Change your attitude to enjoy life and learn more Chinese

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/catalin82

With the right attitude, learning Chinese in China can make your life a lot more interesting. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense that you can communicate with people around you, which is great, but that focusing on the language can turn things that would otherwise be boring into interesting learning opportunities.

Attitude is the key

As is the case with so many other things in life, attitude is the key. Although we can influence what happens to us to a certain extent, life is chaotic and largely beyond our control.

However, we can influence the way we react to things that happen to us, and this matters greatly. .This is why I have written several articles about attitude and mentality in relation to learning Chinese.

To show you what I mean, I will list a number of scenarios and how different attitudes will make these situations completely different. The difference isn’t only in how much Chinese you’ll learn (which is important), it’s also about mental health. Focusing on negative things burdens your mind, focusing on positive things makes everything easier

I have argued before that you should try to regard the Chinese language as being fascinating and exciting rather than weird and stupid. The same goes for everyday life abroad (you could argue the same for your home country, although I want to stay closer to language learning here).

Scenario #1: Quarrelling neighbours

You’re living in a house where you can hear most of what your neighbours are saying. They seem to be a quarrelsome lot and there’s plenty of fierce arguments and quite a bit of bad language being used.

With the wrong attitude, this would be very annoying. You could complain for hours to your friends how inconsiderate your neighbours are and wonder why they got married if they fight every day. Whenever you’re at home, they would disturb your life and is this really the kind of thing you want to listen to as you fall asleep at night?

With the right attitude, this can be quite an opportunity. You can learn a lot of interesting words from people who quarrel (the above scenario isn’t made up, by the way), even if you perhaps should think twice before using that language yourself. These guys are giving you free language lessons at home, you ought to thank them! Don’t do that, however, I don’t think they would understand. Now, if your neighbours were doing something other than quarrelling very noisily, well, let’s just say you will learn different words.

Scenario #2: Boring lectures and speeches

Scenario: You find yourself in a situation where you have to listen to someone droning on about something you really don’t care about. You have better things to do. This could be a particularly boring lesson or lecture, or perhaps a public speech of some kind, it all depends on what kind of life you lead in general.

With the wrong attitude, this is a waste of time. With some luck, you can get away with reviewing flashcards on your mobile phone without anyone catching you, but if it’s a lecture or lesson, this might be risky (I know most of you would probably play games instead, but I advocate a 先苦后甘 philosophy).

With the right attitude, it doesn’t matter what the guy is talking about, just as long as it is in Chinese. Analyse his dialect, choice of words and sentence structure. This is of course easier if you happen to like pronunciation in general like I do, but paying close attention to how native speakers speak is never a bad idea. And don’t give me the “he doesn’t speak proper Chinese” if it’s not perfect Mandarin. China is a big country and people won’t adapt their language to our preferences, so deal with it. If you don’t understand what he says, focus on the bits you do understand.

Scenario #3: Transport delays

Scenario: You’re going by train somewhere and you learn that the train is delayed by two hours.You’re now stuck in an unwelcoming train station much longer than you intended. It might even be cold and start raining.

With the wrong attitude, this is a catastrophe because now you’ll waste two hours on the train station or on the bus.You can feel how time is slipping away and you need to cancel the activities you had planned for the evening.

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from a train station. To start with, there are probably hundreds of people around, so even if you aren’t the outgoing type who can just start chatting with random stranger, there are plenty of listening opportunities. Train stations also contain a lot of information in written form, so you can also practise reading.

Scenario #4: Long flights, bus or train rides

Scenario: Once you actually get on the train ride described it the previous scenario, you still have a five hour journey to your destination.The train is full of people and there is no internet. If you’re really unlucky, your batteries are running low too.

With the wrong attitude, this is just being on your way to somewhere. You might have brought a paperback in English with you or you might play games on your phone to kill time (murderer).

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from the people around you. The difference between a train station and a train is that people sitting next to you typically will stay next to you for some time. This both makes it easier to speak with them if you want to do that, but it also gives you more context in case you just want to listen in on what they’re saying to each other. If you don’t look Chinese, they might even talk about you!

Attitude matters

The point is that you have a choice. You probably can’t get your neighbours evicted or make them stop quarrelling, but you can change your attitude. You might find it difficult to avoid boring lectures or speech entirely, so you should do your best to enjoy them. It’s all in your mind. Sometimes, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can change the way you think about it. This is good for your mental health as well as your Chinese learning! If you’ve turned any other “negative” scenarios into learning opportunities, please share them in the comments below!

Hacking Chinese: Contradictory and provoking?

At the moment, there are roughly 150 articles on Hacking Chinese and although I doubt that anyone has read all of them (apart from myself, obviously), I know for sure that at least a few people have read most of what I’ve written. Sometimes, alert readers point out that I contradict myself, or at least present ways in radically different ways depending on situation. At other times, I exaggerate a point or neglect to mention something that perhaps ought to be mentioned.

contradictThis week’s article isn’t so much about learning Chinese, but more about Hacking Chinese itself and some reflection regarding my own articles. Still, understanding how to read articles on this website as well as others is of course key to improving one’s own learning. In a sense, this is an extended discussion of About opening doors and the paths beyond.

There is no golden path

I don’t exaggerate arguments or contradict myself because I’m so convinced that what I’m writing is correct that I don’t see any alternatives or because my opinions change rapidly . Instead, this is a deliberate effort on my part to make readers think about what they’re doing. In general, it’s useful to read about other people’s ways of learning, even if you think they’re wrong (see the article linked to above for more about this).

That doesn’t mean that you should heed bad advice, but it means it might be worthwhile to read (and therefore write) advice that presents different views on the same topic. Since Khatz over at AJATT has already put this very neatly, I’m going to quote him again:

Don’t be too smart to use good advice. Don’t be too humble to ignore bad advice. Don’t be too dumb to see the difference.

I have several reasons for writing articles here and only one of them is to present the way I think about a specific topic. Writing only balanced and self-critical articles would probably provoke readers less, which would result in less critical thinking on your part. Who says I should do all the critical thinking, eh?

Below, I will talk a little bit about how I write and how that affects you as a reader.

Contradictory articles

I have written one article that argues that Chinese is really easy, although it should be apparent to anyone who’s tried that learning Chinese is actually very hard. If it were easy, I wouldn’t feel motivated to write over a hundred articles about how to overcome different problems related to learning Chinese and you wouldn’t visit my website.

This appears to be contradictory, but in fact isn’t, that article is simply discussing things from different perspectives. In certain areas, Chinese is actually very easy, it’s just that in other areas it… isn’t. In a sense, both views are correct and both represent the way I think, even if they are slightly incompatible with each other. The real world is seldom black and white, but more like a kaleidoscope with myriads of swirling colours. To capture that, it’s sometimes necessary to deliberately omit something in order to highlight something else. Highlighting everything at once means no highlighting at all.

Deliberately exaggerated articles

Another example of this is exaggeration, where I argue a point much more forcefully than I would if I merely discussed an idea. For instance, in my article about the 10,000 hour rule (and elsewhere), I say that talent isn’t very important. This isn’t a lie, I really don’t think it is that important, but it is a deliberate exaggeration. I realise that talent might be important in a number of situations, but rather than weakening my own argument by discussing these, I tend to stress that talent isn’t that important, partly because it’s beyond our control anyway and not something we can manipulate or experiment with. We’re trying to learn Chinese here, not earn a degree in educational psychology.

It’s not that I avoid or ignore counter-arguments, it’s just that I choose one perspective and stick to that. What I want to say with “talent is not important” is so that people can’t use it as an excuse. Scientific studies might prove something else, but that’s beside the point. I usually provide a more critical look in the weekly newsletters.

Another very good example of this was the You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote article. Of course you can learn Chinese characters by rote, I just think it’s not a very good way of doing it. I know many people felt provoked by that article because they themselves have learnt Chinese through rote (just skim through the comments).

Of course, they might not have read very carefully or meet the criteria for “learnt Chinese”, but the fact still remains that the title of that article isn’t true. Part of the goal is to make you think, part of the goal is to make you think in the right direction. The former is more important than the latter.

How to read my articles (and articles in general)

I think my articles (and others’, regardless if they do it on purpose or not) should be viewed as thought-experiments, as alternative ways of viewing reality and the interesting challenge that is language learning. No-one will be able to give you the whole picture or the true story, but we might be able to give you a glimpse of the truth now and then. However, these glimpses aren’t shards or fragments that can be easily fitted together to form some kind of ultimate truth.

What I have done previously and will keep on doing is trying to provide insight into successful language learning. I will do it in different ways and from different angles. Sometimes these will appear to contradict each other, sometimes they might feel exaggerated, but they will hopefully be helpful for you.

Read the comments

In all, there are almost 2000 comments on Hacking Chinese. Some of them contain a lot of critical thinking, usually about what I’ve written, perhaps agreeing with 90% of an article, but finding the remaining 10% hard to swallow. You should read those 10%. I’m just one guy, there’s bound to be dozens of angles, ideas or perspectives I haven’t thought of. Reading the comments will give you a much more balanced view than only reading the article. Also, I encourage anyone who doesn’t agree with me to post comments. By doing so, you contribute to the diversity on this website and thus also to the value it offers learners of Chinese over the world. Thank you!

The really crazy ideas

Still, even though I think every thought or idea is worth thinking, not everything is worth actually trying out or writing about. We need wild and crazy ideas, such as “you don’t need to learn characters at all”, “tones are useless” or anything that challenges the current paradigm. Such thoughts provoke us to think in new paths and in new ways, which is essential in itself. That doesn’t make these ideas less crazy, though.

A good example of this is Benny Lewis’ quest to learn Mandarin to C1 level in three months. I was 100% sure that he would fail before he started, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad that he tried. Actually, it’s excellent, especially for people who don’t believe that he will succeed. It’s actually rather refreshing.

Why? Because he makes us think in new ways, he makes us motivate, consider and reconsider our own opinions. In doing so, we learn more about ourselves and our own studying. That’s great!

Conclusion

I can guarantee that I never deliberately misrepresent things on this website. I really do believe everything I write here, at least when I write it (it’s been a while since the first articles were written). I might make the important bits bigger and the rest smaller, but I will never deliberately misrepresent the subject I’m writing about. There are enough people with different ideas about learning Chinese out there and they do have some crazy ideas.

So, don’t only read what I have to say, check out what other people think. Read the comments to the articles, read other people’s websites (if you follow my Twitter feed, I keep a steady stream of links to other interesting articles about learning Chinese). I routinely post links to articles presenting ideas I don’t agree with, but are still worth considering.

Read, evaluate, apply, learn!

Have fun learning Chinese or else…

In numerous articles, I’ve stressed the importance of finding ways of studying Chinese that you actually enjoy. This is not some hippie-kind of encouragement or well-wishing. In fact, it’s not encouragement or well-wishing at all. It’s dead serious and it’s a warning. If you want to reach a high level in Chinese, you have to like what you’re doing. You have to enjoy the process in some way, otherwise you will never win through.

Source:sxc.hu/profile/armzak

In order to learn Chinese, you will need to spend an awful lot of time. In order to persevere and study for a long time, you need to like what you are doing. You need to have fun, otherwise you will never be able to bring yourself to spending the necessary amount of time.

This argument is connected to what I’ve written previously about talent versus effort: learning Chinese is much more about the time you send than anything else. This is a recurring theme on Hacking Chinese, because I strongly believe that the amount of time spent studying Chinese in some way is by far the most important factor that will determine your level of proficiency. The reason why most people who start studying a language don’t succeed is because they don’t spend enough time. Why?

Because spending thousand of hours doing something you hate is very hard

People are usually able to do boring things if required for their survival and comfort, but for the majority of people reading this article, studying Chinese doesn’t qualify as such an activity. It might work for immigrants needing Chinese for work or people who have family members who only speak Chinese, but those situations are exceptions rather than the norm. Some people might be able to force themselves through an education they don’t like, because they know something good awaits them at the end. Mastering Chinese takes a lot more effort than that, though, and if someone succeeds with that while thinking it’s boring, I think he ought to have his head examined, because something must be seriously wrong.

Have fun or else…

One of your main goals should be finding ways to study that you enjoy, not because they are effective or efficient, but because you feel that you can spend lots of time learning Chinese that way. This is the main reason why you should try different methods. Here are some concrete examples. If you love…

There are many ways to expand something you like, such as:

  • Finding friends who share your interest
  • Reading blogs about the topic in question
  • Writing about what you like on a blog
  • Talking with friends about what you like
  • Read books/watch films/listen to radio programmes

The point is that you should try to integrate what you like with what you want to do, thus making them one and the same. Imagine what it would be like staying up really late studying, not because you have to because of an exam, but because you really want to know how the next episode of a series ends, or you just have to understand the lyrics of that song that has been echoing in your head the past week. Achieving such a mental state is the ultimate goal. If you can do it, you will master Chinese.

Fun/interesting/entertaining

I’ve used these three words more or less interchangeably in this article. I want to clarify that the name of the game is “whatever floats your boat”. You might find things I like utterly boring and I might not be interested in your hobbies, but we don’t need to care about that. You’re studying the language, as long as you like it it’s okay.

It can’t be fun all the time, but always try to make the best out of the situation

Before I round this off, I want to point out that I don’t mean to say you have to giggle your way through every second of studying. However, I am saying that how much you enjoy doing something is one of the most important factors for how successful you will be.

For instance, I think spaced repetition software is really good, but if you hate reviewing vocabulary this way, you should do your best to find a way of reviewing which suits you better (a viable alternative is to read and listen a lot). If you dislike something which is essential or forced on you by someone else (your teacher, most likely), make the best of the situation, try to find way that make the task suck just a little bit.

Having fun is about more than just having fun

The point is, if you start hating Chinese, you’re doomed. It’s okay to think some parts are boring, but do everything you can to nurture a positive attitude. This is not about having fun all the time, instead it’s about having as much fun as possible. How fun you actually have depends mostly on your attitude, but also on your current situation and what external factors influence your studying. Don’t forget that having fun is not only fun (duh), it’s also more efficient!

Language is communication, not only an abstract subject to study

According to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the word “language” is defined as follows:

a system of communication by written or spoken words, which is used by the people of a particular country or area

That languages are about communication should come as a surprise to no-one, but if you think about it, how often do you study Chinese with communication in focus? If you study somewhere else than China, the likelihood is that your contact with native speakers is quite sparse, perhaps even non-existent. I studied French for seven years in Sweden without actually using the language in a real situation more than a few times! This is absurd, but still a reality for many people.

In this article, I will talk about the importance of communication. It’s mainly directed towards those of you who don’t live in a Chinese-speaking environment, but the rest of you will probably find some interesting things as well.

Source: sxc.hu/profile/marczini

Two-way communication from the very beginning

If you’ve just started learning Chinese, you should start communicating immediately. Find someone to practise with as soon as possible,  don’t wait until the day you’re “proficient enough”, because that day is only drifting farther and farther into the future for every second you’re harbouring that kind of thought. There are many ways you can find Chinese speaking friends, pen pals and language exchange partners. Here are some suggestions:

There two reasons why you should do this:

  1. It creates a real need for communication
  2. It makes you understand that Chinese is a real language

Let us consider these points one by one. The first one is rather straightforward. Having something you want to say to another human being, but that you are currently unable to communicate, is a much stronger incentive to learn than almost anything else. Writing a very basic self-presentation might seem boring and pointless, but if you’re going to use it to find friends, it suddenly becomes important. You won’t spend time writing it only because you want to pass the course that requires you to write the presentation, you’ll also do it because you want to communicate with other people.

The second point might not be obvious at first, but it ties in with what I said earlier about lacking contact with the real language. It’s possible to study for many years and only see textbooks and teaching materials designed for foreigners. Of course, no sane person doubts that China exists and that a majority of Chinese can speak Mandarin, but actually getting in touch with native speakers makes this certain beyond doubt. Don’t create a barrier between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world. Sure, they aren’t one and the same, but it’s important to create links between the two.

Communication as motivation

If you’re regularly communicating with natives, you will find that there are lots of things you need to learn and areas where you need to improve in order to make yourself better understood. As a beginner, you might realise that your tones are off and that you need to practice those, as an advanced learner, you might realise that you need to work on your vocabulary to be able to choose more suitable words to express what you want to say. Regardless of your level, real communication is a much more powerful motive force than exams, grades or anything else related to the classroom. Anything that strengthens your motivation to learn is good, so make sure you’re not studying only for the sake of studying!

Inside vs. outside the classroom

Contrary to what seems to be all the rage among language learning bloggers, I’m not going to say that classroom learning is useless. Sure, there are significant differences between learning inside and outside the classroom and the two can and should be used for different things. What bothers me is that for many students and teachers, it seems like the two ways of learning are completely separate and isolated. It needn’t be like this, aspects of real communication can and should be a part of classroom learning as well.

I will return to classroom learning in another article, so today I’ll just say that you can make classroom learning much more effective by linking it to the real world. If you’re a teacher, I think it’s your responsibility to help students with this (or arrange it for them if possible). If your a student yourself, you can create these links on your own.

Don’t isolate yourself, join the world!

I studied languages in isolation for a long time. I think I studied French for five years before I spoke French to a real French person. I even repeated this mistake with Chinese and didn’t speak much Chinese before I moved to Taiwan. I say “mistake” because communication with other people lies very close to the heart of what it is to be human. Tapping this need for communication is essential, perhaps even necessary if we want to have the energy required to learn Chinese. It’s also an excellent tool to help us find out what we should improve.

What I’ve said here is in no way limited to having conversations, reading and writing are also means of communication. For instance, learning to read characters because you want to read a certain book or an interesting comic is much butter than learning them in order to pass the next exam. Another example is practising listening ability in order to understand films and TV shows. It doesn’t really matter what area we’re talking about; don’t isolate yourself and your language learning from the real world. The language and its speakers are out there, go join them!

The 10,000 hour rule – Blood, sweat and tears

Is mastering a subject mainly about innate gifts or about hard work? If it is about hard work, how long does it take? The first of these questions has of course been attracting people’s attention for a long time, but it’s not the people who ask this question who are in trouble, but those who don’t even think it is question in the first place.

The traditional (or fraud-proof) character for 10,000.

Too many seem to assume that learning anything (especially languages) is about being talented and having a gift for learning (again, very common for language learning). Although it’s arguably true that some people seem to learn languages more easily than others, this is far from the whole truth.

In this article, I’m going to argue that learning Chinese is mainly about blood, sweat and tears, not talent. Of course, if you’re wise, you’ll find ways to bleed, sweat and cry that you actually enjoy or at least think is worthwhile, but hard work is still what will propel you forward, not some inner ability you were (or weren’t) born with. Similarly, saying that you can’t learn because you don’t have the gift is equally invalid. If other people can work hard to master Chinese, so can you.

The talent myth

I think what people usually call “talent” starts from early childhood, meaning that it’s something grown or learnt rather than something being genuinely innate  In school, pupils are very quickly sorted into categories: those who are smart and those who aren’t. If you’re the smart type, you’ll get lots of encouragement from your environment, but if you’re unfortunate enough to be placed in the other category, then you’ll have a more difficult time.

The problem is that people base their ability to learn something on what they did in school, perhaps ten or twenty years ago. I’ve read about and heard innumerable people state that they can’t learn a language and then follow it up with “I took French evening classes and it was really hard” or “I studied German for six years in school and I still can’t speak the language”.

This is nonsense. These people aren’t assessing their own ability to learn, they’re simply saying that under that kind of circumstances, they weren’t able to learn the languages to a satisfactory level. Then they go on and read about the polyglots who travel the world to learn many languages, usually very quickly. Even though I have argued that learning Chinese in just a few months is, depending on definitions, impossible, that’s not saying you can’t learn an awful lot. Let’s take French as an example, simply because I have studied French for more than six years in school and still can’t speak very well (in other words, I was once one of the people I criticise above).

Practice is counted in hours, not in years

If someone claims to have learnt French in just a few months, most people would either say that it’s a lie or that the person is extremely talented. Neither is necessarily true (although both might be, of course). The mistake people make is that they count practice in years and not in hours. Let me illustrate with a short dialogue:

A: Have you studied any foreign language?
B: Yes, I’ve studied French.
A: For how long?
B: Six years.
A: Wow! You must be very good then.
B: No, I can hardly communicate with natives.

This dialogue is weird only if you think that six years means six years of serious studying, because then you really should be very good at French. But if B in this dialogue only took one hour of evening classes every second week for six years and did no homework, I don’t think he’d be able to communicate very well, even after six years.

Don’t compare with your high-school French class

Let’s look at the numbers of a more realistic example. Let’s say that I study French in school for six years. That means roughly 40 weeks/year because of holidays and so on. Most people don’t have class everyday, let’s say we have three hours of French each week and do two hours of homework, then this adds up to 200 hours in one year or 1200 in six years.

Compare this with the serious language learner, immersed in the language and doing nothing but studying. Realistically, it’s very hard to maintain a lifestyle where you do nothing but learning languages, but for a short period of time, I know it’s possible to study non-stop, but let’s say 14 hours/day, which gives plenty of time to sleep, eat and so on. If you do that for three months, you’ll end up with 1260 hours.

As we can see, the avid language learner totals more hours in three months than an average high-school student does in six years.

The 10,000 hour rule

What can we learn from this? Mainly, we learn that what seems to be impossible feats of talent is in reality the result of hard work (counted in hours), although concentrated in a short duration of time (counted in years). We also learn that by erroneously comparing someone else’s learning process to our own experience, we draw incorrect conclusions about how others achieve success. We tend to dismiss expertise simply as the result of innate ability, which is wrong. Some subjects are more prone to this than others. For instance, would you attribute a surgeons skill to innate ability? What about a musician? Do you realise how many hours an Olympic gymnast has practised when you watch him or her on TV?

Let’s see what Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who is usually attributed with popularising the 10,000 hour rule) has to say about this:

Basically, the 10,000 hour rule states that if you want to get good at something, you need to spend approximately 10,000 hours practising. Gladwell claims that this figure is relevant for many fields, but I don’t really care about the exact number. The point is that it’s there and that it’s there without referring to talent. Anyone can spend 10,000 hours if they really want to.

Experience and deliberate practice

Note that “practice” in this case means deliberate practice, i.e. striving actively to become better by challenging yourself. Most people who practice simply do so in a passive manner, which doesn’t really count (or if it counts, it counts less than true deliberate practice). Anders Ericsson, a pioneer researcher in the field of deliberate practice,makes a clear difference between deliberate practice (top musicians) and ordinary experience (everyday activities). Since this is a major topic of its own, I’ll save this discussion for an upcoming article.

Conclusion

What I want to say in this post is very simple: Learning Chinese takes a long time (measured in hours, not in years) and hard work. If you’re smart, you’ll make sure the road is enjoyable, but you’ll still have to walk it. Each persons road might be different, but it’s simply not the case that someone else’s road is half as long as yours, provided you have roughly the same background.

So, don’t use talent either as an excuse not to learn, either because you think you’re talented and therefore don’t need to study, or, perhaps more commonly, because you think you aren’t talented and therefore can’t learn. Everyone can invest 10,000 hours if they really want to and if they think it’s worthwhile. As I’ve stated earlier, the number itself isn’t the point, what’s important is that it’s there and that you have no real excuse of not getting there, provided you are really interested.

Reaching your goal might take more or less than 10,000 hours, but whatever the true number is, it’s still an indication that you can and need to study, regardless of talent.

Understanding regionally accented Mandarin

Many people who don’t study Chinese think of the language as being as homogeneous as English (after all, American and British English are very similar). Why would dialects in Chinese be any different? Well, the first problem is the word dialect. If we’re comparing Mandarin and Cantonese, these are dialects in the sense that they belong to the same language family as is the case for German and Swedish, rather than in the sense that Cockney is a dialect of English. The word for dialect in Chinese is 方言, and the dialect typically influences the way people speak Mandarin. This is usually called regional accents, so we have people from Taiwan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and so on, all with their different ways of speaking Mandarin. This accented Mandarin should not be confused with Taiwanese, Shanghai dialect or Cantonese, though.

Chinese Dialects (source: wikipedia)

Very few people speak perfectly standard Mandarin, just as very few people in Britain speak perfect RP at home. Thus, when we speak with Chinese people, we have to be able to understand what people say to us, regardless of where they come from. At first, this looks like a daunting task, because even slight differences in sounds might make you unable to understand anything of what’s being said. Anyone who has arrived in a new place with a new accent will surely know what I’m talking about.

I remember a few confused situations, all taking place during my first year in Taiwan, but the examples I bring up here are mostly relevant for the southern part of Mainland China as well. Do you have any examples of your own? Please leave a comment!

Tea, happiness and familial bliss?

I was out walking late at night and wanted to have some green milk tea. None of the stands selling tea were open, so I headed over to a convenience store (ubiquitous in Taiwan). I placed the tea on the counter and handed over the money and was about to turn around and leave when the clerk suddenly asked:

yào jiā lè ma?

My brain couldn’t parse this. I shook my head in confusion. The guy looked at me compassionately and said it again, more slowly this time. He could probably see the vocabulary lists scrolling in my brain. Do you want to add happiness? Do you want a happy home? No, sorry, I don’t understand. Then, eureka! He was asking:

yào jiā rè ma? (要加热吗/要加熱嗎)

I.e. if I wanted him to heat the tea for me! He just pronounced /r/ as /l/. Beginner mistake, I should have figured this one out, but I didn’t.

There is no něng, or is there?

The next example left me even more perplexed. I was waiting for the bus with a friend and she asked me:

nǐ bú huì něng ma?

This particular friend usually speaks very good Chinese (or at least, I’ve heard other people say so), so I didn’t expect anything fishy. But still, I was pretty sure that there is no neng3 syllable in Mandarin, or if there is, I definitely didn’t know about it. She repeated the question several times, but it was only when she hugged herself as if freezing that I realised that she was asking me if I was feeling cold or not:

nǐ bú huì lěng ma? (你不会冷吗/你不會冷嗎)

This time, /l/ had turned into /n/. Check Albert’s blog for another prime example of l/n confusion.

How’s your humu?

The last example comes from a radio program. I’ve forgotten what it was about now, but there was a guy talking for about 20 minutes about his “hùmǔ”. I had no idea what a “hùmǔ” was, but I thought that I would find out if I just listened carefully enough. After a while, I figured out that it had to be family related. Then, suddenly I realised that he had been talking about his parents all the time, he just pronounced 父母 as “hùmǔ”, switch f/h.

Learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin

So, where do these examples leave us? It’s obvious that we have to make considerably adjustments to our mental maps of the Chinese language when we start to speak with people who aren’t teachers or news broadcasters. As usual, this is first and foremost a question of attitude. This is my opinion in a nutshell:

If you don’t understand what someone is saying to you, it’s your fault

This sounds simple enough, but I’ve heard so many people rage and rant about how people from such and such a place can’t pronounce certain sounds or speak Mandarin which is completely unintelligible. This might indeed be true, but that’s that’s not the problem. Will the phenomenon go away if enough foreigners complain online? No, of course it won’t. So deal with it. This is the way the world works and it’s up to you to handle it. Fuming about it won’t help.

Instead, start liking regionally accented Mandarin. Make a conscious effort to think “charming” and “interesting” instead of “weird” and “stupid”. A shift in attitude can do wonders. Sure, it might be more easily said than done, but it’s definitely possible. Perhaps you won’t end up loving how people from Chongqing, but it will help you understand.

Some practical advice

In short, there are a few things we can do:

  1. Diversify your listening practice
  2. Experience the accents and learn from that
    1.1  Travel around China to immerse yourself in certain accents
    1.2  Watch TV programs/shows with normal people in them
    1.3  Talk to new people/strangers
  3. Read about the characteristics of these accents
  4. Mimic dialects in order to understand them better

Of course, these aren’t mutually exclusive, so I would suggest talking with lots of people and looking up their various dialects.

It’s mostly about getting used to it

As is the case with listening ability in general, learning to understand regionally accented Mandarin is mostly about getting used to it. After you’ve heard people who switch sound A for sound B talk for a while, you’ll get used to it. Of course, there are many, many A and B, so you need lots of practise, but the principle remains the same. The important thing to understand, though, is that regionally accented Mandarin isn’t that hard to understand once you learn some systematic changes. It might sound like a different language, but provided that your listening ability is okay in general, once you break the code, comprehension will increase very quickly.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking that regionally accented Mandarin is dangerous, bad and incomprehensible to thinking that it’s quite charming, good and not that hard once I actually try to learn. I think this journey could have been completed much, much faster if the thoughts in this article would have been available to me when I first arrived in Taiwan.

Addendum: I’m mostly talking about pronunciation here, but it should be noted that there are also differences in vocabulary and grammar. However, a vast majority of the language remains the same, so in my opinion, pronunciation is a much bigger problem than vocabulary and/or grammar.

Advancing in spite of praise

Do you find the topic of this article a bit weird? Isn’t praise something encouraging that makes us want to learn more and that enables us to stay focused longer? Yes, definitely, but I also believe that for some people and in some cases, praise can be a serious obstacle on the road to mastering Chinese. Praise in itself is of course not a problem, but depending on how praise affects your way of thinking, it might make it really hard to advance beyond the basics.

People are always encouraging; this is good

Source: flickr.com/people/kacascade/

Studying Chinese, I have seldom come across people who criticise my Chinese in any way without explicitly being asked to do so. This is probably the result of normal politeness; we simply don’t criticise people we don’t know very well. Therefore, in my experience, learning Chinese is fun, because no matter what I said in the beginning, people were very encouraging. They said my pronunciation was very good, asked how long I had been studying Chinese and similar questions. I’m sure most learners recognise this kind of situation. It’s like starting on a Marathon having people cheering you on. It definitely makes the experience more worthwhile.

People are always encouraging; this is bad

However, the problem is that some people will praise you regardless of what you say. You might actually have really lousy pronunciation with you tones all over the place and incorrect word order, but people will still praise your Chinese to the hills. At an intermediate and advanced level, this becomes a serious problem, because everybody is comparing you to the other foreigners they might know, who speak no Chinese at all beyond “hello”, “thank you “ and “two beers, please”. I have written a separate article about the illusion that pronunciation (tones in particular) isn’t important: The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say

If you simply regard them as people happily cheering you on, then it’s fine, but it’s very easy to start using these people to evaluate your progress.. If you do, you will get stuck at a level where you can communicate in Chinese, but you will never reach any kind of fluency or proper pronunciation. It’s one thing being encouraged by someone telling you that your pronunciation is excellent and another thing believing that it’s true.

Compare yourself to a proper standard

The problem is that you can’t use “the average foreigner” as a target model for your Chinese learning, because you will become better at Chinese than the average foreigner very quickly if you make a serious effort. Personally, I tend to compare with myself and want to become better all the time, not necessarily as good as or better than some external standard. It doesn’t really matter what you do, but you really shouldn’t take what other people tell you as any kind of assessment of your Chinese ability unless they are professionally trained to do so or happen to be very frank and straightforward individuals. Take what people tell you for what it is: positive encouragement, and leave it at that.

Advanced level, really? My Chinese sucks!

This problem becomes even more exaggerated at an advanced level. On this website and in general, I tend to define “advanced” as a level where you can communicate with reasonable fluency about anything, and learning has mostly turned into learning how to say things correctly rather than just making people understand what you mean.

I reached this level quite some time ago and I normally receive tons of praise for my Chinese. When someone tells me my pronunciation is good or that my whatever is excellent, I smile and nod and say thank you. But in my heart I know that my Chinese sucks. Of course, I might speak Chinese much better than any other foreigner these people have met, but is that really what I want to achieve? No! If that were the case, I could have stopped studying Chinese years ago.

Compared with native speakers or truly advanced second language learners (remember that I’m not a native speaker of English, for instance), my Chinese is really, really bad. Sure, I have a solid foundation, I know a reasonable amount of words (around 20 000 in Anki at the moment), but that’s it. I have a long, long way to go. And, most likely, you have too.

It’s a long journey ahead

This article is not about bashing people who cheer us on, who want to make our journeys a little bit easier. I think that having this kind of support and encouragement is essential and sometimes I really need to feel good and not fret about how much I have left to learn, if just for a little while.

No, this article is about regarding praise for what it is. In most situations, it’s like someone cheering on an Olympic athlete during a Marathon: they have no idea what it means to run a Marathon and will think that running it at all is worthy of praise. They don’t realise that four hours is a really bad time if you aim for the world record.

Still, most people would rather have people cheering them on than running in complete silence. So do I, of course. All I’m saying is that you shouldn’t use the cheering of the crowd as a measure of how quickly you are running.

Enjoying the journey while focusing on the destination

Many articles I write come across as quite ambitious and not a little solemn. Reading articles such as The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese or Benchmarking progress to stay motivated, it might seem like I’m a robot that views learning Chinese simply as a difficult mountain to scale, and that reaching the top as quickly as possible is the only thing that matters.

Image credit: flickr.com/people/rupertuk/

Even though we all have our different ways to climb, I think it’s safe to say that most of us want to improve and learn more, whatever goal we’re striving for. Some long-term goals take a very long time to accomplish, so simply aiming for the top and trudging on is not only daunting, I think it’s impossible for most people to keep up in the long run. Therefore, in this article I will talk about why I think rewards in the short-term perspective are absolutely essential when learning anything. Another way of saying that is that you need to have fun if you hope to reach the top of the mountain.

Learning Chinese for the thrill

Come on, my friends, let’s make for the hills.
They say there’s gold but I’m looking for thrills.
You can get your hands on whatever we find,
‘Cause I’m only coming along for the ride.

– Pink Floyd, “The Gold, It’s In The…”

Personally, I started learning Chinese simply because I found it interesting and I wanted to see what it was like. I wasn’t interested in reaching the top of the mountain and I sure wasn’t interested in finding gold. I was only coming along for the ride, so to speak. Then, the more I climbed, the more I found that the climbing itself was fascinating. I discovered that the challenge of learning Chinese in itself was more interesting than anything I had tried before. After spending many years on the mountain, I’ve become interested in climbing ever higher, not because I think there is a pot of gold at the top, but because I’m curious to find know all the different parts of the mountain.

…or to find the pot of gold

I’ve taught a number of introductory courses in Chinese, usually for people who will study several years of Chinese integrated in other university programs. Each time, I ask people why they want to learn Chinese, partly because I’m curious and partly because I think it’s important that they know why they are studying. A significant number of students say that they study Chinese to find better jobs, earn more money or add a feather in their caps in some way. In other words, they’re climbing the mountain to find the pot of gold. Some of these students, when I ask them why they chose Chinese and not another language, they refer to the rise of China, which doesn’t come as a surprise at all.

However, this tells me that what they are doing is really trying to climb a really high mountain simply to find gold at the top. I think  that most people can’t force themselves to do something for many years simply to achieve something at the end of that period. Yes, if your life depended on it, I’m sure you could do it, but for people living in fairly comfortable, developed societies, the motivational force just isn’t strong enough. Fortunately, this isn’t really a problem.

Why not study for the thrills and the gold?

There is nothing that says that you can’t study Chinese both because you think the progress is interesting in itself and because you want to find something at the top of the mountain. I personally know that I need both to be happy with my studying and my life. I study Chinese because I think it’s fascinating, but also because I want to use Chinese professionally in my career. I want to reach a certain level and I want to do it relatively quickly, not because it’s a goal unto itself, but because it opens other doors for me, perhaps with new, different mountains to climb. I won’t talk more about gold in this article, neither real nor metaphorical gold, but I will talk more about thrills and the journey itself.

It’s the journey that counts

This cliché is old as the mountain itself. However, looking closer at it, there is more to it than most people think. If we hope to scale a high mountain, isn’t it going to be a lot tougher if we think that every step (or misstep) along the way is a pain? Each time we take a wrong turn or get stuck somewhere, it would count as lost time. Frustration and increasing pressure. But if we flip the coin and regard the journey as the essential part of the climbing, everything we do on the mountain becomes interesting it itself.

Choosing your way up the mountain

We are all different and what counts as enjoyable is highly subjective. There are many, many ways of learning Chinese and it’s obvious that we should choose methods that we enjoy. The important thing is that we have to enjoy what we’re doing, because otherwise the journey up the mountain will kill you rather that thrill you. As I’ve already said, “enjoy” is a vague word, but what I mean here is that when you study Chinese, you have to find ways that you genuinely enjoy. If you don’t, your learning will either be a source of great stress and frustration or you will fail and abandon the task altogether.

One powerful way of making learning interesting is simply to integrate it with something you already think is fun to start with. Here are a few concrete examples:

  • If you like playing games, why don’t you try to find Chinese versions of the games you play? I’ve recently played some StarCraft 2 in Chinese, which allows me to combine something I like (playing computer games) with learning Chinese. The result is so awesome that I’m probably going to write an article about it.
  • If you like music, why don’t you make music a source for learning Chinese? Try finding artists playing the kind of music you usually like (even though some genres are less popular in China, you can almost always find something) and use the lyrics as a source for learning the language.
  • If you like fashion, why don’t you start following some related blogs, written in Chinese? Of course, it might take you a while to understand everything if you’re a beginner, but the idea is that you read the blogs because you like it, not because you want to achieve something in the long run.

I could make the list a lot longer, but I think the idea is clear enough. Balancing enjoyment and progress might be difficult, but my advise in general is that enjoying yourself is more important than making hasty progress. If you’re going to read a book in Chinese, choose something which avoids drowning you in difficult words (if that stops you enjoying the book) and which allows you to enjoy the reading instead. If you want to improve your listening ability, find material you’re genuinely interested, don’t force yourself to just listen to textbook audio.

Enjoying the journey while still staying focused on the destination

I know that many learners of Chinese do have clear goals of what they want to learn (I have, too). However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy yourself along the way. I don’t say that the journey is important because it sounds fancy, I do it because I think it’s an essential part of a healthy attitude towards studying. Learning Chinese to an advanced level takes thousands and thousands of hours of hard work. If you hate every second of it, are you really likely to invest the time necessary to succeed? What if you love at least a significant part of that time? If you can make studying become interesting regardless of what the final destination is, you have achieved something marvellous which will allow you to reach your goal.

As you can see, there is possibly a paradox here. If we focus only on the destination, we will fail because the road is too long and we need something in the short-term that will keep us motivated and keep our spirits high. If we focus only on the journey, we risk getting lost and not finding our way up the mountain at all. This might be an acceptable outcome for some people, but for others, enjoyment alone is not enough. Personally, I think that this doesn’t need to be a paradox and that we can find ways to do both most of the time. Sure, we might not enjoy every second of studying, but neither should we prioritise advancing quickly over enjoying what we’re doing. The key to learning anything to a high level is finding ways to practise that focus on both the journey and the destination simultaneously.

If you hope to master Chinese, I think that is what you should do.

Achieving the impossible by being inspired

I have had the opportunity to pursue many of my dreams and ambitions in life (learning Chinese is one of them) together with other people, sometimes with long-time friends, sometimes with new acquaintances. With time, I’ve gradually become aware that there seem to be two things that separate myself from many of the people I’ve met. I think that I have a very healthy attitude towards failure, progress and competition that helps me achieve what I want, usually with support from people around me.

I didn’t know Chinese when I was born, neither did I learn it by magic

It’s absolutely astonishing that people really seem to believe that skill X is something innate, that the performer could do it when he or she was born, or at least that the skill X was somehow magically acquired at some point in the past. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say “How can you do that? How is that possible?” This can be said about anything, but apart from being able to speak Chinese, I usually hear it about unicycling, diving or Rubik’s cube.

The question “How can you do that?” might look innocent, but I think it hides a ton of prejudice and negative thoughts that is stopping you from achieving whatever it is you want to achieve. To be blunt, the question is inane and the answer is obvious:

I’ve practised a lot.

It’s as if the person asking this question thinks that I could speak Chinese fluently since the age of five or that I could perform some difficult dive when I was ten. This is wrong. I started learning both Chinese and diving when I was around 23.

Yeah, yeah, but perhaps people are just asking this because they don’t know what to say? It’s more of a rhetorical question than a real question, you might say. I think that’s wrong. Saying “How can you do that?” implies that the connection between practice and end-result isn’t obvious, because then you would say something else. If I see someone who can do something I can’t and do it extremely well, my first reaction is curiosity. I might want to know how he or she practised or what kind of skills it involves.

What about talent?

I think the notion of talent is yet another barrier behind which people protect themselves form success. If it requires a ton of talent to be able to learn Chinese fluently, it means that you have an excuse if you don’t learn the language. You can just say that so and so is more talented, and that’s it. You’re not talented enough. This argument fails to take into account the fact that language learning (and many other tasks) requires a vast amount of time to accomplish. Talent might be a factor, but hard work is what really counts. Saying that something requires talent and that therefore you can’t do it is just a bad excuse. You can continue saying that if you wish, but you would benefit a lot more if you recognised the fact that most endeavours in life are about 95% hard work and 5% talent.

Practise makes perfect

Are you surprised when you go to the hospital and the doctor is accurately able to say what’s wrong with you? Do you marvel at the fact that a bridge doesn’t fall down when you drive over it? Do you feel awe when someone repairs the plumbing in your home?

Probably not. You know that the education needed to make these things work take years to finish. No-one is born a doctor, an engineer or a plumber. If you really wanted to and had the time and the opportunity, I think most people could learn those professions as well. The same is true for learning Chinese. The point is that no-one knows anything when they’re born. We learn things and we keep on learning things after we’ve grown up.

It’s easy to focus just on the pinnacle instead of the foundation on which it is based

I can’t remember who said this, but someone thought that the Olympic Games shouldn’t be broadcast on TV because we never get to see the tens of thousands of hours of training that lie behind each gold medal. We watch these superstars on TV and marvel at their skill, without appreciating or even beginning to understand what it took to achieve such a pinnacle of proficiency.

Although a bit contrived, I think there is some truth in this. By watching only the perfected end-result, we create an insurmountable wall between ourselves and them. They become untouchable. They are amazing. They can do the impossible. In fact, there is no wall, just a gradual steeper slope. Everyone can’t be a sprint champion, but most people can learn to run really, really fast if that’s what they want to do.

Achieving the impossible

This leads me to the second part of this article, namely how to regard people who are better than you are, how to look up that slope without being daunted by the distance you have to climb to get to a certain level. In other words, how to survive learning Chinese in an environment which is actually way above your level. This is in fact something I recommend, but that will be the focus of a separate article (The kamikaze approach to learning Chinese).

Some people look up the slope with envy, some with awe. I would argue that both of these are destructive attitudes. Curiosity and an open mind is what you need.

Learn from your superiors, teach the rest

I’m not a big fan of Confucius in general, but one sentence in the Analects is quite powerful: 三人行必有我師焉. It means that in a group of three people, there is bound to be someone who can be your teacher. In other words, Confucius says that everyone has their own set of skills and experiences that should be valued and that others should strive to learn. No-one is the grandmaster of all situations, of all trades and all walks of life. I can teach you how to learn Chinese, what can you teach me? Or, if we keep ourselves to Chinese for a moment, perhaps my pronunciation is better than yours, but you probably know other areas better than I do.

Be brave, open your mind and learn more

This illustrates a major point in how I regard other people. If I meet someone who can do something I can’t, but that I want to be able to do, I try to keep this person as close as possible, realising that this is a potential teacher. When I lived in Taiwan, I usually studied with people whose Chinese was a lot better than my own. Some people wouldn’t dare to do that because they would feel bad, inferior and so on. Every time they talked to other, superior classmates, it would highlight shortcomings and failures.

Sure it would. You would never be the best in your class, but if you turn it around and look at it from the other direction, you suddenly have not one teacher in your class, but a whole group! Keeping these people as closely as possible, you learn how they learn, you study how they study. And you improve, probably much faster than they do, because they only have one teacher. Perhaps you might not feel that you’re improving that much, because you will still be far behind, but measured against some more objective benchmarks you will know that the distance is rapidly decreasing.

Regard superiors as teachers, not rivals or opponents

I really think that Confucius hit the nail on its head with the above quote. As soon as you see someone who is superior to you, you shouldn’t see a competitor, an enemy or a rival, you should see a teacher. Perhaps he or she won’t be your formal teacher, but in your mind, think of your superiors as your teachers and everything will be a lot easier. Use them as sources of inspiration and knowledge.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. If in a group of three someone can be your teacher, it also means that in the same group, you can be the teacher of others. Teaching is an exceptionally powerful way of learning, but I feel that it’s slightly outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into that question. Just realise that in any situation, you can learn and you can teach. You can be inspired, but don’t forget that you can inspire others, too.

To inspire and to be inspired

I’ve said what I wanted to say already, but I’m going to sum things up before ending this article. Teaching and inspiring are two closely related things. If you can see all superiors as sources of inspiration and knowledge, you will advance faster than if you view them as rivals or opponents. Similarly, realise that you have your own strong sides that inspire other people. Don’t hesitate to teach others if they want to be taught. Inspiration is cyclic in its nature and should flow freely in all directions.

Don’t be a tourist

I’ve written quite a number of articles about attitude. Most of them deal with tips and tricks on how to approach Chinese in such a way as not to be daunted or scared. This time, though, it will be about living abroad and various ways of doing that. Using a somewhat special definition of “tourist”, I will argue that there is a big difference between truly living abroad and just being a tourist in a foreign country. This is related to my earlier article about the fact that you won’t learn a language simply by living abroad.

Credit: Graham Triggs (flickr.com/photos/grahamtriggs/)

A tourist is someone who, when going abroad, takes a small piece of his country with him and stays therein

This matches the traditional definition of tourist quite well in some cases. Most people in Northern Europe who go to the Mediterranean for their summer vacations aren’t very interested in the countries they go to. They want sunshine, some good food and a pleasant week of relaxation. Perhaps they go visit some famous places, but the point is that during this time, they don’t do anything differently from what they do at home. They talk mostly with people they know, arrange activities the way they would at home and think the same way. In other words, they are tourists.

You can live in a foreign country for years and still be a tourist

It’s fine to be a tourist if sunshine, food and a good time is what you’re after, but it’s not such a good idea if you want to learn a language quickly. Here is where the above definition of the word tourist differs from the normal one; you can live in a foreign country for years and still be a tourist! I witness this every time I see exchange students at the university. The French students almost only socialise with other French students, the Spanish with other Spaniards and so on. There is no interaction with locals. At best, people socialise with other exchange students or travellers, but this is just a more advanced form of tourism.

I think that the reason for this kind of behaviour is simple enough: convenience and safety. Going abroad is in itself quite an overwhelming experience and might not be easy to handle for some people, at least not in the beginning. Therefore, clinging to friends who speak the same language is a good way to survive, and going on doing things the same as at home lends a sense of stability to life that is greatly appreciated. This is only natural and should only be fought immediately if you think that you’re strong enough to do so.

However, even if some people aren’t independent enough to truly engage with a new society from day one, there is no reason whatsoever that even the most timid people shouldn’t start doing that after a while. If you want to learn the language, you have no excuse at all to behave the same way after living in the country for three months (or indeed three years) as you did when you first arrived.

Gradual adaptation

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not the kind of person who just immerses yourself in a new society with no second thoughts or worries (that kind of reader wouldn’t need this kind of article). As usual, I think that being aware of a problem is the first step in solving it. We’ve done that now, so what’s next? Baby steps to more integration. Take small steps and make efforts to change parts of your life to better suit the country in which you live. Abandon some activities you don’t really like anyway and change them to others which naturally brings you into contact with the society in which you live. How fast you change will depend on your personality.

This article is not about how integrate with the local society when living abroad, but rather a reminder that the right attitude is key. If you go abroad for a longer stretch of time to learn Chinese, truly live in China, don’t go there and be a tourist like everyone else.