The Beginner’s Guide To Surviving a Weekend of Total Chinese Immersion

Lingo Geek is a language blogger, teacher and volunteer at Mandarin Retreat, organising immersive weekend trips for Chinese learners in the UK. In this blog he offers a guide for other learners participating in the retreats based on his experience.

If you use Twitter or are a Chinese learner in the UK, you may have heard a lot of talk recently about Mandarin Retreat. Small groups of Mandarin learners and native speakers are taken on weekend trips to scenic parts of the UK, such as Scarborough and Chester, where we cook, hike, play games and have fun together, all in Mandarin Chinese. Learners of all levels get to experience a totally immersive language environment while being supported to practice their Chinese.

As a volunteer organiser and elementary Mandarin learner these trips have formed a central part of my learning over the last few months. Thanks to participating in several retreats I’ve made much faster progress in my spoken Mandarin than I could have made with just my weekly combination of language apps, graded readers, tone drills and conversing online with exchange partners.

So I’ve prepared a 5-step before, during and after guide for other learners on how to get the most out of these immersion experiences and propel your Mandarin to the next level.

Before the Mandarin Retreat

1. Maximise Listening

In the weeks leading up to each event, I aim to do as much listening each day as possible. I listen to podcasts on the way to and from work, I fit in online chats with exchange partners whenever I have a spare 30 minutes to an hour. These are just as valuable as I can get feedback on my own speaking which will be fresh in my mind as well as listening to my exchange partner’s responses. I also ask my tutor for listening to be a focus of the lesson for those weeks and, funds allowing, I may book in an extra session here and there.

2. Prepare with a Tutor

Before each trip I prepare a list of topics and ask my tutor how to say phrases which I anticipate will come in useful during the weekends. My teacher records audio of these sentences and sent them for me to listen to and vocalise. These might include phrases like ‘how long have you been learning Chinese?’ when speaking to other learners or ‘where are you from in China?’ or ‘what’s your major/degree?’ for conversations with native speakers. Asking about hobbies or being able to ask someone to pass you something at mealtimes are both handy things to know. But for me, the most useful phrase to prepare is ‘how do you say that in Chinese?’.

During the Mandarin Retreat

3. Learn to accept when you can’t understand!

Even when you have prepared to the level I did, the initial onslaught of full-flowing Mandarin conversation once you arrive can make you feel like being in a small rowing boat charging into a 30-foot tidal wave. Somehow the podcasts just can’t compare. However, there are calmer waters ahead if you just hang on to the bits and pieces that you do understand and slowly tackle the bits that you don’t. Once the initial nerves subside, you realise that you are with like-minded people who want you to learn.

4. Mining Vocabulary and Sentences

Sentence mining is a key to success (for more on this technique read this blog). You need to become an opportunist sniping vocabulary and phrases from any source. I bring a pocket-size notebook for when I’m out and about, an A5 size for round the house and then a ‘neat notes’ pad where I review and copy up the words I’ve mined each day. When I don’t have access to my notebooks, I make notes on my phone.

I regularly have more rough notes than I have time to copy up but I’m constantly looking for opportunities to learn. The next step is once you’ve noted down new phrases, use them there and then! Only by using them will they lodge in your memory. I find if I don’t use new input straight away, it very soon gets forgotten!

After the Mandarin Retreat

5. Reviewing Mined Material

The weeks after an immersive event are vitally important and are best spent reviewing what I have learnt and using my new-found vocabulary in lessons with my tutor and with my exchange partners. This is a vital reinforcement period when my mind can relax from the intensive experience of an immersive environment and accommodate new material I have recorded.

For maximum effectiveness, put the sentences and phrases you’ve mined into a space repetition system like Anki and set aside a few minutes each day to flick through the flashcards.

I wish you luck with your own Mandarin journey and hope to see you at a Mandarin Retreat very soon!

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