“An optimal what?”, you may be asking. Well, read on because what I have to say is very important. Have you ever read the book ‘The Inner Game of Tennis’? Probably not. Simply stated, its message is that, when we are receiving tennis instruction and are concentrating hard on each stroke made, we often find that we are not playing our best tennis. However, when we relax, forget about how we ought to be making the shots and simply enjoy the game, our tennis strokes normally become smooth, natural and accurate.
Now what has this to say to us language learners? Basically this: when we are learning how to play the language ‘strokes’, i.e. how to learn to speak Chinese, we need to be aiming for accuracy and, hence, need to be corrected repeatedly. However, when we are outside the classroom and enjoying the ‘game’ – talking to Chinese people – we should be aiming for fluency and, hence, need to relax and just talk.
“Now where does the ‘monitor’ fit into all this?” Well, think what happens when you are in class. Your teacher asks you to make a sentence using a particular word or grammar pattern – and what do you do? Before saying it out aloud, you first process the sentence in your mind by throwing it up on the ‘monitor’, i.e. the ‘screen’ of your brain. You check that the grammar is in the right order, the tones are all correct, and then – and only then – do you say it out loud to your teacher. And of course, this is absolutely correct because you are striving for accuracy in your Chinese – and this is slowly being accomplished through rule-learning and repeated correction.
However, after class is over and you are out in the local community, it’s important to practice what you’ve acquired of the language by talking with those around you. You’re now going for fluency rather than accuracy. And so it’s important to learn to switch off your ‘monitor’ and just talk! Why? Because if you ‘monitor’ everything you wish to say when you’re talking, it will make your language stilted and hesitant, thus militating against speaking smoothly and fluently. So, what I’m basically saying is this: There is a time to monitor and a time not to monitor. The time to monitor is when you’re in class, because you’re striving for accuracy through repeated correction. However, when you’re outside talking with your friends, you need to learn to ‘switch off’ your monitor because you’re now going for fluency through repeated talking.
There’s one more important point. Have you noticed that, when you are talking with Chinese people outside of class, there are some types who, because of their personality (serious, strict, haughty, suspicious) make you feel on edge? You feel forced to use your monitor when talking with them. Have you also noticed that there are other types of people (warm, kind, friendly, non-threatening) who make you feel that you don’t need to monitor when talking with them?
The important point to note is that, when going for fluency and wanting to feel good about your Chinese, you need to major on the second type of person. What you need to do, therefore, is to analyze how you feel with the people you are with, and spend as much time as possible with the warm, friendly types who will allow you to unconsciously ‘switch off’ your monitor. The result will be that you will talk in a relaxed manner, you’ll feel good about your Chinese, and therefore you’ll increase in fluency much more rapidly.
So who is the ‘optimal monitor user’? It’s the person who monitors when it’s right to do so – especially when in class, but switches off the monitor when outside class and going for fluency. Why not try it and see?
Optimal Monitor User: pdf file