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.

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. …

Infographics in the classroom

A guest blog by Dr. Kimberley Brown:

Active learning for many faculty in International/global studies has meant simulations.  Alternatively, faculty could also vary teaching methods and assignments to meet the needs of a broad-base of students by using the principles of Universal Design for Learning. This post focuses on an infographic assignment substituted for a final paper in a section of a new online undergraduate course I taught last winter called “Human Rights and Language.”

Infographics are “a larger graphic design that combines data visualizations, illustrations, texts and images together in a format that tells a complete story” (Krum, 2014, 6). The basic assignment asked students to:

“Peruse our course topics.  Select one of the topics as the foundation for your infographic.  Your infographic will describe a linguistic human rights problem, the population affected by the problem, and solutions.  You will include a map of the area(s) where the problem you have identified occurs. Your goal is to disseminate information about the issue you have researched to diverse audiences. Your infographic should demonstrate a clear understanding of the issue you present and integrate course concepts and terminology.”

I was encouraged to adapt this assignment for my course after a group of colleagues in Community and Public Health (Shanks, Izumi, Sun, Martin and Shanks, 2017) successfully assigned this to their students. You can see their article, “Teaching Undergraduate Students to Visualize and Communicate Public Health Data with Infographics” here. The adaptation was quite extensive and it took many hours of collaboration with our Office of Academic Innovation to get it right. You can see the full directions for the assignment here.

I was anxious but with coaching broke the assignment into weekly parts including references, field testing, revision and reflection. Virtually no one in class had done an infographic before. I prepared written instructions as well as a screencast. Students had access to examples of Infographics. They were encouraged to use either Canva or Piktochart.  Both had tutorials. The results were highly creative. Only one student suggested that the assignment was better suited to a marketing course. Others noted that they had been pushed in unanticipated ways but could use this skill going forward. Four of the infographics are shared here with the permission of their authors. They all convey data very differently.

I adapted a grading rubric from a variety of rubrics for infographics accessed online.

If you would like more information about the assignment, please email me: brownk@pdx.edu

Please see examples of the infographics below:

Infographic on gendered languages by Madison Cheek

The Norway Infographic by Paige Nef

The Sierra Leone Infographic– Gaia Oyarzun

The Ainu Infographic–anonymous.

The full reference to our colleagues’ outstanding on article on infographics is:

Shanks, J., Izumi, B., Sun, C., Martin, A., & Byker Shanks, C. 2017. Teaching Undergraduate Students to Visualize and Communicate Public Health Data with Infographics. Frontiers in Public Health, 5, 315.

For another key reference see: Krum, R. 2014. Cool Infographics. Indianapolis: John Wiley and Sons.

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

 

One life, Suffering and Pīnyīn

This letter written by Mi Fei. By 米芾(べい ふつ、1051年 - 1107年、中国の北宋末の文学者・書家・画家) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
This letter written by Mi Fei. By 米芾(べい ふつ、1051年 – 1107年、中国の北宋末の文学者・書家・画家) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The New York Times today has a magnificent article by Margalit Fox, “Zhou Youguang, Who Made Writing Chinese as Simple as ABC, dies at 111.” I’ve been studying Mandarin for a year now, and like all new learners I am using Pīnyīn. Zhou Youguang led the effort to create Pīnyīn, the romanization system that allows Chinese to be written without characters. There were other previous efforts to create an alphabet for Chinese, but after the Chinese government adopted Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, all the others quickly fell out of favor.

What struck me about the article, whoever, was less Zhou Youguang’s intellectual achievement in helping to create Pīnyīn, but rather the breadth of his life. Here is someone who lost a daughter to appendicitis during the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, and who was sent to the fields to harvest crops during the Cultural Revolution. Yet he published ten books after the age of 100.

While remarkable, Zhou Youguang was not unique. The Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer continued to design major buildings well after he turned a 100. And the Brazilian poet Cora Coralina was born in 1889 (the year the Brazilian empire ended, and one year after the abolition of slavery) but did not publish her first book until 1965. Of course she had been writing for most of her life, but she flourished after this book was published at the age of 76. Without question, she is one of Brazil’s canonical poets. Our culture celebrates youth, including in academia. Forbes has a “30 under 30 list” of young entrepreneurs; literary competitions seek to identify new talent; mathematicians who turn 30 begin to wonder if their best years are behind them. And yet, some of the world’s most insightful and creative poets, thinkers, and designers do their best work in their senior years. How much talent is lost because people assume that older people can no longer be creative?

Cora Coralina described a deep personal change when she turned 50, which she described as a “loss of fear.” Similarly, Zhou Youguang became a well known critic of the Chinese government, whose age made him almost untouchable. For these thinkers, there was a freedom that came with time, which enabled them to speak truth to power, and to create work without worrying what others thought. Zhou Youguang’s father served in the last Chinese dynasty, and he lived through the Second Sino-Japanese war. Out of a life that knew suffering he crafted a new writing system, which has helped hundreds of millions of people learn Mandarin. May we all remember what is possible if we have the good fortune to have a long life, and the wisdom not to see aging as only a loss.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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