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.


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!

Language question triage – General guidelines

While studying languages, questions inevitably crop up as we encounter problems either while exposing ourselves to the language (listening and reading) or when we produce the language (speaking and listening). What does “fēnzhěn” mean? What does 得 mean in this sentence? Is it correct to say both 好久不见 and 很久不见? Is 啥 used in formal writing?

These kinds of questions crop up all the time and learning how to cope with them is an essential part of language learning. If you’re immersed in a learning environment and have several teachers by your side at all times, this isn’t much of a problem, but in this article, I will argue that how we handle problems we encounter is quite important. In essence, we should make sure that we solve whatever problems we can solve on our own and when we ask other people to help us, we should be aware of whom we ask and why.

What is language question triage?

Language question triage is simply a way of prioritising and categorising language problems that you encounter in your studies. It doesn’t matter what the source of these problems are in this case, what matters is what kind of problem they are and how we go about solving them. In short, language question triage is about sorting language problems and then apply the correct solution to them, with the goal of learning more efficiently. This might look like a trivial problem at first. It isn’t.

Why is triage needed in the first place?

Triage is needed because resources are limited. If we study diligently, we will encounter many more questions than we can possible find answers to. Most of these questions we never ask or might not even think about. Learners will of course have different resources for coping with questions they want to ask. As mentioned in the introduction, if you’re surrounded by competent teachers with lots of spare time on their hands, you have virtually unlimited resources. This is not the case for most people and I think resource scarcity is a real problem, especially for beginners or people who study on their own in their home country and might not have many native speaking friends.

Even if you have a few native speaking friends, you can’t bombard them with questions every five minutes or you risk having no native speaking friends very soon. Friends are friends primarily, not teachers, dictionaries or grammar books. If you have a large number of friends, you can of course spread the questions among them to decrease the load on each individual. However, as we shall see, the first step should always be to solve the problem on your own.

The basic guidelines for language question triage

The following list details the mental process I go through to solve problems I encounter. Note that step 1 is by far the most important one, while steps 2-4 might only be applicable in certain situations. Naturally, I don’t go through this list carefully every time, it’s an automated process, but do at least consider solutions high on the list before those below.

  1. I try solving the problem on my own – This is not a straightforward process and there are many tools you can use apart from the obvious (dictionaries, grammar reference books, textbooks), such as search engines (don’t forget image search), social media, Wikipedia (check how something is described in one language, then switch to the page in another language), corpora, language forums (search and see if someone else has already answered your question).
  2. Ask people who are professionally obliged to help you – If you have someone who is supposed to help you with these kinds of questions, such as a teacher, tutor or language exchange partner, ask them. You know these people at least partly because you want to develop your language skills, so there is nothing wrong asking lots of questions. For most people, this resource is quite limited, though, or it might come with a reciprocity clause (you’re supposed to help help them if they help you).
  3. Ask publicly  – There are many places on the internet where you can ask questions about learning Chinese. For instance, check out Chinese Forums, reddit or Stack Exchange. The important thing here is that you ask people in general and whoever feels like answering will just post a reply. I often skip this step if I want a quick answer or if I don’t want to ask publicly for some other reason. Still, this resource is very useful for some questions, particularly those that are best answered by advanced second language learners rather than native speakers.
  4. Ask people you know in general – This is probably only possible using social media, but is quite useful sometimes. If you have a question, try asking it on Facebook or Twitter. If you have native speaking friends or other learners more advanced than you, someone might feel inclined to answer. Still, you’re putting no pressure on specific people to help you.
  5. Ask someone you know in particular – Asking someone in particular who doesn’t have a professional link to you should only be the option after you have tried or at least considered all the other alternatives. This is because friends are friends, not teachers. Also, receiving help but never giving something in return is bad manners, so if you always ask questions, you should give something in return even if this isn’t mentioned.

As you might have noticed, much of what I’ve written is about utilising resources in the best possible way. It’s also about not wasting resources if you don’t have to; it’s about not annoying your friends too much. To further escape this problem, there is one last thing you can do.

Collect questions, ask many at a time

It’s quite annoying to have someone ask twenty small questions spread out during the day and regardless if people tell you that it’s not a problem, they probably still think that it is. Thus, save questions, collect them. I have a simple text file on my desktop where I save different kinds of questions. When I feel there is a good opportunity, I take a few of them and ask friends, either over the internet or in person. Questions I have typically include:

  • What’s the difference between X and Y?
  • What connotations does this word have?
  • What’s the most common occurrence of character Z?
  • Why is the syntax in this question like it is?
  • And so on…

Failed language question triage

I have spent a decent amount of time learning Chinese while helping Chinese-speaking people to learn English. This is rewarding in many ways, especially when done in Chinese, but there are situations where I encounter where language question triage has obviously failed. If someone asks me how many l:s there are in “parallel”, where the stress should be on “triage” or how to say “海洋” in English, this is an obvious case when what I talk above hasn’t been followed. It is possible to answer these questions in five seconds using any dictionary. This is a misuse of resources; I’m sure there are other problems I can help these students with where dictionaries are useless.

When triage is unnecessary

There are of course situations where language question triage is irrelevant. I would say there are two situations. First, if speed is important, you can skip steps 2-4 in the list above, simply because none of them might give you the answer you seek fast enough. Second, if the load you put on other people to help you is very small, you can just ask people directly. Let’s say I’m studying in the same room a as a close friend. Of course, I might still try step 1 first, but if that fails, I will skip directly to step 5 if I feel that I can ask my friend without trespassing too much on his or her time and/or patience.


Ultimately, language question triage is about being responsible and not imposing yourself too much on others. If you can solve a problem on your own in a minute, what makes it okay to occupy someone else’s time to solve the problem for you? If you have a language exchange with someone, you’re expected to give something back in return, so if you choose to ask unnecessary questions, you’re wasting time you could have used for something else.

In any situation where resources are limited, triage becomes important.

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.