Immersion Vs Structured Learning (Podcast)

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The Key Predictors of Mandarin Success I'm Learning Mandarin

On today’s episode I discuss learning Mandarin with a man who has not only learned the language for  himself, he’s also observed the trajectories of hundreds of other learners over the years.  Max Hobbs is Marketing Director at the leading Chinese language school, LTL Mandarin. He first came into contact with Chinese while backpacking in 2014 and he has since continued to study Mandarin whilst working. His position at the school has given him a real birds eye view, observing and documenting the stories of numerous students over the years at the school he works for.  I found it really insightful to talk to him about his learning experiences and in particular his observations of which attitudes and traits are the strongest predictors of a successful Mandarin learner.

Anyone who studies a language has to combine a mixture of approaches which broadly fall into two categories: naturalistic and structured. Naturalistic approaches involve learning through immersion in the target language environment, reading books, watching TV and having conversations. Structured approaches involve focussed and deliberate study, such as learning grammar rules, memorising vocabulary and repetition drills.

Traditionally, highly structured approaches were favoured in classroom environments. But it’s fair to say today’s online language learning community has waged war on this idea. Language should be all about fun, enjoying yourself. The influential linguist Stephen Krashen argues that the most effective way to acquire a language is to expose yourself to content which you can comprehend and immerse yourself in activities which you enjoy. The more time you spend doing this, the more you will gradually progress closer and closer to fluency.

I have been heavily influenced by these ideas and I think I’ve benefited from them immensely. It was largely through immersing myself in content I enjoyed that, despite not living in China, I was able to self study to a level where I could comfortably engage in meaningful conversations with native Chinese speakers. But, I have also learned from experience that relying too heavily on immersion alone when studying Chinese has its limits. This is particularly the case when it comes to tones and characters, two aspects of Chinese which many learners find hard to master.

So in the latest I’m Learning Mandarin podcast I discussed these issues with a friend of the blog, Lionel Rowe. Lionel speaks fluent Chinese which he acquired while living in Beijing for a period of seven years. His learning methods were much more structured than mine, particularly at the beginning, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss our different language learning experiences with him.

You can listen to the full podcast below or on Anchor.

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