My approaches to studying Chinese have evolved quite a bit since I first started this blog two years ago. Broadly speaking my view on how we learn languages remains the similar: I still believe we need huge amounts of input in order to acquire our target language and continue to advocate an immersive approach to Chinese learning.
But I’ve also changed my mind on several key issues. If I could travel back in time and offer the 2021 version of me some advice I’d start with the following five points.
1. There is more to language learning than input
Two years ago I believed that the more native content I consumed the better my speaking skills would become. In order to get better at speaking Chinese I had one job: read more books, listen to more podcasts and watch more Chinese movies. If I got the language inside of me, it would eventually flow out naturally. But shortly after starting this blog I began to notice that although my comprehension skills were steadily improving my speaking skills weren’t.
In several crucial respects my ability to speak Chinese clearly and accurately had stagnated. This was especially apparent in my tones and sentence structure. Although I had listened to many hundreds of hours of Chinese I still spoke with largely incorrect tones and awkward sentence structure. In order to remedy this I needed to take action beyond just immersing more. I’ve used this blog to document this process.
2. Drill whole sentences not isolated words
Two years ago my daily study routine consisted in drilling flashcards for around half an hour every day in order to expand my vocabulary. However, these flashcards tended to consist in individual words rather than whole sentences which meant that I wasn’t learning vocabulary in context. I would simply memorise the characters along with the pinyin and English translation.
Consequently, when speaking I’d often cobble words together awkwardly, sometimes causing people to misunderstand. I found the perfect solution to this problem in sentence mining. I began collecting whole phrases and sentences containing common Chinese structures. By drilling these – rather than individual words out of context – I was able to swiftly improve my sentence structure and express myself in a more natural way.
3. Tones matter way more than you think
I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that one of the first posts I ever wrote was an extremely misguided piece devaluing the importance of tones. Fortunately at that time very few people read this blog and I have long since deleted the post so that readers can’t be misled. At the time I was of the widely held opinion that attempting to memorise every tone for every piece of vocabulary was excessive and unrealistic. Instead I believed the best option was to listen to lots of native content and rely on my ear to mimic as closely as possible.
However, I’ve since realised from experience that listening and mimicing is not sufficient. In order to get to a point where I could communicate clearly I had to go through a process of deliberately retraining myself to hear, recall and pronounce tones accurately for all of my known vocabulary. I documented this process in-depth over several blog posts which can be read here, here and here.
4. Travelling to Chinese speaking countries isn’t the key
In 2021 I was living and working in the UK while studying Chinese in my spare time. Like many people, I believed I was at a significant disadvantage to other learners due to the fact that I wasn’t living in a Chinese speaking country. However I have since come to the opinion that living in Chinese speaking countries is not only unnecessary, in many respects it doesn’t give learners any significant advantages.
As I wrote in a recent blog, the key to success in Mandarin largely rests on how much you expose yourself to the language. Many people mistakenly believe that if they move abroad they will be surrounded by Chinese all the time. But having lived in Taiwan for the past six months I’ve observed that many learners get stuck living in English speaking bubbles and barely learn any Chinese even after living here for several years. At the same time I’ve interviewed learners who learned Chinese to a very high level despite never having even travelled to Chinese speaking countries.
5. Repetition and rote learning are not dirty words
It’s fashionable to bash traditional language learning methods. In particular, people like to rail against rote learning, memorisation and repetition. Although it’s true that basing your learning entirely or primarily on these methods is a bad idea, I think throwing them out altogether is also a mistake.
Over the past two years I’ve made good progress by embracing repetition. In particular I found it useful to write up my teachers’ corrections as short articles and then repeatedly listen to recordings of her reading them out. This helped me internalise the rhythm and tones which enabled me to mimic the pronunciation and prosody more closely. It also exposed me to the same sentence structures over and over again which I was then able to easily recall and use in conversations.
How about you? Has your approach and attitude to learning Chinese changed since you first started? Let me know in the comments!
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