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wushijiao

Academic Communications in a Foreign Language

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wushijiao

Right now my university is trying to get Chinese students to the point at which they could theoretically function well at a Western university. Unfortunately, I think there are several errors that my university makes. More broadly, there seem to be several social and educational factors that handicap the students as well.

I would be interested to hear about the experiences of people who have studied abroad in a foreign language (no matter if it is Chinese, English, French, Spanish, German…etc) I would especially like to hear from people who struggled at first, but then ended up doing well academically. If you were one of these people, what enabled you to finally become successful?

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wushijiao

I’ll go ahead and answer the question “what does it take to becomes successful in academic communications in another language”.

From my own experience and from some research that I’ve read, it seems that two things are important:

1) Massive amounts of exposure to academic conventions. This implies reading large quantities of texts, writing many essays and reports, attending many lectures, giving presentations…etc.

2) Explicit teaching of the academic conventions, especially those that differ from one’s own language. This might include teaching about the concept of plagiarism, teaching about citations, bibliographies, paraphrasing, explaining how to do research, and pointing out the argument styles typical of a language’s traditions.

I’ll briefly explain why each point is important.

In weightlifting, there is a general principle that if you want to get good at one particular exercise, then you should make that exercise the centerpiece of your workout. In other words, if you want to get good at bench pressing, bench press. You can supplement benching with other lifts, ie, tricep extensions, incline benching, flys that work the pecs…etc. But if you only do these supplementary lifts, and no benching, your bench press will still increase, but not by the same amount as if you had made it the centerpiece. This general theory works in other sports, such as running. If you want to become a good long distance runner, the "long run" needs to be the centerpiece of your training schedule, with cross training playing a supplementary role.

I think this also works in academic English. If one wants to be able to read and write with ease, then massive amounts of reading and writing should be the main learning goal. Things like reading style guides, learning prefixes and suffixes, studying word lists should take a necessary, but auxiliary, role. By reading and writing in large volumes, students will subconsciously acquire academic conventions, and will get a native speaker-like sense of what seems appropriate.

Besides subconsciously acquiring academic conventions of a new language, another benefit of reading en mass is that students comes across more “low frequency” words. It seems that most books about academic English simply recommend learning strategies that deal with rare unknown words. Strategies might include guessing based on context, word form (noun, adjective…etc), prefix and suffixes….etc. Although these strategies are crucial to understanding foreign texts, I personally think they are overrated. It has been shown that vocabulary in English can roughly breakdown as follows (from Teaching and Learning Vocabulary by I.S.P Nation, page 16):

(Word Type, Number of words, Proportion of text)

High-frequency words (2,000 87%)

University word list (800, 8%)

Technical words (123,000, 3%)

Low-frequency words (128,000, 2%)

(I’ve also seen charts of this type that put the “low-frequency words” at a higher percentage.)

After solidly mastering the high-frequency words, the next step is to learn the university, technical, and low frequency words. Students are often led to believe that simply having vocab guessing strategies is enough to cope with difficult and rare words. However, studies have shown (I’ll provide citation later) that frequently rare words, rare phrases, and rare expressions contain the majority of meaning in a sentence. In fact, students should make learning rare words and phrases a goal. However, these words are, by nature, rare. How should one go about memorizing them? The answer, in my opinion, is to make flash cards of them (based on seeing them in readings), and then review the cards. However, massive amounts of extensive reading will dramatically increase the odds that a student will come across rare words. Repeated exposure to rare words combined with memorization of them will produce the positive environment for permanently remembering these words, which are often necessary to understanding meaning.

This vocabulary acquisition strategy has another bonus: it enables speed reading. In order to be able to correctly guess an unknown word, a student has to at least know 90% of the other words in a text. This means the bigger one’s vocab, the easier it is to correctly identify new words. If one can read a text semi-fluently, without having to decipher it as if it were Egyptian hieroglyphics, then reading speed picks up. As reading speed picks up, the total amount of input per day increases. As that happens, exposure of new words increases. In other words, extensive reading combined with vocab acquisition strategies produces a beneficial cycle of learning.

On top of all these benefits in favor of extensive reading, it should be noted that most Western universities require lots of reading in order to successfully complete a course, regardless of discipline.

As far as the second point, let me explain with a simple analogy. It used to be, a few decades ago, that foreign students studying abroad in Western universities were more or less just plopped into a full course load, without any cultural or academic preparations. It was a classic case of sink or swim. Now, thankfully, most universities throw the student into a full course load, but they don’t let the student sink; they throw the student a lifeline. This lifeline consists of special class designed to help a lonely foreign student understand some local culture and local academic culture. This includes how to cite, paraphrase, argue, research and other skills that professors might assume students already know.

Now to the problems of the Chinese education system. It seems many universities employ point number two, but not number one. The students learn all the academic skills necessary to doing well in a western university, while at the same time having no parallel academic course work in English to accompany these new skills. It would be a bit like a person standing on dry land who is suddenly thrown a lifeline from a worried lifeguard. The person might understandably ask, “why do I have this lifeline?”. The lifeguard would reply in a frustrated manner, “because a few years down the road, you might have to swim”.

To make matters worse, students rarely use study anything in depth using English. This has three major ramifications. Firstly, students are constantly studying the language itself, rather than learning or expressing ideas using the language as a medium. Because of that, students feel embarrassed and ashamed about making language errors because the end goal is mastery of the medium, not an expression of one’s own thoughts in an understandable manner. Secondly, correcting language errors is hard for the teacher. When the end goal is to express something, but the wrong thing comes out, the teacher can correct it easily. The teacher can say, “you intended to say X, but instead you said Y. That’s because of this error”. Without an emphasis on meaning, the teacher is left to wallow in boring grammatical explanations. Finally, when students study a particular subject, (be it feminist theory, the French Revolution, marketing, or whatever) students naturally stumble across the same rare words or technical terms over and over. The word guillotine is rare, but you’d certainly know it if you took a whole course of the French Revolution. Students would master the process of repeatedly encountering and memorizing technical and jargonish vocab words. In the future, students could confidently take learning skills and apply them to new sub-sets of the English language. On top of that, students could write essays in which they would be clear about the end meaning they wished to express. For the teacher, teaching skills like how to write a thesis and how to support one’s argument would become easier as well.

Sorry for the long rant. Has anyone else and similar teaching/learning problems or experiences?

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Scoobyqueen
If you want to become a good long distance runner, the "long run" needs to be the centerpiece of your training schedule, with cross training playing a supplementary role.

I think this also works in academic English

Does this analogy also work for an injury do you think: if you worked too hard at the "centre piece" and incurred an injury as result, you need to rest and stop doing that for a while in order to continue to be able to progress?

I like your comparison by the way. On another note, do you also find that an increase in exercise and physical activity improves your ability to study and retain (due to increased oxygen flow to the brain) or I am just imagining it.

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wushijiao
I like your comparison by the way. On another note, do you also find that an increase in exercise and physical activity improves your ability to study and retain (due to increased oxygen flow to the brain) or I am just imagining it.

I do think that certain sports – like running, or competitive swimming (and I’m sure there are many others) do build up the mental fortitude that is needed. Also, I’ve found that when I’m living a good lifestyle (as far as eating healthily and working out regularly) I tend to be quicker, mentally.

Also, in my case, I used to run at least a few times per week (either on a track or in a nice, quite park in Zhabei, Shanghai were I used to live). I’d always listen to my tapes/iPod while running. So, I found that extra listening practice to be extremely valuable for me. So at least in the case of running, I think there can be a connection to language acquisition.

Does this analogy also work for an injury do you think: if you worked too hard at the "centre piece" and incurred an injury as result, you need to rest and stop doing that for a while in order to continue to be able to progress?

I think the analogy holds. For me, I made reading (textbooks, and then novels, newspapers, and magazines) the main centerpiece, or long run, of my training schedule. Like a stress injury incurred from doing one thing in one way too much, I did become “injured” to the extent that other areas – such as listening comprehension, speaking (tones), grammar…etc did suffer in comparison. There was a time in which I might have read a word hundreds of times, but I couldn’t recall its tones or how it might sound in a sentence.

But, I think I addressed that relative weaknesses over time, by improving other skills. So in that sense, the analogy doesn’t hold, since it’s almost inevitable that one of your skills will advance in a way that is out of proportion to the others, and you don’t actually get “injured” (ie. unable to train/practice).

Of course, my strategies for learning Chinese fit my personality, since I love reading and I generally buy 2-3 times as many books as I can actually read, but with the hope that I can read them someday.

I’m sure other people might have other main interests (Chinese film/TV/pop music) or talking with people (ie journalists). Those people would have a different set of issues, I think.

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Scoobyqueen
I’d always listen to my tapes/iPod while running. So, I found that extra listening practice to be extremely valuable for me. So at least in the case of running, I think there can be a connection to language acquisition.

I personally cannot combine listening (learning) with training. When I have done that in the past, I become much slower. But your comments reminded me of someone I had seen on youtube who wanted to master as many languages as possible. (it wasnt Kaufmann and I cannot recall his name) and he had a strange approach which included pacing up and down in time with the language he was listening to. He claimed it worked.

OK maybe the injury parallel is not perfect. However, learning is a bit like muscle memory. Once you have it you will never lose the basics. But it is reaching the (correct) musle memory that is challenging.

Incidentally mp3s are available for swimming as well.

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wushijiao
I personally cannot combine listening (learning) with training. When I have done that in the past, I become much slower. But your comments reminded me of someone I had seen on youtube who wanted to master as many languages as possible. (it wasnt Kaufmann and I cannot recall his name) and he had a strange approach which included pacing up and down in time with the language he was listening to. He claimed it worked.

Haha! I was going to mention that guy- Alexander Arguelles! I found his website, and I found that a lot of his theories are really similar to mine (although he has thought it out much better than I have) and I love his idea of learnng the classics from the civilization of the language you are studying.

http://www.foreignlanguageexpertise.com/polyglottery.html

I personally cannot combine listening (learning) with training. When I have done that in the past, I become much slower.

Do you train very much? I've also found that when doing harder or faster runs, or timed runs, it's hard to pay attention to an iPod or whatever. But doing long slow runs, especially in a park or on a trail, it's much easier.

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Scoobyqueen

Oh yes that was his name. I am not too convinced about his approach but I havent tested it out.

Do you train very much? I've also found that when doing harder or faster runs, or timed runs, it's hard to pay attention to an iPod or whatever. But doing long slow runs, especially in a park or on a trail, it's much easier.

My training is cycling (mtb and racing bike) but I jog and swim too but I would not call that training (since I am not getting anywhere :wink:. When I climb a steep hill on my mountain bike and listen to Chinese at the same time, I cannot get up the hill. It is as if there is a block between learning and using muscles.

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OneEye
The answer, in my opinion, is to make flash cards of them (based on seeing them in readings), and then review the cards. However, massive amounts of extensive reading will dramatically increase the odds that a student will come across rare words. Repeated exposure to rare words combined with memorization of them will produce the positive environment for permanently remembering these words, which are often necessary to understanding meaning.

This vocabulary acquisition strategy has another bonus: it enables speed reading. In order to be able to correctly guess an unknown word, a student has to at least know 90% of the other words in a text. This means the bigger one’s vocab, the easier it is to correctly identify new words. If one can read a text semi-fluently, without having to decipher it as if it were Egyptian hieroglyphics, then reading speed picks up. As reading speed picks up, the total amount of input per day increases. As that happens, exposure of new words increases. In other words, extensive reading combined with vocab acquisition strategies produces a beneficial cycle of learning.

This sounds a lot like Khatzumoto's approach (All Japanese All The Time). Massive input, picking the items that give you trouble and putting them into a flashcard program. He prefers example sentences using the vocab or grammar point rather than individual words, but the principle is the same.

Arguelles is weird. No doubt he's accomplished a lot as far as language learning, and I respect him for that, but he's just so weird. I don't see how pacing back and forth, in a militaristic posture and tempo, helps with learning languages, but he swears up and down that it's essential, and trains his students to do that. It's bizarre. Some of his other techniques are great. Scriptorium is great, for instance. And so is his take on literature. And Assimil, which I learned of from him, is a fantastic program for French (I've heard the Chinese one is not so great). But I can't get over the marching thing and the weird way he talks.:-?

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renzhe
This sounds a lot like Khatzumoto's approach (All Japanese All The Time). Massive input, picking the items that give you trouble and putting them into a flashcard program.

That sounds a lot like every language learning approach ever:

Read a lot, pick out the parts that you have trouble with, then go over them until they stick.

The unique part of Khatzumoto's approach is not learning grammar and memorising 20,000 sentences by heart. Also, unlike wushijiao, he recommends learning all vocabulary like this, while wushijiao is talking about rare and specialised vocabulary, where you already understand 90% of the words.

To answer the original post:

I would be interested to hear about the experiences of people who have studied abroad in a foreign language (no matter if it is Chinese, English, French, Spanish, German…etc) I would especially like to hear from people who struggled at first, but then ended up doing well academically. If you were one of these people, what enabled you to finally become successful?

I did this twice. One time, my language was good enough already.

The second time, I had extremely basic knowledge and was thrown into the deep end. Honestly, the thing that helped me was getting better at the language. As simple as that. I learned and practiced the language in my spare time, lots of exposure, and it improved, and the more it improved, the fewer problems I had.

I know that this is not a very useful reply :mrgreen:

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wushijiao
Arguelles is weird. No doubt he's accomplished a lot as far as language learning, and I respect him for that, but he's just so weird. I don't see how pacing back and forth, in a militaristic posture and tempo, helps with learning languages, but he swears up and down that it's essential, and trains his students to do that. It's bizarre.

It is bizarre. However, I must say, I've often had good results when I've listened to stuff while running (a type of physical movement) and I've had good results while mimicking audio out loud. I guess it never occurred to me to combine the two!

The unique part of Khatzumoto's approach is not learning grammar and memorising 20,000 sentences by heart. Also, unlike wushijiao, he recommends learning all vocabulary like this, while wushijiao is talking about rare and specialised vocabulary, where you already understand 90% of the words.

I don't know if there's that much contradiction, really, since I assumed a certain fairly high base of knowledge before getting into academic communications. I've also thought that memorizing sentences by heart might be great in terms of acquiring better vocabulary, grammar, and accent (ie. is it any wonder that some of the best Chinese speakers have gone through the rigors of learning a 相声 skit?), but I would wonder whether or not learning 20,000 sentences is feasible.

The second time, I had extremely basic knowledge and was thrown into the deep end. Honestly, the thing that helped me was getting better at the language. As simple as that. I learned and practiced the language in my spare time, lots of exposure, and it improved, and the more it improved, the fewer problems I had.

Interesting. I don't think that really contradicts what I was saying. My frustration came out of a system in which our students were being taught various academic conventions, without having to do high levels of exposure and practice.

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OneEye
The unique part of Khatzumoto's approach is not learning grammar and memorising 20,000 sentences by heart. Also, unlike wushijiao, he recommends learning all vocabulary like this, while wushijiao is talking about rare and specialised vocabulary, where you already understand 90% of the words.

I don't really see what the difference is. It's i+1 in both instances, only the value of 'i' is different. If you understand 90% of the words and pick out the ones that give you difficulty, what does it matter if it's kids' books or 魯迅? The concept is the same, and if it works, it works (which, by the way, is the whole point: if it works for person X, who is person Y to say it doesn't?).

By the way, you don't memorize 20,000 sentences by heart. Memorization is not the goal (nor is 20,000 but I'll assume you hit the wrong key); understanding is the goal. Really, 10,000 sentences isn't even really the goal, but a byproduct of the process, and really an arbitrary round number at that. The point is to keep picking these useful sentences until you don't really need to anymore.

You pick sentences that contain something you want to learn (grammar, vocab, whatever), and you put them into the SRS. If, when you see the sentence, you understand it, can pronounce it, and know the meaning and function of all the words in it, you can pass the card. If you can't, you fail it. So it isn't a matter of simply spitting out a translation that you've memorized, but one of fully understanding the sentence. I may not have explained this very well, please let me know if that's the case. But it isn't memorization of thousands of sentences.

He also doesn't say "don't learn grammar." He says not to memorize grammar rules. He says you should read about grammar and understand how it works, and even recommends a grammar book (Understanding Basic Japanese Grammar), but says you should take the example sentences from the book once you've read the explanations, so you're using the rules in context rather than memorizing them.

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