Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The art of being corrected when learning Chinese

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.

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  1. David Feigelson says:

    A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. “It’s overfull! No more will go in!” the professor blurted. “You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

  2. Nathan says:

    “Feedback is a gift”

  3. Evetei says:

    There is a mistake in the following sentence in the article: “First, consider a situation where you speak English with a foreigner in your country and this person makes mistake. ”
    The last words should be “this person makes [a] mistake”.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Fixed, thank you for the correction! 🙂

  4. Joyce Son says:

    I agree with the overall viewpoint of this article – however, one thing I would like to point out is what would you do if the language exchange partner corrects you TOO often?
    I found myself in such a spot last semester when my partner constantly kept correcting me to the point I could barely get out a sentence. It made me a.) lose my self-confidence regarding Chinese, and b.) frustrated me because while the corrections were indeed useful, I felt like I couldn’t get my words across.

    Now that I think back, perhaps I should have pointed it out to him. How would you approach such a situation?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good question! I provided part of the answer and a discussion about the underlying principle here. I think the problem you describe is very common, not only when learning languages. I think the best way is to be open about it and just tell the person correcting you something like: “I think it’s extremely good that you correct me, without your help it would be hard to improve, but I think it would be best if I focused on the things you pointed out earlier first. When I feel I have mastered that, I will be ready to tackle other problems.” Most people should be able to understand this. By blaming yourself (you can’t focus on more than a few things) you avoid blaming the other person.

      1. Joyce Son says:

        Wow thank you so much for responding so quickly!
        Yeah you’re right I would’ve never thought of putting the problem on myself rather than the other person! Your website has been a tremendous help.
        Thank you! 🙂

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