Naturalistic comprehensible input: does it work for Chinese?

On a language teachers’ list, the statement was recently made by a teacher interested in the debate about naturalistic CI versus optimized CI:

I have some plans to work with some Mandarin teachers to test this [naturalistic input] out.  They have not been trained in CI at all but they are eager learners.  I am going to test some ideas out on them.

Do you want those students to read, or do you want them to memorize glyphs and decode?

That is what is at stake here.

I truly don’t mean to sound condescending…but most people don’t know Chinese. And by that, I mean how it works. What is is like, as a non-native speaker, to acquire it and to become literate in it. People do these eight-hour mini-courses, and like ramen noodles with boiling water poured over them, feel they “get” the whole Chinese thing. Good luck with that, from the perspective of understanding how to teach it effectively — especially since most of these just-add-water courses conveniently dodge the reading-in-characters piece. “There’s just not time,” is the excuse. Just not time, or just not any method being used that allows it?

With Cold Character Reading, we have zero-Chinese beginners reading — fluently, in a relaxed manner, and understanding everything they read, and we have video and test results under proctored conditions to show this is the case — 130  characters after 21 hours of CI instruction. I don’t recommend this pace for most situations, but it shows what is possible. Six years of hard data prove this works, and that the reading skills transfer from the purpose-written texts used to teach reading through CCR to previously unseen, dissimilar texts.

People of my age did Chinese literacy the “hard way” — memorizing the characters and then combining them painfully. They still do, by and large, today, because that is the “conventional wisdom”. Chinese is a “hard language” that requires lots of “work” to learn to read and write.

Ask anyone who did it this way about how they feel about Chinese reading, about whether they read Chinese fluently for pleasure, about whether they feel good about reading something to another person, and you will get the eye-roll. And ask them how many of their Chinese 1 classmates made it out the other side to proficiency. If it is commonly said that only 4% of language learners make it to the upper levels, generally speaking it is far lower with Chinese, and tends to skew toward heritage learners as well.

Now. When you are talking about a language like Chinese (in this case languages with opaque scripts — ones where there is little or no phonetic component available) there is a divide between language and literacy. Given sufficient time, obviously a person could acquire Chinese through either optimized or naturalistic input. That is oral language. But the kicker is — how will that person become literate? Without optimization, there is no fluent reading in Chinese. There is no getting into “the zone” of reading until far, far, FAR later, if ever. Because most people drop the effort before they come close to that reading level, if they are not reading in a way that is driven by the Chinese Voice. And you don’t get the Chinese Voice quickly enough to be able to allow kids to read before the character repertoire is far, far separated from the speaking repertoire, unless you optimize the input.

So for people teaching a casual class or something where literacy is not an issue, if you have enough time and can keep people in class without feeling lost, if there’s no accountability and everyone’s happy with “whatever they get”, you could do naturalistic input with them. But the reading piece will fall down. People who have not seen reading in Chinese taught using anything other than memorization-and-decoding can’t believe there is another way to do it, but people who have seen it almost never go back — unless there are no materials available for their students to read — which is a consequence of naturalistic input (putting the load on the teacher to produce written materials). Again, that seems negligible in Spanish, but I can assure you that it is not, in Chinese. Especially since most Chinese teachers tend to have multiple preps (like, four or five in a mature program).

My hunch is that doing something like a one word image would be successful, only establishing the details of quantity, size, and color, and then writing it up with the class.  Like SUPER simple, very few new sounds, and loads of extralinguistic support.

Again, what is the goal? Do you want to take the students through the reading, and say “We got through that!” (given the need for “loads of extralinguistic support” when reading)? Or do you want them to be independent readers of acquired language? The exercise this teacher is describing will produce a text that is very, very difficult to use to teach Mandarin reading effectively. It’s essentially using the approach of a language where you only need to see a word once to be able to read it perfectly every time. Like Spanish. This is not the case in written Chinese.

A student who is able to read does not need “loads of extralinguistic support” to read a text. A student who gets enough optimized input, and reads texts that contain that language, does not have this problem.

If you read this way in Chinese for this lesson, and then you do another lesson in which the students presumably get more language, now you have twice as many characters that have been seen only a handful of times each. This is what the typical Chinese textbook does.

So you are once more leading students (almost dragging them — this is not a putdown, this is an actual description I have heard from reading teachers when the students did not have the foundation of oral language, the Chinese Voice, to drive the reading) through. They are not reading. They are playing the school game, just like we did back in the day, trying to count ahead and figure out when we would get called on so we could try to have the answer ready by looking it up and writing it in the margin of the text. They are surviving. Barely. Now add another lesson, and another. Soon you have kids throwing up their hands in despair because they are looking at 30, 50, 100 of these “squiggles” that they do not recognize immediately, because there has not been enough repetition, and there is not strong enough support from the Chinese Voice to make the link between the written form (which for beginners is frozen speech) to the meaning.

And there you have traditional Chinese teaching. They might speak a bit better, if they got CI input for oral Chinese. But they will not be literate in any meaningful way. And before this, Chinese teachers – even those who did use oral CI for acquisition — just shrugged and said, “Well, that’s how it is. Chinese reading and writing is hard.”

People don’t expect meaningful literacy out of beginning Chinese students. They never have. It’s about time they did. But to get that, you have to work with the nature of Chinese, not against it.


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