Saturday, February 27, 2010

Chinese vocabulary lists

Sometimes apparently a picture tells a thousand words, in this case I think a video does a much better job, first let me make it clear, I do not like vocabulary lists and I do not like language learning approaches that rely heavily on them. Recently I had a go at some Cantonese learning material I was given, it started with a lesson on a dialogue with a fruit seller, part of the lesson material is a long list of fruit to learn in Cantonese, part of the review and audio exercise is to test you on your knowledge of fruit in Cantonese when you barely have any other vocabulary. A lot of language learning material seems to take a similar approach, take a fictional situation and give you a whole bunch of supporting vocabulary around that situation, surely better by far would be to introduce two common items of fruit and extend the vocabulary around areas in the situation that can be applied elsewhere, more fundamental language learning areas.

If I need to learn a lot of fruit, then a good dictionary and/or Internet allow me to compile my own vocab list easily, a list relevant to me. I can cope with this kind of material, usually I would just learn one 'fruit' and substitute that but some learning material would make that approach hard. To extend this further I deliberately decide not to learn many words (whereever I find them), leave them until later. For the longest time I only knew 3 or 4 colors, could only count to 100 etc, I was aware of others but didn't feel the need to learn a long list of colors before I had enough vocab. to have meaningful conversations about colored objects. You can only learn so much a once so learn what seems most naturally relevant.

Once I attended an evening class for intermediate learners, the teacher approach seemed very similar to the trainer in this video (although obviously not for self-defence). It quickly became clear that although the teacher was very keen to try to put her students in a very good light in comparison to me (a self-learner) they had no real ability to range outside of the situations they had been taught (the 'pointed stick' situations). This didn't make the teacher change her mind about her approach however, the final conclusion was simply that I am the exception that proves the rule. I never bothered returning to the evening class after the experiment.

Increasingly I am studying linguistics related material that I can find, I think this article Vocabulary Size, Text Coverage And Word Lists - 1997 has some relevance to the topic and is an interesting read besides. The following section in particular.
We are now ready to answer the question "How much vocabulary does a second language learner need?" Clearly the learner needs to know the 3,000 or so high frequency words of the language. These are an immediate high priority and there is little sense in focusing on other vocabulary until these are well learned. Nation (1990) argues that after these high frequency words are learned, the next focus for the teacher is on helping the learners develop strategies to comprehend and learn the low frequency words of the language. Because of the very poor coverage that low frequency words give, it is not worth spending class time on actually teaching these words. It is more efficient to spend class time on the strategies of (1) guessing from context, (2) using word parts and mnemonic techniques to remember words, and (3) using vocabulary cards to remember foreign language - first language word pairs. Detailed description of these strategies can be found in Nation (1990). Notice that although the teacher's focus is on helping learners gain control of important strategies, a major function of these strategies is to help the learners to continue to learn new words and increase their vocabulary size.
Not everything in this paper agrees with my views, but then I will hardly learn and develop by only reading things I agree with will I?

I hope you enjoy the video and I hope you understand the message I am trying to convey, I can see the relevance of specialized vocabulary list of words to help you in a particular situation but would assume you already have a decent understanding of Chinese, vocabulary lists if used are a very personal thing in my opinion. However you may be learning Chinese, are you safe from the pointed sticks?


Keith said...

First lesson, a fruit hawker? Sounds like Colloquial Cantonese.

The evening class was an experiment? Yours or the teacher's? Were you invited so that the teacher could compare you to her students? At what point in your studies were you? And how long had the students been studying?

Chris said...

Hi Keith, not sure it may be Colloquial Cantonese I don't have it to hand, will let you know later, I have been given a lot of material by people when then find out I am learning Chinese, I play with some of it sometimes but never get hooked. Not really important though, it just triggered the comparison to the Monty Python video, there are plenty of examples of this type of approach around.

The evening class mentioned was about two years ago, the students (9 or 10 of them) had been studying Chinese about two years (similar to me) but I wouldn't call have called them serious learners they were happy to follow along with the pace of the weekly lessons I suppose. I contacted one of the teachers and teacher suggested I joined in at this level to see how I got on, I was curious to see what happened in a language class. I believe teacher assumed I would be significantly challenged being a self-learner etc. but it quickly became apparent that I had much more capability to talk and understand than they did, she tried pushing her students a little in a couple of areas but they got lost. Don't get me wrong I still have a long way to go, but I could have conversations about many things, they couldn't (unless it was in a very restricted context). After lesson teacher conceded the class wasn't for me.

I will be disclosing more about evening classes etc. at some point for example remember when we discussed the woeful state of Japanese in a couple of people I had met (one of whom had apparently studied for three years at school when younger and then two years evening class).

These are evening classes in England, as expected it would probably take about 10years to get somewhere useful in a non-European language unless the student took off on their own steam.

Chris said...

I ought to point out in the comment above that "conversations about many things" doesn't have to mean native level, but it means understanding enough to be able to reply, to put new ideas across to occasionally make someone laugh (deliberately) etc.

As opposed to looking blank and going "errrrrrrrrrr ..." ;)

doviende said...

Great article, I actually remember several language lessons that involved fruit, and probably half of my meager Cantonese vocab revolves around the fruit scenario from Colloquial Cantonese that Keith mentions.

One of the most shocking things I learned when I was taking Mandarin classes in China, was that there were some people that could just blather on about seemingly any topic with native speakers, and seemed to hold their own, even though they knew vastly less vocabulary than I did. There I was, a complete expert in being attacked by various fruits, but these people could some how avoid knives and guns with ease ;)

Of course, I've since found that the best way for me to learn all the "good" words is to just read and watch native materials, since the good words are usually more frequent and I'll catch onto them faster naturally. No more textbook chapters full of fruit for me.

Dawn @ said...

Sometimes I thought that it was the Chinese teachers and Chinese classes made Chinese language so difficult to learn.
A couple weeks ago I was shocked by the course stuff given by one student in other class......