Reflecting on my progress over the past year I am left with a strange feeling. On the one hand I believe my spoken proficiency, listening comprehension and character recognition have progressed more in the past year than the three previous years combined. Yet subjectively it sometimes feels like I’ve regressed.
This is because a year ago I had a pretty inflated sense of my overall level, believing I was much closer to mastering Chinese than I was. As I’ve written elsewhere much of the past year has been spent coming to terms with those delusions and working on major blind spots, in particular my pronunciation and tones.
Between January and June my study routine remained largely the same as the previous year. It consisted in reading novels and speaking with language exchange partners on a daily basis. I hoped this would be enough to continually expand my passive vocabulary and improve my oral Chinese. However, over the summer two experiences led me to change course and radically adapt my learning approach.
The first of these took place in June when a Chinese student who attended one of my weekly language exchange group meetings told me matter-of-factly that my pronunciation sounded classically foreign, to the extent that it was sometimes unclear what I was trying to say. In particular she claimed my tones needed to improve.
My initial reaction was to feel defensive and question the students’ motives for being so harshly critical. But once my bruised ego had recovered I decided she was right. Like many learners I hadn’t paid enough attention to tones and – though I wasn’t able to hear the extent of the damage for myself – this was preventing my spoken Chinese from improving.
I enlisted the help of the student who had been so honest with me about my problems and ever since then we have worked together on a daily basis to improve my tones. I recently rewatched a video I recorded of myself speaking Chinese in July. It is painful to listen to. At the time I was unable to hear how many glaring mistakes I was making and how much this was impacting on the clarity of my Chinese. I have since noticed this is a blind spot which a large proportion of YouTubers who show off their ability to speak Chinese fluently also share.
Although it has not been easy I have found the process of retraining my ear to pick up on tonal errors and correct them to be one of my most rewarding language learning experiences to date. I have described this process in depth here and I hope to write an update blog soon. My continued progress in this area over the autumn constitutes my proudest achievement of the year.
A second major change to my learning approach came as a result of an email I received in August from Daniel Nalesnik, founder of the Chinese flashcard programme Hack Chinese. Daniel asked me if I’d like to try out his website and I jumped at the chance. At the time I’d given up on using flashcards as part of my daily routine because the apps I was using were too badly designed and annoying to navigate. As a result my character recognition had stagnated and this had impeded my reading progress.
Using Hack Chinese I set a goal of learning all of the vocabulary and characters in HSK6, currently the highest proficiency Mandarin exam. At the time of writing I am more than half way towards achieving this. I have around 900 words left to learn and am confident I will be able to achieve this by the Spring.
Drilling flashcards daily, whilst not the most thrilling activity, had a noticeable impact on my reading fluency and listening comprehension. This in turn increased my confidence to immerse in Chinese dramas and movies. Over the past few months I have watched countless hours of Mandarin shows on Netflix which I am now able to enjoy without much difficulty. This has been invaluable for picking up everyday colloquial terms which don’t tend to appear in novels and formal articles.
My focus in 2022 will be heavily centred around improving my spoken Mandarin. To do this I will to continue immersing in as much video content as I can. In terms of reading I will focus more on informal writing which is closer to the way Mandarin is spoken – such as discussion forums on the website 知乎 – than formal articles and fiction novels. I will combine this with daily flashcards, tone drills, shadowing, reading aloud and lots of speaking with my tutor and friends.
My aim is that in one year’s time I will feel at ease speaking confidently on topics of interest, producing accurate tones and natural grammatical constructions without regularly pausing and second guessing myself. I hope that by the start of 2023 I will be ready to begin producing podcasts and interviews in Mandarin that is well pronounced and flows freely.
To state that goal more simply and ambitiously: my goal is to make 2022 the year I feel ‘fluent’ in Mandarin.
How about you? What are your goals for the coming year? Let me know in the comments below.