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#1 Know your Motivation
Do you know why you want to learn Chinese? Are you the ambitious entrepreneur? The curious student? The involuntary learner? The Chinese culture enthusiast? The linguistics nerd? Reality is seldom classified that easily though. Thus, you need to create your own language learning profile. Naturally, this will change over time, but that’s okay, the point is to make you aware of what you are doing and why. You can revise your profile as your attitude and your outlook change.
A strong motivation is necessary to succeed with an extended period of task; learning Chinese is definitely not an exception. Be aware of what makes you move forward.
#2 Set your Goals
Next, you need to set goals for yourself! What goals? Lots of them, in fact, on many different levels. You need to set long-term goals as well as short-term ones. Sometimes, you can also use micro goals that only spans a couple of hours.
Why are goals so important? Because they can tell you what you have to do and what you don’t have to do. Efficient learning is a lot about being able to ignore things you don’t need and spend the time you thus save on studying something really useful. Goals is also a way of measuring progress, and since learning things makes most people feel good, achieving goals likewise make you feel that you are getting somewhere, you are taking steps down that thousand mile road.
Long-term goals are destinations on your language learning journey. You wouldn’t set out in your car without knowing where you’re going and then hope to arrive at some specific place, would you? There are many kinds of them, some are easier to attain while others extremely hard. This is also an area where your teacher should use completely different approaches depending on what you want to achieve in the long term. Someone who wants to speak with a spouse is very different from someone who wants to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Chinese. If you’re not conscious about what you want to achieve, you can’t really expect the teacher to adapt to it, can you? Here are some common examples for Chinese learners:
• Be able to chat with a Chinese friend
• Understand a film in Chinese
• Be able to do business in China
• Be able to read The Journey to the West in Chinese
• Teach Chinese in your country
• Pass the highest level HSK exam
• Pass a university course taught in Chinese
Short-term goals stretch over days and weeks. These goals are as important as the long-term goal, but because they change a lot faster, you’re going to have to deal with them a lot more. Short-term goals are created by breaking down long-term goals, asking the question: What are the steps I need to take to achieve this long-term goal? Setting short-term goals is an art that requires lots of practice, and deep understanding about yourself and how you work as a person. Setting deadlines and making yourself accountable help a lot. Here are a few examples:
• Pass the exam on March 5th
• Go through all the sounds in Chinese
• Read five short texts
• Write at least ten diary entries
• Find a language exchange partner
• Learn the lyrics of five songs
Micro goals are even shorter term. They should be achievable in one sitting, perhaps less than half an hour. The idea here is to be able to stay focused on something concrete and tangible, with bigger goals in the background. Staying focused even for short periods of time is sometimes incredibly more productive than aimlessly learning words or otherwise studying without a specific goal in mind. Here are some examples:
• Learn the words for the basic colours
• Enter words from a chapter in your textbook to your computer
• Read one chapter in a book
• Write one diary entry
• Post a contact ad on a forum
• Review your long-term goals
#3 Get a Good Teacher
Nowadays you can easily pick up Chinese via apps, websites, or watching YouTube. Does it mean that you should learn Chinese without a teacher? Far from it! A teacher can provide invaluable guidance and feedback, as well as scaffolding and tailoring your learning experience in a way that is impossible without a teacher.
Beginners need teachers primarily for guidance, showing them what to learn and answering questions about Chinese. Naturally, they also need lots of feedback, especially on pronunciation. Advanced learners also need teachers, but the emphasis on feedback is much stronger here. Teachers can challenge advanced learners, encouraging them to leave their comfort zone and expand their horizons.
How much time you spend with a teacher depends on how much money and time you have, along with how much you enjoy doing things on your own. In a generic sense, a teacher is someone teaching you Chinese. It could be someone with certificate and formal training, someone you hire to help you out in private, someone you do language exchange with, or simply a friendly native speaker who agrees to help you. However, it’s important to be aware of the difference. A trained teacher with years of experience will probably already do most of the things I will recommend in this series, but it’s not guaranteed.
If you’re paying someone money to teach you, you have the right to expect a certain standard. The more you pay, the higher the standard. You can also be more direct in terms of training your teacher if you have a strictly professional relationship with them; if it doesn’t work out, you can just find another teacher.
If you’re not paying your teacher, you need to be much more careful; demanding that a friend teaches you in a certain way because you like it more, or request that a language partner talks with you in a particular way, could be bad for your relationship with that person.
Of course, finding a good teacher is important. The better your teacher is to start with, the less effort you need to spend improving your learning situation. Therefore, it makes sense to invest some time find a good teacher. Quality is at least partly related to price, but there are also great teachers who don’t charge sky high.
After having a lesson, ask yourself these questions, the answer to as many of the below questions as possible should be “yes”:
• Did the teacher adjust the content based on my expressed goals?
• Did the teacher make me feel confident to try new things?
• Did the teacher adjust her language to my level?
• Did the teacher use mostly words I know?
• Was the teacher patient and repeated or rephrased until I understood?
• Was the teacher patient and let me speak even if I needed time to think?
• Did I get along well with the teacher?
The importance of some of these questions depends on your goals. The most important thing is that you feel motivated to learn and that you spend the lesson practicing what you want.
#4 Take responsibility for your own learning
This is so apparent but cannot be emphasized more, you’re the one learning Chinese, you should be responsible. Even with an excellent teacher, you need to be aware of what you might be missing because of curriculum considerations, time restraints or mere neglect. Your Chinese level matters more to you than to anybody else, so you should be the one who is in charge. The problem is that most people start learning Chinese in a classroom with a teacher. Shifting the responsibility from yourself to your teacher is a serious mistake. No teacher is perfect and few know your situation better than you do. There are also many reasons why teachers won’t teach you what you need. It’s rarely about incompetence, but more likely for social reasons.
Many assume, falsely, that they could just do their best in class and if they did that for long enough, their Chinese would be perfect. Instead, they should analyze their own language ability from as many angles as possible, with the help of their teachers, and make their goals clear to their teachers. Teachers, language exchange friends and textbooks are valuable resources, but they are just that, resources, that can help you attain your goals. You should view them as something that you can learn from, not as something that will allow you to sit back and sink into a passive learning style. You are ultimately responsible.
Discuss your learning with your teachers, read what other people have to say and listen to what your native friends tell you, but even though these might all give you important advice, heeding them or not is your decision. Constantly monitor your own learning and see what you can improve.
Tell people what your ambitions are. If you’re aiming for pronunciation which is okay, but not perfect, say so. Tell them that you want to focus on grammar, correct vocabulary use or whatever, but do tell them what you want to learn. If you want to have good pronunciation, tell the teacher that you personally think that pronunciation is important. He or she will probably be very happy to help you. The sad thing is that this does not appear to be the default attitude.
Let’s remind ourselves that what you do as a student is incredibly important. Having a good teacher is no more important than being a good student. After all, a good teacher can’t do much if the student doesn’t put in the effort; but a diligent student can get far even if the teacher isn’t great.
#5 Train your Teacher
Successful learning requires that teacher and student work together: you need to adapt to your teacher and the language, but your teacher also needs to adapt to you.
Naturally, the advice here will be most useful for students who have one-on-one lessons with a teacher, since that allows for more flexibility. While the advice is equally applicable to a class of twenty students, your ability to influence what the teacher does drastically decreases as the number of students increases.
The current state of Chinese language teaching, or any foreign language for that matter, is far from ideal. In fact, there’s a lot of room for improvement. If you’re new to learning Chinese, you might not know that this is the case. And even if the teachers are great, they would still need to adapt to each individual student!
Naturally, there are many excellent teachers out there, but there are also teachers that are merely good, many who are mediocre and some that are outright bad. We are in this business for long enough to see through all that. Of course, we are also constantly improving ourselves.
How good a teacher is doesn’t only depend on abilities and knowledge. To perform well, a teacher also needs enough time, the right resources and supporting educational infrastructure.
Some suggestions on how you can ‘train’ your teachers:
• Ask for more honest feedback – You need a teacher to spot your problems and correct your errors. If necessary, be explicit and tell the teacher that you want honest feedback.
• Ask for stricter feedback – If you are at a level where you not only want the other person to understand, but you also want to use idiomatic Mandarin, you need to tell your teacher to raise the standard. And you will likely need to remind them of this occasionally.
• Explore alternative paths – You can actually get very far with being able to say something in just one way, but also understand other ways of saying it. Try exploring these other ways of saying things. Paraphrase, rephrase or simply experiment more under the guidance of your teacher.
• Explore new topics – Let your teacher know your topics of interest in advance. This could be related to your job or field of study. You can prepare and learn these necessary vocabulary beforehand, which means that lesson time is well-spent, since you already know them.
• Sort out nuances – One of the hardest parts of learning Chinese on your own is to sort out small differences in meaning, say between near-synonyms or grammar patterns that seem to mean the same thing. The most effective way to approach it is to go through with your teacher. Keeping a notebook is great; otherwise you’ll forget most of the really interesting questions. Please note that you need to be at a very advanced level before most of these minor differences matter!
#6 Make full use and wise use of lesson time
Maximize time quality – This answers the question of when to study what. When it comes to being taught Chinese, strive to focus on things where you actually need a teacher, since the time you have a teacher available is the highest quality of time you have. Learn how to ask the important questions to make sure you don’t waste teacher time on problems you could have solved on your own. Other things which you need a teacher: Get yourself exposed to Chinese adjusted to your level, working on your pronunciation, answering tricky questions you can’t figure out easily yourself, giving you plenty of examples of how grammar works and so on. Your best way to approach this as a student is to make sure you do your homework so you don’t have to do it in class.
Preview before every lesson – Doing so will improve your learning experience and it will free up your teacher to focus on things you wouldn’t be able to do if you hadn’t previewed.
Review what you have learnt – The same principle applies after lessons. If you don’t review what you have learnt, you’re essentially wasting both your own effort and the teacher’s. Don’t do it! Steaming ahead feels great, but don’t forget to consolidate the Chinese you have already studied.
Be open minded and maintain a positive attitude – This creates a constructive atmosphere and makes learning both more enjoyable and effective. Embrace the oddities in the Chinese language; don’t reject them. Chinese is fascinating and exciting, not weird and stupid. Many teachers hesitate to correct students’ pronunciation or rearrange their sentences so someone outside the classroom would understand what they’re saying. This can easily cement errors that will be almost impossible to fix later. As a student: treat feedback as a precious gift, be grateful, it’s one of the most useful things you can get from your teacher. Tell your teacher you want her to correct your errors. If you react defensively, you’re likely to get less feedback moving forward.
#7 Slowly but Steady
Some teachers tend to try to teach you too many things at once. If they correct you on a tone in a sentence and you try again, they point out that the word order is wrong. When you fix the word order, they switch focus again. This is true for instructors of all kind, not just language teachers. Voice out when necessary: just say you find it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time.
Teachers often gravely underestimate the difficulty of absorbing new characters, words and grammar. Going to class often feels like being in a typhoon of stuff you’ve never seen before and will forget as soon as the lesson is over. It takes hard work to learn something, and the amount of new language in a lesson should be kept low. The best way to alleviate this as a student is to try to stick to content agreed upon in advance (that you can therefore preview properly). Telling the teacher that you want to learn how to use what you have already studied before you learn new things can also work.
#8 Stick to Chinese as much as possible
In many Chinese classrooms around the world, the teacher is much more likely to speak the students’ native language, such as English, than Chinese, especially in beginner classrooms. This feels safer for the students and it’s easier for the teacher. Both teachers and students give up too early, reverting to their native language instead of persevering and trying to get through in Chinese. As a student, don’t give up! Encourage your teacher to repeat something many times, perhaps more slowly or slightly rephrased until you get it. Sticking to the target language will pay off in the long run, even if it is more demanding. However, will a 100% Chinese-only rule in classroom improve your learning?
Some language schools have a Chinese-only rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practice as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.
The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do than if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything. You can also avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practicing sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.
Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice; you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re more likely to end up speaking English.
#9 Not the rigid 100% Chinese-only rule though
While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a Chinese-only rule really as good an idea as it seems?
Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard, if not impossible, to do entirely in Chinese as a beginner. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand (the infamous “unknown unknowns”), you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is, in fact, not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what’s going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, using pictures, gestures and whatnot, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been higher.
Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practicing, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on. With this solid foundation, you can then learn the nuances of how these words are used in Chinese.
Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to the extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good.
100% Chinese-only rules are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to too much.
Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.