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:

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Learning Taiwanese (Part 1): Preface

My latest language learning endeavor is to learn Taiwanese. This is something that seemed like an obvious choice, considering that I now live and work in Taiwan, but as many foreigners have attested, learning Taiwanese (in the context of English) isn’t so easy. From my observations, there are a few reasons for this:

  • There are not many official resources (such as formal textbooks or classes) that teach Taiwanese using English. (Of course, this is no surprised).
  • Even in individual tutoring situations, tutors and students don’t always agree on the method and content of the lessons. It’s not always easy to find a good match.
  • My own personal experience is when I try to ask Taiwanese people about resources (such as classes, websites, or textbooks) for learning Taiwanese, many brush aside Taiwanese as a language that doesn’t really need to be learned or taught as a formal subject by a teacher; rather, they see Taiwanese as a language you can just learn from your neighbor or a friend (this is completely opposite from the way English is perceived). Part of this might be because Taiwanese traditionally hasn’t been a subject taught in schools (historically because of government oppression) and thus isn’t really viewed as an academic subject. Another reason might be because Taiwanese doesn’t have an official written script and is most commonly used in a oral/aural way. This can give people the impression that it’s easier to learn and doesn’t need to be treated as a formal academic subject.

That’s not to say that Taiwanese language classes don’t exist. Taiwanese elementary schools offer Taiwanese lessons as well as community organizations such as China Youth Corpos (救國團). However, these options still remain limited and often only accessible for a specific population.

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Learning Intermediate Taiwanese Sign Language – Week 2: Interpersonal Communication

Things are only getting harder in my Intermediate Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) class. Well, more specifically, the Chinese.  and their Mandarin Chinese equivalents of the types of TSL words and phrases we’re learning are going way beyond the Mandarin vocabulary I usually use. This is great in that I’m learning Mandarin Chinese and TSL at the same time, but it’s also more difficult because I often find myself confused in class. Even with an English-Chinese dictionary app on my smartphone and the patience of some of my classmates, I still can’t keep up with the pace. This also means that I’ve been needing to spend more out of class time reviewing the new vocabulary words, as most of them aren’t part of my existing Mandarin Chinese vocabulary.

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Learning Intermediate Taiwanese Sign Language – Week 1: Life Lessons

I’ve begun taking an intermediate Taiwanese Sign Language (TSL) class here in Taipei, Taiwan at the Chinese National Association of the Deaf R.O.C. (中華民國聽障人協會). Earlier in the summer, I took the beginning TSL class with the same organization and same teacher. The beginning consisted of learning some introductory vocabulary, such as pronouns, family, food, animals, places, jobs, and emotions. We mostly learned individual vocabulary words by imitating the instructor with some pair work for practicing. We also went over some of the vocabulary used in sentences.

Now I’m taking the intermediate TSL class and there’s been an incredibly huge increase in the difficulty and complexity of what we’re learning. I noticed this immediately when my existing knowledge of Chinese (the main language in which all the TSL textbook content is written in) wasn’t enough to understand the textbook. That is to say, we’re starting to learn vocabulary words in TSL for which I don’t even know in Chinese. Because Taiwanese Sign Language and Mandarin Chinese share the same locality, culture, and society (Taiwan), they are intricately connected. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that you need to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to learn TSL (they are not mutually dependent) but I will say it would be a huge challenge to do so.

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Chinese Extensive Reading Project

2014-01-16 18.15.19It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. Many things have happened in my teaching world. Here’s a rough breakdown:

  • got the Lecturer’s position at the University of Taipei in Taiwan
  • left San Francisco, moved to Taipei, Taiwan
  • just finished my first semester, teaching four different subjects, 7 classes total (whew!)
  • just began winter break

This is my first winter break in Taiwan. Many people have suggested that I should use these four weeks to travel, which seems kind of obvious for anyone in a foreign country. And so yes, I have some travel plans. I also need to finish grading and planning for next semester’s courses. On top of that, I have a few ongoing projects going on that I need to work on, projects related to research. In other words, there’s more than enough to keep me occupied this winter break.

One of my personal goals this winter break that hopefully extends to the rest of this year as a New Year’s Resolution is putting effort into improving my Chinese reading skills. This past semester, I found out from my students that my Chinese reading level is around that of a Taiwanese 3rd grader. I’ve realized that if I want to pursue a career in Taiwan and operate independently without having to rely on co-workers to translate emails, websites, official documents, and campus notices to me, I need to improve my Chinese reading skills.

I thought to myself, how should I approach this? I found myself asking the same kind of question many of my students have asked me. How can I improve at (fill in the blank – language)? The traditional method would be to enroll in a class – there are many well-established Chinese language programs geared towards foreigners in Taipei. But I’ve taken Chinese classes all my life that it doesn’t seem like it would help much. Another approach would be to buy textbooks, language-learning oriented software or magazines, and other materials specifically created for language learning and create a curriculum/schedule for myself to learn. I’ve tried that before and as you can imagine, what happens is that motivation drops within a few days and it ends up feeling like torture.

The question I really found myself repeating in my head was, “What would I tell my students to do if they wanted to improve their English reading skills?” The first answer I thought of, almost automatically, is doing extensive reading. While that answer comes to me almost automatically, it doesn’t come to me because it’s something I’ve experienced. Rather, it’s something I’ve read about in research that has been confirmed to work. So I figure, if I’m going to talk the talk about extensive reading, I should at least walk the walk once. And what a perfect opportunity this is. If I’m going to tell my students that extensive reading works, it should be something I’ve experienced first hand, rather than just repeating things I’ve read from academic research.

My goal by the end of this spring break is to finish reading a book that one of my students recommended to me. My hope is that the next time a student asks me about how to improve their reading skills, I can use my Chinese extensive reading experiences as an example and model of how improve your English without the traditional textbooks and classes.

One thing I’ve learned so far (a few days into winter break) about extensive reading is that it is extremely difficult. Here are some things I’ve come across that make me feel like extensive reading is a difficult project:

  1. People aren’t supportive – Many people seem to be skeptical about extensive reading as a way to improve reading and writing skills. Many people still revert to textbooks and classes and question the effectiveness of extensive reading. While it actually feeds my curiosity and drive to prove them wrong, it also gets frustrating having to keep explaining my rationale for extensive reading..
  2. Motivation and interest are key – What gets you started with extensive reading is all the academic hype built around it. It’s THE way to help students improve their reading and to some degree their writing. However, what keeps you going is your inner motivation towards the subject matter you are reading. If you care enough about the subject, you will want to keep reading more about it.
  3. Take it one step at a time – Reading in a foreign language is difficult. I’ve started with only reading one or two pages in one sitting, just so I feel the satisfaction of reading and discovering more about the story, while also not reading too much to overwhelm me.

I hope to keep up writing my reflections about extensive reading in Chinese and any insights, thoughts, or observations about the process of extensive reading in general.