Thursday, November 17, 2011

Learning Chinese Language Like a Child

For much longer than I'd like to admit, I have been feeling dissatisfied with my Chinese language ability.  I can communicate on a surface level and get most things accomplished, but there is so much more that I want to say.  So after learning about the Growing Participator Approach or GPA (not to be confused with grade point average) method of language learning, developed by sociolinguist Greg Thomson; I decided to start again from the beginning.  The GPA method strongly takes into account the way language develops in childhood.  Infants listen for a long time, storing up a well of information; and then begin to speak. Our vocabulary or language reserve can be demonstrated through the illustration of an iceberg.  Everything visible above the water, the small tip, represents the language we have ready at hand and are very comfortable using.  As you get deeper and broader into the iceberg, your ability to use the words is considerably less; though you may still recognize a word as one you've heard before. At the base you find words that you've had some contact with, but they will need much more interaction before they will begin to rise closer to the surface.

There are an assortment of activities which take place in a learning session of GPA.  All are intended to help the learner interact with new vocabulary in numerous ways.  But to start out, the learner ONLY LISTENS. Listening may require a physical response. Many people are familiar with the TPR (Total Physical Response) method of teaching.  This is one kind of activity in GPA.  So on any given morning you may visit my home and find me placing plastic animals in or on play dishes; or hopping across the dining room; or touching my head, shoulders, knees, and toes. Which can be a bit humbling for a forty-ish mother of teenage boys. But I must admit, I am a bit fascinated by this whole process and am keeping my sense of humor.

This has already gone on far longer than I intended, but I did want to mention one other guiding principle of GPA; and that is that language takes place within culture and in community (not apart from them). We all have our own stories and use our words in unique ways to communicate them.  For example, if I ran in to you at about noon time in the states, I may say, "Hi. How are you?" You may reply, "Fine," with neither of us thinking of this conversation as more than a greeting. Here in China, at the same time of day, I wouldn't say, "Hi." I would ask, "Have you eaten?"

Words in different cultures may not carry the same meanings and objects may not as well.  It wouldn't be shocking for me to be out for a stroll on a pleasant evening and run into a neighbor doing the same in his or her pajamas. Last time I checked this wasn't common practice in the states. But a nice set of pajamas are like comfort clothes here; the kind you wear around the house on a Saturday afternoon or out for a walk with your spouse. Also umbrellas are commonly used here as protection from the sun.  I, myself, like to carry one for this reason.  We like to say, "Not bad.... Just different," when we encounter aspects of another culture that seem strange to us.

Anyway, all this long discourse was really just an attempt to follow up on some thoughts I had for Alphabet Thursday.... C is for Communication, Culture, and learning Chinese like a Child. You can visit Jenny Matlock, read the creative posts there, and add your own too.

Isn't the first photo wonderful?! It was taken by Nadja von Massow (nadworks) and can be found here.


  1. Learning a language is always a challenge. The whole concept of language fascinates me.

    I like the bit in your profile...'currently learning to live with yourself.' I feel like that too.

  2. This is an intriguing post, Steph. I read long ago that culture and language are inseparable. Losing a language results in losing a culture, which makes the loss of American Indian languages such a tragedy, just to name one example.

    Please keep us posted (no pun intended) on how your GPA language instructions progresses.

    Have a lovely day :-)


  3. What an interesting post. I really enjoyed reading it!


  4. Delicious pictures, I love it, very funny. I wish you good studies with the Chinese, is a difficult language.

  5. I have a friend whose daughter has learned to be fluent in Spanish due to the nanny she has. It is amazing to hear a two year old speak English and Spanish.

  6. The first photo is wonderful Steph! I tried to learn Chinese many years ago in high school. I agree with the listening part. In the late 1960's there was no Chinese culture to get a hold of to learn the Chinese language. Amazingly I do remember a few phrases. Our high school english teacher was a Vietnam Vet. Keep at it! Definitely worth your effort!

    p.s. I see the Asian women here on the college campus with umbrellas on sunny summer days. Very smart......

  7. interesting discourse! It seems so obvious that children hear from the very beginning, but are not speaking. My sister lived in Japan a while and told me there are so many different words for one American word - it all depends on where you are! {:-Deb

  8. the first photo definitely grabbed my attention, but your post held it. Very interesting stuff.

  9. Steph, thanks for the sweet comment on my post a few days ago.

    This is a very interesting post. Years ago, I was encouraged to learn to speak German by the owner of the import company I worked for. I got some German tapes, and played them when I was in the car, running errands or going to and from work. Many times, my children were with me. I never thought they were paying any attention to the tapes until they began counting in German. One of my sons went on to take German in high school, and found it was quite easy for him to pick it up! Hmmmmm--wonder why??

  10. What a fascinating post! It makes total sense to absorb so much of a new language before trying to use it and I love the way that the listening is reinforced with action so that your whole body is working at the learning process. Is it working for you? Stick at it. It's brilliant!

  11. Totally interesting! I wish I had known this sooner. I'd love to learn a foreign language, but I have trouble understanding many languages due to hearling loss as a child. I just become frustrated. Pooh! Loved the post!

  12. Hi again!

    I learned French when young - probably one of the reasons I pursued it at College!

    Have a great weekend & look forward to *seeing* you again soon.

  13. Steph...goodness...I thought I commented here already! Anywhooo...I was here visiting, but must have gotten distracted :o) All the best to your language endeavors! I wish that I spoke my mom's language!

    Blessings & Aloha!
    Happy Alphabe=thursday!

  14. What a fascinating post.

    I really enjoyed reading this.

    And I was sooo enamored of that top just made my heart smile.

    Thanks for linking up to Alphabe-Thursday's letter "C".



Thank you for your comments. They help me feel that I am some how connected out here in Blogland and not just writing to the air.


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