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Archive for November, 2005

He was a writer. He thought he wrote about the future but it really was the past. In his novel, a mysterious train left for 2046 every once in a while. Everyone who went there had the same intention…..to recapture their lost memories. It was said that in 2046, nothing ever changed. Nobody knew for sure if it was true, because nobody who went there had ever come back- except for one. He was there. He chose to leave. He wanted to change.

Winning 6 Hong Kong Film Awards, as well as two Golden Horse Awards, 2046 finally made good on several years of waiting for Wong Kar Wai (王家衛) fans. With echoes of blade runner in a futuristic view of Hong Kong, a vivid picture of Hong Kong in the 1960’s and several sex scenes with Zhang Zi Yi (章子怡), the movie also has what it takes to reach a wider audience.

Despite the fractured nature of the movie, hopping back and forth between the future and the past, it is a simple story. It is the tale of an emotionally wrecked man, Chow Mo Wan (played by Tony Leung), and the many beautiful women whom he loves and loses. The entire movie is a stream of consciousness, a jumble of Chow’s torrid love affairs, love spats, and the ensuing heartbreaks.

Chow’s isn’t an easily likeable character due to his constant inability to be open with himself or others. It’s as if he has a mask, covering his true emotions that cannot be broken by the women who love him. Instead, it is he who breaks them. However he is an extremely real and complex character, and as a result, believable.

Another interesting thing about this movie is that in many if not most of the dialogues, the two people speaking are speaking different languages. Chow speaks Cantonese, and Cantonese only. His landlord speaks nothing but Mandarin. The landlord’s daughter is dating a Japanese man who answers her only in Japanese. Even the character in Chow’s futuristic novel is a Japanese man speaking to Mandarin-speaking robots. While the language issue is never addressed openly (i.e. nobody ever has problems understanding the other’s language), one has to wonder if this was to increase the sense of Chow’s isolation amidst all of his friends.

Chow is clearly a man capable of loving deeply. What he needs to know if his love is unrequited. And in seeking happiness, the message seems to be that there is no other way.

Rating: 4/5

This is where I’ll post reviews of all the Chinese movies I watch. I may occasionally include a non-Chinese film as well. If there’s a Chinese movie you’ve recently seen that is either particularly good or particularly bad, send your review to doubtingtoshuo@gmail.com.

豪情壯志 (háoqíng zhuàngzhì) is a Chinese saying that means “heroic sentiment and robust determination”. KFC’s Slogan is 豪情壯翅 (háoqíng zhuàngchì), or “heroic sentiment and robust wings!”

KFC is about the best advertiser in Taiwan. Heck, they’re getting free advertising from me, they’re so funny! I don’t really feel like translating the whole commercial though, so if you don’t find it funny just pass it along to a Chinese friend. That way somebody will enjoy it besides just me.

Extensive reading is most easily understood by contrasting it to intensive reading—the type of reading most often found in foreign language learning programs. Intensive reading materials are often hard for students and are packed with new vocabulary or difficult grammar. Extensive reading materials are easy and have few unfamiliar words and little to no new grammar. Intensive reading is slow. In many cases students spend an entire hour working through just a few paragraphs or pages. Extensive reading is fast. Students might read 20-40 pages or more of foreign language text in an hour.

Intensive ReadingExtensive Reading
Hard GrammarEasy Grammar
Many unfamiliar wordsUnder 2% of words are new
Read 1-2 pages in an hourRead 25+ pages in an hour

What kind of materials are suitable?

Extensive reading materials should be three things—easy, authentic and interesting. These goals conflict to some degree. As anyone who has had the experience of trying to read in a language they don’t know very well, nearly everything they want to read is too hard. At the same time, those few texts that are easy enough, are usually very artificial (e.g. textbooks) or very boring (e.g. books for three year-olds).

Get books the students can actually read without a dictionary

The most important thing about choosing extensive reading materials for a classroom is that they are easy enough. There is a tremendous pressure to accept a text with “just a few” extra vocabulary items since it feels like the students will learn more. This is a trap. While intensive reading is valuable and has its place, the benefits students get from extensive reading disappear quickly if students cannot comfortably read and instead find themselves decoding and translating.

The bar identified by L2 acquisition researchers is that at least 98% of the vocabulary in a text must be comprehensible to the students.  About one or two new words per page and maybe one new sentence structure per session is the goal to aim for. If the students can already understand that much of the text, new words can often be learned entirely through context. If these few new words appear again and again through out the text, all the better. Words learned like this aren’t learned all at once, of course. Students start with a fuzzy understanding of a new word, which gradually gets clearer and clearer as they encounter it again and again in new contexts. This may seem like a slow way to go, but as I argued in my intensive reading article, there really is no short-cut. Translations accompanied by a few example sentences are never enough alone.

When choosing books for your students, one good test is to take a page from the text you are considering, give it to your students for a few minutes, and ask how many words they don’t know. Depending on how honest your students are, you’ll get a good idea of whether or not they could read the text. If you are worried they won’t admit what they don’t know, then cover up about twenty words scattered throughout the page, and photocopy it. You can then give the students a cloze test. If they can complete over 80% of the sentences with the correct words or reasonable alternatives, use the text. If they can’t, pick an easier one.

Aim for natural text—something native speakers (perhaps children) might actually read

There’s nothing worse than studying a language from materials filled with strange, wooden-sounding phrases that native speakers would never actually say. And yet, these kinds of materials are pretty common in foreign language instruction. Sometimes this is due to pressures to teach certain grammar structures or to prepare students for an examination. In isolation, that may not be a terrible decision since learning core grammatical patterns does help bring more authentic materials within a language learner’s reach. Extensive reading is not the time, though. When extensive reading, keep to the most natural texts possible. Reading a lot will improve a learner’s grammar but that’s not the primary goal.

Choose the most interesting books possible

At very low levels, there aren’t a lot of reading options that are easy for a second language learner. However, within the constraints of what texts are usable, it is imperative to choose the most interesting ones possible. In a classroom setting, very low-level students may need help from a teacher and need to go through the same story together. In this case, choose something with as broad of an appeal as possible. As students get more comfortable with books in the target language, they can and should be choosing their own. In my own experience teaching over a thousand students, I haven’t yet encountered one who didn’t start wanting to read specific books after having read a dozen or so at a given difficulty level. As long as students have had several successful reading experiences in the language and there are interesting choices, it’s almost inevitable that they’ll start finding themselves comfortable with more and more complex books over time.

How much should an L2 learner read?

Assuming, one free hour per day, aim to read at least 25 pages per day. If there’s only half an hour to spend on reading, then read at least 10 pages. This may seem like a lot and, for students who are reading normal paperback books with few pictures, it is. A native reader typically reads 40 to 100 pages per hour, so this is a bit over half the rate of a native reader on the slow end of the normal range.

There are two reasons for reading so much. First of all, it forces you to use dictionaries sparingly. As I encountered in a very painful way when learning Chinese, every 5 minutes spent looking through a dictionary is another 5 minutes in which very little language is acquired. The second reason to read so much is that reading too slowly interferes with comprehension. In normal reading, there are certain neurological processes at work that depend on sufficient reading speed (Day and Bamford, 1998). According to Nuttall, “speed, enjoyment and comprehension are closely linked with one another” (1996: 128). When adults read in their own languages, they take in entire phrases at a time, not individual words. If an L2 learner reads too slowly, word by word, it is even possible to forget the meaning of the first few words in a sentence before reading the last.

What are the benefits of Extensive Reading (ER)?

It seems obvious that it is better for a student to learn 20 new words while reading 20 pages of a fairly easy and interesting text, than it is to spend 20 minutes memorizing the same words and then struggle through a few difficult, boring paragraphs followed by grammar and translation drills. (For a look at one such difficult text look at page four of this report.) However, I’ll outline the main points below:

  • ER can provide “massive comprehensible input”
  • ER can enhance learners’ general language competence
  • ER can increase knowledge of previously learned vocabulary
  • ER leads to improvement in writing
  • ER can motivate learners to read
  • ER teaches learners about the culture of the target language users, which will allow learners to more easily join the L2 speech community
  • ER can consolidate previously learned language
  • ER helps to build confidence with extended texts
  • ER facilitates the development of prediction skills

How can these benefits be maximized?

Remember that newly acquired vocabulary is fragile. Therefore, the most important vocabulary to use is the vocabulary just learned. Obviously, you don’t want to introduce too much new vocabulary at one time, either. Aside from making sure that the difficulty of your texts is appropriate, it is also important to make sure that they are interesting to the students. The more interesting the texts are, the more the students will like reading (and the language in general), and the sooner they will start doing voluntary reading on their own. See this diary of a JFL (Japanese as a foreign language) learner’s extensive reading experiences.

What are the difficulties?

Using extensive reading in a classroom is, by nature, a difficult thing to do. Different students are at different levels. It takes some work to make a viable curriculum in which not everyone is necessarily reading the same thing at the same time. Some students, who have been studying a foreign language for a while in traditional a class, resist extensive reading at first. They feel that if it isn’t hard, it isn’t “real learning”. It is absolutely vital to explain the rational and benefits to them. Most difficult of all, particularly in an EFL as opposed to an ESL environment, is getting the appropriate reading materials. They can be expensive, hard to find, or simply unavailable, depending on where you are. It also takes some planning to effectively keep track of which students have which books and make sure they are all returned. In my next article on language learning, I’ll talk about some of the extensive reading materials that I have found useful.

This piece is about ways in which Intensive Reading can be employed in the EFL classroom as well as in children’s native language classes. One way to understand Intensive Reading is by contrasting it with extensive reading. The goal of one exercise is to push oneself to build specific skills by taking on difficult material in a focused session, while the goal of the other is to spend as much time as possible reading and building a strong language base.

Intensive Reading

Nearly anyone who has taken a foreign language class in North America is familiar with intensive reading. Maybe you have to read a paragraph, or maybe you have to make your way through Le Petit Prince, like I once did. In either case, you’d be reading something with a great deal of vocabulary and/or grammar that is beyond your current reading ability. If your instructor is kind, maybe the vocabulary and grammar that is new to you will be glossed page by page. If not, you’ll be spending more time looking up a dictionary than reading. Assuming vocabulary is supplied for you, the most efficient way to do this kind of reading is to first drill yourself on the new vocabulary for an hour or so, and then read. Diligent students will be able to use the reading to learn 10 or maybe even 20 vocabulary words within a couple of hours. However, even they will probably be reading word by word rather than taking in the language a phrase at a time as they would reading in their native languages.

Advantages

Intensive reading has two key advantages. For low level readers, intensive reading is possibly the fastest way to build vocabulary. Some foreign language students are able to successful add 10 or more comprehension words per day. Additionally, reading difficult material forces a learner to develop strategies for for dealing with texts that are too hard to read comfortably.

Reading Strategies

When deciphering a difficult text, readers are forced to use a variety of strategies that they wouldn’t need while engaging in extensive reading. While these strategies don’t build overall language skills, they are very important for a learner’s ability to use what they do know. Skimming is critically important. Even travelers who may have only a basic knowledge of a language may need to read menus, look for an apartment or fill out forms. In fact, classroom exercises in doing just these tasks is an excellent way to build students ability to skim partially incomprehensible text. For younger learners, TV listings and search engine results are good tools. Dictionary use is another skill that can be developed through intensive reading. Equally important is guessing. Both children and foreign language learners often learn what words mean gradually as they make educated guesses when seeing it in context.

Drawbacks

The biggest drawback, by far, is the large amount of time spent reading a small amount of text.

nose hana

The meaning of a word can be broader in one language than another

While most people assume that this is necessary in order to be “learning”, it isn’t necessarily the case. Many studies have shown that the only way people really learn how to use new grammar or vocabulary correctly is by encountering them in a large variety of contexts. In other words, even after you have “learned” a word, it is still extremely beneficial to keep reading material which includes it. Words frequently don’t map one to one from one language to another. Take for example the word, “nose”. It seems like a simple enough word. It’s a noun and it refers to a body part that everyone in the world has, regardless of mother tongue. However, like many things in language learning, the word “nose” is much more complicated than it appears.

In Japanese, the word 鼻 (はな), means nose… sort of. Consider this sentence:


elephant

as for

nose

be
長い
long

but

pig

as for

nose

be
短い
short

.

“Nose” and “鼻” aren’t quite the same. Japanese doesn’t have any one word that means exactly the same as “nose”. The word for “nose” in Malay, “hidung” is different from both “nose” and “鼻”:

Gajah
elephant
panjang
long
belalainya
trunk.its
tetapi
but
babi
pig
pendek
short
hidungnya.
nose.its.

As we can see, “nose” applies to people, but not pigs or elephants; “hidung” applies to people and pigs, but not elephants; and “鼻” applies to all three.

Intensive reading, by its nature takes a lot of time. Reading material with a lot of new vocabulary and grammar is a slow and tiring process. As a result, even if you spend an hour a day reading (which quite a bit for a language student), you will only get 3 or 4 pages of input. As a result, you won’t encounter the word “nose” in enough contexts to realize when it’s used. This may seem like a small problem, but consider the fact that many, if not most, words cannot be mapped 1-1 from one language to another.

Words don’t have a 1 to 1 relationship between languages

The nose example may seem to be a hand picked, but I can assure you it’s not. While I was learning Japanese I encountered literally thousands of words that were just a little bit different than the English words into which they are commonly translated. Here’s one more thing to consider: The more common a word is, the more likely it’s usage (and conjugation if it has one) is irregular. Think of all the different meanings of the extremely frequently used word, “get”. Is there any other language in which “get up”, “get even”, “get better”, “get a new bike”, and “get to go on vacation” are all translated the same way? Worse yet, the forms of “get” are so irregular that not even American and British English agree on them.

What can be done about these misunderstandings? In most classrooms I’ve seen, intensive systems are used. This means that students not only have to try to memorize 50 words a week, but they are also told to memorize rules. “Nose” can be used for people, but not pigs, elephants or birds. If the “get” in your sentence means 變得 (biàndé), then you use an adjective to modify it (ie. get mad). If the “get” in your sentence means 到 (dào), then you have to use an adverb to modify it (ie. get home quickly). Can you remember all of these rules while memorizing new ones? Maybe. It’s sure not the most efficient way to go about learning a language, though.

Collocations

Another issue with intensive methods popular in textbooks is that of collocations. There are certain words we tend to use together and others that we don’t. For example, if someone asks how you are doing, both “pretty good” and “absolutely fantastic” would be natural responses. However, “pretty fantastic” sounds a little unusual to many English speakers and “absolutely good” would be a very strange answer. The reason isn’t due to grammar. It’s just that we use some words together more often than others. More rigid examples would be “crystal clear” vs “glass clear”, or “painful reminder” vs “aching reminder”. With a great deal of reading and listening, these collocations become second nature, but brute force memorization is daunting, time-intensive task.

An effective reading balance

I recommend investing a small portion of reading time (10%-15%) into intensive activities and making the remainder extensive. A small amount of intensive work will regularly inject new words and sentence patterns into the curriculum and extensive activities provide a wide base of reinforcement, input to model and cultural background.


This article is an updated version of one originally posted in 2005
The Malay example is from the 1999 ALT-J/M paper


Note: This is an old post. The pinyin tone tool is now here, and I’ve since written a Firefox pinyin plugin that will give you the same functionality all over the web.

My apologies to those of you who saw my page broken today. I’ve been working on a javascript tool to add tone marks to pinyin. As many of you have seen, I frequently include tone marks on the pinyin words that I post. Up until now, I’ve been using the tool at http://pinyin.info/unicode/marks3.html. It has been useful, but it requires communication with the server every time you submit words to be encoded. It’s a bit slow for my tastes.

So, I’ve written my own pinyin tone tool. The conversion is done entirely in javascript, so it’s very fast. I hope some of you find it useful. The reason my site was broken is that I tried to put the tool in one of my posts. First off, let me say I’m pretty new to blogging, and that I’m not really a programmer. I guess blogger doesn’t let you add javascript to your posts. After trying to put my tool in a post, I tried to put it into my template. THAT’S what broke my page all day. I spent an hour or so trying to figure out how to just upload a normal web page to my blogger account, but couldn’t figure it out. Does anyone here know if blogger will let you just upload an HTML file (which you can link to from your blog)? There are some things, like this tool that should just be their own page, separate from your posting archives. There are a LOT of things which need javascript.

In the end, since I couldn’t figure out how to do it, I just made another “blog” to host my javascript tool. It’s pinyintool.blogger.com. I then made one empty post, since it’s required and proceeded to delete my whole template. Next, I took my pinyin tool and copied the whole thing into my template. As a result, I have a blog where no posts are displayed, no comments are accepted, and no archives are shown. It’s a pretty messed up way to get a page with javascript up on blogger, huh?

My own experience with language learning has been a long and painful journey. Some people have told me they thought I had a “natural aptitude” for learning foreign languages. If only they knew. All of my more recent success is a direct result of spending 10 years failing… miserably.

Latin

Excluding the small amounts of Spanish introduced in Sesame Street, my first contact with foreign language learning was in middle school. Since it was some kind of fancy school for “gifted” kids, it was a small school and only offered one foreign language… Latin. I spent about five hours a week in Latin class and two hours a week doing Latin homework for three years. The end result? I remember class was fun, but I don’t really know any Latin. The only thing I remember is that the 3rd declension is weird… or something like that. If someone were to jump me in a dark alley and threaten to beat the life out of me with a Latin-English dictionary unless I could spit out 50 Latin words, I could probably have come up with 20.

French

I went to a medium sized high school, where I had the options of studying French, Spanish, or Japanese. Oh, how I wish I’d chosen Spanish! Instead, I studied French for three years. Largely due to the fact that my grandmother always gave me the impression that French was a suave, intellectually elite, dignified language that any “truly cultured” person must know, I worked hard. I always did my homework. I memorized dozens of irregular verbs. I drilled myself on rules for pronouns and contractions. I always aced the verb tests (in which we had to conjugate various irregular verbs. In class, we usually practiced sentence patterns and did drills in which we had to ask classmates questions and answer. We also did a fair amount of reading homework, which meant reading one or two paragraphs which included 10-20 new vocabulary words in bold along with translations at the bottom. During the third year we slogged our way through Le Petit Prince, spending a day on each page. I probably spent half an hour a night struggling through the page we were supposed to read the next day. While I did write translations above words I didn’t know and temporarily, at least, figured out what each sentence meant, I still have no idea what the story was about.

If someone were to jumped me in a dark alley and demanded that I give them the futur antérieur conjugation of an irregular verb such as savoir, it would have been no problem. If that same someone were to have actually spoken French to me, I wouldn’t have had a clue what he was saying. Despite memorizing hundreds of words, dozens of forms of dozens of verbs, and quite a few grammar rules, my ability to actually understand or speak French was very limited.

In college, I took three more semesters of French. I started from the intensive beginning review class, and then took the 2120 (second semester of the second year) French class. In these classes, we still had extensive practice with sentence structures (many of which I already knew), but also started to read a bit more. I think we were reading about 5 pages per week from our reading textbooks. This reading was from a book designed for foreign students, and was MUCH easier than Le Petit Prince. I probably only spent about 10 minutes per page. I found myself enjoying class more than before and making modest progress in my conversational abilities as well. The third year French class, 3110, was too hard for me, though. I couldn’t make the jump from working through text books to acquiring vocabulary and fluency from authentic native sources. I tried, but I felt like I was drowning in a sea of only semi-comprehensible speech and text. I took an incomplete in the class. If I meet a French speaker now, I’ll say “Je parle le Francais comme une vache Espanol.” Then, the French speaker will usually laugh, figure I’m an okay guy, and use English with me from then on.

Japanese

Back when I was making good money contracting as a junior web admin, my ex-girlfriend found a great summer Japanese course at CU. It was three hours a day for ten weeks and awarded the same credit as a full year long course. She convinced me that since I was a contractor anyway, I could easily take 10 weeks off and learn a ton. That’s exactly what happened. She had previously studied Spanish very successfully, and had quite a few language learning techniques I’d never thought of. Of course we did the assigned homework, but we didn’t spend any extra time quizzing each other on grammar points or vocabulary. We used post-it notes to put a Japanese label on everything in her apartment we could think of. The fridge, her desk, the bookshelves, the walls, the stove, the hallway, the doors, the toilet, nothing escaped a post-it note naming the object in question in Japanese. Then, whenever we could, we’d make lame observations in Japanese.

“The chairs are brown.” “I think bread is good.” “I don’t want to be old.” “Your blanket is blue, but it’s ugly.” “That bus has a picture on it, doesn’t it?” “What time is it?” “Where’s my favorite pencil?”

We also rented as many Japanese movies with English sub-titles as we could. Ten weeks later, We finished the course; both of us received A’s and she had the highest grade in the class. I enjoyed it so much I decided to become a full time college student. Upon entering the 2nd year course which started in the fall, we found ourselves far better prepared than the students who had been attended Japanese classes an hour a day for an academic year. Unfortunately, due to personal reasons she decided to leave college for a while. However, I continued to use the learning methods I’d learned from her, as well additional ones suggested by our second year instructor, Saegusa Kyoko. She was probably the best language instructor I’ve ever had in my life. She was very interested in modern L2 acquisition methods. Yes, we did study grammar and memorize vocabulary. But the “meat” of her course was communicative activities. We had to scan articles that were much too difficult to read for important information. She encouraged us NOT to use dictionaries. We had class activities in which we say phrases, which we couldn’t yet express in Japanese, in English. Then she translated them into Japanese for us, we taped them and had to be able to understand them the next class. She introduced me to the theory of massive comprehensible input, encouraged extensive reading, and encouraged us to immerse ourselves as much as possible in Japanese input.

By the end of that the spring semester, I’d actually made some Japanese friends on campus and started doing productive language exchanges. One of those conversation partners became my roommate that summer and later one of my best friends. We had drinking parties, chatted with good friends into the dawn (sometimes in English, sometimes in Japanese), watched Kansaiben comedy shows, and basically had a blast. During my following and final year of college, I continued to make good Japanese friends and really grow to love Japanese culture. Perhaps most importantly of all, I started doing extensive reading. When I graduated, after only 2 years of study, my Japanese was better than that of most students who study it for 4 years: When I watched Japanese movies, I could understand nearly everything, and with occasional dictionary use, I could read articles on the Yomiuri news site. Even now, after barely using any Japanese for 3 years, my Japanese is still far better than my French was after 5 years of study.

If someone were to have jumped me in a dark alley to test my Japanese skills, I’d have interrupted him and made a joke about his way of jumping… in a Kyoto-ben accent.

Spanish

I did some community service in Guatemala for a couple of months after graduating. During that time, I employed a number of the same techniques I used learning Japanese. I was only there for a couple of months, but I did get to where I could travel around the country on weekends, open a bank account, etc… I would say I understood about %50 of what was on TV. The dark alleys in Guatemala were way to scary, I don’t even want to think about that.

Mandarin

I’ve been living in Taiwan for about 3 years now. I’ve been teaching English at least part time the whole time I’ve been here. I spent 10 months in language classes at a mediocre language school that employs audio-lingual drills and frequent vocabulary quizes, tīngxiě, and grammar-based tests. I have not been able to find the wealth of extensive reading materials for beginner or intermediate language learners that I previously found when studying Japanese or Spanish. Also, I’ve found that the bar is set very low for foreign speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Even a few weeks after I got here, when I could barely say anything in Chinese, people complimented my accent or just general “good Chinese”. Consequently, for Mandarin, it’s harder to get massive comprehensible input from the real world.

Many, many Taiwanese people try to speak English just about any time they’re talking to a white person. Many of those who don’t speak much English, will refuse to speak at all rather than simplify their speech for a foreigner. When I was in Guatemala, if I went into a store, the owner would definitely talk to me in Spanish. If I didn’t understand, he’d keep jabbering away in Spanish, but add hand gestures, or simplify his speech. That was nearly ideal for a language learner. In Taiwan, many store owners simply try to speak to me in English even if I speak to them in Mandarin first. If they do speak Chinese, and I don’t understand, they’re likely to give up all together. On one occasion, I went into a store in a night market to buy a fan. I asked the owner, “有沒有賣電風扇? (Do you sell fans?)”. Not only did he not understand, but he didn’t even bother to say, “聽不懂. (I don’t understand).” He just held up his hand, with his palm facing me, while shaking his head as if it would ward off the foreigner. So, I took three steps forward and repeated my question more slowly, more clearly and very loudly. At this point, he graced me with a “聽不懂”. I tried unsuccessfully one more time, and finally just grabbed a blank post-it note on the counter and WROTE, “有沒有賣電風扇?” Then, do you know what he did? He looked up in shock and said, “你會講國語嗎? (Can you speak Chinese)”. After this, he understood EVERYTHING I asked him, including the wattage requirements of the fan, and went on to ask me about all kinds of various things regarding America that he was curious about. When I left, I asked why he didn’t understand me until I wrote out my question for him. He answered, “喔,我以為你在講英語. (I thought you were speaking English.)”
In any case, whether it is due to the fact that I have been focused more on work than studying, or if it’s because of the comparative lack of learning resources, my progress with Mandarin has been much less impressive than my Japanese learning was. At this point, my speaking is so-so, and my writing is at about the 2nd or 3rd grade level. I think that the extensive reading and cartoon watching that helped my Japanese so much would help my Chinese, too. It’s just that I have to reach a high level of Chinese before I can find material that I can read easily without a dictionary. Likewise, the better my spoken Chinese becomes, the more enjoyable it will be for local friends to talk to me in Chinese. I’ll keep at it, reading the 國語日報 (a newspaper for kids), and doing additional study when I’m motivated. With a full-time job, though, it may be a long time before my Mandarin is as good as my Japanese was.

One of the largest failings I see of EFL education in general, including some of the best schools, is the total disregard for modern 2nd language acquisition pedagogy. Linguists have demonstrated time and again that a purely skills-based approach to teaching a second language does not work very well. And yet, a skills based approach is what is practiced in over 99% of all EFL classrooms in Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

Perhaps the most influential L2 acquisition linguist, Stephen D Krashen, has long maintained the importance of massive comprehensible input for language learners. Mountains of research make it quite clear that no matter how many vocabulary words and grammatical structures students of a 2nd language memorize, they will not be able to write well until they have done a considerable amount of reading. Likewise, students will not speak well until they have heard a great deal of the target language. The most important thing, however, is that the input be comprehensible.

In nearly all big EFL cram school chains, native English speakers teach at least half of each class. Students do receive massive amounts of authentic English input. The problem is that far too little of it is understood. In order to be acquired, new vocabulary and grammar structures must be encountered hundreds of times in contexts where they are fully understood. Very few schools will give their students this opportunity. Memorizing and reciting difficult speeches may impress parents, but it does little for the language development of the students. The same problem exists with the reading included in EFL curriculums, if it is included at all. Despite the overwhelming evidence in support of extensive reading, most curriculums focus exclusively on intensive reading.

In most big chains, students receive massive incomprehensible input, and the results are terrible. At the better schools, the students receive a modest amount of comprehensible input, and the results are better. I’m convinced that the results would be far better, if the students had reading homework after every class, starting towards the end of the first year of their study. Ideally, they would have to read a paragragh per class at the beginning, would be reading 20 pages a week by the end of the second year, and 50 pages per week by the time they graduate. Provided the reading material is at a level such that it can be read at good speed without a dictionary, they would receive large amounts of comprehensible input and improve much more quickly.

Fortunately, my boss agrees. I think we have a good chance to make the best English educational program in Taiwan. I’m psyched. My next article will be on extensive reading.