Two reasons why pronunciation matters more than you think

I’m known for being a bit obsessed with pronunciation and for me it is the most fascinating part of learning a new language. Naturally, I realise that this isn’t the case for most students and therefore it is understandable that people sometimes ask me why I think pronunciation matters so much. I could argue the case from a personal point of view and simply say that I like pronunciation and find it both interesting to study in theory and to improve in practice, but instead of doing that, I’m going to look at two arguments why pronunciation actually matters more than you might think, regardless if you like it or not.

communicationPronunciation does influence communication

First and foremost, there’s no such thing as having really bad pronunciation in Chinese and still being able to communicate perfectly. Bad pronunciation does influence communicative ability, albeit not always in an obvious manner. In short, the more complex and less predictable your utterances become, the more important your pronunciation becomes. If the listener needs to guess what sound you’re trying to produce, it’s going to be harder to understand the ideas you’re trying to convey. This is the core message in The importance of tones is inversely proportional to the predictability of what you say. Of course, it’s true not only for tones, but all areas of pronunciation.

Why bother? If can make myself understood, that’s enough!

This is a very common attitude I’ve heard from many students, but I think it’s wrong. You can’t just say “communication is enough” and then regard pronunciation as something only for those truly interested.All mistakes in a language affects communication in some way. If you make one mistake in every sentence, you can probably get away with it, but since it’s very unlikely that your grammar, word choice and so on are all perfect, it makes sense to try to minimise the number of errors, including in pronunciation.

For communication to work properly, we need to make sure that the sounds we produce in Chinese are correctly categorised by native speakers, but we don’t need to sound exactly like native speakers to be clearly understood. To use a slightly more technical language, we could say that our speech needs to be good enough to lead to phonemically accurate judgements by native speakers, but we don’t need perfect phonetic accuracy. What does this mean in practice? It means that it’s fine if your pronunciation of Chinese initials, finals and tones is a bit off (which will leave you with a noticeable accent), but it’s not okay if they’re off by enough to make it hard for native speakers to correctly process the sounds. If you want to say “jia” but it comes out somewhere between “jia” and “zha”, you have a problem and you need to fix it.

The number of mistakes matters, as well as the mistakes themselves

Naturally, given context, the listener might still be able to understand what you’re saying, but what I’m trying to get at here is that if you burden the listener with enough problems like this, they will have a harder time understand what you’re saying. You can of course be understood with a heavy accent in a language, but usually only after the listener has become used to the way you speak or if they’re familiar with your kind of accent from previous experience.

Pronunciation is a representation of you and your Chinese ability in general

Apart from the fact that we don’t want to put to heavy a burden on the listener, the second and perhaps equally important reason that pronunciation matters is that it partly determines how other people regard you and your Chinese ability. To be judged like this is grossly unfair, but it’s still true and something we probably want to consider as second language learners. Let me explain this further.

The reason speaking (of which pronunciation is an important part) is so important is that most other language skills are mediated through speech, at least in everyday life and in real-life interaction. You might consider Tang poems as light reading for breakfast, but if you can’t talk about them, people aren’t going to be very impressed. I can say that I have studied Chinese for so and so long, learnt so and so many thousand characters and that I have read several hundred books in Chinese, but it’s still hard to believe if I speak Chinese like someone who has studied for six months. To prove the passive skills, you almost need a standardised test, which is rather abstract and might be meaningless to outsiders.

Pronunciation is not like the other skills. It strikes the listener directly in the face (the ears, to be more precise). How good your pronunciation is in general can be judged very quickly and an opinion is formed automatically by anyone who hears you. I guess this is similar to writing (and handwriting) at least back in the days before computers were used. It’s simply hard to believe that someone who writes like a five-year-old is an expert in another area of Chinese. It might of course be true, it’s just harder to believe it compared to if that person wrote perfectly.

Judging a book by its covers

We all know that we shouldn’t, but we still do, unconsciously, all the time. I think people in general tend to underestimate people who have bad pronunciation and overestimate people who have good pronunciation (according to the argument above). For instance, take a few moments to think about immigrants in your have met in your own country who speak a broken version of your native language. Even though we don’t want to, it’s very easy to think that foreigners with good pronunciation are “better” than those that have poor pronunciation, including in areas which aren’t related to speaking or even to languages at all.

Bonus: Winning the language struggle

After publishing this article, Scott Burgan pointed out to me on Facebook that there is another advantage of having good pronunciation, namely that it helps you win the language struggle. A single sentence pronounced well and at a natural pace will convince most people that they can converse with you only in Chinese instead of insisting on English. This is much harder (next to impossible sometimes) with good grammar, vocabulary, reading/listening and so on. Of course, this might also lead to the infamous binary judgement of foreigners’ language proficiency: “Either you know nothing your you are near-native”, so if your pronunciation is better than your overall ability, be prepared to ask people to repeat themselves and/or slow down!

Pronunciation matters more than you think

So, pronunciation does matter and that it matters regardless if you care or not. You might know that your Chinese is awesome, but if pronunciation is the weakest of your skills, it’s bound to have a big impact on how you are perceived by others. Since this can be very important both in a private, social situation and in a  professional or business situation, focusing more on pronunciation is usually a good idea.

Of course, you will eventually reach a point where it doesn’t pay off to invest more time in pronunciation, but that’s something different (I wrote more about that in this article fossilisation). It might be hard to fool native speakers into believing that you’re Chinese, but that’s no excuse for making basic mistakes with tones, initials or finals. Simply put, people stop caring about pronunciation too early rather than too late.

You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old

Children learn languages quickly and effortlessly, adults slowly and painfully. This is an idea I’ve seen or heard so many times that I feel it’s time to write something about it. The notion that children are better language learners across the board is simply wrong. Before we look at why this is relevant for us as Chinese learners, let’s discuss why adults are actually better language learners than children.

Children don’t learn their first language quickly and effortlessly

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/LotusHead

It takes many, many years for a child to learn his or her first language. Saying that it’s effortless is equally false, it’s just that we don’t remember how hard it was. I’ve studied Chinese for five years and I can promise you that my Chinese is far superior to the average five-year-old in most areas (I would probably lose when it comes to intonation).

That’s true even considering the fact that I’ve been doing many things that aren’t related to Chinese at all, such as writing articles for this website (in English), talking with friends and family (in Swedish) and so on. I have not experienced anything near the true immersion environment of a child. Learning a language is very hard, both for adults and children.

One reason that people believe that children learn faster is that much less is required of them. Adults who arrive in a new country are supposed to handle all aspects of a normal, adult life, which naturally demands a great deal in terms of language ability. We don’t demand the same kind of proficiency from children. We only increase the demands gradually as they grow up and learn the language. As adults learning a second language, we’re adults and children at the same time.

Children might also learn to perform very well in a limited set of situations and in certain contexts, which might lead others to (erroneously) think that their ability is as good in other areas as well. Adults are more likely to run into problems because they need to or want to express more complex ideas.

Adults are much smarter than kids

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but adults are much better at planning, analysing, executing, organising, deducing and so on. These are all skills that are very valuable when learning a second language.

Also, adults know a lot about the world that kids don’t. This means that we can often connect new words with things we already know, which is essential for any kind of learning. I can relate words and structures in Chinese to words and structures I know in other languages. This is of course only a crude form of scaffolding, but it definitely helps. If I see the word “progressive tax” in Chinese, I don’t need to learn what progressive tax is, I just need to learn how to say it in Chinese.

Hacking Chinese is of course a prime example of something that an adult language learner (myself) can do, but that a child cannot. I can observe and analyse my language learning and understand where I’m having problems and what to do about them. I can be systematic and plan my studying in an efficient manner. After five years of studying, my language level is apparently good enough to survive a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language taught entirely in Chinese, mostly aimed at native speakers.

This obviously takes much, much longer for a child (the average age of my native speaking classmates is more like 25 rather than 5). Most people go through nine years of elementary school, six years of high school and then four years of university before they do that.

I don’t mean to say that my own language ability is as good as my classmates’, though, far from it. Very far indeed. But using a language successfully is about much more than just words, grammar and pronunciation. Language and thinking are closely linked, which is why the more mature mind of an adult reaches a mature language level much faster. We take lots of shortcuts that aren’t available to children.

What we should learn from children

Still, children do have certain advantages. For instance, they definitely reach a higher level in the long run, especially when it comes to pronunciation. As mentioned above, my ability to express myself in Chinese (both in speaking and writing) is of course superior to a five-year-old, but in the long run, Give the child another five years and I’m left far behind in terms of pronunciation and accent. The native speaker will also have a more natural sentence structure and a better grasp of everyday language.

The reasons for this are many and various. Some of these are biological (children really do learn words very quickly, for instance), but let’s focus on the things we can learn from. To start with, children have extremely strong incentives to learn. Humans are social beings that crave contact and affinity with other humans and this is mediated through language.

Thus, no child will think to itself “learning this language just isn’t worth it, let’s do something else”. Instead, they will try very hard to fit in socially, which includes the ability to communicate flawlessly. There is no way that a second language learner can have such strong incentives to learn Chinese, even though it might be possible to come close.

The lesson we can lean from this is that motivation is something we need to consider carefully. We need to find ways of studying that we find interesting, entertaining or important in some way.

Moreover, children are less socially conscious than adults, or, in other words, they have less face to save. A baby doesn’t care if it pronounces “lamp” incorrectly or gets the word order of a sentence wrong. Kids care more than babies, they are subject to peer pressure and so on, but they are still more willing to experiment than adults. This is something we should remember as second language learning adults. We have to accept that making mistakes is a natural part of learning. Indeed, making mistakes is learning. Adopting a more child-like attitude would do us good.

Children aren’t small adults

Way back in history, people tended to regard children as adults, but smaller. In the light of modern developmental psychology, this is of course nonsense. Children are simply different from adults. This means that arguments like “it works for children, therefore it should work for adults as well” are bunk.

This isn’t an argument against any particular method, but if anyone motivates their approach with this kind of statement, an alarm should go off in your critically thinking mind. That it works for children might mean that it doesn’t work for adults, for instance. Or it might mean nothing at all, because we’re comparing apples and oranges.

Adult learners, pronunciation and fossilisation

I think the most obvious example is pronunciation. Almost all children achieve very good pronunciation and a natural accent in languages they start learning early. Most adults who start learning a second language don’t achieve this. As I said earlier, children do learn pronunciation and accent to a higher level than adults do.

However, this is not only because they are children, but also because adults tend to have fixed ideas about certain things. Learning to speak a foreign language involves a shift in identity, a shift most people aren’t willing to make. The incentives are also different. People would find it very strange if someone pronounced words incorrectly in their first language and would exert social pressure on that person to change. This isn’t true for adult learners, especially not advanced ones. Communication is usually deemed to be enough. That is, I believe, the main reason adult learners don’t reach a native-like pronunciation.

Conclusion

Children learn languages neither quickly nor effortlessly. Adults have several advantages that allow us to learn more efficiently. It’s true that children achieve better pronunciation and accent, but I personally think this isn’t mainly because they are children, but because adults don’t care enough,  don’t receive enough feedback or don’t spend enough time.

So, no, you’re not too old. You might be too lazy, too close-minded or too busy, but you’re definitely not too old.

The question you have to ask about your Chinese teacher or course

Some students ask many questions, but fail to ask the really crucial ones. Some students don’t ask at all, but might be considering these questions anyway. In this article, I’m going to talk about the question that you have to ask yourself about your current Chinese program (or one you’re planning of enrolling in) and your Chinese teacher.

This question is fundamental one and many students overlook it, perhaps because they want to dive straight in “and learn some Chinese”. Most teachers will not encourage students to ask this question either, but I will. Here it is:

What will you not learn from this teacher/course?

Image source: sxc.hu/profile/cobrasoft
Image source: sxc.hu/profile/cobrasoft

For obvious reasons, the answer to this question isn’t usually introduced along with the syllabus the first time you attend class, and neither is it posted on the school’s website. Teachers won’t highlight their own weaknesses, schools won’t tell students what they won’t learn from attending their courses. If they do, that’s a very good sign indeed.

Most of the time, however, you need to consider this question yourself. This is about taking responsibility for your own learning. You’re the one who will suffer if anything goes wrong. The basic principle is to take your own long-term goals and compare them to the curriculum of your Chinese course/program. Don’t be fooled by the flowery language, look at the actual requirements. They will most likely not be the same as your goals.

For instance, some teachers will say that speaking is important, but yet only have written exams. This phenomenon isn’t limited to teachers, of course, which is why I’ve written an entire article about it here. It’s frighteningly common among teachers to be unaware of how their choices of examinations and assessments influence how students plan their learning.

Consider the course you’re in or want to enrol in

The factors you need to consider are of course many more than I can easily list here, but one of the most important one for language studies is the size of the class. If you’re after oral proficiency in Chinese and there are twenty students in each class, you can rest assured that speaking and pronunciation won’t be what you see the most of.

In fact, I have attended several classes that were called “conversational Chinese”, but turned out to be mostly about listening to the teacher and reading dialogues in a book. I would argue that class size is the most important factor when deciding where to go for Chinese classes.

Analyse your teacher’s capabilities and resources

In a perfect world, teachers would be able to teach you everything with ease and they would be provided with sufficient resources to do so. This isn’t the case, though. Native speakers sometimes struggle with explaining the grammar or pronunciation of their own language. Foreigners like me find it hard to teach open conversation classes because we lack sufficient “language feeling” (语感) to be able to say for sure whether a phrase sounds natural or not.

On the other hand, advanced second language learners know much more about the process of learning Chinese as an adult than most native speakers. Each teacher has his or her strengths and weaknesses. You need to figure out what they are and see how they tally with your own goals and ambitions. Naturally, this involves more than the teacher, because even the best teacher might have limited resources (especially time).

Take note of what you won’t learn

You’re unlikely to find someone who can provide you with everything you want in the way you want it. This doesn’t mean that you should quit your course or stop hiring a private tutor, it just means that you should take note of the things you won’t learn and make sure you learn them in some other way.

If you find out that your courses are very heavy on reading and listening, find people to talk with on your spare time. If you can’t understand your teachers corrections for your tones or your teacher don’t have time to correct you, hire someone to do it and practice on your own.

When learning something as complex as a language, we shouldn’t focus on everything at once anyway, so focus on what you think is most beneficial for you at the moment and try to find ways of reinforcing other areas later, perhaps with a different teacher or in a different program.

Hacking Chinese is one answer

The reason I launched Hacking Chinese in the first place is that I found that most teachers don’t tell students about how to learn, either because they don’t know (this is surprisingly common) or because they don’t have time (also a common reason, see the discussion about class size above).

Either way, Hacking Chinese is an attempt to fill this gap. I hope that through reading my articles and applying the principles behind them, you will become more independent and aware of your learning situation. Comparing what you want to achieve with what your courses and teachers will offer you is a good start!

You shouldn’t walk the road to Chinese fluency alone

While it’s certainly possible in theory to be completely independent and rely on no-one but yourself to achieve your goals, it’s far from a good or even realistic method for most students. Personally, I’m more independent than most, but over the years, I have become more and more aware of the power of cooperating with others. The road to fluency in Chinese is long and sometimes hard, but fortunately, you don’t have to walk it alone.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/danjaeger
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/danjaeger

In this article I will talk about cooperation and how people around you can help you achieve your goals. I will also talk briefly about the opposite, i.e. people who actually make learning Chinese more difficult. First, let’s look at four kinds of people who can help you on your way: locals, travellers, supporters and guides.

Locals know the terrain

Locals are native speakers who know the terrain. They are familiar with the peculiarities of the landscape, they know how to get that huge tree in the distance and how to avoid the vicious bear who lives close to the waterfall. Of course, getting to know natives is extremely important for many reasons, most related to the fact that the landscape through which you’re travelling is their home. They might not be experts at introducing it to you, but they do know it well intuitively.

If you find it hard to make friends with native speakers, you can always offer your own language in return (language exchange). Note that a language exchange doesn’t need to be something you do an hour every Saturday. I have several language exchanges going now, but most of them are running on a very low intensity and basically consists of a social media contact I feel that I can ask questions directly without being overly polite. That person knows that s/he can ask me questions about English or Swedish without having to cold talk for ten minutes before getting to the point. Still, even if you have lots of native speakers to help you, you should still practice good language question triage and make sure you aren’t misusing or draining the resources you have.

Travellers understand your situation

Fellow travellers are other people who also study Chinese. Some of them might have walked farther than you have, some might have walked just a few steps. Adopting a healthy attitude to your fellow students is extremely important. This is an area where I think old Confucius has something to teach us: 三人行,必有我师. 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. There is always something you can learn from your fellow travellers. I’ve written much more about this here.

The difference between locals and travellers is that the the locals don’t really know what the landscape looks like in the eyes of a foreigner. They were born in this part of the world, they know how to get around without thinking too much about it. Foreigners, on the other hand, understand your situation because they have been there. They might not have had an experience which exactly matches your own, but it’s still close enough for them to offer valuable tips on how to make the journey more interesting. A very good example of a fruitful traveller exchange was the Hacking Chinese meet-up arranged earlier this month here in Taipei; I wish I had time to do more of that and that everybody could participate.

Some travellers seem to like to walk back along the road and spend  time helping other people along the way. Some even launch websites and write articles about it!

Supporters for encouragement and accountability

Supporters are people who aren’t with you on the journey; they are friends, family and other people you know who aren’t learning Chinese at all. They might not even be interested in languages, but they are interested in you for some reason. Apart from the obvious factor of having support from home, supporters  can help you in many other ways.

For instance, you can make yourself accountable to your supporters. I work and study much better if I have clear goals and clear incentives to work towards them and I think this is true for most people. Set your goals and ask your supporters to hold you accountable. They don’t need to understand exactly what your goals actually mean (they aren’t with you on the journey, remember), but that won’t stop them from cheering you on or feeling let down when you don’t do what you have said you would. Of course, there’s nothing that says that locals and travellers can’t be supporters as well.

Professional guides

Lastly, there are people who dedicate their lives and careers to helping other people to complete the journey. Being professional means not only that they have gone through rigorous education to achieve their skills, it also means that they behave in a professional way. They don’t help you only because they feel like it, they have a professional obligation to use what’s in their power to help you along the way.

Some guides are native speakers who have specialised in helping foreigners around. Other guides, albeit very few in numbers, are foreigners like you who have spent so much time on the road that their familiarity with it approaches that of a local. These guides not only know a lot about the language, they also know how they learnt that and how to transfer that to you.

Of course, since they spend most of their time doing this and might have spent years learning to be guides, they will require some compensation, but since they can really help you along the journey, it’s definitely worthwhile to hire them now and then. However, if all teachers aren’t professionals guides and all professional guides aren’t teachers. If your teacher can’t explain things to you in a way you understand, you don’t necessarily need a teacher, you could find local friends instead.

You are not alone

In short, you shouldn’t be alone on the road. Most people are aware of the benefits of teachers and native speakers, but I think that fellow travellers and supporters shouldn’t be overlooked. I have cooperated a lot with other learners through the years and I know how to gain support from friends and family, even if they don’t fully understand exactly what I’m doing or what I’m trying to achieve. Walking a thousand miles alone is very hard. If you walk with other people, it’s still a thousand miles, but it becomes so much more enjoyable.

You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote

My first semester at the Graduate Institute for Teaching Chinese a Second Language here at NTNU in Taipei, Taiwan is coming to a close. For the past two years, my long-term goal for learning Chinese has been to survive a program like this, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Entering the program, some question marks remained, and even though this post won’t be about my first semester here (I will write about that later), I will talk about one of those question marks: Writing Chinese characters (by hand).

Although this program is report and paper heavy, it still has several in-class exams which require handwriting skills good enough to put down in writing whatever I’ve learnt throughout the semester. This means that I’ve spent some serious time learning to write characters and that I have re-examined the entire process of learning to write by hand. The conclusion I present here is the result of around five years of learning characters:

You can’t learn to write Chinese characters by rote

Note: If you want to skip the background, click here to scroll down.

This needs some clarifications. First, when I say “you”, I mean an adult who is learning Chinese as a second language. I can already hear people say “but how do native speakers do it, they don’t use fancy mnemonics?” I’m going to reply to this with another question: Do you know how long it takes for native speakers to learn how to write Chinese? We’re talking about at least a dozen years, filled with more writing-heavy homework than most Westerners can imagine. It should also be mentioned that it’s not uncommon even for educated native speakers to forget how to write some characters they really should know how to write.

Therefore, looking at what native speakers do to learn Chinese characters is completely irrelevant for us. It’s simply not on the menu unless you want to spend the rest of your life acquiring what is actually possible to achieve in a few years if you do it correctly. So, in future, anytime you see a comparison between native speaking children and adult foreigners, you should be very, very cautious, because the upcoming conclusion is probably useless. We are neither children nor native speakers. Our study methods should reflect this fact.

Handwriting from the adult foreigners point of view

As some of you might know, I wrote an article about the importance of handwriting in November and concluded that it is important up to a point, but usually not a goal in itself. Regardless of why we want to be able to write by hand (everybody should learn at least the most common one thousand characters or so), it’s essential that we use methods that actually yield long-term results. What I see most students do is short-term oriented studying which might get you past the next exam, but it will not enable you to actually learn the characters. Some people aim for the medium term using SRS. This is good, but it’s not good enough. This is what this article is about.

Using SRS is essential, but it’s far from enough

I’m usually very positive about using spaced repetition software to learn languages, even though I did write an article earlier this month about the dangers of relying too much on SRS. Learning to write characters is perhaps one of the best examples of how good SRS is. Let me explain why before I move on to the really important bit, i.e. why this isn’t enough.

Spaced repetition software allows us to review things in a structured manner, making sure that we remember what we have learnt (or at least 90% of it). However, if we review these things in our daily lives, we don’t really need SRS to achieve that. For instance, if you live in China, you don’t need SRS to learn everyday words, because you hear them all the time. This is natural spaced repetition and it works very well. The same is true if you rely on very high volumes of listening and reading. In short, this is why massive input can mostly replace SRS.

Handwriting requires special attention

Handwriting is unique because even living in an immersion environment typically doesn’t require us to write anywhere near the amounts we need to acquire handwriting by rote. Since we aren’t actually required to write enough (your occasional tests and exams aren’t enough unless they are very broad indeed), SRS is the best way to solve this problem. It helps us space the reviews in an efficient manner and we keep the actual writing to a minimum while still retaining most characters. However…

Just relying on SRS to learn to write characters isn’t enough either

This is what I have fully realised this semester. I have seen the light. Using SRS to learn characters is very good in the medium term (let’s say a week up to a year), but it’s completely useless in the long term. Learning to recognise characters is one thing, but learning to produce them is another kettle of fish altogether. I’ve said before that SRS shouldn’t be rote learning, but I realise now that that article was naive.

This is how most  people use SRS (including myself sometimes):

  1. Use a program to review characters
  2. When failing a character, hit “again”, “next” or “didn’t know”
  3. Repeat the failed character until it sticks

This is what most people do.
This is rote learning.
This is madness in a long-term perspective.

Trying to brute force characters into your long-term memory this way is not going to work. When the intervals get longer than a year and you don’t write the character by hand in other situations (which you’re unlikely to do), you will forget it again. And again. And again.

It’s incredibly hard to learn something meaningless

The reason we forget characters is that we try to passively cram meaningless data into our brains instead of actively processing the what we try to learn and making it meaningful. We usually fail to learn either because the components (characters or words) are meaningless to us or because the connections between them are too weak. In short, we need:

  1. Character components
  2. Individual characters
  3. Characters and words
  4. Combining the above three

Learning by rote is possible if we repeat things often enough. I have no mnemonic for 你 or 是, because I’ve written those characters more than a thousand times and I’m not likely to forget them. This is only true for the most common characters, though, the rest you will forget sooner or later if you don’t make learning active and meaningful. It’s a harsh lesson, but I think it’s true. Let me repeat that:

If you, when failing a review don’t spend time to actively study the card you just failed and instead merely rely on repetition to learn what you have forgotten, you will forget again. Actively processing characters and making them meaningful is not just a good method, it’s the only method.

Towards more sensible character writing

Next week, which is also next year, I’m going to launch a challenge. I’m going to try to start a revolution in character writing for adult students. It’s going to mean big changes for some people, but I really think this is essential and I hope people are willing to join.

In short, I will do everything in my power to convert as many of you as possible to a way of learning characters that actually makes sense, that will enable you to learn Chinese, not just for the test next month, but for life.

These articles have subsequently been published about sensible character learning:

  1. Chinese character challenge: Towards a more sensible way of learning to write Chinese
  2. You can’t learn Chinese characters by rote (this article)
  3. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  4. Sensible character learning: Progress, reminders and reflections
  5. How to create mnemonics for general or abstract character components
  6. Don’t use mnemonics for everything

More about spaced repetition on Hacking Chinese

[add_posts tag=spaced-repetition-software show=100]

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!

Benchmarking progress to stay motivated

When we set out to learn Chinese, everything we learn is new and we can feel that we improve for each day that goes by, for each time we are exposed to the language. We know this because, in relative terms, we’re learning so much. However, as we gradually advance beyond the basic level and enter the intermediate and advanced stages, this feeling is inexorably weakening and finally all but disappears.

This is a problem, because if we don’t feel that the effort we invest pays off what will then prompt and motivate us to continue learning?

Image credit: Pam Roth (sxc.hu/profile/Bubbels)

 Even though there might be satisfying answers to that question, in this post I will argue that we needn’t even ask the question in the first place if we pay more attention to our progress. I suggest using benchmarking, not to compare ourselves to other learners, but to compare with ourselves at different stages of learning. It is usually quite easy to know that we have indeed made progress if we compare our  language proficiency now with that of the past.

Define your current level for further reference

The first thing we need to do is record our current level in the areas we are interested in. Measuring language ability is notoriously difficult, but as long as we keep the parameters as constant as possible, that will be good enough for our purposes.

Basically, we will device a way to describe our  own ability as best as we can. Then, in a month or a year, we can compare and see if there is any difference. By doing so, we will see that we improve and we will get solid proof that we are indeed still moving, even though it might sometimes feel that we aren’t. Naturally, we might stop moving if we don’t study, but that goes beyond the scope of this article.

Even though this isn’t a scientific undertaking, a scientific approach is essential. For instance, we need to keep the variables to a minimum and make sure that our own ability is the major deciding factor. This means that if we measure reading speed, we should use a text with the same level of difficulty and belonging to the same genre. When we check our current level, we need to make sure to also note how we performed the benchmarking. If we’re going to do this again in six months, it’s likely that we will forget some important parts which make the comparison unfair.

As we will see, benchmarking isn’t straightforward in all cases and requires some further illumination and helpful examples. We’ll start out with the easier kinds of benchmarking (reading and listening) and then move on to more tricky areas (writing and speaking).

Benchmarking reading ability
Reading ability should be the easiest area to benchmark, simply because we can do it entirely on our own without using any fancy equipment. Reading can of course be tested in many ways and here are some goals we can strive towards and measure our progress:

  • Reading easy texts for full comprehension
  • Reading harder texts to understand the gist
  • Reading texts belonging to different genres

These goals can also be combined, but since it would be far too time consuming to try all combinations, we should try to find a few that match our  current goals for learning Chinese. Here are some things we should pay attention to:

  • How often we need to use a dictionary
  • How much time we need to complete the text
  • How we feel when reading the text

Benchmarking listening ability
Listening ability is also a passive skill that we can test on our own. Simply find a suitable audio source and see how much you understand now and compare that with a result in the future. listening ability can incorporate a number of different skills, so here are some distinctions to cover a larger portion of listening ability:

  • Listen to informal vs. formal Chinese
  • Listen once vs. listening many times
  • Listen to a standard dialect vs. regional dialect
  • Listen to texts read aloud vs. natural conversation
  • Listen to content with different topics

Again, since the possible variations are almost limitless, we should examine our goals for learning Chinese, and pick a few that seem the most relevant. Benchmarking is not meant to assess language ability fully accurately, but rather to give us a general idea of where we are. Again, make sure to detail how you perform the benchmarking for future reference.

Benchmarking writing ability

Leaving the more passive realm of listening and reading, it becomes a bit more difficult to benchmark, partly because we cannot or should not rely entirely on ourselves to do the evaluation. Still, writing is in its very nature something permanent that can be accessed at any time. There are many ways to benchmark writing, but I recommend starting a blog in Chinese.

Using a blog, we can have all written Chinese concentrated in one location, easily accessible both to you and others (you will have to share what you write anyway if you want people to comment on what you have written). Exposing your own writing might feel a bit anxious in the beginning, but as I’ve stated elsewhere, be brave and remember that genuine mistakes aren’t necessarily bad.

Try writing texts of different kinds:

  • Write texts in different styles (formal/informal)
  • Write texts on different subjects
  • Write text with or without the help dictionaries
  • Write texts with or without helping friends/teachers
  • Write texts by hand or type using a computer
  • Write in different genres (fiction/discussion/accounts/explanations)

When it comes to comparing texts, there is a certain amount of work that we  can and should do on our own. The obvious thing is of course to compare the level of the texts themselves. Don’t forget to take the circumstances into account here; it’s grossly unfair to compare a polished texts you’ve written with the help of a dictionary and that has been corrected by you teacher, and a text that you’ve written in five minutes by hand without having access to any help.

Still, comparing texts might only give us part of what we’re after, or we may find that we don’t think that things have changed that much. Simply speaking, it might be hard to evaluate our own writing. It’s time to ask a friend or a teacher:

  • Ask a native speaker to compare texts of a similar type
  • Ask a native speaker to comment on what kind of mistakes you do
  • Ask a native speaker to give you an overall judgement of your situation
  • Ask a native speaker for advice on how to improve

Since we want to keep the number of variables to a minimum, it’s strongly suggested that you use the same native speaker (or more than one, if you can). Remember that writing is easy to store, so you can simply select texts you want to compare and send to someone for comparison. You don’t even need to tell them you’ve written all the texts yourself, just ask them to do an honest comparison focused on language.

Benchmarking speaking ability

It’s now time to turn to the fourth and by far the hardest of the four areas we want to benchmark: speaking. As opposed to writing, speaking is in nature evanescent and we need quite advanced technology to record it. This is essential, because there is otherwise no way we can make honest comparisons.

Sure, we can meet a native speaker, talk to him or her, wait a year and then do the same thing. This will yield some results, but will it be enough? Does the native speaker remember how you talked a year ago? He or she probably remembers the feeling of speaking with us, but that’s only half of what we want.

Instead of doing this, I suggest record speech digitally. Again, we should record different kinds of speech, focusing on different aspects:

  • Record your best performance (prepare, record, record again if needed)
  • Record your average reading (just read a text, no second chances)
  • Record improvised speech on a prepared topic
  • Record improvised speech on a random subject

Actually, you can start a blog for this as well, doing a podcast or a video diary or something like that, but some people may find this a bit too exhibitionistic (add a password). The important thing is that we keep our recordings for later. As is the case for writing, we can compare our own recordings, even though that will probably not be enough in itself.

In my experience, this is extremely valuable and I can usually hear many mistakes I didn’t think about when I actually did the recording. Still, that is not the issue here. At some point, we have to include a native speaker. Do the same as you did for benchmarking writing:

  • Ask a native speaker to compare recordings of the various kinds above, preferably a native speaker who isn’t used to hearing you speaking Chinese
  • Ask a native speaker to listen to the various recordings with focus on different aspects (fluency, accuracy, pronunciation, tones, whatever)
  • Ask a native speaker for advice on how to improve

Benchmarking speaking is difficult not only because it involves technology, but also because most people find it unnerving to listen to their own voice. You have to get used to that and you will if you only allow yourself to try. You voice only sounds weird to you the first couple of time. Again, be brave. You don’t need to publish your recordings if you don’t want to, but recording yourself in some way is essential.

Some final remarks

It’s essential that you organise your benchmarking files and keep things tidy. If you’re going to compare texts or recordings that are months or even years apart, you’re going to need a neat structure that allows you to find the files later on. If you think that this sounds like too much work, remember that all the listening, reading, writing and speaking you’re doing is as good practise as anything else.

Good luck!

Native speakers and native speakers

During the time I’ve studied Chinese, I’ve come a cross enough examples of people overstating the importance of being a native speaker to lead me to think that it’s a general trend and not an isolated phenomenon. For instance, people are embarrassed when I know words in Chinese they don’t (“I’m a native speaker, why don’t I know this word?”) or they can’t understand why I have a category in Anki for Swedish words (“You’re Swedish, why do you need to learn Swedish words?”).

This attitude is so bizarre it left me baffled the first few times. At first, I thought that people who said this were just more ignorant than average, but I’ve come across this so often that it can no longer be dismissed as coincidence: people really seem to think that native speakers know everything about their own language, although it should be obvious that they don’t. This also means that most native speakers over-estimate their own language ability, especially when it comes to meta knowledge involving why rather than just what.

Disclaimer

This article might sound a bit harsh, and therefore I want to state clearly that my goal is not to bash native speakers or to elevate my own ability in any way. I’m a native speaker of Swedish and having taught Swedish to foreigners, I know there are lots of things I don’t know or can’t explain (and I’m a teacher!). There will always be, but that’s part of the fun. I’ve also learnt English, Chinese and French which means I can approach the subject from those angles as well. I’m also grateful to a lot of native speakers, so this article should in no way be regarded as diminishing their contribution to my own learning.

Instead, my goal here is to point out that people generally think that being a native speaker is the same as being really good in all areas of a language, and that I think this is mostly false. I also want to point out that someone who masters a language as a second language will have different skills from someone learning it as their native language. This is not good or bad; it simply is that way.

There are native speakers and then there are native speakers

The first mistake people make is to lump native speakers together in one single group. There is a huge difference between a native speaker who reads a hundred books a year and has a  PhD, and a native speaker who dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and spends all his free time playing baseball. Native speakers learn their own language to whatever extent is required of them, which means that the baseball player above will probably have a very weak grasp of formal and written language.

Of course, the opposite is also true, the PhD will know less about baseball. Still, pursuing a career which is heavily based on language (anything even remotely academic)  is bound to increase your vocabulary enormously, so thinking that native speakers are a homogeneous group is just stupid. Research suggests that the number of words that are used in everyday conversation is indeed very low; advanced vocabulary is only needed when discussing something specific or reading something on a decent level of complexity or abstraction. If you do that everyday for a living, you will learn a lot more about the language than if you don’t.

Native speakers, second language learners and teachers

Different people are good at different things. When you read the items below, keep in mind what you can learn from native speakers and what you can learn from other second language learners. For instance, if you want someone to practise conversation with or judge how well you communicate in Chinese, nothing beats a native speaker. However, if you want to know exactly how to change your pronunciation or why something is A rather than B, you need more professional help, preferably from a teacher.

  • Native speakers have a very good grasp of all practical aspects of their own language, but most of them have a fairly weak grasp of theoretical aspects (such as grammar, phonetics and so on). Just because a Chinese person can speak Mandarin for ten hours straight with perfect communication results doesn’t mean that the language he uses is 100% correct. Reading student essays in your native language is a good way of proving to yourself that not everybody masters their own language, not even students at university. This is of course particularly true for the written language, which has much stricter norms than the spoken language.
  • Native speakers pronunciation is usually far from any kind of standardised pronunciation (a very low percentage of China’s population speaks perfect Mandarin), which of course isn’t wrong per se, but might be something to keep in mind as a second language learner. If you plan on teaching the language in the future, this might be very important. Having a regional accent is fine if you live in that region, but I don’t think it will earn you any extra points if you look for a teaching job (or any employment) anywhere else. Heavy accent is usually a sign of a low education level and few people want that. Teachers usually have very good pronunciation and that’s usually the best way to learn proper pronunciation.
  • Teachers and second language learners can usually answer why questions better. There are many aspects of Chinese that you have to study to learn (try asking random Chinese person how to use 了 and see what happens). Advanced second language learners and teachers are usually better at answering questions about why something is the way it is or why A is right whereas B is wrong. This is sometimes very, very helpful, but it shouldn’t be overdone.

Why is this important?

This insight is important when you learn a second language from native speakers. Don’t think that their knowledge of their own language is infallible just because they are native speakers! For example, I’ve come across many people in Taiwan (some even teachers), who cannot explain the third tone in Mandarin properly. They think that they are accurately describing how they pronounce a given sound, but in reality, they are doing something else and their explanations go against a vast body of empirical research and what is considered established fact by researchers.

This is not to say that second language learners in general know more than native speakers (that’s quite rare, especially in Chinese), but rather that just because someone is a native speaker it doesn’t mean he’s superior to a second language learner in all areas. Thus, finding second language learners at a more advanced level than yourself is a good idea. Trusting native speakers to always give you the right answer is also bound to create problems.

Also, native speakers can’t always agree on what is correct in Chinese. What happens quite often is that I get corrected by one native speaker, only to have another one correct me in the other direction. This isn’t necessarily because one is right and the other one wrong, it’s just that Chinese is like that sometimes, it depends on region, the background of the speaker and so on.

Some suggestions and final comments

If you teach your own language, be open and admit that there are lots of things you don’t know. That’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn and develop further. You will be right most of the time, but thinking that you will be right every time is a sign of ignorance and hubris.

If you’re learning Chinese (or any other language), be aware of the fact that native speakers vary greatly in their own language ability and also in their ability to explain grammar, pronunciation or anything else you might be interested in learning. Listen to your teachers, but don’t be surprised if they’re wrong occasionally.

A smart method to discover problems with tones

Studying Chinese (or any other language), it’s sometimes hard to assess the quality one’s own pronunciation. People in your surrounding might understand what you are saying, but how do you verify how good your tones are? In an ideal world, it would be easy, you could just ask a qualified teacher and given enough time it would be possible to figure out most of your pronunciation-related problems.

However, the world in which we live is far from ideal, at least in this regard. Teachers sometimes tend to be complacent (they give up correcting students when it’s apparent that they don’t learn after the fifth time) or have had others students who think it’s embarrassing to be corrected in class. I’m not trying to blame the teachers here, because this situation probably arises because students are different (I probably have loftier goals than most and have my own way of achieving them, for instance).

Therefore, as I have said earlier, it’s really up to you as a student to take responsibility for your own learning.

A brief introduction

What I am going to talk about in this post is an ingenious way of checking if your pronunciation is clear. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that it’s perfectly correct, but it will take you a long way in that direction. I first heard of this idea from my class mate, Arnaud Laraie, and even though I have added and expanded his thinking, it was he who gave me the inspiration. Credit where credit is due!

This is what the method can achieve:

  1. Identify problems with closely related sounds
  2. Prove whether your tones are good or not

The second point needs some further explanation. Can’t you just ask someone if your tones are good or not? Of course you can, but most of the time you will get a misleading or even wrong answer. People don’t like pointing out the mistakes of others, especially if you’re a foreigner and a guest in their country. They might also have wildly different standards than you, so if you strive for a close-to-native-speaker level, they might just think that you are slightly better than the average foreigner, which is far from enough. In other words, don’t trust random people when they say your pronunciation is good!

The method consists of the following steps:

  1. Define a number of sounds you find difficult to distinguish
  2. Draw a diagram of them or just write them down in a list
  3. Read the various sounds and let a native speaker guess the word
  4. Repeat until you make sure that no chance is involved
  5. Reverse the game and have the native speaker reading if you want to improve basic listening ability

In this article, I will use the tones in Mandarin Chinese as an example, but there is no reason why this method could not be useful for other languages or other aspects of learning Chinese. I will write more about this towards the end of this text, but now over to the tones in Mandarin.

The five tones in Mandarin

In Mandarin, there are five tones, numbered one to four with a fifth tone called neutral. These are different changes in pitch for a given syllable that is essential to determine the meaning of a word. It is hard for us Westerners to understand and feel, but tones are typically more important than most people think.

For instance, if you’re in the lift going up to your apartment and you say the word “四樓“ (sì lóu, 4th floor) correctly, but with the wrong tones (let’s say you say sí lóu), the other person is most likely to hear 十樓 (shí lóu, 10th floor), because in their minds, the tone is more important than the difference between s/sh (which is even more true in southern dialects which don’t have as clear a difference between s and sh.

On the other hand, if you get the pronunciation slightly off (like switching sh and s, you say shì lóu instead of sì lóu), but get the tones right, you’re almost guaranteed to end up where you want to go. In other words, tones are something alien to us, but is of paramount importance when learning Chinese. Tone is also the perfect example to demonstrate this method of verifying clear pronunciation.

Getting started

From here on out, it’s assumed that you know how to pronounce the tones in Chinese independently and in theory, because I will deal with the real problem, which is tones in combination and in context. If you’re not clear about the tones in the first place, you can check this website (click introduction to Pinyin).

This is a diagram showing all the possible tone combinations in Chinese. I used a table almost identical to this one when I tried this out with native speakers and it works very well.


This is a simple way of representing all the combinations of two syllables in Chinese. First look at the column to the left and select a tone, then combine it with any of the five available tones that can follow it.

Now comes the clever bit. Since native speakers tend to understand what people say even if they are pronouncing the tones incorrectly, you are now to choose a sound that has no specific meaning. There are many ways of doing this, pick one you like:

  • Use a single syllable in Mandarin (I used “ma”)
  • Use a word in your native language (“häst”)
  • Use a sound without meaning (such as “mm”)

Analyse those tones!

Now, start pronouncing the chosen word or sound using the different tones! Let’s say you chose option one above and that you are using the syllable ma to practice. Since we’re dealing with pairs of syllables here, we use the double ma + ma. The goal is to check if the tone combination you pronounce is the same as the one the native speaker thinks you want to pronounce. Follow these instructions:

  1. Select any of the twenty combinations at random.
  2. Add tones to your word (e.g. ma2ma3, ma4ma4, ma1ma3)
  3. Let your friend/teacher point on the combination she hears
  4. Repeat at least twice for all combinations
  5. Repeat using a different friend/teacher

Of course, if you want to monitor your pronunciation in detail, you need to do this in a systematic manner and make sure you cover all the tones. Write the combinations down before you start! After you’ve practised for a while so your friend/teacher is aware of how this works, you can also use reaction time to determine how good your pronunciation is.

  • If she points to the correct tone combination without the slightest hesitation, you can be quite sure your tones are good
  • If she points to the right tone, but hesitantly, then you might have a problem
  • If she points to the wrong tone, you obviously have a problem

The really clever part here is that there is no way your friend/teacher can cheat or try to make you feel better about your language skills. If you pronounce something incorrectly or unclearly, you will know. Of course, you can still cheat, but that would defy the purpose of this exercise in the first place, so don’t do it.

Wider usage

This is a very powerful way to identify and analyse pronunciation problems with the tones in Chinese. However, the same method can be used to teach and/or learn other sounds as well. Try these:

  • b/p
  • z/zh
  • j/q
  • -in/-ing
  • -an/-ang

Any sounds that are close to each other in pronunciation can be used, which means you can do this in English as well:

  • World
  • Word
  • Whirl
  • Were

A problem you should be aware of

A problem with this method is that it doesn’t actually test correct pronunciation, only clear pronunciation. For instance, the sounds might be wrong, but if the native speaker can tell which one is which anyway, in which case you don’t prove anything at all using this method. Let’s say that someone can’t distinguish “world” from “word” and starts pronouncing the “l” as a separate syllable. That would be extremely easy to recognise, but it doesn’t mean it’s right! If the native speakers becomes used to your way of speaking, this method loses it’s effectiveness.

Conclusion

I wish someone had introduced this method to me when I started studying Chinese, not after trying it out on my own after two years. I’ve spent an enormous amount of time and energy to correct my pronunciation and if would have known about my problems earlier, it would also have been a lot easier to correct them.

I’ve used this method several times and I’ve been able to confirm that my pronunciation and tones are quite good. I’ve also tried it on other students of Chinese to see if they also can find out where they go wrong, and most of the time they can. So, if you haven’t tried something similar, do you dare not to? How good are your tones, really?

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.