(Illustrations by Esther Birts)
A large part of my motivation for writing this blog is to discuss mistakes I’ve made in my approaches to learning Chinese and document the process of fixing the damage they’ve caused. Through conversations with my readers I’ve learned that many of the pitfalls I’ve experienced are actually quite widespread – in some cases it’s more common than not for new learners to fall into them.
This is lamentable and in my opinion partly due to the general state of the Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language industry. There are a large number of excellent teachers out there. But too many tutors have received inadequate training and are ill equipped to help students overcome common obstacles.
In this blog I want to discuss five common pitfalls all new learners should avoid. For readers who’ve already fallen I’ve included links throughout to blogposts covering how to fix each issue.
1. Ignoring tones at the start
When learning most languages there is a legitimate debate over whether it’s best to focus on nailing pronunciation at the start or leave it until an advanced level. With Chinese there is no such debate. Learners who don’t train themselves to be comfortable with tones at the beginning invariably face problems later on. As speakers of non-tonal languages our brains are not used to focusing on the pitch contours of each syllable and as a result we need to retrain ourselves to perceive and produce these sounds correctly.
If we train our ears to be highly sensitive to tone differences early on we can avoid the need to relearn everything later. Like many learners I was in a state of tone denial for years. After four years of learning Chinese I remained unaware how bad my tones sounded until the devastating news was broken to me by a Chinese friend. I have largely solved this problem now. But rewiring my brain to parse tonal information and produce tones correctly required huge effort. Conversely, the learners I’ve interviewed who nailed tones at the beginning all reported having a much easier ride.
2. Hoarding words instead of sentences
Many learners cram individual words rather than memorising phrases and whole sentences. I think this is a mistake. After many hours using flashcards to learn isolated words and immersing in content I developed decent comprehension skills and could piece sentences together when speaking. However, the sentences I composed were often influenced by English constructions and – though they didn’t violate any specific rule of Chinese grammar – differed significantly from native speech.
One solution is sentence mining. When watching content of interest or having conversations with friends you note down sentences and phrases that contain constructions and vocabulary you’d like to use yourself. Then you cram these with a Space Repetition System like Anki. After a while you’ll begin to develop a natural sense of the language and the flexibility to form your own authentic sentences. I’ve been using a similar system and plan to write an in-depth blog about sentence mining soon.
3. Insufficient immersion
“Comprehensible input” and “immersion” have become buzzwords in the online language learning community thanks to the linguist Stephen Krashen and popular language learners like Matt Vs Japan. However, out in the real world of schools, universities and private language courses it’s still not talked about enough. Many students on structured courses remain unaware that the single most important thing they must do to improve their comprehension skills is immerse in listening and reading content appropriate to their level. This causes many new learners to become frustrated at their lack of progress and give up.
When learning Chinese, immersion isn’t an option. It’s a requirement. I’ve never met anyone who learned Mandarin to fluency without many hours of listening input. It’s a good idea to begin consuming content and developing your comprehension skills early on. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is now possible with websites like LingQ, YouTube content and graded readers which start from as few as 100 characters. Having conversations is another valuable form of listening immersion, particularly during intermediate stages when it becomes possible to discuss topics of interest.
4. The immersion delusion
The recent rise in popularity of online immersive techniques has led some learners to a new pitfall. I call this the immersion delusion. There is an extreme school of thought which claims immersion is not only a vital component, but the only necessary component of achieving fluency in a language. According to this philosophy as adult language learners we should, to the closest extent possible, try and replicate the experience of babies learning their first language. All we need to do is spend many thousands of hours listening to the language, watching cartoons and…reading novels (which seems odd for a baby). One day after several years we will magically begin speaking at which point perfect fluency is just around the corner.
This is an appealing idea and one which I was briefly taken in by in the past. But, insofar as learning Mandarin is concerned, it’s a complete distortion of reality. Yes, good speaking skills depend on getting lots of input. But oral production of the language is a skill that must also be developed independently. Activating our passive vocabulary, producing tones correctly and speaking with natural intonation all require dedicated practice. As long as the goal is to speak Mandarin well, neglecting these aspects and adopting an exclusively immersion based approach for months (or in some cases even years) on end is highly unadvisable.
5. Failure to learn from mistakes
Teachers and influencers are fond of saying that mistakes are a vital part of learning. But how many advanced foreign speakers of your native language have you met who constantly make the same mistakes again and again – whether tenses, articles or prepositions – regardless of how long they’ve been immersed in the English language? Of course, learning from mistakes is crucial but too many people expect it to happen by magic and become disillusioned when it doesn’t. To learn from your mistakes you first need two things: an honest native speaker who is willing to correct you and an efficient system for recording and revising these corrections.
There are various methods you can use. Some learners note down corrections and create whole sentence Anki flashcards which they can drill later. My preferred method is to write up my tutor’s corrections as short articles. She then records herself reading them and I listen to the audio files on repeat. Through doing this I internalise the correct sentence structures and pronunciation, a process which I’ve described in more depth here. Whichever system you choose it’s wise to approach the task of learning Chinese with the humble assumption that our memories are like sieves. Unless we take action to drill our persistent errors we shouldn’t expect them to spontaneously disappear.
How about you? Have you fallen into any of these pitfalls? How have you gone about climbing out of them? Let me know in the comments!
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