Learning a language takes a lot of time, but fortunately, you can do most of the truly time-consuming parts on your own. For example, learning to understand spoken Chinese takes much more listening than you will ever get in class, but it’s not hard to find listening material online. The same can be said for reading as well.
To learn how to speak and read, you do need other people, though. Large amounts of listening and reading should still be the foundation, and you might get some benefits by speaking to yourself or keeping a secret diary, but that will only take you so far.
Only other people can offer you feedback, which is what this article is about. Honest feedback is very valuable and much harder to get that you might think.
Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to this article:
Why feedback is essential for learning Chinese
Receiving feedback on your speaking and writing is important because it can highlight systematic errors (rather than minor mistakes and slips of the tongue). You can build a strong feel for how the language is used through very large amounts of input, but this only gives you positive evidence, i.e. it shows you how it can be used, not how it can not be used.
Through truly vast amounts of input, you also build a feel for what is not correct simply because you have never heard anyone say it like that, but accumulating this amount of input as adult foreigner is hard.
Feedback can serve as a shortcut, telling you that something you said or wrote is wrong, which allows you to adjust your mental model of how Chinese works, coming closer and closer to that of a native speaker.
Another reason feedback is important is because it highlights features in the language that you need to pay more attention to, making it more likely that you’ll notice them when listening and reading.
In other words, if I tell you that your tones are wrong, it might not be my correction itself that enables you to improve, but rather that it allows you to notice these tones in the Chinese you listen to, which in turn enables you to let your pronunciation approach the correct form.
If you want to read more about the effectiveness of feedback for language learning, I have listed a few research papers at the end of this article. Feedback and error correction is a complex topic, partly because of methodological issues (see both articles by Ellis), but also because there are so many variables involved (different types of feedback, different areas of language learning, different students and contexts, etc.)
Two types of feedback: Explicit and implicit
There are two major types of feedback:
- Explicit feedback – This is when someone gives you feedback directly, perhaps by correcting something you said. Explicit feedback is probably what most people think about when they hear the word feedback used when talking about learning Chinese; the teacher’s red ink on your short story or essay, a direct correction of something you said that wasn’t quite right. Research suggests that explicit feedback can be helpful, but it’s much less obvious than most students and teachers think.
- Implicit feedback – This is feedback you receive indirectly, perhaps even without the person giving it noticing that they are giving you feedback. A puzzled expression is a good sign that what you said maybe doesn’t make sense. Similarly, if people keep misunderstanding what you’re saying, you know that you have a problem. The issue with implicit feedback is of course that you don’t necessarily know what the problem is. Did she misunderstand what I said because of my bad grammar, because I chose the wrong word or because my tones are a mess?
This is really a spectrum, with all kinds of feedback falling between the extremes.
A personal example of how important feedback can be
Receiving accurate feedback in key areas of the language, such as basic pronunciation, can be extremely important. For example, I misunderstood how the third tone worked when I started learning Chines. When I had studied Chinese for about a year and a half, I met a new teacher who told me that most of my third tones were wrong.
I was surprised and a bit dismayed.
Surely, she must be mistaken! How can it be that I have studied for this long without anyone telling me about this?
I didn’t believe it at first, but of course she was right. I then spent dozens of hours with various helpful teachers and friends fixing the problem. If I had learnt it correctly from the start, I would have saved myself a lot of frustration. I later learnt that this problem is actually very common and ended up researching the issue quite thoroughly. You can read about the problem here:
If only that feedback regarding the third tone would have come a year earlier!
But it didn’t, which is worth digging deeper into.
How to get honest feedback to boost your Chinese speaking and writing
As most people who have spent some time learning Chinese will testify, many teachers will not correct your pronunciation beyond the first few weeks of class. If they can understand what you say, that’s enough for them. The problem is that that should never be enough for you. Teachers are really good at understanding badly pronounced Chinese, and what works with your teacher will not necessarily work with people on the street!
This means that feedback is something rare that you should treasure. You need to figure out ways of receiving honest feedback, because if you don’t, you’re likely to regret it later. This is especially true for pronunciation, but also for other areas of the language.
I stress the importance of honest feedback here, because you will often be cheered on by native speakers, which is nice, but should not be taken as a sign that your Chinese is good. In fact, I’ve noticed that the better my Chinese gets, the less people comment on it. For a truly effective way of eliciting honest feedback on your pronunciation from your native speaking friends, check this article:
Three rules for receiving feedback on your Chinese
Here are three rules you should always strive to follow if you want to receive high-quality feedback on your Chinese:
- Be positive – Your main goal is to convince the kind person who offered you feedback to keep doing so. Many teachers have been badly burnt by students who get angry or offended when receiving honest feedback. You need to show that you’re not one of them. Show that you appreciate the feedback. Smile!
- Understand – When someone gives you explicit feedback, make sure you understand what they mean. If you do this in an honest way, it also shows that you really do appreciate the feedback they’ve given you. Say something like “Oh, I said X, but I should have said Y?” This will make sure you try to correct the right thing. Be careful to not overdo this, though, unless you know that the person you’re talking to is okay with it.
- Don’t make a fuss – The worst possible way to deal with feedback is to make a fuss about it by starting to explain yourself or, even worse, make excuses. This will encourage the native speaker to never give you feedback again. I’ve seen truly awful cases of this, with a student arguing with a pronunciation expert with decades of experience teaching foreigners, saying that she didn’t make a certain mistake. But of course she did, she just refused to accept it. The more advanced you are, the harder it will be to accept that you’re wrong.
The emotional side of being wrong
Most people feel defensive when being criticised, I do too, so this is something we all have to deal with. The quicker you realise that it’s stupid to be defensive, the better.
No one likes being wrong, but reacting negatively to honest feedback from a native speaker is an obvious case of shooting the messenger. It’s not their fault that you’re wrong. And even if they don’t point out that you are wrong, you’d still be wrong! The problem doesn’t go away just because you don’t acknowledge it.
Too much feedback?
Before we wrap up this article, let’s look at the opposite problem: receiving too much feedback. This happens almost exclusively with teachers who think that the more errors they point out, the more you will learn. This is unlikely to be the case. Research shows instead that feedback is most effective when targeted at specific features, not when every single error is highlighted.
A common example of this is when you make a mistake with a tone and someone points it out. You then repeat the sentence, but with the correct tone. Since you now spent much of your focus getting that word right, you make another mistake with a tricky final. The teacher then points this out and you try again, only to make yet another mistakes somewhere else in the sentence. You can keep doing this for quite a while with frustration as the only takeaway.
The best way to handle this problem is to blame your own inability to focus, so rather than saying that the teacher is stupid for moving the goal posts, you apologise and say that you find it tricky to keep so many things in mind at the same time, and that you’d prefer to work only on these tone issues first.
Listening and reading should be the foundation of any learning strategy, but feedback is one of the reasons you need other people to learn effectively. Without feedback, implicit or explicit, you don’t know if you’re doing it right. Without feedback, you might cement incorrect pronunciation that will be terribly hard to fix later.
Look actively for feedback. Learn to pay attention to how people react when you speak, look for clues showing that they didn’t really understand. When you receive explicit feedback, someone has done you a favour. Make them feel like it by reacting positively and showing an interest to learn. If you do, learning Chinese will be more interesting, people will find you more interesting to talk to, and your Chinese will be all the better for it.
Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2010, was rewritten from scratch in June 2020.
References and further reading
Bitchener, J. (2016). To what extent has the published written CF research aided our understanding of its potential for L2 development?. ITL-International Journal of Applied Linguistics, 167(2), 111-131.
Ellis, R. (2009). A typology of written corrective feedback types. ELT journal, 63(2), 97-107.
Ellis, R. (2010). A framework for investigating oral and written corrective feedback. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32(2), 335-349.
Pawlak, M. (2014). The role of written corrective feedback in promoting language development: An overview. In Language Learning, Discourse and Communication (pp. 3-21). Springer, Cham.
Saito, K., & Lyster, R. (2012). Effects of form‐focused instruction and corrective feedback on L2 pronunciation development of/ɹ/by Japanese learners of English. Language Learning, 62(2), 595-633.
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