Mandarin is a complicated language to learn, but I often feel like people make it overly so by approaching it with this mindset. The traditional text book approach will have you memorizing grammar patterns to the point where if someone asks you a question in a slightly different way from what you are used to, you will just freeze up and stare at them. Don’t get me wrong, grammar practice and textbooks (though somewhat boring) have their place in the big picture, just don’t rely on them as your sole resource for learning Chinese.
Now I know what I am saying goes against the norm, but just hear me out, because I’m talking from experience. When I started learning Chinese after coming to Taiwan, I started by using a series of text books that my tutor had picked out for me. They were useful, and I learned a lot, but not from spending hours alone with them locked in my room away from the world. Most of my early progress was due to speaking with my tutor one-on-one during our weekly sessions in Taipei and getting the basics of the lesson down, then going back to Keelung and practicing with anyone I could find.
I know my Mandarin must have sounded awful back then, but I didn’t care. What’s more embarrassing? Making a conscious effort to speak a foreign language(in my case, I was the foreigner!) with native speakers of that language and build a cultural connection with them…and sound like an idiot (though pretty much any Taiwanese person you meet would appreciate your effort, as poor as it may be and likely inflate your ego with praise to boot!), or dedicating hours each day to learning a language and then not speaking it when you find yourself in a situation where you can converse with a native speaker, and instead fall back to speaking English because it’s easier. If your answer was scenario number two, you’re on the right track.
In many ways, learning a language is like learning how to ride a bicycle. You have your training wheels (all the useful grammar and sentence patterns you have learned), someone to guide you and show you the right path (a teacher, tutor or friend), and finally you must learn to do it on your own (go out and have a conversation! Look ma, no hands!)
I’ll share more of my experiences and views on language learning in the future (including my time spent studying Mandarin at NTNU, and loads of personal anecdotes), but for now let me leave you with a few of my core beliefs on how to succeed at learning Chinese (or any other language).
1. Think outside the box: Try different approaches, just because one works best for others, don’t assume it will work for you by default. There are four tones in Mandarin (five, actually if you include
qīngshēng輕聲 the light tone), but you’ll never get anywhere if you are determined to speak each tone deliberately. Don’t get me wrong, the tones are important and you need to practice them, but I feel it’s important to, drumroll please….just talk! You will never speak fluently if you are always second guessing and checking yourself.
2. Don’t be afraid: Get out there and get talking! That’s why you are learning the language to begin without right? Nobody’s going to bight your head off for trying, and if they do, just find someone else to talk to!
3. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again: If you say something that is inappropriate or strange by mistake, be able to laugh it off and learn from your experience. Once I was talking with a Taiwanese friend shortly after buying contact lenses yǐnxíng yǎnjìng(隱形眼鏡) and I mistakenly called them yǐnxíng yīnjīng(隱形陰莖) which translates to invisible penis! But I like to look at it as having a funny story to share with all of you here!
4. Find opportunities to further your language skills without having to “study”: Studying is a solitary activity, I prefer to go out and do things and speak Chinese while I do it. One way I do this is practicing martial arts, it’s a two for one deal, I get to learn cool ninja skills and further improve my Chinese at the same time! I’m also luck to have a Taiwanese fiancé and I constantly learn new things about Mandarin just by spending time with her and her family. Now, I’m not saying it’s mandatory to marry a Chinese person to learn the language(especially if you’re already married!), but it has its perks.
5. Have fun: You have your whole life ahead of you to speak Chinese, so make it count! Watch movies, read books, write poetry or pick up calligraphy! The only limiting factor on what you can do with your Chinese is YOU.
This is how I approach language learning, but you don’t have to blindly follow everything I say; in fact, take anything I, or anyone else, for that matter, says with a big grain, no make that a truck load of salt! It’s up to you to find your own path, I’m just a here to guide you along the way.