Using Lang-8 to improve your Chinese

I only endorse software, books and other websites when I think that they are truly excellent in some regard. I’m always hesitant to review what other people send to me for the simple reason that it might influence my judgement of these products, and even if it doesn’t, you as a reader might still think it does. Thus, the recommendations I publish are few and far in between. Today, it’s time for another recommendation, this time to help you improve your Chinese in general and your writing in particular.

The basic problem: Lack of correction

There are numerous reasons why, but most students lack people who correct what they write when they learn a  foreign language. Sure, we have friends, teachers and so on, but if you write a lot (which you should do), it’s not easy to find people who are willing to correct your texts, at least not if you care the least about not overburdening your friends (see this article for more about this).

Writing is in itself helpful to learn, but if we receive no feedback at all, we have no way of learning from the mistakes we’re making. This is a missed opportunity. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to remedy.

The solution: Enter Lang-8

The basic concept behind Lang-8 is simple and brilliant. It’s a language exchange system, but instead of be reciprocal (i.e. I teach you Swedish, you teach me Chinese), you fill in your native language and target language when you register. You will then receive corrections on texts you write in your target language, while you help people learning your native language to improve. That means that there is no shortage of people willing to help you.

Lang-8 is excellent mostly because it will give you almost instant feedback on what you write (I typically receive feedback within a couple of hours, never later than one day). No articles are left uncorrected and you don’t need to ask your friends if they have time to help you every single time you have a question.

Of course, you need to help other people to study your language (otherwise people will stop correcting what you write), but I find this surprisingly pleasant and I have corrected far more articles than I have been corrected myself. Also, correcting short articles or sentences in your native language is quite easy and goes very quickly.

Lang-8 is free and can be used as much as you want without paying. There are several features that are available only for premium members, but I’ve been using the site for some time with a free account and it works just fine. The extra features look good, but aren’t at all necessary.

Users can colour words, cross out and in different ways highlight things they think ought to be changed. The original author can then ask questions or discuss word usage and other native speakers can comment.

Some words of advice on how to use Lang-8

  • Start with sentences rather than longer texts, especially if you haven’t studied Chinese for very long. Writing a few sentences a day is very easy, but regularly posting long diary entries in harder to keep up. Make sentences based on words you’ve learnt recently or words you find difficult to use.
  • Short articles are corrected more quickly than long ones. This means that you can and should break down long texts into smaller parts, simply because this encourages more people to read what you’ve written (avoid walls of text). If you include questions for the reader, you can also start conversations, find friends and so on.
  • Spread the website to Chinese people, because the more native speakers we have, the better the system works. If you know anyone who is learning English, for instance, let them know about Lang-8. This will help both your friend and yourself (and me for that matter).
  • Reward people who help you. Do this through the built-in reward system (you can give stars to people who correct your articles, give more stars for more ambitious corrections, give extra stars if people answer your follow-up questions). Remember that being corrected is an art you need to master.
  • Avoid correcting people who have huge amounts of written entries, but refuse to help other people. This means that they are leeches, exploiting the system for their own advantage without being prepared to give anything in return. Check their stats and see if they look okay, then go ahead with correcting and encouraging them.
  • Translation is an excellent way of practising if you don’t know what to write. Simply translate something from a book, an article or a song. Try to avoid very long texts and texts that require much knowledge that isn’t included in the text itself. If possible, provide the original English.

Native speakers and native speakers

As I have argued elsewhere, there is a huge difference between native speakers and native speakers. Some might be language teachers, others might have dropped out of school. Some are from Beijing, some from Shanghai and others from Taiwan. Some read hundreds of books every year, others nothing. Some are sloppy, some are meticulous. I’ve had people who say that an article is extremely good, better than something some native speakers would produce, only to have 50 corrections in the same article by another native speaker five minutes later. Oh, well.

What I want to say is that just because a native speaker corrects your texts it doesn’t necessarily imply that the corrections are justified or that the remaining text (the non-corrected text) doesn’t have room for improvement. However, in a vast majority of cases, any native speaker can still help you, especially if you’re a beginner or an intermediate learner. More advanced learners will still benefit, but should be a bit cautious about taking every single correction at face value.

Getting started

This is your goal for the coming week: Write at least one entry every day. It can be anything from one sentence up to several paragraphs, it’s up to you. I refuse to believe that people are so busy that they can’t write one sentence per day, so you have no excuse for not doing this.

If you feel that it’s difficult to come up with good ideas for articles, then fear not, I have an article scheduled dealing with that very problem. In the meantime, here are some topics/questions you can use for your first seven articles:

  • Why are you learning Chinese?
  • Write about where you live
  • Write about what you did this morning
  • Something that made you sad recently
  • Something that made you happy recently
  • Translate something from your native language
  • What are your plans for the weekend?

Good luck!

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.

Mental models and making mistakes

Everybody knows that making mistakes is part of learning and that you have to live with it. Some of you might even have heard that mistakes are good, as long as they are treated correctly. Very few, however, live according to this maxim. In this post I will talk about making mistakes and that a healthy attitude towards mistakes is of great importance when trying to learn Chinese.

Learning from your mistakes is more than a cliche

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

The reason Michael Jordan succeeded isn’t because he lost lots of games and missed lots of shots. What he’s saying is that when he misses and when he loses, he tries to learn something from it and become a better baller. If you’re afraid of missing or losing, you will never win. This is what we need to understand if we want to master Chinese.

Modelling a language in your brain

When you learn Chinese, what you do is taking all the information you have and trying to create a model in your head. This is usually not a conscious process, but the model is there nevertheless. When you use Chinese, you use the model you have to produce something which, according to what you know, should be correct Chinese. If what you say then turns out to be wrong, it means that there is something wrong with your model (of course, sometimes you make mistakes you know yourself are mistakes, but that’s not the issue here).

Let’s take a simple example. When a beginner learns that 可以 means “can”, he creates a model that maps this new word with its English equivalent. However, this is problematic, because Chinese and English don’t correspond very well with each other and can’t be mapped like that. When the student tries this new word on a Chinese-speaking friend and says “我可以说中文”, he will find out that this is wrong, because 可以 means “can” in the sense of “is allowed to” or that something “is okay”. Thus, the above sentence might be used to describe that the student is allowed to speak Chinese, but that’s a weird sentence indeed. When somebody explains this to the beginner, he can then update his model so that it’s now closer to reality.

He has learnt something. Remodelling equals learning.

Different ways of remodelling

There are two general ways of updating your mental model: passive and active. Either you can hear or read something which doesn’t fit with your model or someone can correct something you produce, which is based on your model. Since this post is about making mistakes, it should by now be clear why making mistakes is so important. If you have the choice of making an honest mistake or not, what would you rather choose?

The answer should be that you want to make the mistake, because whether or not you make it, your original model is still wrong, the only real difference is that if you make the mistake, you will become aware that the model is wrong and you can fix it. Not making the mistake is like sticking your head in the sand and pretending that the problem isn’t there.

The social and psychological aspects of mistakes

Our modern society is heavily focused on promoting success and shunning failure. Admittedly, no one likes making a mistake, but if you practice, you can turn mistakes into friends (read more about attitude in general). When someone points out that you’ve made a mistake, make sure you understand what it is and be happy that you’ve learnt something. If you feel irritated, ask yourself if you would rather know about the holes in your roof now or when the typhoon arrives. I have written much more about being corrected, keep reading: The art of being corrected.