Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Fluency Fast - Mandarin with Linda Li

I am currently here in Denver for the IFLT Conference. Today was the first day of IFLT, but I arrived a couple days early in order to take a Fluency Fast course. If you are not familiar with Fluency Fast, it offers CI-based language classes either on a weekly basis or in an intensive 3-4 day setting. I know a number of people who have taken Fluency Fast courses and have absolutely raved about them, so I wanted to take part in one and to experience what they were talking about. 

For its pre-IFLT, 4-day intensive classes, Fluency Fast offered three different languages: Spanish, French, and Mandarin (with Spanish and French divided into levels). While I did not know any of those three languages, I specifically signed up for Mandarin, because I wanted: 

  • to learn a non Romance-based language so that I could not make any connections to Latin when acquiring it. For example, if I were to learn Spanish or French, I would constantly be making comparisons to Latin (cognates, similar language structures). I did not want to have a Latin-based foundation upon which to build, but rather I wanted my mind completely to be a clean slate when experiencing this new language.
  • to experience language learning in the same manner which my students would, meaning I also wanted to experience not understanding something at all and to feel a degree of anxiety about that.
  • to learn a language which I did not know in a CI way so that I could experience CI myself firsthand.
  • most importantly to learn from Linda Li, who was teaching the class. Years ago Stephen Krashen himself had sat in on a Mandarian course taught by Linda, and this experience had a profound effect and influence on his view of CI (see a letter which Krashen wrote about that experience, praising Linda Li).
All I can say is that Krashen was 100% right in what he wrote about Linda Li. She was absolutely MARVELOUS in teaching Mandarin! I am at such a loss for words that I really do not even know where to begin in writing about my experience, because there is just SO much to say. Quite honestly, I cannot even find the right words to describe my experience, as I am still processing the whole thing. All I know is that I learned SO much and that it did not even seem like learning.

Linda opened Day 1 of class by establishing the safety net of signals for us to cue her when we did not understand something, wanted us to slow her down or to repeat something. She already had a list of Mandarin words written up with their English meanings. Linda ended by saying that our jobs as students was to listen, to pay attention, and to signal her when we did not understand something in Mandarin. She also said that it was her job to make us understand what she was saying, but that it was our job to let her know when we did not. If we did not understand something but chose not to tell her, then that was our fault. To be honest, inwardly i felt a degree of arrogant pride, because I give the same exact talk to my students on the first day of class. My teaching methods felt validated by what Linda said.

However, that degree of arrogant pride did not last long. To be honest, the first hour of class was quite brutal for me. Even though Linda was doing a great job of doing TPR in Mandarin, of establishing meaning through a word wall, and of pointing and pausing, because Mandarin is a tonal language and its written English forms do not fully correspond phonetically to Mandarin sounds, I started to feel overwhelmed at times. I remember thinking "What is written there does not correspond at all to how it sounds in Mandarin." 

I finally used Linda's safety net signals to let her know that I was not understanding something. That first time, part of me was hesitant to use the "I do understand" sign, because I did not want to call attention to myself, but the other part of me was saying "To hell with your pride. You don't understand what she is saying. STOP HER!" The best part was that Linda praised me for stopping her that first time! After that for the rest of the course, I had absolutely no hesitation in flashing the "I do understand" sign.

Slowly, Mandarin began to make its imprints on my brain. Through Linda's masterful use of CI, I began to understand what she was saying. Linda had us gesture certain words so that we would begin to rely on muscle memory to associate with words. And man, did she get in repetitions of the words any time she could! Linda circled, asked us questions, did comprehension checks, and had us interacting with the language. Even though from a teacher perspective, I was fully aware of what CI strategies she was using, but from a student standpoint, I remember thinking, "Keep going - I need the repetitions!"

By the end of the first 4 hours of class, Linda had us read a story using the words which we had learned that day. I was amazed at how easy it was to read after just 4 hours of Mandarin.

Over the next three days, Linda taught us new words, continued to recycle the words which had learned earlier, and gave us new readings. Every time we got a new story to read, I could not get over how easy it seemed to be.

I cannot explain why I am able to read these stories in Mandarin. I certainly did not know any Mandarin prior to the class. I never once made flashcards to learn these words. Linda certainly did not give us a vocabulary list ahead of time and tell us to have these words memorized by X day. All she required was that we listen to her, pay attention, and interact with the language in a comprehensible manner in various ways. Somehow, the language which Linda wanted us to acquire is inside me, but I am not able to explain how it got there really. The language must gotten there subconsciously, because I certainly did not actively put it there. In other words, I experienced CI as it was meant to be, and as a result, language acquisition occurred!

Now after just 4 days of class, if you were to ask me to say something in Mandarin, I probably would say that I do not feel that I am able to produce much Mandarin on my own. HOWEVER, today during a presentation which I was giving on how to play Mafia, I mentioned in English something about how I like iced coffee, and Linda Li said "iced coffee" in Mandarin (which was one of the phrases which we had learned). Somehow (and I do not remember doing this at all), I then said to Linda in Mandarin "I like to drink ice coffee and also hot coffee." I have NO idea where that came from or why I was able to say that, because Linda did not have us practice oral drills using the phrase "I like." All I can say is that somehow I had acquired those various phrases and was able to create meaning on my own (albeit on a very low level). In other words, I was able to communicate an idea in Mandarin without even thinking.

I have now added Linda Li to my pantheon of CI teachers who have most influenced me. So why was Linda Li such as an awesome teacher? Yes, she was comprehensible and compelling, but most importantly, she was caring (see my Three C's of CI post). After that first hour, I never again felt stressed or frustrated. Linda had fun with us! She was constantly laughing at what we said and so many times incorporated what we said into stories, because that was more compelling than what she had originally planned. Linda made it a point to connect with each of us on some personal level. In addition, there were only six of us in Linda's class. She was a bit concerned about the small class size, because she was more accustomed to larger classes. I am so glad that our class was small, because it felt so much more intimate, and Linda was able to devote more attention to each of us. If the class were 20-30 like some of the other classes, I do not think that I would have learned as much, because it would have been easier to hide in the back and to mask anything which I did not understand. We had two excursions as part of the class: dinner at a Chinese restaurant and a cultural event at the Confucius Center in Denver. Both times were a blast, because it continued to give all of us a chance to know each other better.

So to Karen Rowan and Fluency Fast, thank you so much for offering these classes, because I firmly believe that folks cannot truly understand and internalize CI unless they experience it by learning a language which they do not know. My grasp of CI had deepened so much from this experience.

Most importantly to Linda Li, thank you for being such a wonderful teacher. I now want to learn more Mandarin. I cannot say enough about what you did for the six of us in class. We are so appreciative!


  1. I'm not sure how or when I stumbled upon your blog, but I've been following it for a few years now I believe. This post has me so excited that I want to stop what I'm doing and go teach someone. I'm not even a teacher though, I'm a developer!

    I do organize a Seattle area meetup: "The Latin and Ancient Language Meetup". I wonder if I could use CI / TPR to teach both newcomers and regulars, instead of our usual slowly making our way through LLPSI.

    Thank you for this post!

    1. Thanks for the comment. Definitely use CI, TPRS, TPR to teach folks. Consider pre-teaching vocabulary in LLPSI so that folks have acquired the vocabulary prior to the reading. That is so cool that you have a Latin meetup group in the Seattle area! I'd love to hear how things go for you.

  2. Keith, you have now surpassed Dr. Krashen has Linda Li's biggest fan. I am thrilled that you loved the class. It was lovely to have a VIP represent Latin at Fluency Fast. You're also taking Linda's online class now, right? How is that going?

    1. Wow, I consider myself then in good company of those who are Linda Li fans! Yes, i am watching her online Fluency Fast videos, which in some ways is a replay of what she did this past summer, but I am loving all of the repetitions I am getting in Mandarin - one can never get too much input!

  3. Apparently I don't know how to comment on blogs... this is Karen Rowan.

  4. Keith, I've been trying to get in touch with you to find out if you would like to adapt this to be an article for the teacher to teacher section of IJFLT. Can you email ijflteditor@gmail.com?