The case against 是 (shi4)

So you’re starting a new class using TPRS for Chinese.  The first thing to figure out, in Chinese, is what language you will be using with them, followed closely by “what will they read that contains that language?”

Many new TPRS teachers want to go basically the same route as traditional teaching, or maybe their subconscious does. Even though people really don’t introduce themselves using 是 very often in Chinese, for some reason people want to start out with kids identifying each other using 是. “He is Bob. She is Mary.” I strongly advise against this, for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just not very natural language. Yes, I know TPRS isn’t known for its Shakespearean (Lu Xun-ean?) beauty of language, particularly at the beginning levels. And one might argue, “But the identity pattern is so important. They will need to identify many things. And everyone can do this with a large number of names available for substitution, using the actual kids in the class!)

I believe strongly in violating what people believe is a fixed order of acquisition. I believe strongly that it’s possible to train microfluency on whichever pattern or word you like. And having said that, I believe strongly in getting early reps in on things that are both very meaningful (identifying classmates certainly applies here) and very typically Chinese. That latter element sometimes means providing “extra” reps above and beyond what you might expect, since things that are typically Chinese (in a language sense) are often not typically English-like.

So, think about it. How does a Chinese person introduce himself? In a formal situation, by using 姓 for “to be surnamed”. In a less formal situation, using 叫 for “to be named”. I can’t remember anyone ever providing information about what a person’s name was (whether his own name or that of someone beside him) using 是。 So I don’t think we want to reinforce that usage, especially when it’s important culturally to teach the more correct usages of 姓 and 叫.

But there’s another side to this as well. One might argue that we do compromise just a little bit on language naturalness in TPRS for the ultra-beginner because we just don’t have many choices (in Chinese at least). So what’s the harm of teaching the grammatically-correct (if not pragmatically lovely) 他 是 Bob?  My big objection to doing that right off the bat is that we are reinforcing the translation of “is”. And in Chinese, the only time the English “is” is really sort of out there and translated overtly is when it is what is called an equational sentence: THIS is THAT. Or, in this case, HE is NAME.

Much more frequently, the English “is” is not translated. He’s happy. He’s hungry. She’s smart. They are going. I am…whatever. Stative verbs. The ones that textbook-taught kids are forever adding 是 in front of, because they are translating from English the best they can. If TPRS-taught kids get enough input, it should be possible to avoid this — but why even prime the pump for the possibility of this problem, when we are going to be using stative verbs like, really really soon (really REALLY soon) and 是isn’t even really the most authentic word to use in this situation anyway?

The sequence I’ve been using with beginners for many years now starts from the Super 7, but 是 is not used in the very beginning. It’s just not needed. And I find it more useful to get them solid on saying 他 高兴 and not having anything that looks, smells like or walks like an “is” even on the table at that point. Then, when 是 is introduced, it’s more obvious that it is working to fill a specific niche — the identification function.

There’s another issue with using 他 是 Bob, 他 是 谁? stuff the first day. And that’s drilling. Because that’s what this is. I’ve observed teachers doing this with a new class, and after the first few students answer (and ask!) these questions, there is absolutely no need for anyone to listen anymore. There’s no comprehension going on, because the questions never change. It’s difficult to circle 是  effectively, especially on day 1 when you have no other language to use. In fact, 是 is one of those things that I try to exclude from circling practice sentences for teachers  who are just starting out circling, because it just doesn’t work very well for that kind of thing. So what you end up with is student after student looking at who the teacher is pointing to and repeating 他 是 plus name. It quickly loses the element of really having to listen carefully to get the meaning, and sinks down into replacement drill — particularly if you are teaching students of the age where everyone must have a turn or else. Or if you’re just making sure to give everyone a turn. This is the kind of drill we want to avoid, since by doing it, the students are learning that they don’t really have to listen and the content will not be very engaging or surprising. On the first day of class, that’s the last thing we want to have happen. There will be “those kinds of days” throughout the year, but let’s not bring them on ourselves by doing drills.

And think about the reading. Lines of pictures, with a single line under each. 他 不是 Obama. 他 不是 Nixon. 他 是 Abraham Lincoln.  This is the sort of thing that the legacy-method teachers give out as reading, because their kids don’t have more sophisticated language. This is not a compelling story. It’s not even a story. If you use 是 simply to identify the name of the character in the reading, you are not getting the kind of repetition on that character that is required for the students to easily “get it”. So we’re stuck, all because of that 是.

I have to date found no more solid way to begin the year than the sequence laid out in Zhongwen Bu Mafan!: 酷,哭, 想吃,在, 有, 没有。  The 在 can be delayed, of course. But with just these super-few words, you have a potential for a narrative, a conflict, a resolution. For any sort of interesting discourse, there has to be some sort of problem or issue or unhappiness or dissatisfaction that is (or is not) remedied. 是 doesn’t contribute much toward that, so I strongly advise delaying it until (only slightly) later  as you progress through the Super 7.

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