Immersion Vs Structured Learning (Podcast)

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“Wow! Your Mandarin is Awesome!” Decoding Chinese Politeness I'm Learning Mandarin

Anyone who has learned Mandarin will be familiar with how encouraging Chinese people tend to be towards those of us who take an interest in their language. For the most part this is great. All we have to do is say 你好 in order to be showered with praise and encouragement. But at times it can also be quite tricky to navigate the unwritten rules of Chinese polite culture. To the new Mandarin learner it isn’t always clear when praise is sincere as opposed to merely small talk. Throughout my learning experience I’ve also found it a challenge to get honest feedback on my Mandarin as opposed to exaggerated and undeserved praise. On today’s podcast I invited three of my language buddies, Helen, Mingna  and Katherine. Helen, like me, is a fellow Mandarin learner while  Mingna and Katherine are both students from China. Together we explore  how Chinese politeness can impact language learners in both positive and  negative ways.

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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