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Many articles on this website deal with attitude and this should be taken as a sign that I think this is something very important. I’ve talked to many people about studying Chinese and I’ve read about lots more. There seem to be two different approaches to learning a foreign language and learners place themselves somewhere between these two poles:
- Chinese is a fascinating language with myriads of unique and interesting features. Studying the language can be likened to a journey in an exotic land where there will always be something new and fantastic to look closer at.
- Chinese is weird and stupid. Studying Chinese means you have to learn lots of things which are completely illogical and you continuously run into useless and arbitrary obstacles you have to force your way through to get anywhere.
Talking about attitude, it’s not possible to say what is correct and incorrect, but I am going to say that the former approach is more useful if you want to learn Chinese (or anything else, for that matter). Associating negative feelings with learning is generally a very bad idea and potentially disastrous to your studies. If you think Chinese is too hard, perhaps this article might make you reconsider: Learning Chinese is easy.
Few people can adopt the positive attitude every minute of every day, but it’s definitely possible to make a conscious effort to move closer to that goal all the time. Your attitude is of course closely related to why you want to learn Chinese (if you’re forced to learn Chinese, you will probably be inclined towards a negative attitude), but personality is also an important factor. Even though you feel that you’re stuck with a bad attitude, you’re not doomed. You can change your attitude. Really.
Chinese is fascinating and exciting
If you approach the language with an open and curious mind, you will naturally learn more easily and have more fun while learning. Here are some areas where I’ve heard lots of people complain, but which can be sources of great joy if you turn them around and look at them in another, more positive light.
- Characters are pieces of beautiful art, fragments of living history and a continuous challenge on many planes. Writing calligraphy is an activity which goes far beyond simple writing. Characters are not unnecessary, so complex they can’t be understood or simply a number you have to cram in before you can say that you know Chinese. Characters can be understood and learnt.
- Pronunciation is a rich world of sound you didn’t know existed before. Meeting someone with a particular dialect is a chance to hear Chinese from yet another angle and trying different accents or dialects is fun. Pronunciation is not impossible and a person who has a different dialect from what you’re used to isn’t stupid because he can’t speak properly.
- Chinese society is as diverse as any other, perhaps even more so than most, and there are innumerable examples of this to experience and more people to get to know that you will have time to spend. Experiencing another culture can also help you understand your own. Chinese society is not backwards, conservative or dangerous, but it is probably very different from your own.
Chinese is different, not superior or inferior to other languages
The three examples above are different perspectives and not attempts to say what’s actually true; that’s not the point. The idea is that instead of regarding something as a problem or an obstacle, you should try to look at is a friend or a place you would like to get to know better and eventually understand and start to love.
Your native language is also weird and stupid sometimes
If you do encounter something you think is genuinely weird and stupid (it does happen), consider for a while that your language probably consists of lots of equally weird and stupid things that some foreigners don’t think highly of. Do you think that your language is weird and stupid? Probably not, because you understand it.
For instance, measure words in Chinese are put before nouns when they are counted, so “I have two cars” would be “I have two [measure word for vehicles] car”. This sounds very unnecessary to most people, especially when they find out that there are so many different measure words. But something similar is required in some situations in English as well. You can’t say “one snow” or “one water”, you need a measure word such as “fistful” or “bottle”, to complete these sentences. Furthermore, as Jason has pointed out in the comments, the plural marker “s” on “cars” in English in that very sentence is redundant in a similar way to the measure word in Chinese. “I have two car” is perfectly understandable (albeit incorrect) and that would be the case without the measure word in Chinese, too, at least in written form.
Ask basic questions, but don’t question the basics
Asking many questions to verify what you know or gain new knowledge is essential, but contrary to what many teachers tell you, not all questions are good questions. Whenever you ask questions, they should firmly belong to the positive, curious kind. If you ask why a certain sentence is ordered the way it’s ordered because you don’t understand, that’s good, but don’t ask questions like “Why are there so many difficult characters?”, “Why don’t they use tenses like we do?” or “Why can you put the time both before and after the subject?” These questions might be good for a thesis, but the answer (if there is one) isn’t likely to make the average student any wiser.
Don’t forget that Chinese is fascinating and exciting!
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