Immersion Vs Structured Learning (Podcast)

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Achieving a Near Native Chinese Accent with Professor Karen Chung (Podcast) I'm Learning Mandarin

Links:  Karen's Ted Talk: My Roadmap to Learning Mandarin Tones: On today’s podcast, I chat with a very distinguished guest. Someone  who has designed a technique she believes can help learners of any  language achieve near native accents. Karen Chung from the USA has lived in Taiwan for more than 30 years  and for most of that time has worked as a linguistics professor at the  National Taiwan University. In 2018 a Ted Talk which she delivered in flawless Mandarin received over a million views  and brought her methods to the attention of a large international  audience. In the video she explains her accent training technique which she  calls the echo method. The method which is based on her own learning  experiences takes advantage of our echoic memory. First we listen to a sentence or phrase in our target language,  waiting for the audio to replay or echo in our minds, before finally  mimicking it out loud. Doing it this way allows us to mimic native  speech much more closely than conventional listen and repeat methods. In this podcast, we explore her own language learning journey, how  she learned Mandarin to such a high level and why she disagrees with  conventional language learning opinion which argues accents don’t matter  as long as we can more or less make ourselves understood. She also kindly agreed to give me a brief demonstration of her method to help improve my own Mandarin accent.

Anyone who studies a language has to combine a mixture of approaches which broadly fall into two categories: naturalistic and structured. Naturalistic approaches involve learning through immersion in the target language environment, reading books, watching TV and having conversations. Structured approaches involve focussed and deliberate study, such as learning grammar rules, memorising vocabulary and repetition drills.

Traditionally, highly structured approaches were favoured in classroom environments. But it’s fair to say today’s online language learning community has waged war on this idea. Language should be all about fun, enjoying yourself. The influential linguist Stephen Krashen argues that the most effective way to acquire a language is to expose yourself to content which you can comprehend and immerse yourself in activities which you enjoy. The more time you spend doing this, the more you will gradually progress closer and closer to fluency.

I have been heavily influenced by these ideas and I think I’ve benefited from them immensely. It was largely through immersing myself in content I enjoyed that, despite not living in China, I was able to self study to a level where I could comfortably engage in meaningful conversations with native Chinese speakers. But, I have also learned from experience that relying too heavily on immersion alone when studying Chinese has its limits. This is particularly the case when it comes to tones and characters, two aspects of Chinese which many learners find hard to master.

So in the latest I’m Learning Mandarin podcast I discussed these issues with a friend of the blog, Lionel Rowe. Lionel speaks fluent Chinese which he acquired while living in Beijing for a period of seven years. His learning methods were much more structured than mine, particularly at the beginning, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss our different language learning experiences with him.

You can listen to the full podcast below or on Anchor.

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