Today I got the opportunity to chat with Adam Lark, a student from Phoenix, Arizona who is finishing up a year abroad studying Mandarin in Taiwan. He shares here his experience, both good and bad, as well as what made him want to study abroad in the first place.
FTLOL: Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and where do you currently live?
AL: My name is Adam Lark and I am a student from Phoenix, Arizona currently living in Taipei, Taiwan for my year abroad. I love to perform stand-up comedy in addition to pursuing a life of traveling around the world, particularly Asia.
FTLOL: What language(s) are you currently learning? Do you get a chance to speak these languages in your daily life?
AL: I’m currently studying Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. I am fortunate enough to be able to practice both, even while in Taipei. I have friends that are exchange students from Spain that I frequently converse with on a daily basis.
As for my education learning Mandarin Chinese, I currently have six language exchange partners that I work with on a weekly basis. Also, living in Taipei has its daily reward system in the form of practice and making new acquaintances.
FTLOL: When did you start learning Chinese? Was there a specific event that triggered your interest?
AL: I started learning Chinese about four years ago. This year however, I consider it to be a reboot, so to speak, as I relearned traditional characters as opposed to simplified. I am also dedicating way more quality and quantity of time to it.
I would say that there is an event that triggered my interest in Chinese, but it would not seem that impressive. I simply have been curious about Asian cultures since I was a young kid. I tried learning Japanese at first after dating my first girlfriend (who was also interested in learning Japanese) and I found it to be not only incredibly difficult to learn, but also, living in Arizona, incredibly difficult to practice and interact with native speakers face to face.
I then had a realization: Chinese would not only be a lot of fun to learn, but with today’s global economic climate, China is where the action will be for a very long time. So I decided to pursue it as my third language, behind Spanish. I was ready to begin.
It was then made clear to me that Chinese was readily available at the cultural center in Phoenix and I also had known a couple of people from Beijing that lived in Tempe that could help me sharpen my earliest techniques to get me started conversationally.
However, consistency was the key that fell out of my pocket. I put Chinese on the back-burner for months before coming to Taipei, and getting back into the groove has been as hard as it is rewarding.
FTLOL: Further to the last question, when did you decide to go study abroad in Taiwan? What made you want to originally go?
AL: I have had an interest in Taiwan for a couple of years now. I’d think to myself, “What’s not to like about what you hear?” So I did some research.
Before I would seriously consider studying abroad, my family housed an exchange student from Taitung named Ian. He was a really cool kid and always very helpful. As the time came to see what I wanted to do next with my education, I applied to National Taiwan University, got accepted, and now I am here nearing the end of my exchange. Oh, time flies….
FTLOL: How has your personality affected your language study over time?
AL: I would have to say that the number one thing that I have learned to understand about my personality is my ego. We all have one, like it or not.
Mine, unfortunately, occasionally hates making mistakes and likes to perfect whatever I attempt – all other outcomes stifle my progress from time to time. On the other hand, my personality for wonder and finding patience for what is necessary to learn a new skill.
When I utilize this for my language study, I obviously can achieve so much more than when I let my ego get in my way. But you know what they say? The first part of solving a problem is admitting that you have one. I am luckily to have learned this early on in my studies.
When I make mistakes these days, I simply remember why mistakes are so important: without them, we wouldn’t know right from wrong. Once looked at correctly, mistakes are also evidence that you care about what you are doing. From there, the reaction and the lessons learned are up to you, no one else.
FTLOL: How do you go about studying Chinese? For example, are there any specific resources that you use? Do you hold yourself to a specific study schedule?
AL: I will admit that the passiveness in using Pleco or any other app is not as effective as reading aloud, writing characters out (even sometimes ad nauseam), listening to radio/music, and watching television or movies in the language.
I also challenge myself to learn a phrase randomly, just in case I’d ever need it. For instance, I would learn something like, “This table is too wobbly, I will find something to put under it to balance it out.” When the day comes that I run into a wobbly table, I would to my surprise be able to express myself after learning it at a time when I completely didn’t need it – it just pops up.
As for other resources, I find that online forums, Facebook, Lang8 (excellent website), and simply gathering your Chinese restaurant knowledge to get out to dinner and practice with the staff on a slow night are all great. All work in tandem with my goal.
I also use language exchange partners, which is quite possibly my favorite resource for chatting and getting used to the practicality of Chinese. As for my schedule, if this were a perfect world, I would be above and beyond with my Chinese day-in and day-out. Unfortunately, I put too much ahead of myself and psyche myself out a couple of days a week here and there.
It’s promising too much when you demand 5 hours of Chinese practice on the weekend without the enthusiasm. Other days, I am completely content, working with language exchange partners or tutors. Like the moon, those really busy times wax and wane.
FTLOL: Do you think that it is better to go to a foreign country to learn a language, or can you achieve a similar level of fluency without leaving your home town?
AL: I think that if you are ready to be humble with your level of Chinese, no matter what that is, the foreign country might seem like a 100% certainty. However, I think that you cannot travel to enthusiasm, desire, and hard work.
I thought that way at the beginning of my year here in Taiwan, foolishly. Once in a foreign country, your mind will have a lot more on it than simply learning the language. You will experience culture shock, getting out of your comfort zone, even moments of nostalgia for your home country from time to time.
To quote a movie from the 80’s, ‘No matter where you go, there you are.’ If you are prepared to make that commitment, you will definitely gain a lot of improvements, memories, and life experience.
However, if you have that same enthusiasm back at home and you have a few places to practice, some classes, access to Skype with a friend, can master your bookwork, listen and watch things in that language, you will definitely improve there as well.
2+3=5? Or 4+1=5? Same result, different path for your desired goal, I feel. However, never pass up a time to travel to that foreign country, just don’t expect it to be a magic bullet.
FTLOL: What have been some of the most difficult aspects for you when learning Chinese? What have you found easy? Can you provide us with any examples?
AL: I feel that the most difficult aspect is definitely listening. People always will tell me, “No, Adam. It’s the (Tones!)(Characters!)(Speaking!)(Reading!),” all the same to me as I always disagree.
Listening requires that neural response within that moment. The processing speed when learning in your first years conversationally is like having a MacBook Pro sending a message to a Kaypro 2X – you quickly find out which computer you are.
I always have had certain issues with listening in Chinese as the tones, idioms, grammar, and accent all play a huge role. My processing speed sometimes jumps to needless conclusions. This can create a response that would not get to every point made by the person I am conversing with.
One example would be that I was in Taipei at the 7-Eleven for the very first time. The cashier asks me, “你需要袋子嗎?” and I respond with “我不知道” (i.e., “I don’t know”). That in turn was the longest eight-seconds of my life as she was waiting on an answer, instead of me saying I had no idea what she was saying or meant.
I later asked the first person I met at the university what “你需要袋子嗎?” means (i.e., “Do you want a bag?”). From that day on, I learned how to answer that question.
FTLOL: Have there been any specific people who have influenced you to learn Chinese?
AL: Well, funny story. If I may be able to not only say that about Chinese, but languages in general, I was influenced by Deadpool. Allow me to explain.
When I graduated high school in 2007, I had decided to take a year off of school to focus on getting work experience before pursuing my degree, a degree in which I had no idea what I’d major in. Then, in 2008 as we all know, the financial collapse took many of us down the proverbial path to nowhere. I had friends already in school, facing paralyzing debt as the numbers kept crunching. I was there twiddling my thumbs waiting for it all to blow over.
In 2009, I decided to enroll in community college to learn Spanish. It was then that I knew about my passion for learning a language. Think about it. See the world? Get a skill that can get you far in a career? Achieve a life-long goal of learning a skill and then using it every day that you can? Where I signed up for that, the ink couldn’t dry fast enough.
So as I kept learning Spanish, I was also getting into reading heavily. Autobiographies, novels, and especially comic books. I was reading a Deadpool comic one day and he suddenly begins to speak German. He gave off no indication of that trait ANYWHERE prior. He just started speaking German to calm a very angry person down and everyone around him was stunned.
I thought to myself, “Comic book characters speaking other languages isn’t new. But THAT was awesome. It pays to learn something like that!” So I did some searching on Deadpool and I found out that he knows Japanese, Spanish, German, and American Sign Language fluently. I thought to myself that I have a great option here. Learning another language and dedicating my life to learning (and I mean this) the human super power of learning a foreign language.
I first started learning Japanese, which I deemed too difficult at the time and too much of an inconvenience as well. Then I found my path and I have Deadpool in a funny way to thank for getting me started on it. Since then, I have been to Beijing and throughout Taiwan in the pursuit of learning Chinese.
No matter where I go, I am so proud to have made that decision and honor myself by working on it. It has been, and will continue to be, the thrill that the super power of learning another language grants you, one of many more to come.
FTLOL: What advice would you have for people who might be struggling with learning a foreign language?
AL: I could tell you that it gets easier, but I’d be lying. There is no easy access to a life of learning Chinese or any other language for that matter – and that’s the gift. Anything worth obtaining for yourself is worth fighting for.
To confuse you even more, at the end of the day, the only thing you must fight is yourself. You will have amazing days and you will have days where you look into the mirror and say things like, “I cannot believe I forgot how to say ‘key’ when I checked in to the hotel. I have been a student of (____) for YEARS!”
Listen, if and when that happens, remember that we can even forget things in our native language, so refuse yourself that needless tension within. Think of this as well: you are doing something that is NOT expected of you, like being born in a multilingual society or in Eastern Europe, for example, where you are REQUIRED from the day you step foot on this world to live a strict, polylingual life due to societal circumstances.
You must be as patient with yourself as you have been brave to embark on this adventure. My mom told me this during my first semester here in Taiwan, and this has to be the most profound advice I have ever received.
I was down on my luck that after four years of learning Chinese and being out of practice for quite a few months, I scored into the first level Beginner’s Class! I was stricken with grief, humiliated, angry at the lack of motivation at where it had gotten me.
I told my mom during our weekly chat. She calmly told me this without any hesitation, as if it was fate to change my thought processes in life completely around. She is always great at giving advice, but this took the cake: “Do not look to prove yourself, always improve yourself.” After hearing that, I went on to learn more in one year than in the previous four.
I will leave you with that. Good luck, enjoy the ride, and take good care of your gift!