Today’s post comes from Alex Gentry, a recently graduated student with an intense love for languages and cultures. Although he’s studied a diverse range of languages, such as Spanish, Korean, Vietnamese, Hindi, and German, he writes here about his experiences with Mandarin, as well as 6 strategies to help you improve on the language-learning process.
Mandarin Chinese wasn’t my first foreign language, nor will it be my last, but it has been one of my most enjoyable language learning experiences. However, it has also been one of my most challenging as well.
I am not a fluent speaker, but I am steadily making progress every day towards that goal, and having had about four years’ experience with Chinese, I have some advice to offer for those who might like to also begin on a similar journey. It’s not an easy or quick road, but it’s a rewarding process that every person I have spoken with has experienced.
My study of Mandarin began the summer of 2009, leading into my senior year of high school. I started by intensively teaching myself pinyin and the International Phonetic Alphabet. My first Mandarin teacher, Lin Lin, whom the class called Lin laoshi (Teacher Lin in Chinese), came from Henan province to teach in the United States in the first ever Confucius classroom at St. Mary’s High School in Medford, Oregon.
Many of the phonetic and grammatical textbook descriptions were too technical for most students, yet the dialogues were simple and user-friendly and the pinyin and tone drills were easy to break down. However, I noticed that although I made an effort to speak with tones, many of the other students found them very difficult to learn and felt embarrassed to make the unfamiliar sounds in front of each other.
I did my best to keep up with the tonal exercises and was able to practice my rudimentary Chinese with Chinese international students, who often complimented me by saying I sounded like I was from China!
Having to deal with a completely new type of grammar and syntax, I was only able to form basic sentences by the end of my first year of study. After signing up for Chinese classes in college, I studied Chinese both in class and on my own for the next three years with my experienced professor Zheng Ling (Zheng laoshi).
She taught in a mixture of English and Chinese, gradually using more Chinese with each class. Zheng laoshi asked us to listen to every dialogue five times and to say it at least twice, but when I got back to my dorm or went to the library after class, I actively listened and repeated them as many as 10 to 15 times per dialogue.
Repetition is a major key to language learning success, and I especially learned this through my experience learning Chinese.
My second year of Chinese in university was basically a review of what I had learned my first year; however, I learned much quicker now and was able to start talking about myself and having simple conversations. During my third year of learning Chinese most of the material we covered was at the intermediate level.
During my spare time in my first and second years in college, I spent about two hours a day studying vocabulary and grammar and interacted as much as I could with the Chinese and Taiwanese students there. One of my classmates suggested I watch the acclaimed Taiwanese drama called 下一站, 幸福 [Xià Yí Zhàn, Xìngfú] (Next Stop — Happiness) in Chinese.
When watching it, I heard Chinese being used in context and I imitated as much as I could hear from the episodes. I then started writing out, saying, and making my own Chinese sentences to help myself increase my fluency and get myself to think less in English and more in Chinese.
Often I talked to myself in Chinese as much as possible when I wasn’t around native speakers, and the speech and grammatical patterns that I did not understand were finally starting to make sense.
Around this time I also started meeting up with conversation partners to practice my Chinese in weekly sessions. They helped me improve into my last year of college and I decided to focus more on spoken than written Chinese at that time because I would rather be a fluent speaker first and then learn how to write it fluently.
As I continue on my journey learning Chinese, it is my hope that those who wish to learn it realize there is no easy route to fluency besides hard work. There is no one method that is the best when learning a language because everyone learns differently.
With that in mind, I want to provide you with six strategies that I’ve learned over the seven years I’ve been learning languages.
The most important factor for anyone is the dedication to do whatever it takes to learn a language successfully. Motivation is the first and most important factor in deciding whether you will keep up with learning a language in the future.
Motivation is not complete without a regular, scheduled routine, whether it be 15 minutes per day or four hours per day, four to six days every week.
I would personally recommend putting in one to four hours of study every day, six days a week, and then taking an off-day (I usually take my off-days on Sunday). Just like learning a sport, a martial art, or an instrument, a language requires more than just a couple hours a week to master.
What are you learning the language for? Why do you want to learn it? To achieve true proficiency or fluency in the language you are learning you must have an unending passion for it, a reason for pursuing it, and an unending dedication to it.
Without practicing a language, you cannot apply what you’ve learned and you’ll find that your knowledge deteriorates. Don’t depend only on a teacher, classroom, or textbook.
Get out there, make friends with native speakers in your town or city, and if you can’t find anyone, there is always an abundance of Internet resources with which you can meet new people and practice.
In addition to regular practice, the language learner must immerse themselves in the language as much as possible. The best way to do this is obviously to go to the country where the language is spoken, but even if you do, simple immersion is not enough without the previous four strategies.
When you’re in the country where the language you are learning is spoken, make every effort possible to speak it at all times. Find native content in the language, such as books, magazines, newspapers, websites, films, television shows, and music, and work with the materials every single day.
But even if you do not have the opportunity to visit, live, or work in a foreign country for an extended period of time, you still can find native content in your home country through bookstores, movies stores, music stores, ethnic enclaves, and of course, the Internet!
The key is to surround yourself with content that native speakers use every day and to study it a lot. And when you don’t feel like studying, play around with it also!
Just remember — language is culture. You can never learn a language without learning something about the culture. Immersion in a foreign country or being surrounded by native speakers of your language can teach you that.
Make sure to not only listen to what they say but how they say it, what they do, how they use body language, and how they act towards other people (and especially to people of different social ranks) in order to learn how their language reflects how they think, act, and feel.
6. Speak, Listen, Read, and Write a Lot!
Immersion is not complete without active study of your target language. You must read, write, and especially listen to and speak your target language every day if you are to make true progress.
Luckily, resources of all kinds are available for doing this. For listening, you can find all kinds of podcasts on iTunes, YouTube, and the radio. Textbooks, readers, children’s books, short stories, novels, newspapers, literary classics, and even language blogs (particularly language-specific blogs like Hacking Chinese) are available for reading practice. For writing practice, you can find workbooks, notebooks, and anything of the sort.
But most of all, have fun and share your experiences with others!
You can find out more information about Alex on his website The Language Voyager.