Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Language is communication, not only an abstract subject to study

According to Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, the word “language” is defined as follows:

a system of communication by written or spoken words, which is used by the people of a particular country or area

That languages are about communication should come as a surprise to no-one, but if you think about it, how often do you study Chinese with communication in focus? If you study somewhere else than China, the likelihood is that your contact with native speakers is quite sparse, perhaps even non-existent. I studied French for seven years in Sweden without actually using the language in a real situation more than a few times! This is absurd, but still a reality for many people.

In this article, I will talk about the importance of communication. It’s mainly directed towards those of you who don’t live in a Chinese-speaking environment, but the rest of you will probably find some interesting things as well.

Two-way communication from the very beginning

If you’ve just started learning Chinese, you should start communicating immediately. Find someone to practise with as soon as possible,  don’t wait until the day you’re “proficient enough”, because that day is only drifting farther and farther into the future for every second you’re harbouring that kind of thought. There are many ways you can find Chinese speaking friends, pen pals and language exchange partners. Here are some suggestions:

There two reasons why you should do this:

  1. It creates a real need for communication
  2. It makes you understand that Chinese is a real language

Let us consider these points one by one. The first one is rather straightforward. Having something you want to say to another human being, but that you are currently unable to communicate, is a much stronger incentive to learn than almost anything else. Writing a very basic self-presentation might seem boring and pointless, but if you’re going to use it to find friends, it suddenly becomes important. You won’t spend time writing it only because you want to pass the course that requires you to write the presentation, you’ll also do it because you want to communicate with other people.

The second point might not be obvious at first, but it ties in with what I said earlier about lacking contact with the real language. It’s possible to study for many years and only see textbooks and teaching materials designed for foreigners. Of course, no sane person doubts that China exists and that a majority of Chinese can speak Mandarin, but actually getting in touch with native speakers makes this certain beyond doubt. Don’t create a barrier between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world. Sure, they aren’t one and the same, but it’s important to create links between the two.

Communication as motivation

If you’re regularly communicating with natives, you will find that there are lots of things you need to learn and areas where you need to improve in order to make yourself better understood. As a beginner, you might realise that your tones are off and that you need to practice those, as an advanced learner, you might realise that you need to work on your vocabulary to be able to choose more suitable words to express what you want to say. Regardless of your level, real communication is a much more powerful motive force than exams, grades or anything else related to the classroom. Anything that strengthens your motivation to learn is good, so make sure you’re not studying only for the sake of studying!

Inside vs. outside the classroom

Contrary to what seems to be all the rage among language learning bloggers, I’m not going to say that classroom learning is useless. Sure, there are significant differences between learning inside and outside the classroom and the two can and should be used for different things. What bothers me is that for many students and teachers, it seems like the two ways of learning are completely separate and isolated. It needn’t be like this, aspects of real communication can and should be a part of classroom learning as well.

I will return to classroom learning in another article, so today I’ll just say that you can make classroom learning much more effective by linking it to the real world. If you’re a teacher, I think it’s your responsibility to help students with this (or arrange it for them if possible). If your a student yourself, you can create these links on your own.

Don’t isolate yourself, join the world!

I studied languages in isolation for a long time. I think I studied French for five years before I spoke French to a real French person. I even repeated this mistake with Chinese and didn’t speak much Chinese before I moved to Taiwan. I say “mistake” because communication with other people lies very close to the heart of what it is to be human. Tapping this need for communication is essential, perhaps even necessary if we want to have the energy required to learn Chinese. It’s also an excellent tool to help us find out what we should improve.

What I’ve said here is in no way limited to having conversations, reading and writing are also means of communication. For instance, learning to read characters because you want to read a certain book or an interesting comic is much butter than learning them in order to pass the next exam. Another example is practising listening ability in order to understand films and TV shows. It doesn’t really matter what area we’re talking about; don’t isolate yourself and your language learning from the real world. The language and its speakers are out there, go join them!

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  1. Guus says:

    “Don’t create a barrier between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the real world.”

    That really sums it up. Not just for Mandarin or languages, but for anything that is taught in a classroom. I’ve often started things while not knowing how to complete them, such as my business. It’s the most powerful incentive to learn. Too often I see people around me being hesitant to apply and take further what they learned in the classroom.

  2. Sara K. says:

    This even applies for languages where all the native speakers are dead. Back in high school, I studied Ancient Greek, and the people who advised me often said that you should jump into ‘wild Greek’ (something composed by a native speaker of Ancient Greek) as soon as possible. Even if you could not actually understand it, it was a reminder that Ancient Greek was a living language.

    In a strange way, it is a blessing that my experiences with learning French in the classroom was so bad. Because the teacher was awful, it was obvious to me that I’d have to reach outside the classroom if I actually wanted to learn French, so I ended up reading Le Petit Prince within months of starting my French class, and within a year I had had various conversations with native French speakers outside my formal studies (I didn’t have any consistent contact with native French speakers, but San Francisco gets its share of French tourists who are willing to chat with somebody studying the language). Ironically, if my French teacher had been better (but not so good as the integrate non-textbook French into the class) it might have actually taken me longer to break out of textbook French.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Interesting! My French teachers have been varied, but in junior high school I simply wasn’t very interested and didn’t really want to learn as much French as I could, I just found it interesting to learn the language. I don’t think it even occurred to me to go outside the classroom, even though the teacher wasn’t that good. In senior high school I had a great teacher, but I still had no interaction with real French for almost two years. Then I went to France and lived with a host family for a few weeks, but that wasn’t at all related to my French class. So, overall interaction with French people after seven years of French initiated by the teacher or the curriculum: zero.

  3. Candy Lee says:

    I like your attitude towards classroom lessons. Some hardcore language learners may be able to do without them, but in my school I see every day how much it helps to provide Mandarin learners with the whole picture.

    The other part of your point is also true: it’s a lot more effective if learning doesn’t only take place in theory but also in practice. At my language school, we have monthly meetups to try and connect Mandarin learners and Mandarin speakers. But in the end, it’s the learner’s responsibility.

  4. 林冠穎 says:

    Talking to Japanese people a lot was how I got fluent in Japanese, but now I live in a smaller town and hadn’t had the opportunity to make Mandarin-speaking friends until quite recently. It makes such a difference. It has given me so much motivation to improve!

    As for language being a tool of communication, I agree 100% with this approach. When I taught English, I always told my students that they didn’t need to make perfect sentences to communicate, but that they needed to communicate if they wanted to get better and eventually make « perfect » sentences (there is no such thing, but I’m sure you get what I mean!)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, the worst combo is when formal courses have goals that aren’t communicative, so you can have someone study for a year, get full marks, but still not be able to do anything with the language. That shouldn’t be happening in 2023, but it is.

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