Chinese Immersion Day – Inoculating against Linguistic Shock
By Heidi Steele
Even after dozens of trips to China over the years, I still delight in the feeling of stepping off of the plane in Beijing and hearing “surround sound” Chinese. Mandarin comes from all directions – conversations among strangers nearby, service announcements, questions from airport and security personnel, greetings from old friends – it all makes my ears happy and my heart content.
For a beginning Chinese language learner, however, the linguistic jolt that occurs the moment you step off the plane in China can be a very intimidating experience. Students are suddenly bombarded with rapid and unscripted speech. They hear a steady stream of linguistic input that is only partially intelligible, if at all. Accents are all over the map. Adding to the stress, students have to contend with this input flood at the same time as they are negotiating a completely new physical and cultural environment.
If students are unprepared for this experience, they may react by putting a lid on all of the Chinese they do know (“why even try when I can’t understand what anyone is saying?”), clinging instead to what opportunities they can find to communicate in English. If, however, we “inoculate” students against this language shock ahead of time, they can step off the plane feeling proud of what they do understand and eager to continue learning what they don’t.
In the words of Amy Shen, Curriculum Director for the Middlebury-Monterey Language Academy (MMLA), we need to help students prepare for a native Chinese language environment by raising their tolerance of ambiguity. With support, they can learn to stop fixating on what they don’t know and instead use what they do know to infer the meaning of unfamiliar language items. One of the many ways to do this is to hold an immersion camp. While immersion camps can be as long as the highly acclaimed four-week MMLA program, you can also organize a one- or two-day camp in your local community that will greatly benefit your students.
At the Chinese Immersion Day we hold for high school students in the Peninsula School District every spring, volunteer teachers come from around the Seattle area to teach workshops in Chinese arts, crafts, music, and games. During this event, held in a historic building that was once an old schoolhouse, students eat two home-style Chinese meals, participate in three workshops of their choosing, play games, and chat with their friends – all completely in Chinese. They begin the day by signing a pledge to commit to speaking in Chinese only for the day, and they end the day with a performance for parents to demonstrate something they learned during one of the workshops. The teachers, who are all experienced in using immersive teaching techniques, offer workshops in hands-on cultural activities that they personally enjoy and remember from their childhood. We have offered workshops in Chinese chess, calligraphy, Chinese jacks and shuttlecocks (making them and then playing the game), Chinese knotting, singing, poetry, Chinese jump rope, and bamboo dance, to name a few.
We are able to offer this event at no cost to our students with support from the Asia Society via our Confucius Classroom program, Hanban, the Confucius Institute of the State of Washington, the Chinese Language Teachers Association of Washington, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
At the start of the day, students are very conscious of the fact that they are required to speak only in Chinese and are noticeably anxious. But as the day progresses, they get accustomed to speaking in Chinese and no longer need to deliberately focus on staying in language. As the students play and learn together, they stop worrying about the language they haven’t yet learned and instead experiment with creative strategies for understanding others and being understood. They learn that not only can they tolerate living with ambiguity, they can actually have fun at the same time.
As a language teacher, it is deeply rewarding to witness this growth in my students. I trust that with experiences such as this “state side,” my students will develop the psychological resilience needed to take full advantage of the linguistic richness they will be exposed to when they live and travel in China.