I remember when I started learning Chinese and we had one chapter the first semester about navigating a small town drawn in our textbook, complete with a post office, a bank, a school and a library. I remember that the listening exercises were really hard, but that didn’t matter much, because we soon moved on to other chapters.
Language isn’t just knowledge of words and phrases
In a way, I think asking for directions is a bit like counting in Chinese, i.e. it’s something you think you’re good at, except that you aren’t. This is because a language isn’t just knowledge, it’s not enough to be able to recall the words in Chinese, you need to be able to do so immediately without thinking. This can only be the result of practising.
The problem is that most people don’t practise much, unless they have a terrible sense of direction and get lost all the time in Chinese cities. When I first arrived in Taiwan after one year of studying in Sweden, I was really bad at both asking for and receiving directions! I don’t think I’m the only one who has been in this situation.
How to practise
Since asking for and receiving directions is important for all learners (including tourists), I’m going to offer some ways of practising this skill which go beyond your textbook:
- Put away your smart phone – This is really important and applies to more than just asking directions. If you don’t use your brain to figure out how to do things in Chinese, you will never learn the language. Don’t use your GPS and interactive maps to find the way to your destination. This is a wasted learning opportunity! Turn off your phone and ask people around you. Using a smart phone is cheating and the only one who will suffer is you. Yes, it will take longer, but you will also learn more.
- Pretend you’re lost – Pick a place you know well, then walk a few blocks in one direction and ask someone how to get to the place you just left (or give them a landmark nearby). Listen to their replies carefully. Then ask another stranger the same question. Since you presumably remember the way you just walked, you already know how to get there, your mission now is to learn how to do that in Chinese. Ask as many people you want! Then walk in another direction and repeat the process.
- Practise with WordSwing – As a preparation for the above or as a substitute if you don’t want to or can’t do it for real, you can check out this activity over at WordSwing. It’s developed by Kevin and me, and is easy to use: you will hear directions in Chinese and you’re supposed to match the instructions to a figure describing how to walk. You need to answer several such questions to get to your final destination. You can also get the sentences written out, look up vocabulary, slow the speech down and much more. Try it out! Also, if you have suggestion for how to improve, just let me know.
- Navigating street view – If you want to simulate the feeling of walking through a Chinese city without actually being there, you can use the street view on a map service like Google (only Taiwan?), I Show China, City8 or Baidu. Naturally, you still need someone to ask or give directions, such as a language exchange partner or tutor. I’ve tried this myself and it works well. Once you’ve followed directions given to you, try to write your own and see if your friend ends up where you intended him or her to be!
In summary, don’t think you know how to ask directions in Chinese just because you have covered that chapter in your textbook. There is no substitute for large amounts of practice, and if you don’t get lost often, you can create these situations in the manners described above. If you have any other good ideas for improving, leave a comment!
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I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!