Terry is all about improving literacy in Chinese (At the expense of handwriting characters, if need be), and has authored multiple books for early learners. She has pioneered a technique called cold character reading. She is truly a free thinker and an innovator, and the field has benefited greatly from her contributions.
I’ve been back from ACTFL for a while, but immediately upon returning I discovered that a bunch of my websites (all hosted on the same shared server) had been infested with malware. So I had that to deal with, in addition to a mountain of other pre-Christmas things.
The server was likely infected because an old WordPress install (that should have been deleted) was exploited. The best fix was a clean wipe: change passwords, export WordPress content via mySQL database dump, re-install WordPress, and re-import each website’s content. Fortunately, my web hosting service, WebFaction, was really helpful. They detected and alerted me of the malware in the first place, and provided useful guidance helping me clean it up. WebFaction is not the best service for anyone relatively clueless about tech, but if you can handle SSH and, like me, don’t mind Googling Linux commands occasionally to get stuff done, it’s really excellent.
But back to ACTFL… It was great to talk to the teachers I met there, and although I was there representing Mandarin Companion this time, I also met teachers familiar with Sinosplice, AllSet Learning, and ChinesePod. It was invaluable to get this rare face-to-face teacher feedback.
Here are my observations from the conference:
I was last at ACTFL in 2008, when almost all Chinese teachers in attendance were university instructors, with a sprinkling of teachers from cutting-edge high schools. Now there are plenty of high schools, middle schools, and even primary schools represented. So one unexpected piece of positive feedback was that even middle schools can use Mandarin Companion’s graded readers, and the kids like them.
In 2008, pretty much all Chinese teachers in attendance were ethnically Chinese. The only exception I can remember was my own Chinese teacher from undergrad at UF, Elinore Fresh (who was a bit of an anomaly, having grown up in mainland China). But now many of those non-Chinese kids that studied Chinese in college and got pretty good at it have become Chinese teachers themselves, and are also attending ACTFL. I’ve always been a proponent of the learner perspective in language pedagogy, so this is a fantastic trend to see. Chinese and non-Chinese teachers can accomplish so much more by collaborating.
There’s a strong TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) faction at ACTFL, the lead proponent for its application to Chinese pedagogy being Dr. Terry Waltz. I got a chance to talk to her about her methods, as well as other practitioners such as Diane Neubauer, who contributes to a great blog dedicated to TPRS for Chinese called Ignite Chinese. It’s very encouraging to see classroom innovation in this space, and I am researching TPRS more.
Boston is a pretty cool city. I regret that I didn’t have the time to check it out properly.
When I attended ACTFL in 2008, I met the guys behind Skritter, which went on to become a world-class service. I didn’t make any similar discoveries this time, but there’s no substitute for direct communication with all the teachers back in the USA working hard to prepare the next generation of kids for a world that needs Chinese language skills more than ever. I expect to be attending ACTFL pretty regularly in the coming years.
I’ll be connecting with a few people at the convention, and meeting up with my Chinese teacher buddies. I also get to visit my sister Amy and high school friend Steve. If you’re a Sinosplice reader and you’re at ACTFL, though, please seek out Mandarin Companion and come by and say hi!
If you’re a language teacher, you’re probably quite familiar with the concept of recasting, even if you don’t know the name. And if you’re a language learner, being aware of recasting can help you learn faster. So what is recasting?
Fukuya and Zhang define a recast as “implicit corrective feedback.” Another definition of “recast” given by Han Ye in a presentation at the ACTFL 2008 conference was “a native speaker’s corrective reformulation of a student’s utterance.”
It’s not very complicated in practice. Here’s a simple example:
> Student: I want read.
> Teacher: Oh, you want to read?
In the above example, the English teacher communicates with the student (using a question to confirm what the student had said), while at the same time making a correction (adding “to”). The teacher may or may not choose to emphasize the correction.
Here’s a slightly more subtle example:
> Student: I want read.
> Teacher: What do you want to read?
In this example, while you could identify a correction in the teacher’s question, the focus is more on communication and less on correcting the mistake.
Recasts don’t have to be questions, and they can be focused on pronunciation, on grammar, on vocabulary… but they always carry with them some degree of ambiguity, because recasts are not overt corrections, and some degree of repetition is a natural part of normal speech. Will the student pick up on the correction, or will the conversation just keep moving along? (Does it even matter what the student consciously notices his mistakes?)
I believe that much of my own success in acquiring Chinese has been due to (1) getting lots of practice with native speakers, and (2) being receptive to recasts.
Here’s a typical example of an exchange that might occur (in Chinese), with a string of letters representing the focal language point:
> Learner: Abcde.
> Native speaker: What?
> Learner: Abcde.
> Native speaker: Ohhh… AbcDe!
> Learner: Yes, Abcde.
The native speaker’s second utterance above was a recast, but as we see in the last line of the exchange, the learner didn’t get it. Yes, the recast was almost imperceptibly different from what the learner said originally, but recasts tend to be that way (from the learner’s perspective)… especially when they involve tones. As a learner, when you become more sensitive to recasts, you’ll hear them all the time.
Think about it… some people will pay big bucks to a teacher in order to obtain explicit corrective feedback. In actuality, though, if that person is in a second language environment, he is probably getting corrective feedback all the time in the form of recasts and not even knowing it. Recasts are great because they don’t impede the flow of information and they’re usually not an embarrassing form of correction. They’re also great because you don’t get them if you don’t get out there and talk to native speakers. They’re a positive side effect of speaking practice. As a learner, recasts are your friend.
At ACTFL 2008, Han Ye of the University of Florida presented the findings of an experiment on tonal recasting. The experiment sought to compare the effect of recasts on Chinese heritage learners with the effect of recasts on non-heritage learners. The recasts were all for tone-related errors.
Interestingly, the study found that the uptake rate for non-heritage learners was 51%, but only 28% for heritage learners.
I found this interesting for a number of reasons. The Chinese heritage learners were likely much more confident in their ability to communicate, and probably less self-conscious about their Chinese. The non-heritage learners are more receptive to feedback, but do they communicate as well?
It is likely that the role of recasts is most important in the early stages of learning a language. Our own parents used recasting on us plenty when we were children still learning our mother tongues, but eventually, either they stop doing it or we stop paying attention.
There are a lot of factors at play here, not the least of which are individual learning styles and learner personality. Recasting research continues.
I’m just one of those people that likes to pay attention to recasts.
The problem, as Dr. Liao presented it, is that many learners can reach a relatively high level of fluency in Mandarin Chinese, have excellent tonal accuracy for individual words, yet still make a large number of very unnatural tonal errors in natural speech. This is a common enough problem that educators really need to be looking for ways to address it.
The message of the presentation was, in essence:
1. We’re giving students of Chinese the wrong picture of tones (third tone in particular)
2. Tones are not of equal importance in natural speech
3. Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones
Now I’ll break these different points down one by one.
We’re giving students the wrong picture of tones
The way students first learn tones is in isolation. You apply tones to individual syllables. The idealized tone contours of those tones in isolation look like the chart below.
The thing is, in natural connected speech, tones don’t behave quite that way. Yes, there’s tone sandhi (tones in sequence affect each other in regular ways), but it’s more than just that. Third tone in particular has a habit of dipping but then not rising the way it should. (This phenomenon is known as the “half-third tone.”) So then is the not rising in natural speech the exception, or is the perfect rise in an isolated tone the real exception?
Dr. Liao suggests that it’s more useful to teach that the third tone is low rather than dipping. This could help with third tone problems in connected speech. The “model” third tone with a rising tail could then be treated as the exception to the rule.
The symmetry-loving perfectionist in me actually likes this a lot. This way you end up with two pairs of almost diametrically opposed tones (yes, we’re fudging a bit): high vs. low (1 vs. 3), and rising vs. falling (2 vs. 4). Dr. Liao also notes here that learners tend to confuse tone 1 and 4 with each other much more than with the other two, and tone 2 and 3 much more than with the other two. Very interesting.
This really struck a chord with me, as it matches nicely with my own observations. Taking all this into account and putting the actual tone contours aside for a moment, I put together my own experimental “idealized perceptual tone diagram”:
I have no idea if a representation like this could actually be useful to any students. Before you freak out by such a concept, though, let’s move on to the next point…
Tones are not of equal importance in connected speech
When Dr. Liao started talking about this, I had an immediate flashback to something my friend Alf said after studying Chinese in China for about half a year:
> Tones are such bullshit. When Chinese people talk really fast, they don’t really use them. So I’m just going to ignore them and talk really fast like Chinese people, and I’ll be fine.
Ah, the “tones aren’t important” fallacy. Most students of Chinese have heard such sacrilege more than once in their long years of study, I’m sure. The thing is, like any good lie, there’s actually some truth to it.
Dr. Liao pointed out that in natural speech, some tones in a “frame” are “weakened” or “reduced” and lose many of their “idealized” properties. That is to say, if you look at their tone contours (remember how to do that with Praat?) in the sentence, they don’t all resemble the perfect angles in the classic chart we all know so well.
Here’s an example of what native speaker tone contours look like in speech [source]:
You’ll notice that the tones of some words are clearly recognizable, while others are less so. What’s going on? Well, in natural Chinese sentences, certain words in each phrase are stressed. Stressed words will have a tone contour which most closely follows the idealized form, whereas the other tones are shortened, kind of run together, and generally goof off.
Funny-sounding speech can be corrected most efficiently by focusing on certain key tones
Here’s where Alf’s idea comes into play. Dr. Liao recommends that instead of correcting every mispronounced tone in a sentence (and there might be many), instructors should focus on the stressed words. When the tone(s) in a stressed word is mispronounced, the sentence will frequently sound quite bad to native ears, but when the stressed word is pronounced correctly, the other tones will often fall in line.
This is a cool idea, because if it works, it means (1) teachers can stop worrying about so many wrong tones, and (2) students can quit freaking about every tone.
I had a great time interacting with other teachers at ACTFL 2008. Yes, what we do at Praxis Language is quite different from what the teachers in the trenches do, but it’s important to connect with them, to hear about how the classroom is changing, how the students are changing, and maybe even about how we might converge in some areas.
I sat in on some particularly interesting talks on CFL (Chinese as a Foreign Language). Only half a year after I finished my own thesis, I felt I really needed to be reminded of the wide world of academic pursuits… some of the research was quite fascinating. I’m planning to revisit some of the topics here in my blog in the next few weeks.
In the meantime, I’d just like to draw my readers’ attention to a cool product I ran into at ACTFL: Skritter [China-friendly link]. It’s a really well-executed online system for practicing character writing, and it has built-in support for Integrated Chinese. Check it out.
I’m really looking forward to meeting some of the brightest and most passionate language educators that my country has to offer. If you will be in attendance and would like to meet up, by all means, send me an e-mail.