Practising sports to learn Chinese and make friends

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While living in Taiwan, I had the opportunity to practise several sports mostly using Chinese to communicate with instructors and fellow practitioners. Doing so made me realise that there is huge potential for language learning in practising sports. The obvious advantages include an increased vocabulary about the specific activity, but as we shall see, I believe sports and similar activities are really good for more reasons, mostly social and psychological. Since it’s quite good to practise some kind of sport anyway, this shouldn’t take up much extra time. Combining two activities you’re already performing is one of the best ways of increasing efficiency.

I’ve practised various sports which were all taught and/or practised in Chinese: Tai Chi (太极拳), diving, yoga and football. Apart from these, I have also had PE class for one semester, which included everything from badminton and volleyball to jogging and table tennis. From these experiences, I’ve learnt a couple of things I’d like to share with you. Have you practised any sports yourself? Leave a comment and share with us!

Real communication with direct feedback

Arriving in a new country, most people find it somewhat difficult to start interacting with natives without having any reason to do so apart from the urge/need to learn the language. Practising some kind of sport is an excellent way of circumventing this problem and making communication very real immediately. Not only will it be real, the kind of communication you’ll have will most likely also include some direct feedback. If the instructor tells you something and you don’t get it, the instruction might be followed by another one, possible with some helpful gestures.

Depending on what you practise, you can learn a lot. For example, when I practised diving (which I did consistently for one semester), I had a very good coach who not only managed to improve my diving a lot, but he also taught me much about how to describe motion, movements and the human body. He would tell me what I should change in my dives, show me as best as he could and then give me feedback on whether I improved or not. This communication was real and felt important at the time.

Practising sports, making friends

I think there are two different ways of practising sports (providing you do it in a social setting and not on your own). First, you can join some kind of club at a nearby university (might be easier if you actually study there), in which case you will get to know quite a lot of native students. The point is that these people aren’t there primarily to meet you, so the kind of interaction you will have with these natives are quite different from language exchange partners or other people you meet because of some mutual interest in each other. In my experience, most people I’ve met in this way have been very positive towards me as a foreigner, but you might meet people who just think you’re a stupid foreigner. Don’t despair, this might be very good! Always interacting with people who do everything they can to understand what you say is one thing, but talking with people who don’t particularly want to listen to you broken Chinese is quite a challenge.

Second, you can find some way of practising which is not linked to any school or university. I practised yoga this way (although not for very long). This has the additional benefit of bringing you into contact with people who aren’t students and might not interact with foreigners at all in their daily lives. Again, they’re not there mainly to talk to you, so the kind of practise you get will not be the same as with a teacher or classmate. If you’re the kind of person who can sit down and chat with random strangers in the park, then I don’t think you’ll find this very helpful, but I’m not like that personally and I think at least some readers are like me. If you share a common interest with someone, it’s a lot easier to get a conversation going. Regardless of how limited your ability might be, you still have something you really want to communicate. A common ground to build from is an excellent start.

You don’t have time? Really?

As I said in the beginning, the question of if you have time or not depends much more on being flexible than actually not having time. It’s about being smart and diversifying your learning. Most people I know either already practise some sport or have the ambition to do so. Why not combine this with your language learning? I realised that your favourite sport might not be available where you live (I was very lucky indeed to be able to practise diving) or your favourite sport might not be very social, but in these cases, you might have to make some sacrifices. Perhaps you can practise something you like, even though you would’ve preferred something else if it available. Likewise, if you’re so busy that you don’t practise anything at all, you might consider sacrificing something to get that extra one or two hours each week. This is a matter of prioritising and something you’ll have to do on your own.

I suggest that you around and see what activities you can find. If you find something which looks interesting, why don’t you try it out? In case you’re already practising sports in Chinese (or have done so), I’d be delighted to read about your experience, so please leave a comment before you go.

You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad

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Since I have spent a fair amount of time studying languages, I have encountered a good many weird ideas, and some of them have turned up so frequently that they must be parts of general trends rather than ramblings of individuals (such as the notion of native speakers being perfect). Since some of these ideas are quite interesting and might affect your learning process negatively if you believe in them, I think it is a good idea to write about these prejudices and why they’re false. This time I will write about the fact that you won’t learn a language, especially not Chinese, simply by living in the country.

“So you lived there for two years? Oh, then I suppose you must speak the language fluently by now!”

Even if it might be true that I spoke the language more or less fluently after having lived in Taiwan for two years, this is not simply because I lived there! It seems like the person making this statement believes that simply by living in Taiwan, I automatically learnt Chinese. I know lots and lots of foreigners who have lived in China or Taiwan a lot longer than that and still can’t speak more than basic Chinese. If you’re Swedish, like me, and you move to Germany, perhaps you will be able to learn the language just by existing in the country, because the learning threshold is so low, but this is not true for Chinese. The threshold for people with English as their native tongue learning Chinese is considerably higher.

I’ve heard people say something like the above quote a hundred times, Chinese-speaking people and foreigners alike.

Fluency is the result of blood, sweat and tears, not a consequence of where you live

Although I suppose you can learn much quickly by being talented, that should be a very unusual exception and it isn’t that interesting for the rest of us. In my case, I didn’t learn Chinese quickly because I’m extremely talented, lived in Taiwan for two years and then somehow magically learnt the language. No, I have studied very hard, sometimes more than 80 hours a week, although that number includes social learning situations and not only time in class plus pure studying on my own. I have worked very, very hard to learn Chinese and if you want to make the most out of your stay abroad, you should do so, too. Paraphrasing Einstein, we could say that language mastery is the result of 99% perspiration and 1% talent, although the figures might be exaggerated (i.e., don’t quote me on that).

Likewise, it’s perfectly possible to become fluent in Chinese without ever leaving home. It’s not about where you live, it’s about how much you expose yourself to the language and how much you study.

How much you learn by living abroad is up to you

What you choose to do with your time while living abroad is entirely up to you and the end result is mostly dependent on decisions you make along the way. Some of these might not be within your control, some of them might not even be conscious. Here are a few questions which answers should be quite obvious, but that you should still ask yourself:

  • If you spend 40 hours a week teaching English, is it likely that you will learn Chinese as quickly as your friend, who’s only studying Chinese and only speak English once a week to relax?
  • If you hang out with other foreigners every day, will you learn as much Chinese as your friend who socialises with locals?
  • If you live with an English-speaking friend, how are you supposed to learn as quickly as your friend, who lives with native speakers (or at least people who can’t speak English very well)?
  • If you speak English with your Chinese girl/boyfriend, how much are you missing compared to your friend whose partner doesn’t even speak English?

Many of these questions are related to aspects of life that are important to people. We don’t find a partner simply because he or she happens to speak Chinese well, and language learning is usually not the main factor when deciding whether to work or not. Still, all these are choices that you should be aware of and that will affect your learning. Regardless of the reasons why, however, the main argument still stands.

You won’t learn a language if you don’t make a serious effort to do so. This involves all areas of life, so simply living in China will not teach you Chinese, however many years you live there.

The virtues of language exchanges

A language exchange is simply two people who want to learn each others’ languages. Sometimes, people say that it’s more a matter of body language exchange (i.e. a way of finding a boyfriend or girlfriend), but even though this might be true to a certain extent, that’s not what I’m going to talk about today.

Instead, the imagined situation is that you find someone to help you with your Chinese, who is also interested in learning your language, so you can have a fruitful exchange.

Why it’s good to have language exchanges

Language exchanges are sometimes frowned upon, especially by the extrovert and socially adept kind of people who can make five new friends in as many minutes in any kind of social situation. Isn’t this kind of formal language relationship weird? Isn’t it unnatural? Isn’t it unnecessary?

My answer to all those questions is no. The point is that there is a big difference between a language exchange and a normal friendship. This is not something good or bad, it’s just distinctly different in some ways:

  • Your friends aren’t your teachers. Perhaps they aren’t interested in correcting your pronunciation or helping you by explaining words you don’t understand. If you want to keep them as friends, you should treat them as such. If they get the feeling that you only hang out with you because you need a walking dictionary, they might stop calling you. Apply language question triage!
  • Your language exchange partner isn’t necessarily a friend. When you talk with friends, you want to obey certain social rules or you might have an image to uphold. Perhaps you don’t want to be the stupid foreigner who always asks questions. If you have a language exchange partner, you can collect questions and ask them when it’s safe and it’s all right to ask as much as you want.
  • You can extend total teaching time. If you’re taking courses in Chinese, the likelihood is that the lessons they offer won’t be enough if you want to learn fast and efficiently, you will need to study on your own (not to mention if you don’t attend class at all). Having a competent language exchange partner can be invaluable, especially if there are many students in your ordinary classroom and you get little attention from the teacher. It’s basically a one-on-one extra teacher. Still, if you can afford it, having a real one-on-one tutor is of course much better.
  • You can delve very deep when you need to. In class, you can usually ask about things you don’t understand, but you can’t keep asking forever if you don’t get it, especially if your classmates seem to understand what the teacher is saying. With a language exchange partner, you can ask until you fully understand a concept you think is difficult.
  • You can target a single problem. Let’s say you know that your third tone is lousy. In class, your teacher might be able to correct you a few times, but if you have twenty classmates, you will never get the attention you need. If you tell your partner to be really strict and tell you every time you make a specific mistake, you have a much better chance to improve.
  • You gain access to a stand-by teacher. I’ve always ended up being very good friends with my language exchange partners, which means (among other things) that I have their phone numbers and that I have them added on various social networks. This also means that when I’m studying at home and encounter a problem, I always have someone to ask.

I’m not trying to convince you that a language exchange partner is better than a friend, but I am saying that these two are completely different! You can do most of the above-mentioned thing with some friends, but not all. I think it’s very important to treat your Chinese-speaking friends with respect and as you treat your other friends. Starting a language exchange gives you a valid reason to focus on Chinese without destroying a social relationship.

Don’t forget that you can have a language exchange with your friends as well. Simply separating social time and study time is a useful tool if you don’t want to focus on improving your Chinese every time you open your mouth.

Beware of the difference among native speakers

You should know that native speakers differ very much in their language ability. They also speak different kinds of Mandarin depending on where in China they’re from. All of them are of course very good at the language they are using, but you should be aware that perhaps this isn’t what you’re trying to learn. For instance, a minority of the people in China have a clear, standard pronunciation in Mandarin, so if that’s what you’re after, you need to select teachers carefully. Likewise, if you aim to learn formally correct Chinese, you can’t pick the guy in the supermarket who dropped out of high-school, because he will have no clue about the advanced academic Chinese you’re reading. This is obvious, but still difficult to feel as a learner.

To illustrate what I mean, think of all the people you know who speak the same language as you do, including former classmates, co-workers, neighbours and relatives. If you had a foreign friend who wanted to learn your language, would you trust every single one of these people to be able to teach this foreigner and do a good job? I dearly hope the answer is “no”. Separating the wheat from the chaff might take a few attempts and be tricky, but you have to do it. Note that I’m talking about language exchange here, not choosing friends! There are many reasons for wanting to talk to someone which are completely unrelated to language.

You need to know what you want if you’re going to get it

Of course, it’s of paramount importance to know what you want to achieve with your language exchange. If you want to practice speaking and listening in natural situations, any native speaker will do (perhaps you should try to make friends rather than find language exchange partners, though). If you want to have someone correct your word usage or pronunciation in conversations, anyone who keeps pointing out mistakes is a good choice.

Regardless of the reason you want a language exchange partner, they can be a really powerful tool to improve your Chinese. I’ve had dozens of exchange partners, most of which I only met once, some I still are in touch with, years later. I’m convinced that language exchanges has something to offer you as well.

The art of being corrected

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Very few people can receive criticism for something they do with a perfectly open mind and with a positive attitude. In fact, I would go as far as saying that being able to do that is an art. Being corrected or receiving criticism in various ways is a natural part of learning a language and something you should welcome with open arms, even if it takes courage and practice to do so. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning, but we need other people to help us maximise the benefits of making mistakes.

Sadly, because of the fact that most people can’t take criticism very well, even teachers sometimes hesitate to correct their students. Why? Because they know that some students don’t like being corrected! This sounds silly, but I’ve heard this from half a dozen teachers at least (the solution to this is to take responsibility yourself, even if you’re enrolled in a language program).

To master the fine art of being corrected, you need to follow three principles:

  1. Understand the problem and be clear about what the correct answer is
  2. Encourage the person who corrected you so that he or she will do it again
  3. Don’t make a fuss!

These principles seem simple enough, but for most people, they are hard to follow. If you can take criticism in front of the whole class without feeling the least bit defensive, congratulations, I respect you deeply and you have nothing further to gain from this article. For us mere mortals, there are a few things to discuss, however.

Lower your defences, expose your heart

When someone says that I’m doing something wrong, my first reaction is to defend myself, I feel bad about having said something wrong, I feel that I should have been able to do it better, I might even feel annoyed that someone has corrected me. This is human and I’m sure most people feel this to a certain degree. This is really bad, don’t do it!

Rule number one: Whatever you do, don’t start explaining yourself or defend yourself, just listen!

The first thing you can do to lower your defences is to adopt a curious attitude. Your first goal is to figure out what’s wrong and what you can do about it. Some people just nod and try to leave the embarrassing situation as quickly as possible. You should stay there long enough to figure out what happened, provided the situation allows it. Slow down, ask questions, be sure you know what the problem is and that you understand the solution to it.

It’s essential that you repeat whatever you just said incorrectly, but now using what you have learnt to make it correct. Don’t just nod and think that you’ve understood, actually say it again and make sure you’re doing it right. If you’ve used the wrong word order, recreate the sentence again and get it right this time. If you feel you can do it without overtaxing the other person’s patience, you might even try another example based on the same principle. Still though, be careful, your native friends aren’t walking dictionaries or (most of the time) teachers. If you’re worried about this, starting a language exchange might be a good idea.

Someone has just done you a favour and deserves a reward

Since you’ve only focused on understanding the correction, you haven’t had much time to feel hurt. This is good, but it’s not enough. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, making mistakes is very important to make progress and you want to subtly encourage people in your surrounding to correct you as much as you can. Let’s consider two examples to make this point obvious.

First, consider a situation where you speak English with a foreigner in your country and this person makes a mistake. Politely, you explain how it should be said, whereupon the foreigner looks really embarrassed, mutters something and then changes subject. Second, imagine the same foreigner in the same situation giving you a big smile, repeating what you just said, thanks you and continues with the discussion. Which version of the foreigner are you most likely to help again?

I think the most important way to encourage this is by having a positive attitude and show that you’re interested in what the other person is saying. If you adopt the curious attitude I’ve discussed above, you should be at least half way. However, you also need to do this with a positive air; try adding a smile, it usually works (smilies do the trick if you use social media to learn Chinese). If you can convince people (including yourself!) that you like being corrected, they will continue to do so, otherwise they will quickly stop. This might include even your teacher!

Don’t overdo it

As I have discussed previously in other articles, it’s important to understand that even if studying Chinese might be all you do at the moment, that’s not true for your Chinese-speaking friends. They aren’t necessarily teachers and they aren’t likely to stick around for long if you just view them as correction machines. Only ask for direct and active help if you feel the other person is interested in helping you.There are many ways of solving your language problems other than asking your friends (read my article about language question triage). It’s worth far more to have access to native speakers in general than to be correct a few times here and there. If you focus too much on language, people will probably think you’re boring and stop inviting you to parties.