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sima

Lessons learned from fifty years of theory and practice in government language teaching

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abcdefg

A huge amount of wisdom there. Thanks for posting.

 

Was particularly interested in the comments about the importance of "automaticity."

 

The importance of promoting automaticity is true for reading as well as speaking. Adults need to read considerable amounts of “easy” material in order to build up stamina and to automatize processing skills…..Without some degree of automatic processing capability, reading becomes a painful decoding process, leaving the reader with little cognitive energy available for understanding and interpretation.

 

Some time ago I got to the place where I no longer had to silently rehearse or think too much about what I wanted to say. My speech is certainly not native or free of mistakes, but it is not hesitant and I do not stumble or need to go real slow. The "extensive but casual social conversation" they talk about is my daily bread and butter.

 

On the other hand, I never got to that happy point in reading where it ceased to be the "painful decoding process" the author talks about. Text messages and menus will always be about my speed.

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renzhe

Thanks a lot for posting this. It absolutely mirrors my own experiences.

With the exception of drills, which I hate. Apparently, I'll have to do more of those!

I love the use of brackets in the sentence "Mature adults can learn a foreign language .... (almost) as well as native speakers". It is subtle, but so true. Getting to "almost" native level is hard, but within everyone's grasp. Getting exactly to a native level, though it seems like a small step, is incredibly elusive.

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Demonic_Duck

The importance of promoting automaticity is true for reading as well as speaking. Adults need to read considerable amounts of “easy” material in order to build up stamina and to automatize processing skills…..Without some degree of automatic processing capability, reading becomes a painful decoding process, leaving the reader with little cognitive energy available for understanding and interpretation.

 

Some time ago I got to the place where I no longer had to silently rehearse or think too much about what I wanted to say. My speech is certainly not native or free of mistakes, but it is not hesitant and I do not stumble or need to go real slow. The "extensive but casual social conversation" they talk about is my daily bread and butter.

I'd be interested to know if you feel you can "[follow] the threads of conversations in multigroup settings" without undue strain. "Extensive but casual social conversation" is easy enough in a one-on-one context, especially where you already know the speaker well. However, every time I find myself thrust into social situations with a large number of native Chinese speakers where I'm the only foreigner present, I find I can't keep up with the conversation at all. A classic example would be when I went on a great wall trip with two Chinese friends and 10 strangers. It was great fun, but I rarely picked up what was going on in the conversation unless I was being directly spoken to.

 

I've also witnessed the same in reverse countless times - when a Chinese person is in a social situation surrounded by English speakers, no matter how competent their English, they tend to drift off and lose the thread, and if I put myself in their shoes I can invariably see exactly why. What hope do they have of picking up on Family Guy references, innuendo-laden jokes, sarcastic commentary on current events, fragments of European languages other than English which are generally known to English speakers, bad imitations of certain regional accents which carry attached social stigma, religious references to religions that aren't Buddhism, etc.

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French

I can relate to the last part too as many others I imagine.

In a group where you are the only non native speaker, you lose a lot of non verbal part of the communication that is much needed when you are a learner.

We often hear that the non verbal part is the most important one when it comes to communication. While I don't have the number, we all experience it or witness it. For example, for many people, it can become quite challenging when it comes to phone calls of listening to the radio.

Most of my French friends who acquired an intermediate/decent English level aren't comfortable with phone calls. Same goes for my Chinese teachers who told me that they try to avoid such situations.

The same thing happens in a group, you lose the eye contact, all of the face's features and the gestures you get in a one on one exchange. I sat through many dinners/events where I was the only non native Chinese, most of the times, I only exchanged with my neighbors.

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renzhe

Following native speaker discussions at full speed is one thing.

Participating in them as an equal is much harder still.

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Demonic_Duck

I'm not sure I'd agree that you lose non-linguistic cues in group settings, if anything a charismatic speaker in the midst of telling a hilarous anecdote will give out more of said cues when they have an audience.

 

Talking on the phone is different and has its own challenges, but I generally find it still to be a variation on the one-on-one setting. For me, the main added difficulties come from bad reception, noisy environments and the fact you often don't know the speaker or what they're calling about.

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Mouseneb

Re: phone calls - my Chinese coworkers are often bemused by my request that they text or email me instead of calling about any issue that may arise when I'm not in the office. They think that because we can chat about those topics in person, I will be able to do so over the phone as well. I find that much more difficult though, and love love love having it written down where I can double check meanings and make sure I've gotten all the details! Plus I have a bad memory so it's nice to be able to go back and see if that meeting was going to happen on Wed. or Fri.....  :P

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French

@Demonic_Duck : I probably rely too much on my own experience. In a large group (+10), there are often smaller groups that are formed. In this case, I can't follow the flow of the discussion when jumping topics and towards who is directed.

Unlike in a one on one exchange, the pace is must faster. They won't make the effort to slow down. At some point, the variety of subjects just overwhelmed me faster that what I could expect.

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ouyangjun

Good stuff.  I find this is very similar to my own experience except the teacher part, "comments from students after six to ten months of intensive training at FSI typically mention their teachers as the factor that contributed most to their success in learning".  I find I study better on my own... or maybe I've never had a really good mandarin teacher.

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sima

 

Good stuff.  I find this is very similar to my own experience except the teacher part, "comments from students after six to ten months of intensive training at FSI typically mention their teachers as the factor that contributed most to their success in learning".  I find I study better on my own... or maybe I've never had a really good mandarin teacher.

On the closing remarks, they metnion:

 

It is sometimes said at FSI that we began forty to fifty years ago with a metaphor of “teaching

the course,” but that, as the years have passed and we have understood more, we have moved

from that concept to “teaching the class,” to “teaching the students,” to “teaching each student,”

to the present metaphor of “helping each student find ways to learn.”

 

My own experience from school and uni is that self-study is overwhelmingly more effective than listening to a teacher, but one difference about FSI's students is that they're highly motivated and so they possibly make much better use of their teachers. I think most of the concepts in foreign language acquisition can be grasped by independent study.

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abcdefg

@Demonic_Duck #4 --

 

I do OK with a group of Chinese friends; can follow and participate at normal speed. It has not always been effortless, however. Sometimes at the end of such an outing or event I was exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. I've once or twice told my teachers that it felt like a couple weeks of language practice compressed into several hours.

 

Will admit to being highly motivated in that particular regard and to always throwing myself into such situations on purpose exactly because I wanted to learn to handle them. I sought out those "group conversation" opportunities.

 

I don't mean this as a boast. In other areas my learning has seriously lagged behind.

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tysond

Great post @sima thanks for sharing.  

 

My level would be S/R-2 getting closer to S/R-3.  It's interesting to think about the idea of 2200 class hours - in one year that would be 42 hours a week.

If you spend 10 hours a week (kind of similar to what I spend in instruction + self learning in a very disciplined week) it's 4.2 years.  

 

I really appreciate the focus on the ability of adults to learn... given appropriate time and focus.

I think it's something I try to encourage other people with when they struggle, or call me "gifted".

I have learned more about perseverance and discipline studying Chinese in my 30s than I did studying at university.  

 

The discussion of the importance of teachers is interesting.  I feel teachers are critical in giving feedback on 1. Pronunciation (most most most important) 2. Grammar production (very important) and 3. Insight on vocabulary (important but sometimes possible by self learning and immersion environment)  and 4.  Creating emotional / social connection to the language.  If you live in (for example) China #4 is not *as* important because your environment may create this for you.

 

Regarding Automatic Processing Capacity - I am a big fan of this concept.  The book "Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow" is an excellent explanation of how the "system 1" (fast thinking) system in your brain is trained and relied upon to do automatic processing.  If you understand this idea you quickly understand how drilling (and immersion) "trains" your unconscious systems to do work for you, freeing up your "system 2" (logical deliberate thinking) to consider more important matters.  When @abcdefg talks about not having to "think too much" about what to say, it's exactly because "system 1" has been trained to produce speech without requiring mental energy.  (same with listening, reading, and eventually writing).

 

Finally, regarding following group discussion.  I agree it's super hard.  A group of friends or colleagues you know well on familiar topics is not too hard, but a real (for example) dinner where you are the only non-native and you haven't met the people before - it is a mishmash of names (even names of foreign things can be hard), references to ideas you aren't familiar with, slang, jokes, culture, etc.  It is both tiring and exhilarating.   A fast paced business meeting such as a sales call is equally difficult.  

 

My wife has near perfect English as a second language but that doesn't mean she knows which one is C3PO and which is R2D2 (Star Wars), or who Starvin Marvin is (South Park), or that we like both kinds of music, Country and Western (The Blues Brothers).  Fortunately she can quote Blackadder quite well.

 

Here's what's the article said about conversation:

 

The properties of ordinary social conversation imply that language learners
need to practice at least all of the following:
• following rapid and unpredictable turns in topic,
• displaying understanding and involvement,
• producing unplanned speech,
• coping with the speed of the turn-taking, and
• coping with background noise.
Participants in conversation must at once listen to what their interlocutor is
saying, formulate their contribution, make their contribution relevant, and utter
their contribution in a timely way, lest they lose the thread of the conversation.
Unlike most other typical face-to-face interactions, no individual can successfully
“control” a free-wheeling multi-party conversation

 

 

 

Actually I do not think this is complete.  When talking with Chinese people I have found the cultural knowledge is often more important than the exact vocabulary.  There a bit in the paper which talks about "“educated assertive gossip” -- this is very important, but not well explored in this paper.  Gossip requires social/cultural knowledge.

 

I have been in situations - such as a homestay - where knowing the latest internet slang or hot story or daily news, or knowledge even the basics of Chinese culture or literature, makes the difference between struggling to follow or being able to keep your end of the conversation.  If you know what tigers and flies represent, or who Sun Wu Kong is, or what grass mud horse represents, or the names of some of the hot actors in China -- you are much more able to follow dinner conversation.

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imron

That last point you make is important. Popular culture plays a huge part in learning a language well.

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sima
The discussion of the importance of teachers is interesting.  I feel teachers are critical in giving feedback on 1. Pronunciation (most most most important) 2. Grammar production (very important) and 3. Insight on vocabulary (important but sometimes possible by self learning and immersion environment)  and 4.  Creating emotional / social connection to the language.  If you live in (for example) China #4 is not *as* important because your environment may create this for you.

 

I'm starting to think its similar to other fields of study wherein you don't really need a teacher for the basic stuff but once you have a good foundation, it's helpful to have someone guide you through the intermediate phase where there is more uncertainty. This echoes their opinion that immersion has it's maximal benefit only after you've attained a certain degree of proficieny. I particularly like this point since language learners sometimes feel that immersion is a magic solution that will effortlessly boost their competence and that the earlier this is done the better

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