Sunday, March 13, 2011

Mutiny, I Promise You

Back in 2009 I wrote about studying at Shi-da and gave my overall review of the place.

Final verdict: you'll improve your writing and vocabulary and there is a strong sense of structure so you always have a concrete idea of how you should be progressing. It's great if you a.) want to learn textbook Chinese to communicate and don't care how you sound to locals or b.) if you are interested in going into Chinese as a field of academia. That said, what they teach is entirely too formal, entirely too "Mainland" Putonghua (including heavy use of the 兒 sound), with lots of grandmotherly, old-fashioned words that nobody uses. I also criticized the fact that there are far too many tests, the place is far too politically blue (pro-KMT) and some of the teachers don't attempt to be more moderate.

Today, I'm back to criticize not only how Chinese is taught at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center, but how Chinese and other non-European languages are taught generally.

You may have noticed - or at least heard discussions about - how few Westerners ever manage to pick up Chinese, Japanese or other Asian languages to a reasonable point of fluency. It certainly happens - I speak reasonably good Chinese myself, and I know others who are quite good, even fluent, in Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cantonese and other languages. I'm talking ratios here: how many Western foreigners come to Taiwan and never get beyond a high beginner level of Chinese - the "I can order in a restaurant and ask for things at 7-11" phase? How many other Asians come to Taiwan and pick up Chinese comparatively quickly? How is it that Westerners are perfectly able to pick up European languages but flounder when they encounter a language like Chinese, which is arguably grammatically easier?

I want to note here that if you attend Shi-da, you'll notice something striking: at the lower levels you get either a majority of Westerners/non-Asians or a somewhat even mix of non-Asians and Asians. This is difficult to explain with sensitivity - yes, I'm lumping Africans, Latin Americans, Indians and Middle Easterners in with "Westerners" although I realize many of them come not from the West but from their home countries, but they are similar in their learning curve to Westerners and thus can be compared similarly against Asians.

At the higher levels, you get classes that are majority Asian - some Japanese, a few Koreans, students from Southeast Asia, occasionally a Mongolian. In that class you may have one, two, maybe three non-Asians. In my first class it was me and another guy, who almost never showed up and probably failed the final. In the second, it was me and two other Westerners outnumbered significantly by Asians.

It's partially true that while Asian students in Taiwan may not speak a native language related to Chinese, the languages they do speak are often Chinese-influenced, both in terms of spoken words and writing. You can hear echoes of Chinese in Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese and the idea of characters are far more familiar, even if not commonly used (of course, in Japanese they are). It's just as true that native English speakers will have an easier time learning a language that they are culturally attuned to and closer to - there is far more in common culturally between speakers of English, Italian, Spanish, French and German than between speakers of English and speakers of Chinese. That cultural affinity probably does have something to do with learning the langauge more quickly.

There's also the fact that it's easier to learn a language that is related, even if distantly, to your own, especially if there is a similarity in many vocabulary words. I'm not denying that these things are all factors.

What I wanted to cover today is how the methodology/pedagogy used in Asia to teach Asian languages - focusing on Chinese here, because it's where my experience lies - almost certainly has something to do with why Westerners often struggle with those languages. Yes, I'll attach a value judgment: I'm not going to be all moderate and say "the methodology is different but neither is better". I do think the Western system is better, and I do think that the system in Asia is in dire need of reform.

In short, it sucks. Here's why.

Flashback, 1996: the poorly-funded foreign languages department at my high school only offered two language options - French and Spanish. Wealthier districts often offered Italian, German, even Latin and occasionally Chinese but being a small-town high school, that was never going to be an option for us. My French teacher, Mrs. Q (now known as Ms. S) taught both French and Spanish in a myriad of creative ways. We made posters, we had cooking days, we enacted scenarios, played games, asked each other questions, occasionally did drills, had contests, wrote stories, watched and discussed movies, wrote (terrible) poems and held discussions and debates at whatever level we could. Occasionally we'd take quizzes, Mrs. Q paid attention to us as we practiced so as to offer feedback, and there would be a few tests every semester. Each test included an oral portion in which we had to talk to Mrs. Q and answer a few questions. The focus was more on communicative ability and less on grammar in this section.

The edges of this memory may as well be soft-focus, and the colors tinted with peach and rose.

I thoroughly enjoyed French class: in fact, I enjoyed it and excelled in it to such an extent that I also took Spanish just because I could, and excelled in that, too. If I could have added another language, I probably would have. I've since left most of my French and Spanish by the cerebral wayside - my brain gets choked with Chinese whenever I try to piece together sentences in either language - but traveling experiences have shown that the information is latent, not dead. In India, we met a group of French travelers and after about an hour of stumbling I was able to chat with them at a reasonable level of fluency. A month in Central America helped bring back a good portion of my Spanish skills.

Flash forward, 2009: more than ten years since my love of French propelled me into a Spanish course "just because language is fun". I'm at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center in an upper-intermediate Chinese course.

We go around in a circle, day after day. Each chapter has approximately 45 new vocabulary words, some with sub-words. We learn them by going around the classroom, each student in turn reading a new word and an example sentence. Never a break, never a change. Around and around. Three students down, my Swedish classmate is reading some now-forgotten nubbin of vocabulary and the accompanying sentence. I do a few quick calculations to figure out what I will have to read. I find it, go through it, and realize I don't know two characters in the sentence.

One of them is easy enough to fake - I can tell by the sound element how it is probably said and have a reasonable chance of being correct. The other reads as a giant question mark: no idea. I tune out for a bit as two more students read their bland, unrealistic sentences - things like "Little Chen is always curious when he sees a Satellite News Gathering Van". Because I'm definitely going to say that or something like it in my life someday. Riiiight.

I get to my sentence, acceptably fake it through the character I can say but don't know the meaning of, and never will learn the meaning of, because while I do look it up and put it on my study list, it's forgotten in about a month. I admit that I don't know the other character; there's nothing else I can do.

"Really," the teacher says in Chinese - this is an upper intermediate class after all - "you should know this one. It was in Book 2."

Fair enough, except I never did Book 2. I self-taught my way into my placement. I know most of the material from the first four books, but there is no way I could have serendipitously learned every single one of the same things taught in those books. Even if I had taken the course that goes with Book 2, who's to say I wouldn't have forgotten something? At this point, I'd spent a year in China picking up the basics of beginner-level Chinese on my own, including very rudimentary writing and a few years in Taiwan improving steadily through self-study and one previous Shi-da course, in which I'd performed fairly well.

The next day it will be the same - we'll go around yet again on the Pointless Carousel reading sentences. Occasionally we'll stop to answer one or two discussion questions. We'll do the same kind of homework for each unit - it reinforces the lesson but is very repetitive and rarely anything better than yawn-inducing. We'll go through a bunch of grammar points - again taking predictable turns answering questions - with a few examples each, with very little time to expand on any one point. There were grammar bits that some students simply didn't understand, and after a few minutes of trying to explain them, the teacher would give up and say "study it at home. You'll get it".

Half the time the grammar "lesson" was a bunch of sentence structure examples, many of them too formal or old-fashioned to be remotely useful in daily life in Taiwan.

That repetitive routine was regularly punctuated by a test that focused more on grammar detail than genuine communication. Not until the final were we ever tested on our speaking, and even then we were tested on reading, not actually talking to someone. Every three tests we'd take a big test - generally we'd take the third smaller test one day and the big test in the very next class. At the end, we'd take an even bigger test.

Amusingly, the end-of-class feedback we were asked to complete was a bubble-sheet, with no room for actual individual feedback. There was a bubble for "not enough tests". Is anyone surprised that there was no bubble for "too many tests"?

So there you have it.

That right there is what's wrong with foreign language education in Asia. That system may work to an extent for other Asians who are more used to it - they probably received similarly styled schooling back home - but I'd argue they're more likely to attain a higher level in Chinese because the jobs they often hold demand it. An Indonesian, Thai, Filipina or Vietnamese domestic helper, restaurant worker, fishing boat laborer, factory worker, grocery clerk or wife is more likely to have to speak Chinese daily with her family, her bosses, her children and her customers than a foreigner arriving from the West, who often socializes with other Westerners and really only needs to be able to use Chinese in restaurants or taxis (at least in Taipei). If they're teaching English, their job, unlike their Vietnamese classmate's job, might require that they not speak Chinese.

For the Koreans and Japanese at Shi-da, I've noticed that while they often have the same employment or scholarship situations that the Westerners have, that their commitment to learning Chinese is more long-term. You're likely to see them for several semesters at Shi-da, whereas a Westerner might attend one or two semesters at most before heading home.

For the American-born Taiwanese and Chinese, I found at Shi-da that they progressed quickly in spoken Chinese and vocabulary (possibly because of growing up around the language at home) but moved just as slowly as the other Westerners in reading and writing.

Of course, not every non-Taiwanese Asian learning Chinese here fits into those categories, and not every Westerner only hangs out with other Westerners or teaches English. I'm being general, and those generalities break down at the individual level. Meditate on it for awhile, though, and see if I'm not right on a large scale.

In short, it's not the methodology at schools like Shi-da that cause other Asian students to forge ahead while Westerners often don't - it's the fact that they will use what they learn daily whereas a Western student may not.

I don't think that it has anything to do with studiousness or diligence, by the way: my Western classmates and I studied just as hard as the Asians in class.

I do think it might have something to do with the fact that other Asians who move here commit to a longer-term immersion study of Chinese, and the Western kids tend to go home after a year - and let's be honest, you're not going to learn nearly as much Chinese, and you won't learn it nearly as well, when you leave an immersion environment.

Really, though, back to the main point: it has everything to do with pedagogy.

I've seen some impressively bad teaching in my time in Taiwan - since when is going around in predictable circles to recite pointless sentences a good way to motivate students to remember and use what they're learning? - and it's led me (and some friends) to ask: is it any wonder that American students don't tend to pick up Chinese that well, when the teaching is so truly lacking?

This can be seen in language classrooms worldwide - I have taken a grand total of one Chinese course in the USA, but have heard from trustworthy sources who have taken more classes that the pedagogy really isn't any better over there. The teachers tend to be Chinese or Taiwanese, and often earned their teaching credentials in Asia. They go abroad and teach the way they've been taught to teach, which is to say badly. (Yes, I'm making a value judgment. So there). They apply the same drills, tests, repetition, archaic and overly formal vocabulary, useless bits and bobs of dowdy grammar, memorization and recitation to teaching abroad, and then they wonder why Western students just don't pick it up.

Or they don't wonder, because test scores are acceptable, and nobody has thought to actually talk to the students in Chinese to see if they could, in fact, speak it.

I've seen it time and time again: the guy in my first Shi-da class? It wasn't entirely his fault that he (probably) flunked out. I was partnered with him on the first day, when we'd introduce ourselves and then introduce each other to the class. I can honestly say that he could barely speak, though his writing was pretty good. He placed into the class partly on the merits of classes he'd already taken, and while I can't imagine that he aced his speaking assessment, he must have done well on the grammar and reading placement. He'd studied Chinese for years in the USA and come over here to improve, and yet he could barely communicate. Nobody had thought to have him practice actual speaking skills.

This has been a recurring theme in my Chinese education, by the way. I've always been among the best speakers and communicators in class, but I've never been among the best readers, writers or grammarians. When the grammar being taught is the sort of thing that nobody ever uses, though, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing (although it would be nice to improve on the reading and writing skills).

Another friend of mine, B., majored in Chinese in college. She can speak fairly well and for awhile was in a Master's program. She would tell me about people in her program who could quite literally not speak Chinese, but they'd passed all the relevant coursework and been accepted to the program, and they could more or less get by. Put them in a situation where they'd have to actually deal with life in Chinese, though, and they couldn't.

What you get from these programs are students who can pass a test in Chinese and know a lot of words and abstract grammar. You get students who can get into graduate programs and go on to academic careers focusing on literature, classical Chinese, Chinese linguistics or Chinese history. You get students who can do research in academic texts in Chinese.

What you do not get from these Chinese language programs are students who can actually speak Chinese.

Yet another friend is currently studying in a graduate program at Shi-da and has told me a few things that scare me about the program.

First, the pedagogy classes seem (from my perception on listening to this friend) to be something of a joke. They can be summed up as saying, "If you explain the grammar rule well and give a few examples, the students will know that rule and be able to use it."

Err...NO. If you want to really teach grammar and get it into students' heads where it'll stick and come up naturally, well, anyone who's taken a CELTA course can tell you how to do that. Here's a hint: an example and a few exercises won't do it. You have to make the students use it, over and over, in sentences they generate that have some bearing on real life (asking for opinions, narratives and predictions are always good ways to bring abstract grammar to the real-world sphere).

He's also mentioned that it does happen that other foreigners accepted to the program can speak Chinese on paper but in real life, they are often not that fluent.

What they're basically churning out are more MTC-style teachers who simply can't teach. Those newly-minted teachers will go abroad, teach Chinese and then wonder why the students just aren't picking up on it.

On an online forum, I came across a woman living in Japan because her husband works there. She didn't really want to live there, but was trying to make the best of it by learning Japanese. She quit the course that his work arranged for her, because it was very formally taught, very academic, and very "perfect grammar" oriented. She couldn't learn anything: too many rules, too little step-by-step speaking practice, too much impractical knowledge, nothing that she could exit the class and immediately put to use. Is it any wonder that she quit? Does anyone doubt that her classmates will learn beautiful Japanese and possibly do very well in more academic situations, but never have the comfortable, "wearin' my old jeans" vernacular familiarity with Japanese that a second-language speaker should strive to acquire?

I've felt for awhile that while there is still a lot to learn, that I've had that "old jeans" familiarity with Chinese for awhile, and it astounds me how few people at my level or even above it can claim that. Shouldn't it be one of every learner's goals?

When I said earlier that after years of being away from French and Spanish, I was able to dive to the back of my brain and pick up words, phrases and structures that I thought I'd forgotten, the image that popped into my head was Leo's crumbling subconscious in Inception (the image in that movie of the old dreamspace he built that was now in tatters is how I imagine second-language knowledge in someone's brain after years of non-use). I could do it, because I genuinely enjoyed learning those languages and the speaking, student-centered methodology by which I learned them helped them stay, a bit damaged but basically intact, in my brain for later retrieval.

I wonder if any of the examples of Chinese students above - the guy in my first Shi-da class, the students in my friends' graduate programs - will be able to do a similar quick recall of Chinese years from now if they ever stop using it? Will the less-communicative ways they learned the language work against them, compelling their brains not to store, but rather to dump, that information as it was not efficiently and deeply learned?

I've also met plenty of Westerners who are beautifully fluent in Chinese. Guess how most of them learned it? Some classwork, sure, but mostly from years of immersion, practice and self-study along with those classes. I've met people fluent in French who have only studied it in French class, but I have never, not once, met someone fluent in Chinese or Japanese who learned the entirety of the language in class. Of course, real-life experience is always going to produce better fluency (just compare Taiwanese who have spent time in the USA to those who haven't), but poor teaching methodology in Asian languages makes it all the more imperative for anyone who actually wants to speak well to take their own practical initiative.

In short, the Asian style of teaching simply doesn't work for foreign languages. It just doesn't. It's not how people learn to communicate. Drills and tests do not breed fluency or communicative ability. They don't increase confidence (if - no, when - I get my MA in Applied Linguistics, my thesis will probably be on the issue of confidence. Check back with me in a few years). I don't think this is even a new revelation.

When students - always adults - come to classes I teach at their companies - I see a quick surge of enthusiasm followed by rapid improvement in speaking and fluency, with slower improvement in grammar. I do think it's because I stress real-life learning and go through no repetition, drills, stand-alone round-the-table sentence-reading or memorizing. In contrast, many of my students have told me that in junior high school their English learning consisted of memorizing articles and being able to recite them, or drilling for hours. If I introduced a new, fairly common grammar point, I'd hear a lot of "Yeah, we learned that in school but we all forgot."

Why did they forget? Because they never had a chance to practice it through generating their own speech. You aren't going to learn and remember through memorizing and reading sentences created by others. The simple act of your brain reaching for that word or grammar point while creating its own piece of speech is much more powerful. The act of work, grasping and creation builds links in the mind, and builds more effective memory. I still do not understand why this phenomenal (and phenomenally simple) tool is not often used in classrooms in Asia. Of course, repeated and varied use of these things will cement that ability, and their use needs to be long-term and preferably through immersion.

And yet the teaching style that my students describe - the one that leads to "we learned it, but we forgot" - is just what teachers of Chinese and other Asian languages are using today, to pathetic results.

Compared to this dire situation, European languages come hand-in-hand with European pedagogy, and they've been taught in the USA for so long that more contemporary, student-centered teaching methods have sprung up around them. They can be genuinely enjoyable classes to take. With that sort of history and long-developed methodology, of course they'd be better taught.

I can only hope that the same will be true of Chinese and other Asian-language education in the future.

I'd like to see a mutiny, basically. An overhaul of how Chinese is taught. A re-vamping of what it means to be a Chinese teacher at MTC, another language school (TLI is somewhat better, I will say) or abroad. I'd like to be able to promise future students of Chinese that they'll be learning in the most effective ways and that they can trust that if they work hard, they'll attain some measure of true fluency or at least natural communication skills. I can't say that now.

So whoever is captaining this Ship of Bad Chinese Teaching, I'd like to chuck him overboard.

What's your story when it comes to learning Chinese? Think I'm wrong and want to tell me why? Got your own bones to pick with the system? I'd love to hear more stories about and experiences with language learning as well as (mature) debate. So tell me - that's what the comments are for!


David on Formosa said...

Great post. I don't have time to comment in detail, but I agree with you and share you desire for a mutiny!

Kathmeista said...

When I got here 2 years ago I was all set to go to Shi-Da but somewhere along the line my application got lost and I never ended up going. I went to one Survival Chinese class at the Community Services Center which was lots of fun but not serious enough for where I wanted to go so I went down the self-taught road. I love languages, have very little shame and live in TaoYuan so this works well for me. I practice on unsuspecting locals, teach myself characters from road signs, TV, menus etc and generally try to immerse myself. I'm not fluent but I think I have managed to get past the 7-11 stage.

Teaching a language is, for me, all about the communication aspect. Fluency first then accuracy. Confidence then content. Having a laundry list of vocab or a raft of grammar structures means jack if you can't speak with the locals. I really agree with you on the whole pedagogy problem. It's a big issue.

Just a side note on accent, my mother-in-law, whom I love dearly, keeps trying to get me to speak the Mainland accent as she believes this is the right way to speak Chinese. Sadly I sound far more Taiwanese than she'd like which is a source of great amusement when I talk to her in Chinese ;)

catherine_sr. said...

My first teacher at Shida was fantastic -- he came up with creative assignments (like one where we took turns composing a story, mailing the draft to the next classmate), took us on field trips to historical spots, made us study the radicals and then taught us the etymology of certain words even though that was not part of the curriculum (though it certainly should be) and surprised us with tingxie quizzes randomly enough that we were always on our toes.

I had him for two quarters. I realized how very, very lucky I had been when I got stuck with a teacher in the third quarter who literally just read the vocabulary list/example sentences in our textbook outloud and then expect us to memorize it all for homework.

Pedagogy aside, I wonder how students from Japan (and other Asian countries) view their Shida experience. Most of the teaching materials are in English and even though Japanese students make up a huge portion of the MTC student body, I saw very few concessions for them. My last textbook was the second news reading one, which has some fairly advanced vocabulary. Since they couldn't understand the English definitions, my Japanese classmates had to look up most of the words in their Japanese-Chinese dictionaries and then just puzzle their way through if the definitions weren't clear or accurate (or even in their Besta, for matter).

My personal gripe as a Taiwanese-American is that they just shove all ABCs into the same class, regardless of how they do in the placement exam. In fact, they didn't even make me take the exam. I find this frustrating because even though a lot of Taiwanese-Americans grew up as passive speakers of Mandarin, our language skills still vary so widely. I had a basic grasp of "household" Mandarin ("I'm hungry." "Where's the restroom?" "My tummy hurts.") and difficulty pronouncing words I was not familiar with, yet I was put into class with people who had grown up speaking Mandarin at home and were able to discuss topics like micro-finance. Needless to say, this put me at a disadvantage and made me feel very uncomfortable about talking in class when all I could contribute to a discussion was a few words. I had no idea how I was progressing, because even though I worked my ass off and got good grades, I always lagging behind students who had come in with a language advantage. I know quite a few Taiwanese-Americans who grew up speaking even less Mandarin than me... including some who spoke only Taiwanese with their relatives. It does not make sense to lump us all together just because our parents were born in the same place. I know Shida wants to separate Taiwanese-Americans with some Mandarin ability from other students with zero experience, but the solution is not to lump us into a homogenous blob.

Jenna said...

‎"The real knowledge of a word comes through the practice of appropriately using it within a certain situation" (Malinowski 1923)

- as sent to me by a friend. See, even in 1923 they knew this.

And according to Charles Limb, the language centers of the brain and the parts of the brain that are thought to be the seat of creativity and improvisation are the one and the same:

So how does going around in a circle reading sentences from a textbook help one actually learn Chinese (or any other language)?


Using your natural improvisational and creative abilities, creating spontaneous, circumstance-related sentences DOES help.

So why do most Chinese teachers not realize this?

Anonymous said...

Agree with almost everything you commented. In my view many people overestimate the value of correct grammar in language learning, it is not necessary to speak 100% correct grammar to make yourself understood in any language. Grammar certainly is important but the focus should always be on conversation

Nick Herman said...

My only formal experience is studying for one year at Pomona College, Claremont, CA. The first semester was good, and the second semester was awesome. Actually, I heard of a number of people who had studied for a couple years at Pomona who then went to study abroad in China or Taiwan and said the classes weren't as good or as intense (but still managed well enough to learn at that rate). I wish I had had time to take more than one year. As far as comparing to romance languages, it's hard for me to compare; I studied Latin for 2 years in high school, rather joylessly, but I was never really interested in learning another language until Chinese.

Jenna said...

Nick - I concur that Chinese classes in the West are generally better than in Asia. I only took one Chinese class in the USA and it was to maintain my Chinese, as my level was already above the class (but it was the highest level and only class offered in my area that I could get to without a car and met after work). It was pretty good. It wasn't the most amazing experience I've had with a teacher (she was good but not stellar) but it was fine.

Other stories I've heard though - a teacher (in the USA) who basically teaches the students nothing and has them make little picture books that she translates into Chinese for them, another who was trained to teach in Asia and brought those (bad for language teaching) methodologies to the USA - show that quality can really vary, especially compared to the generally good level of instruction in most popular Romance languages.

Once you get to Asia, though, bleaugh. I'm happy your friends learned "enough" but they probably could have learned more and remembered it better if they'd had better teachers. Good teachers do exist in Asia, but with Chinese classes for foreigners, they are hard to come by (my sister had one, and my friend Agneta had one. I never have).

Laura Mitchelson said...

Bring on the mutiny. Backacking and Chinese friends and boyfriends taught me more than I learned in the classroom but now I am going into teaching it myself so looking for the right methods.