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How to Pass High School Mandarin

Christy Lao describes how a high school student not only passed but excelled effortlessly in three years of Mandarin class thanks to acquisition done outside of class


Larry grew up in the US. His parents were from Cantonese-speaking areas, and both are highly educated and very competent in English. Larry is English dominant but has excellent oral/aural competence in his heritage language, Cantonese. He speaks Cantonese to his parents and grandparents, and they speak Cantonese to him. He speaks English with friends and his brother.

All of Larry’s formal education has been in English, and he attended a Cantonese heritage language class for one year while he was in kindergarten. Larry learned about two dozen characters during this year, which laid the foundation for his Chinese literacy development later in his life, as Mandarin uses the same characters. Larry had not taken any classes in Mandarin until high school, when he enrolled in a beginning Mandarin class in his first year.

Larry found his high school Mandarin class dull: the method was very traditional, and the focus was on rote memorization. Larry did not study for the class and was occasionally scolded by teachers for not paying attention. He nevertheless got straight A’s. In contrast, his classmates found the classes to be very difficult. Many of them had to study very hard. Even with private tutors and extra help from teachers, they still struggled with homework, tests, and finals. 

How Larry Developed Chinese Literacy: Old Master Q

Larry got very interested in a Chinese comic book series, Old Master Q, and read it voraciously throughout his elementary school years. He got so interested in Old Master Q that it was all he read for pleasure during his entire elementary school years (except for Calvin and Hobbes in English). Old Master Q is largely wordless but contains a fair amount of print in Chinese and is the best-known and most popular series in the history of Hong Kong comics (Ng and We, 2018). Because of his great interest in the stories, Larry was eventually able to understand some of the print, despite his lack of Chinese literacy education, which resulted in the acquisition of about 200 Chinese characters, of great use in his high school Mandarin class.

Larry’s acquisition of Chinese characters through pleasure reading is consistent with research findings on the acquisition of
Chinese characters as a first language (Ku and Anderson, 2001) and as a second language (Zhou and Day, 2020) via reading.

How Larry Acquired Oral Mandarin

Larry, his brother, and his dad watched Mandarin movies and TV shows regularly on weekends. Larry was able to understand some of the Mandarin input because of the highly interesting plots, and because Cantonese and Mandarin are related languages and have some shared vocabulary. Over time, he acquired a considerable amount of Mandarin, thanks to the comprehensible input (Krashen, 1985).

Conclusion

Larry had a de facto course in Mandarin. The class he was registered for simply gave him credit for what he acquired watching TV with his dad and his brother, and he acquired Chinese literacy from reading Old Master Q.

Furthermore, the entire collection of Old Master Q that Larry owned contributed to his success in acquiring Chinese characters without conscious learning and is consistent with Shu et al.’s study on how the home-literacy environment contributes significantly to children’s Chinese literacy development (Shu et al., 2002). As noted above, some of the other students in the class are speakers of Cantonese as a heritage language and speakers of Mandarin as a heritage language. Sadly, the Mandarin course did not take full advantage of this. The class could have easily provided the comprehensible and compelling input (Krashen et al., 2017) that Larry got from TV, movies, and Old Master Q and could have provided the students with the knowledge that would have helped them continue to make progress in Mandarin (Lao and Krashen, 2014).

References

Krashen, S. (1985). The Input Hypothesis. Beverly Hills, CA: Laredo Publishing Co.
Krashen, S., Lee, S. Y., and Lao, C. (2017). Comprehensible and Compelling: The Causes and Effects of Free Voluntary Reading. Libraries Unlimited, Inc.
Ku, Y. M., and Anderson, R. C. (2001). “Chinese Children’s Incidental Learning of Word Meanings.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, 26(2), 249–266.
Lao, C., and Krashen, S. (2014). “Language Acquisition without Speaking and without Study.” Journal of Bilingual Education Research and Instruction, 16(1), 215–221.
Ng, K. H., and Wee, L. H. (2018). “Chiaroscuro of the Uncanny: An unknown side of Old Master Q.” In J. S. Polley, V. W. K. Poon, and L.-H. Wee (Eds.), Cultural Conflict in Hong Kong, pp. 211–233.
Shu, L., Anderson, K., and Yue, X. (2002). “The Role of Home-Literacy Environment in Learning to Read Chinese.” In L. Wenling, J. Gaffney, and J. Packard (Eds), Chinese Children’s Reading Acquisition, pp. 207–222.
Zhou, J., and Day, R. (2020). “The Incidental Learning of L2 Chinese Vocabulary through Reading.” Reading in a Foreign Language, 32, 169–193.

Dr. Christy Lao is an associate professor of education at San Francisco State University, actively involved in Chinese bilingual education. For the past 20 years, she has worked with Chinese bilingual schools and Chinese immersion schools and teachers in San Francisco, New York City, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.

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