Can learning Mandarin be as easy as learning French?
I started off last week’s blog with some dark confessions about lessons gone past that I have taught; the good, the bad and the absolutely chaotic, and I ended it with some pyscho-babble about sensory references and mental bridges and a promise that I’d explain myself next week. So here goes….
What I mean by a mental bridge is a link between one thing and another in your brain, scientists might call it a neural pathway. Researchers have shown that it is these bridges that are responsible for the process that goes on when you perceive a new piece of information, then store it in your brain, then retrieve it later. That’s the process: Perception, Retention, Retrieval. It’s the effectiveness of this process that is absolutely crucial for a student’s success (or failure) in picking up a new language. Steps one two and three all need to work in order for a language to truly be learnt.
Let's imagine you received an audio clip of 20 random words of me talking in a foreign language, and I asked you to listen to it once then repeat them to me, do you think you would be able to do it? As long as you can hear what’s played clearly then you will be able to perceive the sounds coming out of the speaker, but would you be able to remember them and reproduce them even just a few minutes later? Step 1 of the process (perception) is there, but steps two and three; retention and retrieval, are pretty shaky. If I asked you to play it a number of times, you might have more of a chance of remembering one or two of the twenty words, but your success rate at picking up a new language just by listening and repeating would be pretty low. Especially if all you have is one lousy audio recording, and you can’t even see me when I’m saying them- I haven’t even told you what the words mean!
The reason that this kind of parrot-repetition method is pretty unsuccessful (and I sincerely pray that it is now a thing of the past in the modern language classroom in the UK) is that it doesn’t give you a reference, doesn’t give you anything else to link it to, it doesn’t create a mental bridge! Now in European languages that are relatively close to English, this method may still have some limited success and that’s because the words sound similar enough to English, or are close to other words in English that have a similar meaning for you to make your own mental bridge as you go along.
Case in point: Teacher in a French class is teaching the colours and asks them to repeat after her: Blanc, Jaune, Violet (White, Yellow, Purple), she’s teaching it by parrot repetition but still you can say to yourself: “a Blank piece of paper is white, Jaune is like Jaundice which makes people go yellow and well Violet is not very far off purple in English anyway”, by doing this you’ve unknowingly built yourself three mental bridges to link up the new vocabulary to your existing knowledge, well done you! Now it would be nice if the teacher taught a song, or played a game with the new words to really cement in the foundations of those mental bridges, but I’m betting you could still probably remember those three colours the next week by thinking back to the associations I just made for you.
I’m here to tell you that learning Mandarin can be just as easy - all you need is to be given the mental bridges for each word instead of making them up for yourself as you go along!
That brings me back to last week's post about Little Mandarin Classes and their revolutionary kinesthetic teaching approach in which the young learners learn the Mandarin vocab alongside the British Sign Language hand gestures that go with it. Hand gestures are something that are very easy to pick up and pretty hard to shake off especially for kids (need I mention dabbing, flossing), by teaching the kids the hand gestures alongside the foreign sounding words they are being given a solid mental bridge that helps them retain the vocab much more effectively, and when it comes to the retrieval process of reproducing the words unprompted? It works like a charm! As a teacher, at the beginning of a class I will do the hand gestures from last week's lesson, and hey-presto, without being told twice I hear the sweet sweet sounds of the kids repeating the vocab perfectly, without any prompt on my part but the simple hand gesture. It’s the kind of magic that needs to be seen to be believed!