When I first started learning Mandarin I quickly found myself drowning in an ocean of online advice, with hundreds of popular gurus all promoting their favoured methods and techniques for acquiring a second language. As someone who was new to independent language learning, the sheer volume and variety of content left me quite baffled and unsure who to believe. Over time, and largely through a process of trial and error, I came to learn who I could trust and who I couldn’t. I also discovered that many of the most widely viewed and promoted videos and blogs are quite unhelpful, often prioritising clickbait over genuine substance and insight. The following short list (in no particular order) is aimed at guiding new learners towards advice that is trustworthy and which I found helpful in guiding my Chinese studies.
When I first came across Steve Kaufmann on YouTube around three years ago I did not want to believe that what he was saying about learning Chinese was true. I had just spent a year studying Mandarin in my spare time by following online advice encouraging me to ‘speak your way to fluency’. This typically involved attempted conversations with my language exchange partners on whom I would try out the few phrases I had learned in my evening classes before almost invariably failing to understand their replies. I had no intention or interest in learning to read characters. Here was a man who claimed to speak 20 languages saying he had acquired fluency in Chinese in under a year, largely through reading and listening to content he found interesting.
Learning to read, Kaufmann argues, is essential to swift progress and therefore characters are crucial. Despite my initial misgivings, the more I listened to Kaufmann, the more his ideas made sense of my own lack of progress and turned my understanding of language learning upside down. I also found his laid back approach very refreshing, in particular his insistence that making mistakes with tones, pronunciation and grammar is a natural, unavoidable part of the process. I began to change the way I learned Chinese, prioritising listening and reading over speaking until I reached a solid intermediate level. It did not take long before it became clear he had been right all along. Although Steve learned Chinese 50 years ago, the methods he promotes are still highly relevant, effective and his videos are well worth paying attention to.
Stephen Krashen is not primarily a language learner, although he can speak several languages including some Mandarin. Rather he is an academic linguist whose theories of second language acquisition in adulthood have inspired polyglots around the world. One of Krashen’s central messages is that studying abstract rules of grammar and attempting to achieve accuracy before having acquired a familiarity with the language through mass input is a bad strategy. Instead, we acquire languages when we understand messages. The more we are exposed to comprehensible messages, the more we will progress in the language until eventually we become fluent. His ideas are especially appealing to people who did not enjoy memorising verb tables when studying languages at school (read: most people.)
Krashen argues beginner and intermediate learners should expose themselves to content that is “comprehensible and compelling.” Students should be given the freedom to choose content they genuinely want to read rather than relying on boring textbook dialogues. As a result he is a big fan of the graded reader approach which enables beginner learners to start reading and listening to entertaining short novels written using a limited array of simple vocabulary. Through Mandarin graded readers I was able to begin reading extensively without having to wait until I could recognise the thousands of characters needed to comfortably read novels for native speakers. Mandarin readers are now available from as few as 150 characters, making them an excellent way to put Krashen’s theories into practice from an early stage.
Matt Vs Japan
Matt Vs Japan is a YouTube language vlogger who has taken Stephen Krashen’s advice to its logical conclusion. By exposing himself to large amounts of input he achieved a near native level of Japanese. In his videos he provides detailed analysis of the best approaches to language acquisition using immersive techniques which are especially suitable for those of us who don’t live in a country where our target language is spoken. More recently he has applied these methods to studying Mandarin. His intelligent videos are an excellent antidote to the huge volume of cheap clickbait titles like ‘I Learned Chinese in Six months’ or ‘White Guy Speaks Pefect Chinese.’
The degree of Matt’s perfectionism may not appeal to everyone. Achieving perfection or even near-perfection in Chinese is not one of my personal language goals. Some of the methods discussed in his videos may also come across as a little extreme, especially for beginner learners, for example having your target language playing in the background during your every waking moment and possibly also when sleeping. Nevertheless, I have found many of his videos very insightful and highly applicable to studying Mandarin, including some of his approaches to listening practice (see below). The results of his methods are obvious to anyone who has heard him speak Japanese.
Grace Guo is a language vlogger from Taiwan who produces video content offering helpful tips to Mandarin learners. Her advice is largely based on her personal experience of learning English to a high level without ever having lived in an English speaking country. The techniques she suggests to improve listening skills and pronunciation are particularly helpful.
In addition to offering advice on learning techniques, Grace also produces entertaining videos analysing popular internet polyglots and celebrities’ use of Chinese, including Marc Zuckerberg and John Cena. These videos are always positive and constructive rather than nitpicky and harsh. I have found them to be a fun source of encouragement as well as a useful educational tool.
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