“Untargeted input”: a nonstarter for Chinese

So, here’s the thing with targeting. You know, planning what you’re going to teach before the teaching happens. And having teaching happen, as opposed to just “saying that” and hoping it will stick by the end of the year.

Why do I always sound so negative about those “nontargeted” techniques? Surely many teachers are doing that successfully, if we are to believe what is posted (repeatedly)? Maybe they are. But they are not teaching Chinese. They are not teaching Japanese. They are teaching a language that has a phonetic alphabet and no literacy issues. I’m not even going to go into the issues of having sufficient professional freedom as a teacher to teach without lesson plans or a curriculum or mapping. Those are facts and are self-evident to those who are working under such restrictions.

But let’s think about Chinese for a minute. (Hey, you know what blog you’re on. What did you expect?)

Let’s say we introduce a Chinese word on the fly. Let’s assume the student can understand that word when it comes up in a story that is told to the student (as story-listening does) or just in casual conversation without specific direction (as these proponents of non-targeting are often doing). That’s great. Should be fine, right?

Okay, now let’s read.

For reading in Chinese (also in Japanese, to a great extent) you have two choices. You can push the necessary pattern recognition of characters/kanji using acquired language (the students must be able to come up with the phonetic forms of those words on their own, with no prompting, which is very, very much like what happens when a word is fully acquired, though not entirely so; but it is certainly not like what happens when the student has just heard the word a few times to understand it). Or you can force memorization, which makes a link between the character/kanji and the pronunciation and meaning.

Memorization is the method that has been used for many, many years to teach these languages. It isn’t very effective. We lose an enormous proportion of students to memorization of characters in Chinese. But unfortunately, without enough repetition of individual words before reading, there’s no way the student can come up with that sound form on his own while reading. He’s fine if he can — he can understand what the word means then — but he cannot simply by seeing that squiggle on the page. (It’s possible to read Chinese without being able to pronounce it, but that’s certainly not what we want to support overall acquisition for beginners.)

So failing to target — to use optimized input which is highly comprehensible, dense and repetitious — means that students MUST memorize as a path to reading.

I’ve taught reading both ways. I’ve experienced it both ways, too. I can tell you that I would never, never go back to a memorization-based literacy method either as a student or as a teacher. Most of the Mandarin teachers I know who use cold character reading (in which semi-acquired language pushes reading comprehension in the non-phonetic script) also say they prefer it to the old methods. But to do it, you MUST have that language semi-acquired — the students must have the “Chinese voice” that puts the sound of the unknown (visual) word into their head, quickly and often correctly. That’s what makes it work.

Cold Character Reading methods are incompatible with untargeted (non-optimized) input.

So if you teach Spanish, knock yourself out. Experiment. Let me know how it goes. But for Chinese — it’s a nonstarter.

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