Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Language Loop

"But it seems like we don't improve as quickly as before," a student said once to me, upon noting that his level was not increasing as quickly as it used to. "It makes me feel stressful."

"When we started learning English, we got better so quickly and now...I think I have to fight to remember every word and I forget the things in class so quickly."

Quotes from students, and I know it's not me - my students have a good time, they do improve (just not as quickly as they did when they were beginners), they renew and the dedicated ones push on towards more advanced levels.

I've noticed something about language learning, though - it came first with these expressions of frustration, as well as my own observation, of my students and later, I began to recognize it in myself. At the moment, I'm at the bottom of a nasty little valley when it comes to Chinese learning, the same sort of pit that English learners across Taiwan and language learners worldwide, I suspect, find themselves in. I've started calling it the Learning Loop.

The idea has been around forever - I certainly didn't discover it myself, I've simply started observing it. You simply don't improve in language learning at the intermediate levels as quickly as you do at the beginning levels. At the beginning, everything is new, and you don't have so many words or grammar points of that language crowding your head - it's easy to remember "I'd like coffee with cream, no sugar", "Where are you from? I'm from Taiwan", "My name is Sandy and I I'm an engineer at Intellitron" or "There is a post office in my neighborhood" when those are the only things you know how to say.

It's not so easy to remember words you use far less frequently - when you get to the point where you're learning phrases like "off the top of my head", "feel overwhelmed" and "be taken aback", you are far less likely to remember them, well, off the top of your head - especially if you, like my students, do not live in an immersion environment. You not only have far more "stuff" to remember regarding sentence structure, grammar, common errors, vocabulary, pronunciation etc., but you're also learning words that you use far less frequently so it's harder to ingrain them into your memory.

It's perfectly natural, and yet so discouraging.

So what happens? Students of foreign language notice the dip in the speed of their learning, and notice that it's stopped being fairly easy and started being a slow, fingernail-scraping crawl uphill with lots of fits and starts, lots of sliding back and very few footholds. As you claw your way up, words like chunks of soil and bits of rock become dislodged and tumble down into the abyss of forgotten vocabulary, and you make simple mistakes in grammar that you thought you'd conquered long ago (you did - you just need to keep using it so you won't forget it).

There's also the fact that students at that level, unless they've all taken the same class with the same people since they began, will know different things, and need to work on different things - this is where differences in skills and abilities becomes clear, and ever harder to fix. There are a lot of tiny, easily forgotten little "things" to learn at the intermediate level, and I can see why a student would be frustrated by a seeming inability to remember and use them. I would know - when it comes to Chinese I am that student!

At that point, I'd say, is when most students get discouraged and quit. I take it as a testament to my enthusiasm for teaching that my students do seem to press on more than average students might - though of course I haven't done a rigorous scientific study to prove this!

Or, almost as bad, they quit for awhile and then come back to learning, only to feel a quick bit of gratification when forgotten nibs and knobs of language come back to the forefront of their mind and then get discouraged again - they're still facing the valley of slow progress and still haven't figured out how to deal with it without getting discouraged. The best students press on. Others quit again. And come back. And feel good for awhile before getting discouraged...and find themselves in a never-ending loop, at the intermediate to high intermediate level, never getting any better.

It looks something like this, except Excel was being a pain and I couldn't get the graph to look all fancy with arrows pointing out the motion of the loop:

The x-axis is clearly level, the y-axis is my own approximation of learning speed (so not scientific). The red indicates where students get deflated and quit, rejoin, get deflated again, quit again, and rejoin...

...and never make it beyond the intermediate to high intermediate level. Then, they wonder why.

I wouldn't be writing about this issue as in-depth as I am on my personal blog, except I'm starting to notice it in myself. I'm at a level in Chinese where I'm learning some more esoteric words - it was easy back in the day to recall how to say "transfer money" (something I do every month) or "lemonade" or whatever it is I wanted. Now that I'm on things like "五十步笑百步" (basically, "the pot's calling the kettle black" though it doesn't translate directly), it's simply harder to remember right when I need to say it. It's more complex, there's a lot of other stuff crowding up my head and I don't use it anywhere nearly as frequently as I'd need to in order to really cement it in there.

And y'know, yes. It is discouraging. I've written before about my feelings on Shi-da, and how I never quite took to the methods used to teach Chinese in most schools - that's related, to a degree, but I'd probably feel similarly discouraged anywhere. It's fairly well-known among friends that I'm on "break" from Chinese - still learning passively (I'd be doing that anyway, living in Taiwan and all; I am and always will be a "languages person" so I can't help but learn what's all around me) but not taking classes at the moment.

Previously, I thought that was mostly due to my issues with the Mandarin Training Center as well as trying to save money first for our wedding and now for our trip to Turkey later this year.

Now...I'm starting to think that somewhere, deep down in that place where I hide things I don't like to admit, that it may be because I'm subconsciously frustrated by the slow pace of improvement at my level - in terms of reading and writing more than speaking. Regarding speaking, I'm fairly advanced on a good day, high intermediate on a bad day (and we all have our bad days - which would be a great topic for another post). Reading and writing-wise, however, I'm at least a full level lower. I can type a decent e-mail, chat on MSN, Gchat or Facebook in Chinese, write basic notes and even simple letters, and read normal stuff I come across in my daily life. I cannot scour websites in-depth or read books, and the "newsy" Chinese of news articles utterly defeats me.

It's here where I think my discouragement lies - as much as I practice I feel like I never improve in writing. I know that this is natural, even more so when it relates to Chinese: it's easy for an English learner to have a reading and writing level on par with her speaking level. If you're learning Chinese, that is absolutely not guaranteed. That said, I can't help but wonder if my mind, when it comes to writing Chinese well, has decided it'd rather be an immovable brick rather than a lovely, porous sponge.

I know, I know. Perhaps if I blogged less and studied more, I'd see more improvement. :) And I would, just as intermediate students of English who persevere do improve. It's the speed of improvement at my level - just as it is for those students - that is so aggravating.

Ah well. Press on, press on.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel to make me smile, though. Clearly some of my mannerisms are rubbing off on students. On noting that every election cycle, Lee Teng-hui makes noises as though he's considering a run for the presidency again, one of my students replied "But...he's like 200 years old!"

Exactly. And exactly as I would say it!

How about you - did you encounter this slow-down? Did it discourage you? Did you quit? Did you come back? Are you currently stuck in the vicious cycle of quitting, restarting and never improving? Did you get out of it? What's your story?


Cahleen Hudson said...

My Chinese isn't nearly as good as yours, but I think I understand. My husband has definitely gone through the same thing. I'm not sure if this is something you would want to do or if it's even possibly, but have you considered getting your Master's in Taiwan in Chinese? My husband is doing this at Zheng Zhi University, and let me tell you, there's nothing like writing your thesis in Chinese to give you a nice little kick in the ass. =) Granted, Ian studies cross-straight relations and he spent a great deal of his childhood in China. I think you said you want to study TESOL, which I guess would have to be in English?

John Scott said...

I think the levelling-off of the acquisition curve that most second language learners experience in the intermediate stages of proficiency usually has a lot to do with communicative need.

The relatively rapid progress in the beginning and low-intermediate stages is driven to a large extent by communicative need. We struggle to understand and make ourselves understood in order to be able to handle concrete situations. Those are often situations like asking the bus driver where you should get off, introducing yourself, buying things, etc. We get immediate feedback that tells us whether or not we have been understood, and we learn by trial and error. When learning takes place primarily or exclusively in a classroom context, then learners may reach this levelling-off stage when they are able to handle most of the typical interactions that are likely to occur with frequency in that context.

When you can handle most common situations more or less adequately in the second language, then further progress is no longer driven primarily by that same kind of urgent communicative need. Your pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar may still be odd, but it is no longer an obstacle to communication.

I know that I would never have the drive to sit alone and study academic or technical literature in the second language. But I admit that’s how I learned to read and write Chinese (at a basic level). For myself, I know that I would have to intentionally put myself in some situation where I had a real concrete need to push my L2 to the next stage. Ideally that would be in a group context where I could get feedback and interaction focused on the areas that are most difficult.

Jenna said...

@Cahleen - I've considered it, but while I can speak at a level that would get me into grad school for Chinese, I can't quite read at that level yet. It would be more studying before I could even approach the idea. This was years ago and I am sure he's improved tons since, but I remember talking to your husband in Chinese back when we worked at the same Kojen. He was reading a book - something I can't do (but he had a nifty handwriting dictionary that I didn't have at the time, and now have on my iPod Touch, so reading is more possible) and I was impressed. When we chatted he could hold his own but was more hesitant - I probably made more grammar mistakes but was more confident, quick and fluid in my it's an interesting comparison - that's always been the case with me as a Chinese learner.

I just feel that...since I didn't care for the way Chinese was taught at Shi-da, will I really find Zheng-da to be better, or will the pedagogy of the classes drive me away?

TESOL (or Applied Linguistics/Applied Foreign Languages) would be better for my career, though, as I intend to continue as a language teacher. I'm leaning towards Applied Linguistics, as TESOL is only good for teaching English, but with AL it can be applied to any language I am fluent enough in to teach, so I could theoretically get a job teaching Chinese someday when my reading and writing skills improve.

@John - I basically said the same thing in my post, but you said it better. I mentioned that at that level one is learning words that one won't use often (so, as you put it, less communicative need). There's less memory through repeated use of the vocabulary and phrases at that level because they really aren't as necessary to get through daily life - even in an immersion environment. Plus, many expats here hang out with an English-speaking crowd (whether they be Taiwanese who can speak English or expats) and get little chance to improve their conversational skills beyond daily tasks like taking a taxi or buying something.

I do feel that, at Shi-da at least, the words they teach at that level are kind of silly: they could be teaching more practical vocabulary, but they don't. They'll prioritize words like "crosstalk" and "Satellite News Gathering Van" over phrases and words you could really use to converse with locals. It could be better.

John Scott said...

Re. TESOL and Applied Linguistics, if you’re talking about universities in North America, the actual difference between the two M.A. degrees in terms of curriculum will depend on the university. At most larger universities (like mine), the M.A. TESOL program is set up so that there is very little difference —so that people can go directly into an Applied Linguistics PhD program. The M.A.TESOL is an applied linguistics degree with a focus on the practice of teaching second languages. All of the SLA theory and teaching practice involved in the M.A.TESOL is universal (applies equally to any language), but of course certain parts of the grammar and phonetics courses would be applicable only to English.

Of course, if you get the PhD, then you hopefully won’t actually be teaching language classes anymore! But if what you intend to do is be a language teacher, you will get more out of the M.A. TESOL.

Considering there are schools in Australia, UK or Thailand that offer 4-week "TESOL certification" courses, I can imagine that people with a real M.A.TESOL degree may sometimes have to explain the difference to people at schools or universities in other parts of the world.

Jenna said...

@John - I'm looking at the MA and not PhD specifically bc I want to teach, not manage or do research or compete in academia. We are both taking the CELTA course later this year so thatwe will still be able to teach while I study (me part time, Brendan full time). We can do that here but not in many other places without a good certie. I do not intend to get my MA in the USA (tho also not ruling out the possibility) because a) the GREs are too much hassle, tuition is extortionate, I don't want to add too much to my student loans, it's two years, not one and living costs are high with a crappy economy. I'm looking at theUK, Australia, Canada and staying in Taiwan primarily. Staying is the most affordable choice by far but an opportunity in another country may end up being the better choice once I apply/get admitted.

To teach in a university I need a minimum of a Masters, and for the best private school and corporate training jobs the difference is noted and appreciated. I really do notwant to work too much with kids (I like them, but not allday every day), and jobs that involve teaching uni students and adults do value the MA. For awhile I'd like to continue doing what I do now, which is basically "language teacher to the succesful businesspeople of Taipei", just with more qualifications, more freelancing and better pay (a school won't pay much more in Taiwan if you have an MA but you can bet businesses looking for someone to teach their VPs will.

John Scott said...

Grad school in the States is expensive, unfortunately. And more so in some states than others. I pay $2300 per semester in tutition and fees (that's three classes per semester), which I think is relatively inexpensive compared with other states. I really have no idea how the cost compares to other places in the English-speaking world.

So M.A. programs in UK, Canada and Australia take only one year and do not require the GRE?

Hmmm... sounds good, but I'm curious to know what is condensed or left out of the curricula in those places. Mine took two years of pretty intensive study, writing and research. But as long as a degree says "M.A. TESOL" (and comes from a university in UK, Australia, NZ, etc.), then I guess it will serve its purpose.

With the CELTA/DELTA cert., you can also do IELTS testing, right? That could be a nice sideline.