Learning Taiwanese (Part 2): Inspired by TPRS

As I mentioned in Part 1, whenever I asked my Taiwanese-speaking friends to teach me Taiwanese, they would always try to teach me random vocabulary words that were often things I would never actually use. That is why I wanted to find a tutor who could give me a more structured approach. I found a tutor (who used to be my student) and together, we’ve figured out a way for her to teach me Taiwanese. We’re using a method that is inspired by TPRS (Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling) but altered based on our specific learning context. We’re having weekly 1-hour lessons for six weeks and my goal is to be able to have a conversation with my Taiwanese friend’s parents about personal topics such as my life in Taiwan, my job, and my interests and hobbies.

So first of all, what is TPRS? TPRS is a method of teaching foreign language, originally created by a high school Spanish teacher in the U.S. It uses various types of activities and methods revolving around mainly active storytelling, asking questions, and reading. The basic structure of the TPRS method is:

  1. Establish Meaning – The teacher introduces new linguistic structures, including vocabulary or grammar, using gestures, writing, or L1 translations. The goal is to only introduce a few new structures per lesson, 3 or 4, but make sure that students understand them enough to understand the story.
  2. Storytelling – The teacher starts telling a story that includes an overall skeleton outline of the story. Teachers will ask students for details as the story goes and students help the teacher co-construct the story. The story can be simple but it needs to recycle the structures over and over again, providing the students with enough meaningful repetition. It’s said that teachers can repeat new structures up to 50 times in different ways during the storytelling. Teachers will ask questions to check for comprehension. Teachers and students are encouraged to be as active and creative as possible, such as having students be actors while the teacher uses props to tell the story. All of the words in the story should be comprehensible, meaning no new words that weren’t explained before.
  3. Reading: After telling the story verbally, students will be provided with reading material that uses the new structures again. The reading material can take form in different ways: a class reading, shared reading, homework reading, and free voluntary reading. All of the words in the reading should be comprehensible, meaning no new words/structures.

So my Taiwanese tutoring sessions are definitely not full TPRS in that they don’t fully follow that format. However, they do incorporate the main, driving concept of  TPRS: comprehensible input. This means that the tutor is supposed to use existing language that I understand and only introduce a few new structures each lesson, using repetition and varied forms to help me “acquire” new parts of the Taiwanese language.

This is quite different from a traditional language lesson where a student may be presented with a long list of vocabulary structures, grammar structures to master (such as sentence structures or conjugation rules), and rigid exercises to complete.

So how are my tutoring sessions different from TPRS? Well, my tutoring sessions mainly consist of the storytelling and question-asking part of TPRS. The tutor introduces new language structures using storytelling and question-asking. There is no reading, since Taiwanese is mostly a spoken language, though there have been forms adapted for writing Taiwanese. The environment of the tutoring sessions are also inherently limited to one-on-one sessions in my office, which is very different from the classroom atmosphere of a regular TPRS classroom. In a TPRS classroom, the teacher may select students to go up and act parts from the story. Teachers may also use different parts of the classroom for different settings in the story.

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