Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Notes on Language Learning

I just finished up my last Chinese lesson of the year. The lesson was titled "Nar you piaoliang guniang xue houquan de?" ("How could a beautiful girl learn monkey boxing?")

Today I just want to share a specific observation I have made in the past semester of studying Chinese:

Cultural context is important.
This point is specifically related to listening. Sometimes my tutor gets caught up in an explanation and starts talking really fast, using tons of vocabulary I don't know. The only thing that saves me is if I already have some cultural context for what she's talking about. That happened in my lesson today. She started explaining the origin of monkey boxing (whatever that is), which is related to the classic Chinese story of the Monkey King - a good and powerful shape-shifting superhero. I don't know much about him, but I knew enough to understand most of her 5-minute long story even though most of the vocabulary was unfamiliar.

Another example: I can never remember the word for minorities, but I do know there are 56 recognized ethnic minorities in China. If I can catch the number "56" in the stream of Chinese flying by, then I know there is a pretty good chance we are talking about minorities.

I can think of many more examples of times when I didn't really understand the language, but because I already knew about the topic, I could guess what the person was saying. (the lunar calendar, the college entrance exam, the Olympics, Spring Festival, etc., etc., etc.)

I think this small observation has reinforced for me the importance of teaching and learning culture. Not only can it help language learners interact appropriately with native speakers, but it can also boost their listening comprehension. Cool!

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