Teaching to the Task | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Teaching to the Task

Everyday relevance is the key to making non-native speakers fluent in Chinese
You’re learning Mandarin Chinese as a second language. Your assignment: read a schedule in order to figure out the correct departure and arrival times for the train from Beijing North to Xiaoshuiyu.

If you were dropped onto a rail platform in China with these marching orders, you might feel overwhelmed. But within the safe confines of a classroom, this approach, known as task-based language teaching (TBLT), will help you learn and retain Chinese, because it compels you to solve a specific problem in a real-world context.

Obvious though it might seem, that logic stands in sharp contrast to the rote memorization that has been used to
teach many languages—including Chinese, with its daunting array of tones and characters that have no counterpart in English or other tongues.

At Teachers College, however, TBLT is just one of many learner-centric strategies employed by the College’s unique, year-long certificate program in TCSOL—the Teaching of Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages.

“Learners naturally focus on content words, or words that are meaning-driven, when processing input in the target language,” says the program’s co-director, ZhaoHong Han, Associate Professor of Language and Education. “So when we talk about pedagogy, we mean providing conditions that will facilitate learners’ own cognitive tendency as well as counter it so that they are able to develop a balanced linguistic competence.”

Backed by a grant from TC’s Provost’s Investment Fund, Han, whose expertise is in second language acquisition (SLA), founded the program three years ago in response to both a major opportunity and a pervasive problem. The opportunity: the rise of China as a global economic power, coupled with the fact that Mandarin was already the world’s most commonly spoken language. Today 50 million people worldwide speak Chinese as a second language, and in the United States more than 1,200 elementary and secondary schools are incorporating Chinese language learning into their curricula. In New York City alone, 80 schools and counting now offer Chinese, with some programs beginning in kindergarten. In the United States as a whole, Chinese is catching up as a major foreign language second only to Spanish.

The problem TC’s program seeks to address is one that extends far beyond Chinese: of all post-pubescent second language learners, only five percent ever attain full fluency in the language they are seeking to acquire.
The rest experience a kind of plateau effect, called fossilization, which leaves them with an approximated version of the target language that often includes grammatical errors.

To get at this issue, the curriculum in TC’s TCSOL program includes a core course called Acquisition, Pedagogy and Assessment (APA), which stresses the interrelation between what students are learning, how they are being taught and how their progress is being gauged.

For example, students learn to teach using TBLT and, at the same time, to evaluate their students’ response to that particular method. The key is that assessment must be conducted in real time, in the classroom, while instruction is being administered.

“Traditional, post-hoc assessment often only tells you that students got a right or wrong answer—not why they got that answer,” Han says. “That’s especially true with language acquisition, where you need to see learning in action. So the APA course focuses on what happens in class, and on increasing teachers’ sensitivity to students and to what is happening in the learning process.”

One particularly important indicator of understanding is a student’s output production driven by a knowledge system known as “interlanguage”—a term proposed by one of Han’s mentors, Larry Selinker, one of the founders and original contributors to the research field of second language acquisition. Interlanguage describes a learner’s emerging linguistic system, or approximation of target language. During a TCSOL class session this past fall, Han explained the context-dependent nature of interlanguage to her students by relating an anecdote about a native speaker of Thai learning English. In certain contexts, such as talking to friends, he used a made-up word, “quilologui,” in place of the word “philosophy.” Such variations in behavior, she said, provide a window onto students’ “internally created discourse domain.”

“But ‘quilologui’ isn’t a word,” said one young woman.

No, Han replied, but it is a placeholder for one—both a valid step toward acquiring language and an indicator of where the learner’s knowledge system is breaking down. As such, it presents the sensitive teacher with a teachable moment, but also a choice to make about whether to provide explicit or implicit corrective feedback.

“You have to decide what the underlying level of understanding is,” Han says. “If there is a true misunderstanding about meaning or form, then you would probably make an overt correction. But if your sense is that you’re merely witnessing a kind of internal shorthand, you might simply repeat back the incorrect usage until the student recognizes the error.”

Beyond the TCSOL program itself, Teachers College is becoming a focal point for advancing learner-centered Chinese language acquisition. This past fall, the College hosted the first major international conference to bring together TCSOL practitioners, SLA researchers, education publishers and other stakeholders for the specific purpose of exploring Chinese language acquisition from the learner’s point of view. The event, organized under Han’s direction by four doctoral students, attracted nearly 200 attendees from locales as diverse as South Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, Kenya, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and, of course, China.

Meanwhile, for those working with Han at TC—particularly students who have seen Chinese taught elsewhere —focusing on the learner can be a revelation.

“In my experience, Chinese is typically taught with a lecture class to introduce the grammatical structures, and drill classes to further practice those structures,” says Pen-Pen Chen, a recent alumna of the program who previously taught English and Chinese at Beijing Sport University in China. “That’s very different from teaching English. But at TC we’ve learned that the more neuro-networks and connections you have around a certain activity and the more proceduralized the learn-ing process is, the stronger the memory in the brain becomes—and the more likely learners are to be able to access and use it.”

Chen, who now teaches Chinese both at TC and to staff at the New York Times, says that one of the most rewarding aspects of her work is hearing about students’ “language victories.” One student told her that recently, while riding the Chinatown bus, he discovered he could understand the driver as he counted all the riders. “I knew there were 25 adults and two children,” the student reported.

“The language has become a part of their lives,” says Chen. “So when a lightbulb turns on for them, they get so excited and feel an enormous sense of accomplishment—as they should.”

To see an interview with Professor Han and other video, visit www.tc.edu/news/7882.

Published Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2011