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Olle Linge

Bridging the gap to authentic material

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Olle Linge

In my experience, most students who start out in a formal learning environment such as a unviversity or a language school, find it tricky to bridge the gap between classroom/textbook Chinese to the language used in the real world. This problem is obviously more prnounced if you don't live in a Chinese-speaking environment, but many students who study in China still think that it's hard to take the step from the classroom into the real world.

I'm preparing an article about this where I will ask several learners, teachers or authors about how they think the problem should be tackled. Part of the goal is to provide breadth of experience, something I can't do on my own. These forums are frequented both by people who probably have very insightful things to say about this, which is why I post here. I won't present my own opinions just yet, hoping that people will be less biased when they answer (so feel free to post your opinion without reading what the others have posted first!).

Question: How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?

 

If you feel that the question can be interpreted in more than one way, feel free to do so. I'm not too worried by people answering different questions because the problem isn't likely to be the same for all students either. The answers in the final article will be limited to around 300 words, but this is a discussion forum, so that's not a requirement!

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陆咔思

Some of my favorite ways are

 

* listen to Chinese-only advanced podcasts from sites like Chinesepod, cslpod, and some relatively easy podcasts for native speakers, and audio books for chinese children

* read articles and books written for native speakers on a computer/phone in an annotated way that makes reading them much easier (with http://chinesereaderrevolution.com)

* read bilingual articles (eg from the New York Times)

* read translations of books I already read before in English (so I won't get confused about the content even if I don't understand the language at some point)

* watch TV Shows with first with English subtitles (especially for historical shows that use difficult ancient vocabulary), then with Chinese subtitles

* chat with chinese people via QQ/skype/etc 

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OneEye

I think the root of the problem is that textbook/classroom Chinese is not real Chinese. Teach the language the way it's actually spoken rather than teaching someone's dumbed-down, slowed-down, foreigner-friendly version of it, and the problem will diminish significantly. "Aim for the target" is my personal maxim in language learning, and it solves a lot of problems.

 

Barring an overhaul of how Chinese is taught, I think the key is just to ease your way into it. I picked an easy manga (亂馬1/2) and an easy TV show (智勝鮮師) and worked with them until they actually were easy. With the TV show, I transcribed the entire first episode by hand into a notebook, highlighted words I didn't know, defined them in the margins, and used it as a textbook. It took a lot of time, but then when I watched the second episode, I understood really well and only had to look things up here and there. I had spent a few weeks on episode 1, and maybe 3 hours on episode 2. And so on. 亂馬 was different, because I worked my way through the first ~2 dozen pages slowly, then put it down, then finished the whole first book in one sitting a few months later, after having improved through other means. Then I read several volumes of Deathnote (死亡筆記本). Similar to the TV show, the first volume was fairly slow going, but it was much easier after that. Later, I audited a class in my research field and read a few introductory books. Those were also slow going, but I picked short, fairly basic books on stuff I was interested in and knew something about already.

 

I also learned Classical Chinese early, and focused a lot of energy on it. This helped my reading a lot, especially when it came to more formal/academic stuff. I don't necessarily think everyone should do the same, but at some point, doing an introductory textbook in 文言文 (Fuller, Shadick, Rouzer, etc.) is a very good idea.

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roddy

"I think the root of the problem is that textbook/classroom Chinese is not real Chinese."

This view is a pet bugbear of mine. Whose real Chinese? Do you want your textbook users to be totally 地道 gathered around a table of taxi-drivers? At a business meeting? Buying fruit and veg? Meeting new colleagues? In which part of the country, and talking to what age group? Incidentally, how old is the student? 

 

The textbook writer does not know what situations you will be in and has limited space. He or she therefore gives you a general-purpose subset of the language which may leave you looking slightly formal, but will not leave you looking rude or completely misunderstood. While it may not be how Chinese people speak, they're pretty much guaranteed to understand it (if you say it right ;-) ) It's erring on the side of caution, but it has to err somewhere.

 

If you have specific needs its then up to you to drill down into the language - with a book on business Chinese, or Beijing slang, or by using the no doubt excellent techniques everyone is contributing to this topic.

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OneEye

I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing, roddy.

 

I can't speak about the situation in China, but in Taiwan, the textbooks teach a version of Chinese that hasn't been spoken in decades. Sentence structures that aren't used anymore, "standard" pronunciation according to a standard nobody cares about or uses other than Chinese teachers, dated vocabulary, the works. All spoken at an unnaturally slow pace, of course. You play this stuff for Taiwanese people and they start laughing. Even the advanced textbooks that use authentic, native material, they take one look and say "外國人的課本怎麼會有三十年前的中文呢?" At the lower levels, they have you saying things like “垃圾(lèsè)桶在哪兒,” which is some sort of weird 中台合璧 that only foreigners ever say. If you listen to old radio plays from a several decades ago, you do hear people speaking like these textbooks (recently-arrived mainlanders trying to serve as models for the non-Mandarin speaking Taiwanese population), but again, that's decades ago.

 

China may be different, because it seems like the standard there is actually acknowledged as something to aim for. Perhaps there, as long as you're teaching the standard, you're fine. Again, I don't know. Japan seems to be that way, and my Japanese friends have told me that their Japanese is "good" or "bad" based on how close they perceive their own dialect is to the standard. But in Taiwan, the standard is outdated and irrelevant, and as such, Taiwanese people don't pay much attention to it. Using standard pronunciation here makes you sound very dated and odd.

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roddy

It did look like you were dismissing textbooks in general, I thought. Stick a few pages of your textbook up in another post though, would be interesting to see. And I think there's plenty of discussion to have, but it's a bit off-topic here. 

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icebear

The posts above have great tips for bridging from textbook to 口语. I personally have found podcasts, TV shows, and finding local Chinese with similar non-language interests (sports, in my case) to be a huge boon to my conversational Chinese. I have many shortcomings/bad habits, but I am often complimented for speaking very comfortably/naturally, which I think mostly is because of the few habits above.

For written material, I've found a huge help is to read a few books that are translated from your own language into Chinese. The stories will be familiar and the language more straight forward. You can save the fancy Chinese literature for much later, when your vocabulary has improved (imagine a English learner jumping immediately into Shakespeare).

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realmayo

I had the same thought as Roddy when reading that post -- clearly either the language Taiwanese people speak is more different than mainland 'Mandarin' than I'd thought, or textbooks in Taiwan are more peculiar & artificial than the usual fare from the mainland. 

I'm not too sure about the OP's question, because I don't really understand "real immersion". Does this mean something like using Chinese non-stop in daily life? And dealing with that well? Or just being comfortable when there's Chinese going on around you, and being able to engage when it's low enough to your level?

Perhaps the only helpful suggestion I could make is that I loved having classmates in China who didn't speak English, meaning it became completely normal and natural for me use Chinese non-stop. Some people reckon that if you're talking to non native speakers then you'll pick up bad habits because you're learning from other learners, but for me that's far outweighed by the benefit of feeling 100% normal having conversations in Chinese. In the classroom, between classes, at lunch, bumping into other students in the street. 

That meant that conversations with Chinese people who spoke normal Chinese felt like a more difficult version of what I was doing all the time, instead of being something new and challenging.

Assuming that being comfortable when "immersed" in Chinese is an ideal base from which to go on efficiently towards fluency, the most valuable drill-skills would be intensive pronunciation work and lots of extensive listening.

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Silent

 

How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?

 

I don't know what you mean by 'real immersion' and what other kind of immersion there is.

 

IMHO the only way to bridge the gap to real world usage is real world usage. You may know all the vocabulary and all the grammar, if that's all you have you still have a hard time. You need experience! All the studied knowledge needs to get engrained by using it, by playing with it, to experience all kinds of different, non textbook, ways to use it. You need experience with accents, get familiar with it, no textbook or teacher will be able to provide that.

 

So basicly just use it! Start out with reading, start speaking no matter how small and try to extend it over time. At the beginning reading a couple of lines may be tiring, over time it gets easier a few lines a day, with greeting people in different ways when you go shopping. Then slowly extend it by reading a few lines more, by adding remark to the greeting etc etc

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anonymoose

I think speaking of a "gap" between textbooks and authentic material is singling out a universal natural phenomenon and regarding it as a problem particular to language learning. What I mean by this, is that any time you embark on something new, there will always be a lot of new stuff to learn, the so-called "gap" than needs bridging. But why single out the gap between textbooks and authentic material? What about the gap between not knowing any Chinese and picking up your first textbook? Or the gap between your first and your second textbook? Or let's say you practice reading about architecture (from authentic materials) in Chinese. If you then start to read about botany in Chinese, you will also experience a gap.

 

The only way to become proficient at something is by practicing it. Rather than seeing the "gap" between textbooks and authentic material as a unique problem that needs to be bridged, just accept that authentic material is the next step in the learning process, and proficiency comes with practice (just like it took practice to bridge to gap from nothing to become proficient with the material covered in the first textbook).

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Touchstone57

Perhaps Roddy, exactly what you said is part of 'bridging the gap'.

 

I think there are very important aspects of learning Chinese, which can start the classroom and using a lot of textbooks (which is definitely very important).

 

I think 'real world' exposure is definitely important, but maybe there are steps and practical ways of doing this for beginner and intermediate learners rather than just 'jumping in'.

 

Spending time in the classroom can be good as a foundation, but it doesn't come naturally or intuitively to everyone to go and spend time in restaurants and emulate the way people order food, how they greet each other etc, some people may just lack the confidence, even though it is one of their goals.

 

So I think an important part of it is learning to challenge yourself. Not just in your learning process, but actually setting yourself small goals or tasks that can help motivate you and achieve your aims. Olle talks a lot about setting goals on his site, and this is part of the process, but I think practical real world goals are beneficial. One of my first goals was to buy a gift for my wife using only Chinese. This entailed buying something on a CN website, getting everything paid for and then giving directions to where I work on the phone (can't have it delivered to home!). This was a small thing but definitely felt like an achievement. 

 

As Roddy mentioned, it is important get out of bad habits or thought patterns that can easily be adopted during the learning process (or living in another country). Identifying what they are in the first place is necessary, then trying to break out of them is the next step, and then getting feedback at each step! 

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tysond

I think what people are agreeing on is that it's important to have a learning strategy for dealing with native material or situations.  

What I find as the big things that change when you move from textbook to native materials / real world encounters are:

 

1. Speed and pronunciation - much faster, much more variation, shortcuts and mumbling

2. Vocabulary - less controlled, much wider, more specific terms than the general ones you might have learned

3. Context & Culture - may be unfamiliar.  (for example, when discussing food chinese people will almost always comment on health properties)

 

There are techniques you can use to control the impact of these things.  

 

Speed:

 

For example, lots of people use scene by scene TV watching to nibble away at a program - using pausing, subtitles and slowing down of the video (use VLC) to get understanding up until you can follow at full speed.  Sometimes I just loop an episode all day long while i do other things, picking up bits and pieces here and there.  If you listen to Chinese songs all the time you'll discover the same vocab repeats over and over.

 

Learning how to control a discussion with a native speaker - ask for repetitions, definitions, write it down, is that the same character as in another word.  Also being able to restate the meaning "oh, do you mean .... "?

 

 

Vocabulary:

 

Preparing for situations by pre-studying what's likely to come up.  Getting a haircut?  Lean about washing, blow drying, cutting, styles, length, etc.

Visiting a temple?  Learn about temples, religion, Buddha, in advance.   I was in a bath-house the other day and didn't realize in advance that I should probably learn the words regarding to scrape all the skin off my body and apply stinging salt to it afterwards.  Painful lesson.

 

Get used to feeling like a child again.  I remember playing video games as a child and not being sure what "that button says" and not always understanding the text in the game.  Playing games in Chinese is the same, but it took a while to break myself of expectation of understanding everything.  You don't need to in order to have fun.  Same when you order a dish in China, or jump into a conversation you don't fully understand.

You have to let go of being an adult with language mastery.  Get used to everything being a chance to learn a few new words... but not all of them.

 

Context:

 

Try to skim the local news in English (chinadaily) so you can understand popular discussion topics.  I once met a guy who insisted on telling me about all the cool Chinese internet memes.  I would have been completely lost except I actually read about them in World of Chinese and China Smack.

Similarly, read books you already read in your own language, or do parallel texts.  

 

You can also improve your understanding of context by learning in context.  Learn about vegetables while shopping at the market.  Learn how to haggle by haggling.  Going for a walk with my host family meant seeing and pointing a things, then discussing them.  Staying at home we could have discussed it too, but required textbooks.

 

Pay Attention:

 

Active learning is always a good strategy.  Watch carefully what others do and say.  Ask friends how they would have dealt with a situation.  Write down stuff you hear (especially if you hear it again and again) and look it up later.  Ask for names of things.  Listen for corrections (people will usually repeat what you say correctly) and repeat them rather than just saying "dui".  The goal is to turn a passive experience into an active exploration.

 

Finally, don't dismiss the textbook.  When I told my host mother that I rode the bike to work, because not only is it cheap, but good for your health, I thought I was parroting a cheesy line from my textbook.  She almost broke down in tears saying "oh, you think just like we do!".

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realmayo
Listen for corrections (people will usually repeat what you say correctly) and repeat them rather than just saying "dui".  

 

I like this especially.

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JustinJJ

In summary: Select appropriate texts which are not too hard to avoid boredom, watch 锵锵三人行 to get used to a mix of Northern and Southern accents.

 

 

What I find works for me is spending the time to find material that is at my level, whether it is listening material or reading material. To do this I have a big list of every word I have studied in a text file and can use the Chinese Word Extractor http://www.zhtoolkit.com/apps/chinese_word_extractor/ to determine what percentage of the words in a given native material I have already studied. If I know the great majority of the words already (i.e. the text is comprehensible), then it is much more 'fun' using the material and motivating and my reading speed is much faster so I can get through more material. If a text is at an appropriate level many other words I can work out by context without having to physically learn them, and over time I can up the level. If material is too hard, I find that the time I put in is not as efficient, as I would get distracted too easily and it would be too tiring, so I think it's worth spending the time to determine if a text is at a good level for you, rather than finding out after being bored 20 pages into a novel.

 

The great thing about Chinese Word Extractor is out of the words in the material I haven't studied before, I can use Excel to sort them by either frequency in a corpus, or frequency within that text, so I don't have to guess which words are important in the text (and avoid spending time learning words that are not so useful). Each day I will select 10 words from material I'm using, selected using Chinese Word Extractor, use the website http://www.nciku.com/ to find a good example sentence (this means I must know every other word in the sentence other than the word I want to learn or the sentence is not good for jogging my memory) and then I use Arguelle's scriptorium method (http://learnanylanguage.wikia.com/wiki/Scriptorium) on these sentences to focus carefully on all the words in the sentence. I'll then add these 10 words to SRS and read aloud each sentence in my SRS deck as they are reviewed to make sure I'm focussing and not just glossing over the reviews. By reinforcing the high-frequency words in the material I'm using it helps me to slowly up my level over time.

 

Regarding comments above about textbook Chinese not being real Chinese, I'd agree, particularly with regards to the listening material accompanying texts. I think learner's listening material is spoken in too much of a standard putonghua (and usually too slow) so it helps very little with understanding people in real life without straining to pay attention to accents and speeds, which the learning material will not train you for. I have found listening to the talk-show 锵锵三人行 to be the best thing to combat this problem as the show has a mix of Northern and Southern accents and no subtitles to cheat with. I have been listening to this show a couple hours a day for the last month and noticed a big jump in my listening level with real Chinese material and people. I used to watch TV shows and would find my eyes gravitating towards the subtitles, however I noticed a few days ago that after watching nothing but 锵锵三人行 for a few weeks, if I watch another show I find that I can just listen without 'cheating' by glancing at the subtitles.

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Silent

 

What I find works for me is spending the time to find material that is at my level, whether it is listening material or reading material.

I try to do so too, but then my level is too low for any native material to be suitable. A potential trap in this approach is you spend a lot of time in searching material rather then to actually reading/study. A more efficient approach might be to pick material about a specific (somewhat narrow) subject from one source as often vocabulary and grammar are subject and writer/source specific. Then slowly expand in sources and or subjects. E.g. from your favorite sport specific match reviews you might slowly expand to other sports reviews, broader articles about your favorite sport, sports business, general business etc. 

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Olle Linge

I have now published the article and I included some passages from this thread that I found particularly insightful or that contributed something that wasn't already covered by other contributions. As some of you noticed, the question is a bit vague, but that was partly deliberate on my part. There are definitely problems in this general neighbourhood for most students, but exactly what the problem is might vary a lot, so people answering slightly different questions isn't a big problem as long a variety is a bonus (and it is in this case, I think). Also, considering the fact that most people still discussed what I thought they would, the question wasn't too vague!

You can read the article here. And no, I'm not too fond of the title either, but I really suck at coming up with good titles for articles.

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imron

I think your executive summary at the beginning hits the nail on the head:

As you can see below, the answers are many and varied, but they have one common denominator: Immersion is about doing, it’s about trying and winning through. It might be scary, but they only way to learn to swim is to get wet. Many also stress that even if it looks frightening, it’s actually not that bad and there are many thing you can do to make it easier.

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