Ten Things I Learned About Language Acquisition in China

China was an incredible experience. It was my first trip to Asia and our kids’ first trip abroad. Our host families were extraordinarily warm and generous, and I was excited to see Chinese culture first hand. But as a self-proclaimed professional language-learner, I have to admit that the biggest thrill was the chance to use the Chinese skills I’d been working on for the past two months or so. And as a language teacher, I firmly believe some of our best professional development comes from the act of continually learning unfamiliar language and culture. There’s no better way to understand students’ minds than to put ourselves in their shoes.

I knew the trip would reawaken and even change some of my perceptions about language acquisition, but I had forgotten the pure euphoria of successfully communicating in a new language. It may be the most important takeaway from my time in China, but here are ten other major ideas, some new and others simply renewed, that I hope to bring back to the classroom in the fall.

#1 Not everybody speaks English

Even though we spent most of our time in major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong there were times when my ability to speak Chinese mattered. Our kids only drink water, but Chinese people rarely have cold water at meals. The waiters at every restaurant were baffled until I learned how to ask for 冰水 “ice water”, and even then I could tell they were going out of their way to hunt some down for us! Likewise, there were occasions when people from our group asked for the restroom, and all of its synonyms, to the utter confusion of clerks and waiters. I never had any trouble with 厕所 under my belt.

I’ll admit there were plenty of times when I used English. None of the Chinese people expected anyone in our group to know Chinese, and they were well-prepared to communicate with us in almost every situation. But when confusion arose, I was glad to be able to meet them half way at least.

#2 The natives appreciate the effort

Knowing some Chinese was more than just useful for communication. I feel like my family and I had an incredibly rich experience because we were making a linguistic effort. People were so much more vibrant, helpful, curious and open toward us. We made dozens of new friends and felt much more like guests than foreigners.

I’ve experienced this before with French and other languages, and I know there’s more than just a linguistic component. We chose Chinese food over American. We ate with chopsticks instead of forks (as long as the kids could manage), we did things the Chinese way whenever we could. Manners and customs can be just as important as words, and sometimes even more, and the locals were openly appreciative of our efforts to respect their ways of doing things.

#3 Textbooks have it all wrong

And I mean really, really wrong. I got remarkably far with my limited Chinese, but there’s so much more I wish I could’ve handled in the language. Looking back, I have no idea why any textbook designer thinks it’s a good idea to start off a curriculum with our immediate, familiar world. It seemed logical to me in the past, but not anymore. Why don’t textbooks follow the real-life experience? Arriving at the airport, getting transportation, checking in at the hotel, going out to a restaurant, going to see tourist attractions, and so on. Yes, it was helpful to be able to introduce my family, but otherwise, I never used 90% of the content that I typically teach in a novice-level course.

I sincerely regret that the summer is mostly over. This realization alone makes me want to throw all my lesson plans out the window and start over from scratch!

#4 Non-CI is truly gibberish

Here’s a situation I ran into all the time. I knew enough Chinese to get the conversation going, but not enough to handle unexpected responses. In other words, people spoke a lot of Chinese to me that I didn’t understand at all.

It’s easy to go out of bounds during CI, especially when you want to maintain L2-only communication. All I can say is this: if it isn’t comprehensible, it’s a complete waste. The shock of being spoken to in unfamiliar language outweighed any hope of me picking up new phrases or skills from it, and worse still, it felt like an embarrassing failure. We never want our students to experience those feelings in class. CI boundaries really do matter in the learning environment.

#5 A little can go a long way

I’d say 95% of my exchanges involved only a handful of phrases: 想 “want”, 可以 “can”, 有吗 “is/are there any?” and 好吗 “okay?”. I couldn’t say anything as glamorous as “Would you mind brining us a fork?”, but I could get the point across with 有叉子吗 “Is there a fork?” There was no hope of me figuring out how to ask if it was okay to leave the kids in their carriers while passing through a security check, but the agent knew what I meant by 孩子好吗 “Are the kids okay?”. I had Google Translate and WordReference to help when I needed a noun or verb to finish off the phrase. The natives had little difficulty following, even when I came up short. I told a hotel clerk, 我们去吃早餐。可以… “We’re going to eat breakfast. Can we…?” She understood right away that we wanted to leave our bags at the desk. These experiences renewed my faith in TPRS, which is such an effective way of internalizing these core modal verbs.

#6 Charts are misleading

Look in any language textbook and you’ll find dozens of charts and tables related to vocabulary and grammar. These logical presentations make things seem so easy. Learn this one verb and you can conjugate all these others. Memorize this one chart and you can apply the forms to any word that fits the pattern.

I’m a vocal proponent of internalizing patterns (turning syntactical and morphological rules into habits on a one-by-one basis) rather than memorizing charts, and my experience in China gave me a taste of how that process really works.

Chinese numbers couldn’t be easier to explain. There are no special words other than numbers 0-10 and place values like 百 “hundred” and so on. Twelve is simply 十二 “ten two”. Fifty is 五十 “five ten”. Eight-hundred thirty-six is 八百三十六 “eight hundred three ten six”. I knew my numbers 0-10, and I knew how the system works. I figured numbers would be the easiest thing of all. As it turns out, they were one of the most brain-numbing areas of communication for me. Those milliseconds add up. There’s a clerk staring me in the face as I sort through the logic to piece a number together or break it apart. Add to that the confusion of an unfamiliar currency and exchange rate, and all my knowledge of Chinese numbers suddenly feels like a waste.

Knowing how something works is very different from doing it. After the first few days, I spent a lot of time on the bus mentally rehearsing different number combinations to turn those rules into internalized habits. It took me a full ten days to transform my rudimentary numbers into a real-time skill.

#7 There are limits to what we can internalize

A part of me hoped that being in China would somehow shove all my new words and expressions straight into long-term memory. It’s true that I have a lot more Chinese rattling around in the back of my head somewhere, but most of it has already slipped away. Every time I thought a word was starting to stick, I’d encounter a new phrase that would shove it to the fringes of my working memory.

There really is a limit to how much language we can internalize at a time, and it’s a sorrowfully small amount. Looking back, even my conservative rule of teaching no more than 5-6 words a day feels like an overestimation. Internalizing three TPRS phrases sounds like an incredible accomplishment. It was easy to deal with a few new words in the moment, but when that moment was over, they felt frustratingly distant in my memory. Only the words that I used almost daily, like 拍照 “take a picture”, seem to have stuck for the long term.

#8 The least-specific words were some of the most useful

I had no delusions of coming across as a fluent speaker in China. I knew I’d be working on a moment-by-moment basis, reviewing words and phrases specific to each situation right before I got into it. After a day or two, though, I found myself reaching for my phone less and less. I was getting by just fine with vague phrases like 这个 “this (thing)”, 那里 “there” and 三个多少钱 “How much for three?”.

It seems odd now that demonstratives don’t appear until the end of our French 1 curriculum (with demonstrative pronouns sheltered until French 3) and words like “here” and “there” only appear in passing. I got more mileage out of these vague little words than any of the nouns I looked up.

#9 I still miss those FSI drills

They were tedious. The came on cassette tapes. The text was set on a typewriter. The narrators flaunted perfect standard American accents from the 1950s. You spent the first four hours on nothing but phonology, and there were no pictures or physical activity involved at any step. And yet there’s something about those Foreign Service Institue courses that I dearly miss. I never thought of them as a good teaching or learning tool. But dang it, there’s some kind of value in those modules, especially the replacement drills, that I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it was the challenge of spouting out the answer before the tape repeated it. Maybe it was the repetition ad nauseam of every phrase. All I can say is that I wish I had found these old FSI modules hosted on Live Lingua before I left for China. There’s something about the algorithmic approach to phrases, again especially in those replacement drills, that really boosts my productive abilities. I would never advocate for FSI modules in the classroom or replicate the approach in my own lessons, but they do work for me and I mourn the fact that they didn’t quite survive into the digital era. I would’ve gladly spent every moment of the plane flight immersed in the bygone days of FSI drills.

#10 I was prepared to learn

Before the trip, I was able to get access to a few CI-based Chinese resources that really took my language skills beyond the rote phrases I learned on apps like Duolingo. The effect was lasting. I didn’t feel nearly as overwhelmed as I expected by all the Chinese around me. Instead, I was able to observe and listen to conversations between native speakers, pick apart some of the patterns in their speech, and then apply those patterns to my own situations. For example, there are no specific Chinese words for “yes” and “no”. I quickly noticed how natives were using phrases like 好 “good, okay” and 不用 “no need” in a variety of situations moments when I would’ve had no idea how to respond without “yes” and “no”.

I also found myself developing a better feel for the general word order of Chinese. The syntax is simple SVO overall, but the trick is that most of the detail gets scrunched in between the subject and verb so you do have to think ahead a bit when it comes to incorporating times and locations into sentences. Additionally, I noticed I was becoming much more proficient in using time markers like 在 “ongoing action” and 了 “completed action” and picked up a few new ones like 吧 “suggested action”. Don’t believe people when they tell you that there’s no grammar to Chinese! The language is sparse and straightforward compared to English, but if you really listen to the natives, they don’t sound like robots.

I don’t know how far I’ll get with this language, but I feel motivated to continue. I’m earning around 90-100% on HSK 1 practice tests and hope to take the real thing during this school year. Maybe one day I’ll be writing about what it’s like to travel through China as a fluent speaker. Until then, 再见!

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