Chinese Corner

Mum’s the Word3 min read

To learn Mandarin like a child, listen first – Eveline Chao

Editor’s note: If you’re resolving to pick up Mandarin this year, Eveline Chao has some encouraging insight about language acquisition for you in today’s Chinese Corner column. No matter where you are along the learning path, we’d love to answer your burning questions about Chinese. Send your linguistic quandaries to [email protected] with the subject “Chinese Corner.” – Anne Henochowicz

Ask enough expat parents, and you’ll eventually find someone whose child, upon moving to China, spent months as a near-mute. Then one day, out of the blue, they began spouting fluent streams of Mandarin.

It turns out there’s a linguistic theory behind this phenomenon: the “silent period.” During the silent period, language learners don’t make a peep, but are learning nonetheless. They’re processing – listening to the new sounds, observing how the language is used, and generally focusing on comprehension.

Silent periods are more common in children than adults, probably because adults are more likely to be forced into situations where they have to start speaking right away. And mainstream language-teaching methods are based around the idea that the best way to learn is to start speaking a.s.a.p. I myself have vivid memories of sitting in my college Mandarin class, being pointed at vigorously by a small, energetic Chinese woman barking at me to spit out a sentence.

However, some educators have suggested that the idea of a silent period should be applied to the classroom. After all, it accords with how we learn even our mother tongue. It has been shown that babies can understand some of what they hear even before they start speaking. And when we’re learning any language, whether first, second or beyond, scientists have shown that our comprehension exceeds what we can actually say.

Plus, being forced to speak before you’re ready can bring about a negative association with the language, which can have a dampening effect on your learning. Nobody learns well when speaking elicits a feeling of panic. But as much as the idea of a silent period makes sense, educators still need to be able to observe that learning is happening.

There are a number of ways this can be done. One is called Total Physical Response, in which educators and parents always phrase their sentences in the new language as imperatives. Then the student can respond through physical gesture – for example by nodding or moving something to the other side of the room.

Another is called the Natural Approach, in which the emphasis is on communication without getting too hung up on form. Using this method, the teacher would speak in Mandarin, while the student responds in English. Students may also nod and shrug, or respond with simple, one-word answers in Mandarin (yes, no, etc.). They will eventually graduate to set phrases and then to complete sentences.

There are a lot more ideas circulating in linguistics and language education about all these issues. But for now, the main takeaway is that next time someone criticizes your Mandarin (or lack thereof), you can tell them sagely that you’re going through your silent period. ∎

Header: free use from Pixabay.

Eveline Chao

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. She lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2011. She's now based in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to write about China, as well as the history of Manhattan Chinatown.