Why good feedback matters and how to get it

Feedback is an integral part of learning a foreign language and there is no doubt that we need it to improve. While it’s certainly possible to learn a lot with simply a lot of exposure to the language, both when it comes to spoken and written language, it’s very hard to increase accuracy in speaking and writing without feedback.

wrongAs adult learners of Chinese, we have experience with at least one other language and that means that we constantly make assumptions about how Chinese works which might be incorrect. We need feedback from other people to correct these problems. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to pronunciation (it might sound good to you, but not to a native ear), but it’s also true for speaking in general as well as writing.

However, giving good feedback is not easy and it’s perhaps even harder to receive feedback it well. I have already written about the art of being corrected, so now it’s time to write about the other end of the exchange and discuss how to give feedback. This article isn’t meant for teachers only, though, because as a learner you can use these ideas to increase the quality of feedback you receive from your language exchanges, class teachers or private tutors. The quality of the feedback can be improved tremendously by following a few easy principles, but let’s look a little bit closer at the problem first.

What bad feedback looks like

When I was an upper-intermediate learner, I took a course in written Chinese that was awful in many regards, but the worst part of the entire course was the feedback we received from our teacher. I usually spent more time trying to understand what I had done wrong than I spent writing the essay in the first place.

Now, if this time was well spent trying to figure out good ways of expressing myself in Chinese, fine, but I actually didn’t understand what I was doing wrong at all or why the teacher wanted me to change something, so I ended up giving the essay to other native speakers for feedback. They sometimes didn’t understand either, but they still managed to help me improve the essay.

The reason the feedback was so bad was that the teacher didn’t use a sensible notation system. If something was wrong, she underlined it with a red pen and that was it. That meant that the only thing you knew when you saw that read line was that something in that sentence was wrong. Syntax? Vocabulary? Collocations? Logic? Something else? Does the sentence just sound a little bit strange or was it completely wrong? I didn’t even know where to start.

Why good feedback matters

Misunderstanding feedback is catastrophic, because it might lead to the unlearning something which is actually right, while ignoring the actual problem. For instance, I might think that the teacher don’t approve of the verb-noun choice in the sentence, and then make a mental note not to write that again, whereas it is in fact the word order of the sentence that is wrong, which I might fail to notice entirely.

One very common problem is not indicating if the sentence in question is just plain wrong or of it just isn’t very idiomatic in Chinese. This matters because if you (incorrectly) think that what you wrote is totally wrong, this might screw up your mental representations of Chinese grammar and syntax. If it were clear from the feedback that you sentence is actually quite good, albeit rarely used by native speakers, your confidence for grammar and syntax might actually be reinforced by the correction.

Some guidelines to use for more useful feedback

Instead of complaining about bad teachers I’ve had, I’m going to share with you some easy steps to take to improve the feedback you give (if you’re a teacher) or that you can try to persuade your teacher to use (if you’re a student):

  • Different shades of wrong – There are numerous different ways of being wrong and knowing which one it is helps quite a lot. Let’s look at three of them, in decreasing order of seriousness. First, your teacher might not understand what you’re trying to express at all. This is typically marked with a question mark and usually requires a discussion. Second, the sentence might be understandable, but obviously wrong in some way. This needs to be clearly shown, preferably using a special colour like red. Third, a sentence might be technically correct (i.e. follow syntactic rules and be sound in general), but simply not part of what Chinese people say. Use another colour to mark this, perhaps blue.
  • Writing too much or too little – The theory of how context and language interact to form meaning is called pragmatics. Among other things, pragmatics cover how people try to hit the sweet spot between saying too much and too little when communicating with others. If you say too much, you will come across as verbose or boring: if you say too little, people won’t understand what you say. The tricky thing is that this is different in different languages. You might think your paragraph is perfect, yet your teacher thinks it lacks certain things and contain too much of something else. The language might be correct and idiomatic, but you’ve missed the third level of communication: pragmatics (the first tow being semantics and syntax). Use another colour to indicate this kind of problem, like green.
  • Don’t correct everything – If you’re a teacher and are dealing with average students, don’t correct too much, because nothing is more depressing than receiving a paper where the red ink used exceeds the black ink used to write the essay. Instead, focus on systematic and serious errors. Leave the fine-tuning for later. For some students, it might be okay to correct more, but I doubt that it’s beneficial even if the student is mentally strong and won’t feel depressed. There’s a limit to how much we can take in anyway.
  • Don’t always give the right answer – The  teacher shouldn’t always give the right answer, at least not immediately. If the student makes a mistake the teacher know that he can actually correct himself, there’s no need to spell it out. Thinking about a problem and solving it leaves a much deeper impression than just being fed the correct answer. However, it should still be clear what the problem is, we don’t want to end up in the situation I described in the introduction to this article.
  • Be aware that there are different kinds of mistakes – This requires that the teacher knows the student fairly well, but knowing what kind of mistake the student has just made is crucial. The main distinction between mistake (the student actually knows the right answer, but failed this time anyway) and error (a systematic problem that will occur in all such situation because the student doesn’t know what is correct). I’ve written more about this here: Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis.
  • Give positive feedback and praise now and then – If you encounter a sentence which is really good compared with the average level of the text, the teacher should let the student know. Personally, I’m very keen on learning what I do wrong and don’t mind heavy criticism on things I say or write as long as I’m given a reasonable chance to know what I should have said or written instead, but even I think that receiving praise now and then feels great. Don’t overdo it, though, and never praise erroneous sentences. Use a pretty colour like pink and add a short, personal comment.

Naturally, I have only given examples here. It doesn’t really matter exactly what method the teacher uses to let the student understand where the mistakes are and what to do about them, as long as the student can understand without spending hours and needing to consult other native speakers. Colours are perhaps most suitable for digital correction, but special symbols or coloured pens should do the trick on paper.

Feedback is precious

When reading your essay, the teacher might understand very well what you have done wrong and might know how to help you. It’s a pity if that potential help got lost on the way because of bad standards for giving feedback. If you follow the guidelines in this article, the quality of the feedback will increase, and, as a result, the amount of Chinese being taught or learnt will increase as well!

Learning how to fish: Or, why it’s essential to know how to learn

In a world with perfect teachers and a perfect education system, we wouldn’t need to know how to study Chinese. We wouldn’t need to take many decisions about how to learn and even less about what to learn. The curriculum would be designed and executed in such a way that it made sure that we learnt everything we need to master Chinese. We could just do what was required of us and expect that to be enough.

Image credit: Alexander Warnolf
Image credit: Alexander Warnolf

Unfortunately, as we all know, this world isn’t perfect and Chinese education is in fact very far from being even adequate in many areas. Sure, there are schools that are really good and teachers that do their job well, but there are also lousy institutions and teachers who mostly teach because Chinese happens to be their native language, rather than because they have a passion for teaching and the necessary skills. Even in a very favourable situation, it’s unlikely that a teacher or course will provide you with what you want. You need to take control of your own studying.

This is partly why I think learning how to learn is essential for all adult students, not only those that are ambitious and like experimentation. Even though I realise that you as a reader of Hacking Chinese are probably more motivated and ambitious than the average learner, I do think and hope that what I write will spread to all students eventually. The ability to learn on your own isn’t something you need only if you have no teacher and no course. Instead, it’s a core ability that will determine your success in learning Chinese.

In other words, take responsibility for your own learning now!

Teaching you how to fish

There is an excellent saying in Chinese which pretty much sums up this entire website:

授人以魚, 不如授人以漁
shòu rén yǐ yú,
bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú

This is usually translated as: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you take a course, your teacher will provide you with lots of fish and you won’t starve to death. If you read Hacking Chinese and apply what I write here, on the other hand, you will gradually learn how to fish.

In other words, if you have an excellent teacher who can drip-feed you fish (yuck!), you actually don’t need Hacking Chinese. However, since most people can neither afford nor find a teacher who caters to their individual needs, most people still need to learn how to fish. You can of course just try to find other people to help you with every single problem you encounter, but it’s much better to acquire the ability to help yourself, it’s going to take you much farther and puts you firmly in the driver’s seat of your language learning journey.

Teachers and classrooms

It ought to be obvious why most students have to rely on them selves to learn Chinese. In a classroom, the teacher doesn’t have time to do everything. Even in very serious language programs, there are seldom more than a few hours of lessons everyday. If the students are ambitious, the teacher can focus most of the classroom time on things that actually need a teacher (such as improving speaking ability) and avoid things that don’t (listening, reading and vocabulary learning).

In compulsory education or with students with low motivation, much time is wasted on things like:

  • Learning words the students have never seen before
  • Listening to the dialogue in the textbook
  • Reading explanations in the textbook
  • Learning the stroke order of characters

These are things you could (and should) do on your own. If these areas are covered in class, the problem is that students might get the impression that they are already doing enough and that the teacher is providing them with everything they need. This is wrong. There’s simply no teacher or program that can provide you with everything you need. Not only are you responsibly for your own learning, you’re also the only one who has the potential to really understand your own situation.

The journey is long, so you’d better learn how to fish

The reason it’s not true that you can simply rely on your teacher or course is that it’s almost certain that they won’t provide you with enough Chinese in terms of quantity. You don’t necessarily need to study more, but you definitely need to expose yourself much more to Chinese in order to get used to it. To a certain extent, learning a language is about understanding rules and patterns, but this is completely useless if you don’t combine it with a lot of exposure to the surface forms. Knowing a grammar rule is only truly useful when you can understand it in context and the requires quantity of exposure. Obviously, you need quality as well, but in my experience, students don’t really lack this aspect since it is what most textbooks and teachers already provide. Most students lack quantity.

This is particularly true for listening and reading, which will eventually spill over into speaking and writing. The reason quantity is so important for the passive skills is that it’s not only a matter of if you understand or not (binary), but also how fast you can do it. It doesn’t help that you know the meaning of all the words in a spoken passage if it takes you a second to recall each and everyone of them, because you’ll lag so far behind the speaker that you will become lost almost immediately.

Because most courses can’t provide enough exposure, it means that you will be on your own most of the time, even if you’re enrolled in a serious Chinese language program. The better your teacher is, the more support you will have, but very few teachers have the time, ability and willingness to feed you fish all day long, even if you have the money to pay them for doing so. Learning to fish yourself is the only way.

How to learn to fish

Learning to fish requires three things:

The rest is about adjusting the methods to your goals and evaluate your progress, then tweaking or reconsidering your method based on the outcome of the evaluation. This is the start of a never-ending and fascinating journey in the the soul of language learning!

If you want some more concrete examples of things you can try to improve your learning right now, check the following carefully selected articles (or you can check the less carefully selected study hacks category):

  1. How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
  2. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  3. Learning Chinese in the shower with me
  4. Vocalise more to learn more Chinese
  5. Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small
  6. Timeboxing Chinese
  7. A smart method to discover problems with tones

Finally, don’t get stuck on just reading about these different ways of learning, actually try them! Now!

About fossilisation and improving your Chinese pronunciation

Having studied a significant amount of phonology and phonetics, as well as focusing my research more and more into pronunciation instruction, the question of so called fossilisation has popped up regularly. It has also been bothering me for a long time.

What fossilisation is and what it is not

In short, fossilisation means that the learner stops improving in a certain area, usually pronunciation (that’s what I’m going to talk about here anyway, but similar arguments can be made for other skills). The facts are quite indisputable: almost all native speakers learn the pronunciation of their native language to functional perfection, most adult foreigner don’t, even after many, many years. Thus, there is a period after which adults seem to stop learning and this is called fossilisation. This effect is often attributed to the fact that most adult students perpetuate bad pronunciation habits (errors) which will then be (allegedly) impossible to change.

Image credit: David Monniaux

Why I don’t like the term fossilisation

There are two things that bother me here. First, it feels like people use the term fossilisation not only to explain, but also to excuse bad pronunciation, saying that it’s natural, common and not something to feel bad about. I mean, if every adult learner is bound to stagnate at a certain level, why bother teaching pronunciation to advanced learners? This is often regarded as an absolute truth, producing statements like “you can’t reach native-like pronunciation after the critical age” (the definition of which depends on who’s talking).

This is nonsense. I have taught a significant number of adult students, both as a teacher and as a graduate students. I have so far never  encountered someone who can’t improve. I would be very happy if people stopped throwing the word around as some kind of explanation for why foreigners fail to acquire proper tones or whatever. It’s a description and a name for an observed fact and has (almost) no explanatory value at all.

Diminished returns, not fossilisation

If the concept of fossilisation is bunk, we need an alternative way of explaining the fact that many foreigners have severe problems with their pronunciation and is nowhere close to near-native in their Chinese even after many years. I think the answer lies in the infamous principle of diminished returns.

Put very briefly, the better your pronunciation gets, the more time you need to make a significant improvement. I might be able to help a beginner to make huge leaps forward in just a few hours, but if I’m going to improve my own pronunciation in any noticeable way, it requires long and concentrated effort. It’s also the case that improving your pronunciation from “very bad” to just “bad” help your communication abilities tremendously, but levelling up from “quite good” to “very good” actually doesn’t help that much.

Image credit: Jan Spousta
Image credit: Jan Spousta

Another way to look at fossilisation looks like this: The problem with pronunciation is that the more times we make a certain error (failing to pronounce the third tone as a low ton in front of first, second and fourth tones, for instance), the harder it becomes to change that habit later. However, even if this is true to some extent, that doesn’t mean that it’s a law of nature you can’t bypass. Changing pronunciation isn’t necessarily easy, but it can definitely be done.

Why we stop improving your pronunciation

In essence, I’m convinced that the reason most foreigners have lousy pronunciation isn’t because they started learning Chinese as adults or because it’s impossible to learn as an adult. Instead, it’s because most students simply aren’t motivated enough to put in the effort it requires. This is similar to the argument I made in the article about adult vs. child learning (You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old). Changing pronunciation habits is hard, why not do something more useful instead when people seem to understand what you say most of the time anyway? Still, remember that bad pronunciation always interferes with communication.

I can come up with several other reasons:

  • You don’t have time
  • You don’t know what to improve
  • You don’t know how to practice
  • You think it’s boring
  • You’re too lazy

I’m not saying that it’s equally easy to learn pronunciation as an adult compared to as a a child, nothing could be further from the truth, but I am saying that just because you won’t acquire good pronunciation automatically it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. This article is about adult pronunciation, child acquisition of pronunciation is something completely different.

What to do if you actually want to improve your pronunciation

You need to solve the above problems, roughly in the order mentioned above. Most importantly, you need to know what your problems are and how to fix them. To do this, you need feedback from a teacher. Obviously, you also need to listen a lot and mimic a lot, but without feedback, you stand little or no chance of improving (think of it like this, if you could improve only by listening and mimicking, your Chinese would be excellent by now).

Most teachers can offer you feedback and corrections, some teachers can explain what you should do instead, a few can help you design a plan to overcome you current pronunciation problems. If you’re very ambitious, you can do most of these things on your own with occasional support. The important thing is that you can do it if you really want to. I’m not going to argue that you should, that’s up to you.

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.

The importance of counting what counts

Have you ever felt that your teacher is correcting the wrong things or that she says that one thing is all-important but then ignores that when setting grades anyway? Have you tried measuring your own progress and found that it’s not easy to quantify language learning?

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/onetwo

We humans seem to like counting things, we like to measure ourselves and our surroundings. Counting language learning is about quantifying something which can’t be easily quantified, so in this case counting by necessity equals simplification. This process is not simple and can be done in many ways. In this article, I’m going to argue that the way in which we count learning has huge impact on the way we learn. We will look at two examples: formal grades and self-assessed studying and see that even if they are both meant to be measurements, they have significant influence on the way we study.

Formal grades

Everybody knows that the way grades are set determines how students approach the subject being taught. This is more true for compulsory education than it is for grown-ups attending courses in their spare time, but it’s still a widely known phenomenon. Language learning consists of many different skills, but it’s seldom the case that all these cases are being formally graded, leading to some parts being more emphasised than others.

The problem is of course that humans are lazy (or smart) and only do what is required of them. Even diligent students (a category people tend to place me in, for instance) look closely at what is required. Perhaps they do more than that, but if they care at all about grades, they are still affected by which grading criteria are being used.

Let’s look at two cases:

  • Neglect is about overlooking an aspect of language learning. It might be intentionally, because of a lack of resources or because of ignorance. For instance, I took an advanced course in Chinese last year which contained no graded spoken element whatsoever. Sure, you needed to be able to communicate, but formal grades were still only based on written exams. Likewise, I’ve attended courses where you don’t need to write characters on the exams (perhaps you’re allowed to type or there are multi-choice questions).
  • Emphasis means the opposite of neglect, i.e. placing more focus on one skill rather than another. As is the case for neglect, this might be because of a number of different reasons. For example, a teacher or education system might strongly emphasise one aspect of language learning. I know teachers who are very strict with character writing and who deducts points for minor writing mistakes, even for beginners.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying that either neglect or emphasis is inherently good or bad, but we need to acknowledge that they influence the way people learn. In the first case, people are less likely to learn characters or focus on speaking and in the second case, students will probably spend lots of time handwriting characters.

Intention is great, ignorance catastrophic

If this is what the teacher wants, this is perfect. If not, it’s catastrophic. In other words, if neglect or emphasis done intentionally by a teacher, we can call her “competent”, but if it’s done unintentionally, I would say the she’s a bad teacher. I’ve found that many teachers aren’t fully aware of the impact their choice of examination method has on the students. If a teacher says that communication is priority number one and then deducts many points because of bad handwriting, this teacher isn’t aware that there is a discrepancy between what she says and what she does. The students will heed the latter, not the former.

  • As teachers, we need to make very sure that we are measuring what we think is important and that we communicate this to the students.
  • As students, we need to be aware of that not all teachers do this. In short, we need to take responsibility ourselves and make sure we learn what we need to achieve our goals.

Self-assessed learning

From time to time, I’ve had some extra time on my hands and have devised various plans to study Chinese more efficiently. Even though I realise that this might not be the case for everyone, I think that most people benefit from some kind of goal to strive towards, like learning X characters, reading Y pages or writing Z articles. Setting goals isn’t easy (see my article series about goal management), but as if the basic problems weren’t enough, measuring itself also causes problems.

If we’re going to measure our progress, we need to make sure that we measure every area in which we want to make progress, because otherwise we will neglect the areas we aren’t counting and emphasise those that count.

A personal example of self-assessment

For instance, I’m taking fewer credits than usual this semester and have a fairly ambitious plan to learn more Chinese. I devised a system for keeping track of how much I read, wrote, listened and so on. It worked very well, except that I had neglected to include some areas that I thought were important, such as writing articles here on Hacking Chinese or reading articles and books about Chinese or language learning in general that weren’t in Chinese. Because I didn’t count this as studying, I didn’t include it in my overall count. Result? I stopped spending time writing and researching articles. I read fewer and fewer books I knew I would benefit from reading.

This is an example of neglect. I didn’t count some aspects that really counts (or that at least were as important as what I counted). After adjusting the measuring system a bit, things stabilised and I now have a fairly robust method which takes all aspects into consideration (and if I find something which is related to Chinese, but doesn’t count, I will change the system).

Counting what counts

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

– Albert Einstein

This quote from Einstein really captures it pretty well, even though he didn’t have language learning in mind. Just because something is counted (measured by grades or when you assess your own progress) doesn’t mean it’s truly important. Likewise, some things that actually count can’t be quantified. This is because measuring is a simplification and some things will inevitably be lost in that simplification.

Being aware of this doesn’t make the problem go away, but it certainly makes it less serious.

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.


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.

Take responsibility for your own learning now

What I’m going to talk about here might sound so obvious that you might even wonder why I’m writing this article, but I do think it belongs in the “obvious when you hear it but otherwise not” category. In short, I’m going to argue that you are the only one responsible for your own learning and that if you let other people take responsibility for you (such as your teacher or a friend), the results might be disastrous. It took me more than two years of studying Chinese before I figured this out and since I don’t think I can be considered to be obtuse in general, I think that there might be other people out there who will benefit from a reminder about responsibility.

You care the most about your Chinese proficiency

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/marcobuonvino/

Your Chinese level matters more to you than to anybody else, so you should be the one who is in charge. The problem is that most people start learning Chinese in a classroom with a teacher. If you study in your own country, it’s likely that this is your primary source for learning the language. However, shifting the responsibility from yourself to your teacher is a serious mistake. No teacher is perfect and few know your situation better than you do. There are also many reasons why teachers won’t teach you what you need (it’s rarely about incompetence, but more likely for social reasons). Let me give you a good example to illustrate this point.

About not taking responsibility

During two years of studying Chinese, I had a serious flaw in my pronunciation that no one told me about. I had half a dozen teachers and numerous language exchanges who could have told me, but no-one did. Or at least it took two years before someone pointed it out and I started looking more seriously into pronunciation issues. How can a systematic and quite serious error remain unchallenged for so long?

Because I did not take responsibility. I assumed, falsely, that I could just do my best in class and if I did that for long enough, my Chinese would be perfect. Instead, I should have looked at the situation from a different angle, striving towards analysing my own language ability from as many angles as possible. I should have made my goals clear to my teachers and to my helping friends. I should have assumed less and done more on my own.

However, rather than whining about the fact that no-one told me about this specific problem (I blame only myself), I learnt the following lesson:

You are ultimately responsible, what you see around you are just resources that can help you attain your goals

What I mean is that teachers, language exchange friends and textbooks are valuable resources, but they are just that, resources. You should view them as something that you can learn from, not as something that will allow you to sit back and sink into a passive learning style. There might be really good teachers out there who can guide individual students to such an extent that they don’t really need to think about their own learning, but they should be exceptionally rare, bordering on non-existing.

Discuss your learning with your teachers, read what other people have to say (such as what I say on this website) and listen to what your native friends tell you, but even though these might all give you important advice, heeding them or not is your decision. Constantly monitor your own learning and see what you can improve, don’t trust others to do this for you. It’s you who are learning Chinese and thus, you should be responsible.

What I do nowadays and what I suggest you do

There is a fairly easy way to get around this problem. Simply tell people what your ambitions are. If you’re aiming for pronunciation which is okay, but not perfect, say so. Tell them that you want to focus on grammar, correct vocabulary use or whatever, but do tell them what you want to learn. If you want to have good pronunciation, tell the teacher that you personally think that pronunciation is important. He or she will probably be very happy to help you. The sad thing is that this does not appear to be the default attitude.

The virtues of language exchanges

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

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

Why it’s good to have language exchanges

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

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

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

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

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

Beware of the difference among native speakers

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

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

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

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

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

The art of being corrected

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/jaylopez

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.