language

The sticky intermediate language trap

I am a Chinese and Portuguese language learner, which is one of the great joys of my life. I’m currently somewhere at the lower intermediate level in Chinese. I’m studying around HSK 4 level material (old level), although since my tutors are Taiwanese my curriculum doesn’t match the mainland’s well. I love Chinese study, and typically spend at least an hour a day at it. But I also find -as most language learners do- that the intermediate language level has some challenges. I want to talk about those in the context of Chinese, and some advantages too:

  1. I sometimes have enough vocabulary to ask a question or tell a story, but not enough vocabulary to understand the response. It’s like playing ping pong, and I can hit the ball over the net, but sometimes I just stand there when the ball comes back.
  2. It’s difficult to see consistent improvement in your language ability. At the basic level, your language skills can improve significantly in a month. Those days are gone.
  3. Worse, your language ability can seem to fluctuate widely from day to day. I had a rough language class last summer. My teacher told something to the effect: “Sometimes you speak at the HSK 3 level or even higher. And sometimes it’s like you’re at the beginner level.” It was true, and I was struggling to understand it. I talked to me friend Kim in Applied Linguistics, who said that linguistic ability depends so much on context. Are you tired? Is it a topic that you’re not fully comfortable with? For some reason, are you and your tutor not having the best day? Your language level is not fixed but fluctuates, which we need to learn to accept.
  4. Yes, it helps if you’ve already learned another language. But that can also be a trap. I truly learned Portuguese living in an apartment in Brazil with my student roommates and their friends. My first four months living on my own in Brazil my language learning was painfully slow. But then in the next five -when I started living with my room-mates- my learning sky-rocketed, and felt nearly effortless. At this point, I’m not sure COVID-19 is going to allow me to travel to Taibei for my Taiwan Fellowship this fall. So I may have to continue learning Chinese outside of an immersion environment. Of course, that’s likely how most people in the world learn a language. So we need to keep learning strategies to stay motivated. But my main point is it’s not good to compare your ability or path in one language with another, which can be demotivating. In Portuguese my focus is currently on learning European vocabulary, slang and structures. But I want to stay with a standard south-eastern Brazilian dialect in my own speaking. These kinds of language choices are so far in the future with my Chinese that there is no point comparing the two languages. Don’t compare. What worked with one language won’t always translate to another one.

Of course there are some advantages at the intermediate level:

  1. With Chinese, it’s much easier to learn new characters, because most of them build on older characters. Oftentimes I can guess how to say an HSK 4 level word based on the characters, even if I have no idea of its meaning.
  2. I can begin to read stories. I’ve begun graded readers with “Journey to the West.” The first month trying to read was painfully difficult. Over the last few months it’s become dramatically easier. Even though my overall Chinese doesn’t improve in short periods, it’s possible to make major progress on sub-areas of your language ability in a time period that still feels meaningful. I’m not yet at a good enough level with my listening to follow Chinese-language podcasts, but I hope to reach that point in the next year or two. I feel that point -when you can really read and listen on your own- is when you start to make rapid progress.
  3. It’s possible to be more independent. I am beginning to think that I don’t need a teacher as much as a conversational partner. I can study textbooks, grammar and vocabulary on my own. What I need is someone who can help me to use what I’ve learned. I think that this takes some pressure off learning, because you can be more self-directed. Of course, for many people a more formal curriculum is motivating. I really needed that for my first few years studying Chinese. But I’m finding that I’m at the point that I don’t want to do any more homework with numbered exercises. I’d much rather discover a new grammar point while talking, and then go read about it on my own at the Chinese grammar wiki. This makes language learning more flexible and fun.

How do we as language learners deal with these challenges? I really respect Steve Kaufmann, a polyglot, who speaks Japanese, Chinese, Arabic and many other languages. One point that he makes is that it’s about spending time with the language, and not focusing on small victories or defeats. If you do, you’ll become dispirited. You won’t likely see much progress in the space of a month any more. But you will over a year. Kaufmann also argues that you need to vary your input method. If you keep focusing on just one approach -a tutor, a software platform, graded readers- you’ll burn out. I find this to have been really great advice, and try to consistently switch how I study, often more than once in a day. Lastly, Kaufmann says that you have to make language learning fun. Or you won’t do it. I actually think that’s the most important advice.

I always say the same thing about language learning. There are no short-cuts. You have to put in the time. Find a way that gives you joy; spend time with it regularly; and don’t take it too seriously. Just don’t give up.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

For language nerds- -if you are interested in how people learn a language -and the language acquisition model that many polyglots follow- I recommend Matt in Japan’s channel. You can see a brief video about Matt’s learning journey and experience here.

Why I love online language learning platforms

Photo by Joel Naren on Unsplash

What is the best way to study a language? I’ve been studying Mandarin since January of 2016. I recently won a Taiwan Fellowship, which means that I’ll be working at the National University in Taipei this fall. Since my Chinese is still just lower intermediate, I have two Chinese lessons a week to try to prepare. I also have one Portuguese lesson a week, so that I can maintain my speaking skills. Once COVID-19 permits, I’ll be traveling to Lisbon and Macao to do archival research on the 1918 influenza pandemic. For this reason, I spend a lot of time each week on language study. And I’ve fallen in love with online learning platforms, particularly italki, although I know there are other excellent ones such as Verbling. To be clear- I have no financial stake in any of these platforms, and I don’t get any funding whatsoever from them.

You certainly don’t need to use these platforms to find excellent instructors. I had two kind and patient Chinese teachers before I moved to italki. I think that the friendship that I developed with them partly explains why I have stuck with learning Chinese over the years. But when my last teacher left the United States, I needed to find someone else. And it was in the midst of the pandemic, so the sessions couldn’t be face to face. I tried italki, and fell in love with the platform for a number of reasons:

  1. On italki you can search for a teacher from a specific region, using a pull-down menu in the upper left of your screen. Since I knew that I would be traveling to Taipei, I wanted to find someone from Taiwan. That way I could begin to learn traditional characters, and become familiar with the Taiwanese accent. The freedom to decide that you want to find a Chinese teacher in Malaysia -if for some reason that location is important to you- is really helpful. You can also find someone to teach almost any language that you can imagine, and from any world region.
  2. Every teacher has a brief video talking about their teaching style, as well as a bit about themselves. It is intimidating to find a teacher. You want someone who you feel that you will be comfortable with, and who matches your best approach to learning. It’s interesting how much you can get a sense of someone based on a short video.
  3. You can have different teachers for different needs. Currently, I have lessons with someone completing a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language. Her classes focus on grammar. She’s an outstanding teacher, and I really enjoy the structure of her classes. She sends me a worksheet with vocab and grammar points in Google Docs each week, so I have material to study between tutoring sessions. At the same time, I also wanted someone who could be a conversational partner. So I have a second teacher with whom I meet once a week just to talk. Since speaking and listening are the two skills that I most want to develop, this session is not only fun but also a good way to test my progress. I also find that during a pandemic it’s a welcome time for social interaction.
  4. The prices are reasonable. You can see what each tutor charges per hour when you decide to schedule class. Most will let you have a first class at a reduced rate so that you can decide first if you’re comfortable studying with them. You can also choose the length of your classes. My grammar class is 45 minutes, but my conversation class is just a half hour. Personally, I prefer shorter classes because I start to lose focus after a half hour. With these platforms you can find classes at an inexpensive price, and set the length of your classes based on your needs and budget. Of courses classes with conversational partners are cheaper than classes with someone with graduate level training to teach a language.
  5. Freedom. I really like the flexibility of scheduling as many classes as I want, and at times that I want. When you want to book a time with a tutor you just go to their calendar, and find a time that they have available on their schedule. If it’s a quieter week, I can book two grammar classes. I’ve loved learning with both my online tutors. But it’s not awkward if you want to switch tutors; you just stop scheduling classes, since you sign up for them individually.

All that said, I also feel that I have a deeper relationship with my first Chinese teachers, whom I didn’t meet on italki. That may just be because I’ve known them for much longer, or perhaps I was just lucky to meet people with whom I formed a bond. Still, for all the practical reasons above, if you are a language learner, I’d really recommend trying an online learning platform.

As an aside for any Chinese language learners out there, I’ve learned that many common words from the HSK vocabulary list (HSK refers to the Chinese language levels recognized by the Chinese government) aren’t in regular usage in Taiwan, which I didn’t expect. My Taiwanese tutors usually kind of know what they mean, but wouldn’t typically use them in day to day conversation. So a restaurant is “can1ting1 餐廳” not fan4guan3. I keep coming across words like that when I try to use a HSK 2 vocab word, and one of my italki tutors gives me a confused look back. There really are advantages to having language teachers from more than one location.

However you choose to study another language, just don’t stop. There are no shortcuts. It’s all about the time.

Shawn Smallman, 2021

An intro class lecture: New languages- the example of Sheng

AIDS prevention tapes in Oaxaca’s Indigenous languages. Photo by Shawn Smallman. Tapes by Frente Comun contra el SIDA, Oaxaca, courtesy of Bill Wolf.

Several years ago I wrote a lecture for my “Introduction to International Studies” course that looked at the emergence of new languages.  While people are aware of language loss, fewer people know that new languages are also forming. So I used this lecture as a means to talk about cultural globalization.  I’ve talked about Sheng before on the blog, but I thought that another faculty member might want to use this lecture.

It’s important for me to say that I based this lecture on an several peer-reviewed articles, as well as articles in the popular press, but I did not note them. So this material is not original, but I can’t cite the original authors. My apologies to these scholars.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

Cultural Globalization and Language: The Example of Sheng

Terms:

Michif

Haitian creole

Lingua Geral

Sheng

Kenya

KiSwahili

Gaelic

Saami/Sami

Argot: a secret vocabulary and language for a particular group

(silent t in “argot”)

pidgin: an artificial language created for use between speakers of different languages

Patois (pronounced pat’wa): a dialect separate from the standard language

 

Lecture Outline:

Cultural Globalization

New Languages in the Americas

Language Creation in Africa

Sheng: Structure and Perceptions

Urban Languages in Africa

Resources on Youtube:

  • Dr Seuss in Jamaican Patois
  • Language is a Virus (really good, must use): /www.youtube.com/watch?v=quPGg08C2pE
  • “Jorm and Rabbit in Nairobi”: music video in Sheng
  • Search Scottish Gaelic Discovery Channel(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YwVCrgvvHeE)
  • Discovery Channel video on Saami on Youtube

The Value of World Language Study

Chinese Gardens, Montreal Botanical Garden, Canada. Photo by Smallman

Eric L. Einspruch
Principal, ELE Consulting, LLC
March 4, 2020

Introduction

I was recently asked to comment on the value of learning world languages. My perspective is informed primarily by my study of Mandarin Chinese at the Confucius Institute at Portland State University (CIPSU), where I have taken language classes, music classes, and received tutoring since 2011. I have also twice participated in a two-week summer language program at Xi’an Jiaotong Liverpool University in Suzhou, Jiangsu, China. As markers of having achieved a bit of progress, I have passed the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) Level 4 written exam, the Hanyu Shuiping Kouyu Kaoshi Intermediate Level oral exam, and the Chinese Central Conservatory of Music  Yangqin (扬琴, Chinese Dulcimer) Level 2 exam.

The Value of World Language Study

My comments, given in Chinese and prepared with help from one of my teachers, are provided below. I begin by providing a brief self-introduction: I am an independent researcher and program evaluator, an adjunct professor at Portland State University [in the College of Urban and Public Affairs and in the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health], I am the Chair of the CIPSU Advisory Board, and I am a student of Chinese language and music. I then say that I want to speak to three points.

On languages and age

What is the value of language study, both for people and for societies? I’ve been studying Chinese, and like to take a standard Chinese test for language learning called the HSK to measure my progress. This spring I took the test at my university’s excellent Confucius Institute. The room was filled with children, and their patient parents who were trying to soothe their text anxiety. There was one person around 18 taking his HSK 4 exam. And then there was me, a fifty-two year old male. Apparently language learning is mainly for young children. …

Tools to learn Chinese

What are some of the best tools and resources to study Mandarin? One of the hardest tasks when learning another language is to remain motivated for the long term, which is why it it’s helpful to have a goal. The HSK (Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì) is a standard Chinese proficiency test, which is administered by the Chinese government. I’ve been studying Chinese through Portland State University’s Confucius Institute, and plan to take the HSK 2 this summer. I really want to thank both PSU’s Confucius Institute and my teacher for helping me to learn this beautiful language. 谢谢 Based on my experience, I wanted to explore tools to learn Mandarin.

View of the ocean in Hong Kong. Photo by Shawn Smallman, 2017

If you are studying Mandarin there are a wealth of free resources and websites to help you, and here are a few that I recommend. To be clear, I don’t know anyone at any of these sites or companies, and I haven’t received any gifts or funds for these endorsements. I also haven’t included subscription based services (like Skritter) because I’d rather buy something outright than have to pay by the month. I’ve also generally avoided apps that require you to share an email address to register, such as HSK online. These are all apps and programs that I’ve used myself for countless hours. …

Small victories and language

I’ve been studying Chinese for about two and a half years now, and I’m making slow progress. Very slow. I am certainly at that point in language study at which I say “after all this time, is this really the best that I’m able to speak Mandarin?” Last summer I was in China, and had a humiliating time at a ticket counter in Shenzhen, where I found that I couldn’t even explain to the ticket seller that I wanted to travel to Hong Kong (bad verb choice). I am certainly not someone who is good at languages. I should have learned the personal infinitive in Portuguese in an hour. It took me twenty years. But I love studying languages, which is what matters.  If you are someone who is studying a language and needs a little inspiration to keep going, I recommend this blog post. Sometimes it’s the small things that count.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Language and Loss

AIDS prevention tapes in Oaxaca’s Indigenous languages. Photo by Shawn Smallman. Tapes by Frente Común Contra el SIDA, Oaxaca, Mexico; courtesy of Bill Wolf.

When Kim Brown and wrote our textbook, we drafted one chapter on language that just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the text. Still, we’ve included the chapter for free online on this website, in the hope that faculty may use it. I became fascinated with language while researching HIV prevention strategies in Oaxaca, Mexico, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the Americas. How do you do HIV prevention work in rural communities in which the primary language is not Spanish? I knew the co-founder of an HIV prevention organization (Frente Común Contra el SIDA), which produced and distributed audio cassettes that gave information about preventing HIV in a plethora of Oaxaca’s languages. The NGO sent young people back to their communities to interview elders. With their linguistic advice they would create these tapes in their local language. …

Human Rights and Language

My colleague Kim Brown is teaching a fantastic new online class on “Human Rights and Language.” Besides being the co-author of our Introduction to International and Global Studies textbook,  Kim also has perhaps won more teaching awards than any other person in our department. If you are interested, you can see how to register for the class as a non-degree student here. The main text for the class is also an e-book, which helps to keep down costs. Questions? You can reach Kim at dbkb@pdx.edu. And you can see the syllabus here.

Shawn Smallman, November 2017

 

Globalization, Internationalization, and English for Academic Purposes

Kimberley Brown
Portland State University
Guest blog post

Many campuses in the US and Canada have formalized comprehensive internationalization plans that call for increased numbers of international students on campuses, augmented numbers of outbound study abroad students, and expanded partnerships with universities around the world. International Studies Programs may have a unique role to play in these efforts on their respective campuses. If you have an ESL program for incoming international students, you may want to consider an on-campus partnership that allows advanced ESL students to use the academic theme of globalization in their courses and to collaborate with your students in your classes.

Recently two former students (who both completed their BAs in International Studies and their MAs in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) decided to use our textbook in Japan and Mexico for advanced level students in their English for Academic Purposes courses. Another MA student, heading off to teach EAP in Germany for a year, chose to work through basic globalization concepts covered in our introductory course and to write a brief reflection on the link between globalization and English for Academic Purposes. His goal in Germany is to introduce globalization concepts in his high level academic English courses that he will be teaching. Chen (2012) looks at the ability of the content area of globalization to serve as a way to introduce students, who are a few terms away from becoming matriculated students at their respective institutions, to the discourse of higher education. …

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