The pandemic has had a profound impact on the way we all live and work, with lockdowns restricting our movement and our ability to interact with others. But the additional spare time enjoyed by many during this period has led to a language learning boom. A survey by the British Council found that 10% of Brits have taken up a language or returned to studying one during lockdown, with Mandarin the third most popular choice after French and Spanish. Apps like Duolingo have also soared in popularity. So has the pandemic been a help or a hinderance to language learners? In this blog I review the pros and cons based on my experience of learning Chinese in lockdown.
When the Pandemic first hit in early 2020 many of my Mandarin learning plans were immediately thrown out of the window. I was on the verge of travelling to Beijing to attend a conference at the British Council and had intended to use the trip to boost my Mandarin. Within days of my flights being booked I was informed the conference was no longer going ahead. Soon after, it was announced that Britain would be heading into lockdown. That meant no more conversation meetups with Chinese friends, no more face to face classes with my Chinese tutor and an end to my weekly language exchange group gathering. I had also been planning on taking a 3 week holiday to visit friends in Taiwan over the summer. That now looked extremely unlikely to go ahead.
Initially, all these changes were highly disruptive to my learning routine and motivation. But it was not all bad news. With the lockdown came lots of extra free time which I decided to use to read and listen to as much Chinese as I could handle using the website LingQ. I started with simple dialogues, progressing to news articles, radio chat shows and eventually novels and audiobooks. I have described this learning process in more detail here. At the start of this period my Mandarin was somewhere in transition between elementary and intermediate level. I could engage in conversations beyond mere introductions and the weather. However, these interactions were often quite strained as I would struggle to understand what my language partners were saying. A year later my listening and reading comprehension have noticeably improved making conversations much smoother.
Reviewing the past year of study several things become clear. Firstly, the additional time spent on reading and listening has been invaluable and probably trumps any of the drawbacks of lockdown. Before reaching a solid intermediate level, input is in my view more important than output. As several polyglots have noted, you need to acquire a strong familiarity with the language before you can hope to engage in interesting conversations and produce meaningful, intelligible speech yourself. As I do not live in a Mandarin speaking country, I would not have had the time or opportunity to immerse myself in the language to this extent were it not for lockdown.
On the other hand it is also clear that when it comes to speaking there is no substitute for face to face conversations. During lockdown I have used several apps to continue speaking, including WeChat and Tandem. These have been useful but also annoying. Frequent internet connection outages, time lag issues and other glitches can make video calls extremely challenging and frustrating. For example, a simple request for a friend to pause when I haven’t quite understood their point will typically take several seconds to be heard, by which time they have begun speaking about something else and the conversation has lost all momentum. For a long time these issues affected my motivation to practice speaking – it just wasn’t something I looked forward to. For most of lockdown I averaged only around one call a week. Yet as I travel deeper and deeper into intermediate territory my desire to speak Chinese grows and the fact that I cannot travel to the country or meet up with Chinese friends to chat is increasingly a source of frustration.
That frustration is somewhat subdued by the fact that the apps mentioned above have greatly facilitated written communication. A large amount of my Chinese practice during lockdown has been spent exchanging text messages with friends on a huge range of topics – from everyday life to the politics of Covid – and this has been immensely beneficial. Recently a language partner with whom I had exchanged hundreds of messages before doing a video call for the first time expressed his surprise at how much worse my speaking is than my writing. He wasn’t being rude – just honest – and I took it as a compliment. I know that if I practice my speaking as much as I have practiced my writing I will improve accordingly. I have since made a point of overcoming my aversion to online speaking and getting in some practice every day.
In summary, mastering a language requires large amounts of time spent honing four core skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing. Out of these, I believe lockdown has had a net positive effect on my reading, listening and writing. On the other hand the restrictions have made speaking practice more challenging during the same period. So lockdown gets an overall score of 3/4. Not bad at all!
*If you are interested in the content covered by this blog please subscribe using the form below.