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Chinese That Feels Right

From ordering food to asking for directions, researcher Anna Hutchinson has found that the importance of basic language skills can often be overlooked.

BYU study abroad students at Taipei 101: one of the tallest buildings in Taiwan and the world
Photo by Anna Hutchinson

Anna Hutchinson (Linguistics ’25) fell in love with studying Chinese on her mission in Taiwan, but after returning home, she quickly realized her true passion: studying Chinese learners. She grew up with a mother who spoke Chinese and this experience (combined with her mission) instilled in her a love of the language as well as a curiosity for the learning process itself. Her desire to know more about how people learn Chinese inspired her to apply for and receive a Humanities Undergraduate Mentoring (HUM) Grant, which allowed her to conduct research through online surveys in order to more definitively say what Chinese students at each level of fluency have the capacity to learn.

Different Types of Fluency

The year before Hutchinson received her HUM Grant, she did an independent research project with one of her professors. Hutchinson went on a research trip to Taiwan, where she originally planned to study native speakers—but something else began to pique her interest. Hutchinson spent some time with study abroad students who, at first, intimidated her. As a Chinese minor, Hutchinson worried that her Chinese wouldn’t measure up to theirs; however, she quickly realized that though they could speak eloquently on specific topics and were overall more literate, her experience as a missionary in Taiwan gave her an advantage with vendors and shop owners.

When Hutchinson realized that these study abroad students felt unsure when it came to everyday interactions, she decided to act as their Taiwan tour guide, helping students become more comfortable with ordering food and talking about day-to-day topics. Hutchinson says, “I thought to myself, ‘There [are] different types of fluency.’ They had higher levels of fluency in particular categories, but I knew how to do the lower-level things. And it’s not that their Chinese was better or my Chinese was better—it’s that we knew different things.”

They’re feeling rather than saying ‘Oh, yeah, it’s right.

Learning What Feels Right

After returning home from Taiwan, Hutchinson created a survey to test students of all proficiencies. She wanted to better understand how each level of learner approached advanced grammatical principles. In this case, she wanted to see what students knew about denominal verbalization. This phenomenon, where nouns are used as verbs (an example would be “googling”), is not often taught in the classroom, so many students aren’t even aware of it until they’re interacting with native speakers or in more advanced classes.

In the survey, Hutchinson showed students a set of sentences with denominal nouns—all used correctly. Students then had to mark each sentence as either grammatically correct or incorrect and explain why they felt that way.

A group of young people at a Chinese YSA conference
Photo by Anna Hutchinson

Looking at the results of the survey, Hutchinson found that advanced learners, as expected, could identify denominal verbalization as a real phenomenon. Though, so could less advanced learners. Hutchinson says, “The [less advanced] Chinese students said things like ‘I think it’s right’ or, ‘I feel like it makes sense’—they’re feeling rather than saying ‘Oh, yeah, it’s right.’”

These results surprised Hutchinson. She had previously expected that only very advanced or native Chinese speakers would be able to identify denominal nouns based on how they felt. But she says the results show that “the ones that are saying ‘I feel it’s right’ or, ‘It just it seems correct,’ are those in the lower levels.”

Along with surveying students, Hutchinson created an additional survey for professors. She asked if they thought less advanced learners could handle learning complex colloquialisms, using denominal nouns as an example. She found a mixed result. According to Hutchinson, some professors said, “They’re not going to understand denominal nouns—that you can use it as a noun and a verb.” Others felt that less advanced learners could benefit from a mix of basic and advanced topics.

My HUM Grant really helped me get real-world experience.

Finding a Balance

Based on her survey from students, Hutchinson tends to side with professors who think less advanced learners can handle more complex concepts like denominal nouns. However, she acknowledges concerns voiced by some professors. She says, “It might be easier for the 300-level students to comprehend [denominal nouns]. They will be able to better understand why they work.”

Hutchinson says that her final HUM Grant paper will revolve around finding a balance between formal and colloquial Chinese in the classroom—for all levels of proficiency. She explains that “you need a balance. In the higher-level classes you learn to read and write Chinese, and there is environmental stuff and interpersonal relationship stuff, and it’s really important to know these things as a high-level Chinese speaker. But there are some Chinese speakers that only know how to do this, and they can’t do the smaller functions.”

Overall, Hutchinson says that she has loved her time researching Chinese students and feels that it has been an invaluable experience. She encourages anyone who has thought about applying for a HUM Grant to do it. She says, “I want to go to grad school—I want to pursue research. I want to become a professor, and I think my HUM Grant really helped me get real-world experience.”

Click here to learn more about HUM Grants and how students can get involved.