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 things 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.
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 (sometimes) 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, even though they live in a Chinese-speaking environment.
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. Switching languages can be very hard, even if both of you want to do so.
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 with a standard Mandarin accent), 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 seem 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.
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.