Five days into my Chinese classes, I identified and articulated my learning goals. From then on, I knew what I should focus on, and I was ready to go. So for the coming four months, this is what I’m planning to do, learning-wise
1) Abstract vocabulary building (reading, listening, writing, speaking)
Develop solid and intuitive understanding of about 400/500 root characters and their combinations used to express abstract relations (structures, groups, connections) and cognitive phenomena (feelings, ideas, judgements).
2) Grammatical correction in production contexts (speaking, writing).
Word order and connecting words/prepositions are correct and idiomatic in over 90% of sentences produced. In particular, expressions of time and aspect are correct and intuitive (use of 了，过，起来，得及，继续，将来，等等).
3) Phonetic accuracy (speaking, listening, reading aloud)
In optimal environments (quiet place, stressless interaction, high energy levels), correct articulation of all Chinese consonants and vowels, capacity to recognize and realise all four tones and tone combinations, correct attack and positioning of syllable stress.
4) Endurance (speaking, listening)
Capacity to carry on a conversation in sub-optimal environments (noisy setting, complex relationship, low energy) for up to 30 minutes, or interact in an optimal environment for up to 4 hours without significant drop of quality.
This list is possibly the most important thing I’ve done this term. Every day, I can reflect on my language practice, and how it fitted into one or more of these four areas. Once in a while, I can revisit the list, and check if I’m progressing well, or if some new, more advanced shortcoming has emerged. Whether I read a book, write a piece of homework, talk to someone in a bar, or listen to the radio, the list is guiding my attention, helping me make sure I address what I need at this stage of my language learning journey.
Making up the list was neither quick nor easy. Years of language tutoring have developed an ear for linguistic shortcomings and a capacity to propose practical next steps. I’m not sure all language learners have the skills necessary to clearly define what their needs are, and what’s quite OK. Yet none of our teachers have encouraged us – let alone assisted us – in developing such a personalised learning program. Teachers didn’t even encourage us much to work outside classes, or provide any guidance on how to do so, beside preparing class material and writing essays on topics they provide.
And yet – as I wrote previously – the needs of advanced learners are extremely diverse. For international students especially, who came in country to gain confidence and fluency, this failure to guide personalised learning goals is a remarkable absence. If Nanjing University gives a feedback form at the end of term, this would be my clearest criticism. I wonder where this absence comes from though. Teachers unskilled in personalised assessment? A learning culture of doing as you’re told? Or fear from the university body that such focus on learner-based activities and progress will undermine the very concept of institutionalised learning, and make it obsolete.