An Easier Way to Learn Chinese: Comprehensible Input

Sometimes conventional wisdom is wrong.

We’ve all heard it before.

To learn Chinese, jump into the immersion pool. At the deep end.

Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s not that easy.

Though immersion is essential to learning Chinese, such advice is overly simplistic and not very suitable for most learners.

What if you find out that you can’t swim or don’t learn to swim within a reasonable amount of time?

It’s not that easy to just jump into the deep end of the pool

Of course, a crucial factor here is what language you’re trying to learn. I’m Swedish and I’m sure that if I, for some unknown reason, teleported myself to Germany and lived a normal life like ordinary Germans, I would learn German fairly quickly. This is because I would be able to understand much of what’s going on around me without actually having learnt any German. Not so with Mandarin Chinese. With no prior knowledge of the language, you’re likely to understand almost nothing of daily conversations and virtually nothing of written text.

If anyone tells you it doesn’t matter what languages you have learnt before, they are simply wrong. If a language can be sort of understood without even studying it, it goes without saying that it will be easier to learn it if I invest some effort in doing so.

Comprehensible input and scaffolding

This brings us to the central theme in this article, something called the comprehensible input hypothesis (as made famous by Stephen Krashen). This sounds fancy, but it really just means that you should understand what you hear and read, otherwise you will not benefit much from it. There has been quite a lot of debate about this in academia and the concept is riddled with problems, but that doesn’t stop it from being very useful for us second language learners and teachers.

There is in fact a much older metaphor for this, popularised by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930s. He used the build of a house as a metaphor for human learning and said that the teacher’s role is to provide scaffolding so that the building of knowledge can rise ever higher. If the student is at a particular level, she should be able to cope with a level slightly higher than that, provided that the teacher provides enough support. Once the student has grown used to material at this new level, the scaffolding can be removed and the building is now one storey higher. The scaffolding is then used to start building the next level and so on.

Comprehensible input in a nutshell: It needs to be challenging, but not impossible

Regardless which model we use, it seems clear that we need to challenge ourselves if we want to make progress. If we only listen and read material at our current level, we will never understand more difficult content.

At the same time, however, we also need support in order to manage the new material, because drowning at the deep end of the pool isn’t what we’re after. We need scaffolding, we need something to keep us afloat. If you have a private teacher, she will probably provide you with this, but this article is for those of us who don’t.

How can we provide scaffolding to our own learning? How can we teach ourselves to swim without fear of drowning?

10 ways to learn Chinese the easier way with comprehensible input

Below, I have listed ten ways of creating your own scaffolding and making your input more comprehensible, which in extension will help you learn Chinese.

10) Use supporting media

Anything that makes it easier to understand Chinese but which isn’t language is quite helpful. This can include pictures in articles, the drawings in comic books or the visual part of a film.

A clear example is news broadcasts, which are typically much, much easier if you watch them on TV where you are fed pictures that give you clues to what’s going on. Compare this with someone blandly reading an article about the same thing.

9) Use dictionaries and translation tools

One way of dramatically reducing the difficulty of reading texts is to use a pop-up dictionary (probably in a browser, on your phone or on your tablet). The reason I suggest this is that you might feel overwhelmed by the sheer amount of new words in a text and one of the worst things you can do is feeling that you have to look up every single one.

Instead, use a dictionary to be able to skip words that are too hard. Obviously, you have to have a pop-up dictionary that works well in order to do this, using a paper dictionary defies the purpose of this exercise entirely. Finally, you can use translation software to understand what a text is about before you approach it. Naturally, Chinese-English automatic translations aren’t perfect, but they should be good enough to make the text more approachable.

If you would like a premium alternative, you can use learn Chinese through videos with FluentU. FluentU has a library of the web’s best videos (imagine music videos, movie trailers, inspiring talks). FluentU’s popup-definitions have all been written from scratch. They definitions are all context specific – you’ll never have to stare at a page of 12 definitions and wonder which one applies. Every definition has 3 example sentences, which are written with Chinese learners in mind. Of course, the words in those examples can also be looked up.

8) Use tailored or categorised content

You can also look at any other kind of material aimed at learners at your specific level. The obvious first place to look is textbooks, but not necessarily the textbook you’re currently using, but other textbooks aimed at the same level. This will provide you with more texts without significantly increasing the difficulty. If these other books come with audio, you also have access to more listening material.

When it comes to audio, you can also check various podcasts online that targets your specific level. Simply search for Chinese + podcast and you will find lots of alterantives, but it’s beyond the scope of this article to discuss podcasts in detail. Finally, for reading practice, there are books called graded readers that are aimed at students at a certain level. These are typically more interesting than textbooks and I really recommend that you try them if you haven’t. There are also learner-oriented stories and texts online, but it might me harder to find ones suitable to your current level.

7) Use familiar content

The choice of topic matters greatly for if you understand what you are listening to or reading, especially when you approach native material. For instance, if you know nothing about computers, watching a commercial about a new mobile phone is going to be very hard. Not only do you lack vocabulary, you actually might not know what those words mean in English! If you do the opposite, you can find material which deals with things you are very familiar with.

For instance, reading about your own country in a Chinese encyclopedia is much easier than reading about a country you don’t know anything about. You sort of already know what they’re going to say, you just need to figure out how they say it.

6) Revisit material you already know well

Another thing you can do which is particularly useful for text and video is to revisit something you have already read or watched in your native language. The ensures two things: First, you know that you like it (of course you should choose something interesting). Second, you know what it’s about even before you start, perhaps even very well. Watching dubbed Western films or cartoons is excellent, so is rereading your favourite novels in Chinese translation.

You can also create this situation on the spot in some cases, such as reading about a news event in your native language before you tackle the same article in Chinese. BBC has many articles in more than one language and there are books that come with Chinese on one page and English on the other.

5) Know the gist in advance

Similar to the above, but more useful in social situations is if you already know roughly what’s going on before you read or listen to something. For instance, reading headlines or keywords before you start reading an article give you clues to what it’s about. You can take this to extremes in spoken language, where you can ask different people the same question.

You can do this with questions that have only one answer (how do I get to the train station) or with open questions (what’s your favourite movie). If you do this with many people, you will find it easier and easier to understand what they say.

4) Preview the material

Previewing is useful because it makes the material you’re going to easier because you already have some familiarity with it. This is easiest with audio, where you can simply have the audio going in the background and listen semi-attentively to it on your phone before you actually try hard to understand what they’re saying. Previewing can be done for text as well, but it requires more effort. Previewing can be regarded as a sort of warm-up.

3) Keep the focus

One reason it’s hard to listen or read to Chinese in an unfamiliar area is that you aren’t used to the way Chinese is used in that context and there will be many words you simply don’t know. Typically, textbooks jump around between different topics, but if you keep to one single topic, you will gradually learn to handle it. Read ten articles about exactly the same event in different newspapers, read several comics belonging to the same series, read the list of contents on ten different beverages. When you feel comfortable, expand to neighbouring areas.

2) Review the material later

Reviewing is an excellent source for comprehensible input, but it has the drawback that listening or reading things you’ve already read tends to be a bit boring. Thus, I would suggest using reviewing when you feel to tired to deal with new material. I typically relisten to lots of audio I’ve studied previously. Since I have studied it, I’m more or less guaranteed to understand what’s going on and I also get to refresh the relevant language content.

Of course, for this to work, you need to hold on to any audio material you study and keep it on your computer or phone, so don’t delete audio just because you’re finished with it for the moment. Reviewing text can also be done, but I find it too boring to be meaningful, but it could be done for text I haven’t read for a very long time.

1) The easiest way? Combine methods 1 through 9 with FluentU

Admittedly, everything I’ve mentioned is a lot of work. It takes a lot of work to find content that’s just right for you, to digest it, and to review it on time. You’ll have to get very familiar with your dictionary and you’ll be spending a lot of time managing your studying, instead of actually studying.

FluentU kills multiple birds with one stone. FluentU has found awesome content and gathered them by difficulty level. Every word has plenty of scaffolding through carefully written definitions and examples. Words can easily be added to your vocab, and reviewed on the go (with the FluentU app ). And perhaps the most mind blowing part: FluentU tells you how hard a video will be for you, based on the vocabulary that you’ve learned on the site. With FluentU, you can focus back on learning.

Comprehensible Input Through FluentU

FluentU shows you progress even on videos that you haven’t watched before – now you know exactly how hard it is for you. No more guessing.

The road to being able to understand Chinese produced for native speakers is long, but it needn’t be all that difficult if you use the right approach. As we have seen, instead of complaining about the lack of material suitable for you, you can take decisive action yourself and create the scaffolding you need to make the input comprehensible!

Olle Linge is a Chinese learner and teacher from Sweden, currently undertaking post-graduate studies in teaching Chinese as a second language in Taiwan. He is the founder of Hacking Chinese, where he writes about how to learn Chinese.

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