Home World Knowledge Real communication: What it is, why you want it and how to get it | Hacking Chinese

Real communication: What it is, why you want it and how to get it | Hacking Chinese

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A language is a structured system used for communication. This sounds obvious, but focusing on communication when learning Chinese is surprisingly new and rarer than you think!

Modern language education typically aims to teach students to communicate in the target language. This includes speaking and writing (production), listening and reading (reception), as well as various combinations of these (interaction).

It sometimes also includes the ability to translate or interpret to another language (mediation), but this is less important than it used to be.

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Language education is typically not communicative

However, the fact that the objectives are communicative does not mean that language education is communicative, as is evident by how languages are taught across the world.

Just think back to your own experience of learning languages in school, and think about how grammar was dealt with. Were you tested on your ability to describe grammar or were you tested on your ability to communicate effectively, which requires you to use grammar but not necessarily describe it?

Your answer will depend on what school system you went through. When I went to school, I was mostly required to be able to use grammar to communicate, especially when learning English, but I have also been required to describe grammar explicitly as well, particularly when learning French.

Being able to describe grammar does not mean that you know how to use it

The problem here is that the link between explicit and implicit knowledge is much weaker than most students and teachers think. If we stick with grammar as an example, it’s easy to believe that we learn by having a grammar pattern presented and explained to us, and once we understand it, we can start using it ourselves. Explicit knowledge smoothly transforms into implicit knowledge.

But this is not how language learning works. There’s still debate about the exact role of explicit instruction in language learning and teaching, but it’s abundantly clear that language learning is largely an implicit process and that explicit instruction does not lead directly, if at all, to implicit knowledge. In second-language acquisition (SLA) research, this is called “the interface issue” if you want to read up on it (e.g. Ellis, 2009).

Thus, it makes sense to put communication at the heart and centre of your strategy for learning Chinese. After all, most people learn a language to be able to communicate, not to recite grammar rules.

But what does this mean? What is a communicative approach to learning Chinese? And don’t most people already use it anyway?

Real communication is meaning-focused

To understand what real communication is, let’s look at what it’s not.

In the title of this article, I use the wording “real communication”, implying that there are other types of communication which are somehow less real. This is indeed what I mean, because many activities and approaches in language learning only seem like communication and are called communication, but actually are not.

An example would be reading a dialogue in your textbook aloud: “A and B want to find a time to meet. Here is a dialogue; one student is A, the other B. Go!” Compare this with having an unscripted conversation where you use Chinese to compare schedules to try to find a suitable time.

You might think that you’re practising real communication in both cases, but you’re not. Following a script is a reading exercise, not a communicative exercise. Engaging in an unscripted conversation with the intent of conveying and receiving information is a communicative exercise.

Real communication is about conveying information

There’s a simple way to tell if something is truly communicative or not. If the focus of the activity is to convey information, it’s real communication.

What do I mean by that?

Essentially, if I try to tell you something you don’t already know, I’m using Chinese to convey information. Naturally, if you then respond by saying something to me I couldn’t know for sure in advance, this is also real communication. If there’s an information gap, something I know that you don’t, or vice versa, and Chinese is used to try to bridge that gap, it counts as real communication.

Here are some examples of common classroom activities, suggested by both teachers and textbook authors, that seem to be communicative but aren’t, along with a suggestion about how they could be made more communicative:

  • Reading a dialogue aloud about two people trying to find a suitable time to watch a movie – Since both students can see the dialogue and know what the other person will say in advance, this does not count as communication. You can fix this by using your own schedules to try to find a time when both of you could potentially watch a movie.
  • Asking your classmates about where they live and how old they are – This doesn’t count as real communication if you know your classmates but would count if it’s the first time you meet them. To make this activity communicative, talk about people where the answers aren’t known in advance.
  • Writing a dialogue together with your classmates – Writing a dialogue and having a conversation are two different things. Using English to discuss how to structure a basic dialogue in Chinese is certainly not communicative. Reading the dialogue aloud in front of the class isn’t either (see above). If you want to prepare a dialogue and still make it communicative, prepare only your side of the dialogue and then try to engage with the other participants.

I don’t mean to say that these activities are completely useless. They can be reasonable warm-up activities, especially if you just started learning Chinese and haven’t learnt basic vocabulary and grammar yet.

Reading and listening to typical examples of how Chinese is used to communicate is essential, even if you’re not producing any language yourself. And even in a communicative approach to learning Chinese, there might still be room for explicitly focusing on things like grammar, pronunciation or Chinese characters. Read more here: Learn Chinese implicitly through exposure with a seasoning of explicit instruction

Learn Chinese implicitly through exposure with a seasoning of explicit instruction

Focusing on real communication improves your Chinese

Focusing on real communication has many benefits. Here are five that I find particularly important:

  1. Motivation – Some people, myself included, find explicit knowledge about a language, such as descriptions of its syntax and phonology, rather interesting, but most people don’t. Almost everybody finds communicative exercises motivating, however. We learn languages to communicate, so using the language to convey and receive meaning is more motivating than reading stale dialogues in a textbook or learning about grammar rules.
  2. Strategies – Being able to use Chinese in real-world situations is not just about knowing the right words and grammar, even if you know how to use them and understand them in context, it’s also about communicative strategies. If you don’t understand, you need to be able to deal with that. When you stumble upon a concept you don’t know how to convey in Chinese, you need to be able to navigate around it. When you realise that the other person misunderstood what you said, you need to rephrase what you said. All these things require practice, which you only get by communicating.
  3. Guidance – An often overlooked advantage of communicative learning is that it helps you understand what you need to learn next. Having a conversation in Chinese will generate a list of things you should learn because it would have helped to improve communication. This could be concrete things like important words you haven’t learnt yet or have forgotten, to more abstract things like improving your tones because people misunderstand you often.
  4. Authenticity – When you focus on tailor-made learner resources too much, you learn only what a group of authors think you ought to learn, but when you communicate, you’ll learn what you need to talk about topics you care about. The input you receive, at least if the other person is a native speaker, is also authentic.
  5. Context – Most teachers and researchers agree that for input to be helpful, it needs to be meaningful and contextualised. Classroom learning is often artificial and devoid of context, but when you talk with real people in Chinese, the language used is firmly anchored in the conversation. It’s also more likely to be interesting to you personally.

In general, if your goal is to be able to communicate in Chinese, you need to think carefully before spending too much time on activities that don’t involve communication, just like if you want to get better at running, you should think twice before opting out of running activities to spend more time in the gym. This doesn’t mean that other activities are bad, just that they aren’t guaranteed to bring you closer to your goal. I discussed this in more detail here: Are you practising Chinese the right way? Is your method valid?)

Meaning-focused input and output: Paul Nation’s four strands

According to Paul Nation’s four strands, language learning should focus in equal parts on the following four areas, or strands:

  • Meaning-focused input
  • Meaning-focused output
  • Language-focused learning
  • Fluency development

What I have described here is close to what Nation means by “meaning-focused”. The focus is on the content, what’s being said or written, and what it means, not the language that’s being used to say it. Naturally, the goal is to learn and improve that language, but the focus of the activity is on meaning, not form.

Analyse and balance your Chinese learning with Paul Nation’s four strands

For this to work, the language used needs to be mostly familiar. It’s simply not possible to focus on meaning if you know only half of the words your friend uses, and you lack the words you need to give a genuine reply. As a total beginner, this means that communicative activities need to be designed so that you have the means to express yourself and understand the answers.

Common examples of this are time, dates and the like, which you can deal with entirely in Chinese using only a few dozen words. As you learn more Chinese, activities don’t need to be as carefully structured to make this possible, but this doesn’t mean that the focus automatically moves to communication.

I’ve been in many intermediate and advanced classrooms where the teacher seldom encourages real communication, but instead sticks closely to scripted exercises, drills and the like. As I said, this is not always bad, but it is bad if you always do it.

Fluency development and real communication

Nation’s fourth strand, fluency development, is not about learning new things at all, but becoming better and faster at using what you already know. This is often overlooked in formal courses, which tend to focus on cramming in as much new content as possible. If the students aren’t learning ten new words in each activity, it’s a bad activity, right?

Talking about things you know or care about using language you already know is the best way to consolidate and truly master Chinese. Most learners of Chinese become pretty good at explaining why they are learning Chinese simply because they get asked this question all the time.

Learning a language is not only about learning more characters, more words and more grammar points, it’s also, and more importantly, about learning to use them for various purposes in different contexts. This is what fluency development is about, something I covered in more detail here: How to become fluent in Chinese

How to become fluent in Chinese

Few teachers understand this. Even when explicitly asked to not introduce many new words, many teachers do exactly that, thinking that if the student doesn’t drown in new words, the teacher isn’t doing their job. This is completely wrong, yet very common.

Improving your ability to use what you know will often take you further than learning completely new things!

If you want to learn to swim, you need to get wet

Many students wait too long before they start using Chinese to communicate. It’s easy to hide behind scripted dialogues and textbook activities, but this is not what language learning is about. I made this mistake myself when I started learning Chinese, so I know exactly what it’s like.

What you will discover is that sticking to carefully choreographed exercises doesn’t prepare you for using Chinese in the real world. Don’t think that reading dialogues in your textbook will prepare you for having a real conversation! They look similar on the surface, but they are two very different things. Focusing on the former will get you good grades, but focusing on the latter will improve your Chinese.

You don’t need to have studied Chinese to appreciate this fact. You have probably encountered this when learning other languages in school, and if not, you have surely heard people complain about having studied Spanish for years but still being unable to accomplish even simple communicative tasks in real-world situations.

Conclusion: Communicate more and learn more Chinese

Next time you engage in a learning activity, ask yourself if there’s an information gap and if the focus is on meaning, rather than the language used to express it.

If the answer is yes, then great! If the answer is no, consider what benefits this activity will bring. As I’ve said a few times already, not everything needs to be about communication, but if you analyse your learning activities in this light, you might find that hardly any of them involve real communication. That should be a warning sign that you’re probably doing something wrong.

Teachers should be extra mindful of this! When you plan activities to help your students learn to communicate in Chinese, are they really communicating or does it just seem like that? I’ve taught enough professional development courses for Chinese teachers to not be overly optimistic about the answer to that question. Teachers often think they are letting the students practise communication using the words and grammar they’ve learnt but the focus is still on the language, not the content.

Real communication makes learning more engaging and fun and also prepares students of Chinese for real-world situations, which is the goal of language education. If you want to learn more, communicate more!

References and further reading

Ellis, R. (2009). Implicit and explicit knowledge in second language learning, testing and teaching (Vol. 42). Multilingual Matters.

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