Language learning with a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend

Without going into too much personal details, I’ve had my fair share of language learning with a Chinese-speaking partner. Since this is a topic that comes up fairly often and I have a few words to say about it, this is precisely what I’m going to do. I think that many people, both native speakers and other learners, misunderstand what it means to learn Chinese from/with a loved one.

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

So that’s why your Chinese is so good!

One of the most frustrating statements I’ve heard (and keep hearing quite often) is that after someone learns that I have a Chinese girlfriend, they exclaim something like: “Oh, so that’s why your Chinese is so good!”

There are many ways of responding, but since most people don’t really care, I mostly just smile and nod. Yes, sure, that’s the main reason.

Of course, the real reason my Chinese is reasonably good is because I’ve studied like a maniac, lived in Taiwan for four years and taken academic courses entirely in Chinese half that time. In fact, the cause/effect relationship in my case is reversed, I would never have been together with my girlfriend now if I didn’t already speak Chinese when I met her!

The problem is that people somehow think that having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend means that you’ll learn the language by magic. This is just wrong. There are some real advantages, especially for daily conversation, increased fluency and (hopefully) a good model for pronunciation, but you improve mostly because¬† you practise a lot, not because of the nationality of your better half. In a sense, this is the same as immersion: you don’t learn Chinese simply by living in China.

Another potential problem is language choice. I think people in general tend to choose to communicate in whatever language is most convenient, which very likely isn’t Chinese if you’re a beginner. I know many mixed-nationality couples in Taiwan who speak almost exclusively English. This doesn’t make sense from a language-learning perspective (or at least not from your point of view), but it makes sense from a human one: Most people don’t fall in love because they want to learn a language, so they tend to use whatever language works best, not the language they are trying to learn.

Practice makes perfect

The main benefit of having a Chinese partner is that it’s a very fun way of exploring the language. We naturally feel a stronger desire to communicate with people we love and that means that we can keep at it for much longer and with stronger incentives to learn. A partner is usually (but far from always) more supportive of our language learning and might therefore be superior to random stranger or language exchange partner when it comes to helping you with your Chinese.

I often argue that learning Chinese needs to be fun and finding a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend is definitely an awesome way to do it. I would personally never dream of finding one for this very reason, however, but I might be old and conservative. As long as everybody’s informed and is on the same page, I suppose it’s okay.

Another benefit with having a Chinese partner is that it increases your minimum daily study time. Just by managing daily conversations and discussions in Chinese is bound to teach you something, even if you’re an advanced learner. You gradually build up the feel for the language. Even if you’re too lazy to study, you still learn. This is harder without a partner, but can be managed in other ways, such as using games, sports or other everyday activities you don’t necessarily count as studying.

Some suggestions for how to learn with a partner

Don’t forget that your partner is a person, too. Just like friends, you can’t take them for granted and if you start treating them as your personal teacher or dictionary, you will run into problems very soon. I’ve found that the best way to equalise this relationship is by offering something in return. I do ask my girlfriend quite a lot of question about Chinese, but I also receive a fair number of questions in return regarding English or Swedish. This feels okay.

If both of you are very interested in languages, you could probably talk about that all day without feeling bored. If that’s not the case (I know, there are some strange people out there), I suggest limiting language learning to specific times. Don’t focus on your pronunciation 24/7, instead choose a time when the two of you try to fix your tones or whatever. If your partner is willing, s/he can then later correct you, but don’t push it.

What you won’t learn

Obviously, there are huge areas of the Chinese language that you won’t learn at all just because your special one happens to be Chinese. This includes character writing, reading speed, proper pronunciation (if s/he doesn’t speak Mandarin clearly), culture (unless you talk about it in particular) and writing in general. You will probably improve your ability to converse about everyday life and your fluency should increase quite a lot, but to reach an advanced level of Chinese, you need much more than that.

What if¬† I don’t have a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend?

Even though there seems to be some advantages with trying to communicate with people you love (as opposed to trying to communicate with a stranger or a language exchange partner), I’m convinced that the main advantaged with having a Chinese-speaking partner is that it makes studying more practical and enjoyable. As I said above, it’s a little bit like living in China versus staying in your home country. Going to China will make a lot of things more convenient, you won’t need to try as hard as if you stay at home. Still, there’s nothing that stops you from creating an immersion environment at home!

Similarly, there’s nothing that says you can’t learn Chinese very well without having a partner who speaks Chinese, but it means you need to be more active and involve Chinese in your daily life as much as possible in other ways. This is not impossible, it’s just slightly more inconvenient. Try to find other things that motivate you to learn and that makes learning Chinese a joy, then make them parts of your everyday life to as high a degree as possible. In my article about the three roads to Chinese mastery, “having your social life in Chinese” is indeed one of the alternatives, but you can achieve that without a partner who speaks Chinese and there are two entirely different options available as well.

Conclusion

In short, learning Chinese with a partner is indeed very good, but it’s not a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. You will still need to study, you will still need to practice, it’s just that some of the things you need to learn will be more enjoyable and you will hopefully be more motivated to learn. That’s worth a lot, but you can find other fun ways to learn and other things to drive you forwards.

You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/susiwunder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How much you learn by living abroad is up to you

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

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

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

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