*I’m Learning Mandarin are helping organise immersive language retreats to give learners in the UK the chance to spend entire weekends away speaking only Mandarin with native speakers and advanced learners. To learn more about these events and to get involved go to mandarinretreat.com
As a Chinese learner based in the UK I’ve always been somewhat jealous of friends who’ve lived in China and experienced speaking Mandarin with native speakers for days on end. To be clear, it’s absolutely not necessary to go abroad to learn Chinese (I’ve managed to reach a reasonably advanced level without doing so). But being in a fully immersive environment remains the quickest way to progress in any language.
Given the state of play since the Pandemic, living in China has not looked like a realistic option for a while. With this in mind I searched online to see if there might be opportunities to attend Chinese language immersion programmes in the UK but the few options available were summer camps for children.
Then two weeks ago I finally got the chance to experience for myself what it’s like to live in a totally Mandarin speaking environment. I got a group of English and Chinese friends together and set off for a weekend in Scarborough on the North East English coast. We stayed in the same house, went for walks along the sea, cooked together, ate tonnes of Chinese food and watched Chinese dramas. There was only one rule: no English allowed except for emergencies.
We enjoyed the weekend so much that we’ve decided to organise similar events on a regular basis in future and would like to open it up to more Mandarin learners so you too can experience full Chinese immersion without buying a plane ticket to China (see below for more details).
At the start, when we met up on the Friday evening I was nervous and apprehensive. Over the past year I’ve spent hundreds of hours speaking Chinese, often having conversations and hanging out with native Chinese speakers for hours at a time. But that’s not the same as spending an entire weekend completely immersed in the language.
By Sunday evening, however, these nerves had evaporated. My Chinese was noticeably more fluent than it has ever been before and I was able to speak effortlessly, recalling words and phrases swiftly and with ease. It was as though my hard work over the previous years had suddenly been activated. My only disappointment was that it couldn’t go on for longer; sadly the next day I had to return to working in an English speaking environment.
Over the course of that weekend I picked up more Chinese than I would normally learn in weeks of study. My brain went into survival mode, convinced that understanding what those around me were saying and expressing my own thoughts effectively was vital. l learned tonnes of useful vocabulary and phrases related to everyday life which don’t usually come up in more abstract conversations with language exchange partners, or in podcasts about topics of interest.
Of the four English native speakers who took part in the weekend, two of us were advanced, one was lower-intermediate and one – blogger Lingo Geek – was at a higher elementary level. In my latest podcast Lingo Geek explained why he found the experience immensely helpful despite being at a lower level.
“The ability to listen to untamed full flow Chinese was a great advantage. And being able to communicate to people who patiently reply or if there’s something wrong with what you said they put back to you. I had my notebook and I came back from that weekend with so much new vocab and new sentences.
“Ever since then it’s been like an epiphany. This week I’ve had probably four or five voice calls. Before last weekend in normal conversation I’d have to check my comprehension was correct so many times or I’d just say 我听不懂 （I don’t understand). This week I’ve only had to ask once. I’ve been able to process what’s been said and been able to get meaning from it and be able to reply without having to check which has been great.
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