, asked without any edge, may be helpful in understanding a teacher’s approaches to instruction:

  • What are some ways the class provides listening and reading comprehension? (If the answer is that students practice conversations from a textbook, so they hear each other speak and read, there is probably more emphasis on skill-building than on input.)
  • How are listening and reading comprehension supported and scaffolded in the class? (This questions seeks to understand how the teacher makes language comprehensible to the students.)
  • Do students need always to speak in complete sentences? Does the teacher correct students and have them repeat correctly? (If the answer is yes to these questions, it is likely that the teacher feels accuracy is at least as important as communicative ability, and that error correction leads to accurate production.)
  • Do students need to memorize lists of words for quizzes and tests? In what ways do students see and hear new vocabulary in context (like in stories or conversations)? (These questions seek to determine how new vocabulary is introduced: through rote memory, then contextualized practice speaking and writing, or through comprehension in context first, leading to word and phrase recognition and use by students.)
  • In what ways are students involved in determining the content of the class? (For example, is the curriculum fixed and based on a textbook, or is there some flexibility to adapt to students’ interests or ideas?)
  • What kinds of speaking and writing does a student in my level of class do? What kinds of out-of-class assignments do students do? (These questions seek to understand how early and how much the teacher expects students to speak and write compared to listening and reading.)

In a tutoring situation, regardless of the answers to the above questions, perhaps more important questions would be:

  • Would it be possible to adapt instruction to my interest in getting a lot of listening and reading comprehension over practice speaking and writing?
  • Can my speaking and writing be based on what I feel a need to say more of the time than practicing example conversations or making sentences with new words in writing before I gain a feel for how to use them?

Conclusion

There is plenty more to say about comprehensible input and language acquisition as applied to Mandarin Chinese: techniques for use of Pinyin and characters, use of colors in text to reinforce tones visually, how to include culture and cultural knowledge, the role of real-life materials and how to use them productively, how to adapt to different ages and situations of students, and much more.

In these articles, I’ve done my best to introduce you to comprehensible input and what it can do for you as a student or for your students if you’re teaching. There are plenty of links, too, so it shouldn’t be hard to find more if you want to. If you have questions, you can also leave a comment below!

Diane Neubauer (杜雁子),is a Mandarin learner and teacher from the United States. She has been teaching Mandarin for ten years, with students from elementary school age through adults. She has a BA in East Asian Studies and an MA in Religion. In addition to teaching full-time at a high school, Diane is involved in teacher training and writing. You can find her blogging with other language teachers here or on her YouTube channel.



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2 comments

  1. Douglas says:

    Having read all three articles in this series, I must admit that I’m struggling to see the (positive) role of the teacher in the process.

    In addition to the fact that various language-learning methods ultimately based on the input hypothesis have produced remarkable results, I suspect that the hypothesis has become as popular as it has in the online language-learning world precisely because it dovetails with autonomous, self-paced, personalised learning. Not only do these methods not require instruction, but there is, in fact, a distinct anti-instruction sentiment amongst the most accomplished figures in the online language-learning community.

    There appear to be numerous reasons for this sentiment, but I can only really speak for my own view, which is that all the principles and activities underlying the input hypothesis suffer as soon as instruction is introduced. The quantity of input is drastically reduced; the quality of that input is dubious; the pace is largely set by the slowest leaners; the material used in class cannot possibly be of interest to every student, so some students’ motivation and attention would be negatively impacted, thereby essentially nullifying the purpose of the input; and, of course, instruction time is limited, so the students spend years in an artificial bubble, only to discover that all that time was insufficient to prepare them for authentic material.

    Naturally, I could offer a cynical response to why teachers see a need for themselves in the process, but it would be enlightening to hear others’ thoughts on this quandary.

    1. Hi Douglas, thanks for your comment & for reading my articles! I’ve heard others question the value of working with a teacher before. I am happy to offer some ideas in response to what you wrote. I had some time so my reply got rather long!

      It’s worth noting if we’re talking about the input hypothesis, that Dr. Krashen himself speaks about teachers’ role as helping learners gain language at least to the point where they can find materials and succeed at independent learning – an intermediate level of proficiency, he has said. I agree with him that a good teacher is more necessary for beginning learners, and over time learners may become more and more independent. Since I wrote these articles, I’ve completed a PhD program at the University of Iowa, Teaching and Learning, Foreign Language and ESL Education. In fact, I just graduated on May 13, 2022. One of my goals in getting the PhD was to explore other research relevant to comprehension-based language teaching and learning. I have found there to be additional support for the kinds of instructional practices and classroom teaching that are described in these articles from other models of language acquisition. For example, usage-based theories have investigated and traced input and features of that input to learner production (output), and sociocultural theories emphasize that language learning occurs within a social context, and consists not merely of cognitive changes but also of learning how to relate to other humans socially. Teachers can have a positive role in these perspectives as well. I do not see input-based language teaching & learning as just providing by teachers & receiving of content/input by students, but as a complex and dynamic process in which teachers & students are active cognitively, socially, and emotionally.

      First, I’m not sure what you mean by “instruction.” Sometimes in Second Language Acquisition, instruction means something like “directly teach grammar rules” and explaining about language. The role and value of that kind of instruction is debated, and I lean towards those who think it’s not going to contribute much positively to proficiency and language ability. Instead of explanations about language, in case that was part or all of what you meant by instruction, I’m thinking of all settings in which a learner or learners are working with a teacher or tutor and in an online or in-person classroom setting to gain language. The teacher in this model is more like a supportive “language parent” (to use a term I learned from Chris Lonsdale). That’s the kind of model I have in mind to refer to “teachers” here, someone who facilitates language experiences tailored to the learners with them.

      You mentioned some problems with teaching and input quality that certainly can be a problem, but I do not think are universally true about teachers. Teachers who have honed their skills at speaking in ways to make language comprehensible can provide high quality, personalized, interactive experiences through an input-based teaching approach. Comprehensibility does not have to mean overly distorted or overly simplified language. It can be ‘real’ although scaled to learners’ high comprehension. (There’s an interesting think piece by Michael Long, 2020, on that topic: Optimal input for language learning: Genuine, simplified, elaborated, or modified elaborated?) In a classroom with many learners, this takes skill, yet it is skill that I have seen many teachers achieve. They differentiate lessons by asking different questions of different learners, giving the more advanced ones to students whose skills are more advanced, without losing those who need more time to reach that. Is it constantly interesting to every person in the room all the time? No, but it can be enough. I have found that personalized, interactive, input-based teaching can engage students in lessons. This means the teacher asks questions to elicit the students’ interests, opinions, experiences, predictions about the topic, and imaginative ideas, and then uses their responses – even if they are just a head nod or a smile – to build topics through the language, even before students are especially verbal. My dissertation study was on that topic: how teachers and learners in online & hybrid, beginning-level Chinese classrooms used Chinese to develop topics, accompanied by evidence of student engagement and comprehension.

      So is a teacher “necessary” for successful language acquisition? Not in an absolute sense, and some very special types of people do achieve high proficiency in languages working mainly on their own as you mentioned. But I do not think that type of learner is very typical of most people and how most people succeed. I think most of us, myself included, really benefit from the help and involvement of other people.

      A few ways good teachers and instruction can be helpful:

      – Many people prefer to work with a teacher who can steer towards level-appropriate resources and use them interactively and in an engaging way, rather than to work in isolation. Level-appropriate, interesting, personalized content for beginners in Chinese can be hard to find and sequence around one’s current vocabulary and comprehension level, especially learning to read. Chinese reading comprehension is especially challenging to find materials for, in my opinion, for beginners. I started making read-along videos & sharing them on YouTube publicly for this reason. But even so – the videos I have made are tailored to the students I work with and the lesson we just had, which included students’ own circumstances, background knowledge, interests, and ideas in the content. I don’t know how learners could get that kind of content without assistance from a teacher.

      – Teachers can provide kind, supportive feedback about a student’s current progress in a way that at least some learners find difficult to assess for themselves. Preferably, a lot of that feedback happens as the teacher is responding to the students’ comments, questions, and seeing their interested or bored looks, and adjusting their talk and offering scaffolds to help ensure students’ comprehension.

      – Through the kinds of tasks they create for class time, teachers can also offer a variety of ways for students to be engaged and active in an input-rich lesson. Such experiences can be very motivating — e.g., Printer, 2019, found TPRS to be so, and in an upcoming study I learned about recently, Gao did as well with high school students in Chinese classes. Motivation can mean longer involvement with language learning and reaching higher levels of proficiency.

      – Interacting with others in a classroom can be a place of real language use. As the people in the room get to know one another, share experiences in the language, they are using language for real purposes. (This is an emphasis in Bill VanPatten’s writing about language classrooms.) Also, some authentic materials can be used earlier than students’ fully comprehend the language in them, such as in MovieTalk. Advanced proficiency in Chinese (or any other language) does take time, but I think it is possible to reach Dr. Krashen’s suggested intermediate level in classroom learning with teachers.

      About cynicism: it could be said that I’m biased from what I saw and analyzed in classrooms in research during my PhD, as well as what I have experienced myself as a language learner & teacher. I would say it differently though: I’ve seen a lot of empirical evidence that teachers can be very beneficial, especially with novice learners. And cynicism can go in both directions! Could it sometimes be the case that some learners don’t want to (or maybe can’t) find and pay for a quality instructor, so they convince themselves that teachers couldn’t contribute positively to their language learning process? But I’d rather not assume the worst either of teachers or of learners. It’s possible for some learners to go it alone & achieve high proficiency, but it’s also possible for teachers to be very beneficial for learners.

      Thanks for reading.

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