Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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.

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.

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  1. Sara K. says:

    “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!”

    LOL, I wonder who that is.

  2. Patrick says:

    Another great article! Following your Twitter and website has made you a professional guide to me.. :))

    Keep up the great work, sir.

    – From Washington, D.C.

  3. George says:

    Actually, full learning of language is foremost about communication, not just reading or listening.

    Added to that is the situation where even first language children take years to master pronunciation and listening BEFORE they engage in reading and writing; and it becomes obvious that speaking and listening are a higher priority.

    And for the Westerner novice that is studying Asian languages, the work load of visual association of characters to sound and meaning can added a burden that is not really appropriate.

    The early Chinese language course by Tewkesbury was strictly phonological. And US government courses for foreign service staff are also strictly phonologic.

    While I deeply appreciate being able to recognize street signs and items on a restaurant menu, learning to communicate with other people in real time is the heart of any normal career as a language learner.

    1. Gary says:

      “…for the Westerner novice that is studying Asian languages, the work load of visual association of characters to sound and meaning can added a burden that is not really appropriate.”

      So, true

      1. George says:

        In Taiwan, young Mormon missionaries study their Chinese and Taiwanese before arriving here and do quite well with just a few years of study.

        I suspect it is entirely phonological group study.

        And yet, I can’t express enough about how frustrating it is to get verbal directions from somebody when you know nothing about characters. Street signs with the names of roads and so on are very important to navigating in Taiwan and China. Bus routes are often just a list of stops without any map.

        And it is always nice to be able to identify what kind of shop is nearby by the signage.

        I travelled Mexico alone when I was about 21 and the language barrier or Chinese is more monumental. It takes longer to locate a word in a dictionary and the characters may be easily confused when you are in a rush.

  4. Aaron Posehn says:

    I recently shared this article with some individuals who just started learning Chinese a while ago. They were finding it hard, mostly because they were trying to do it all by themselves. Your article gave them some good perspective.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Glad to be of service! 🙂

  5. George says:

    I have been studying Chinese, and Taiwanese while living in Taiwan for more than 19 years. I am sure I’d never have learned Chinese without the benefit of being immersed in the actual culture.

    I have also taught English to Taiwanese over the same period, so I have a lot of detailed observations about the contrasts between the languages.

    Recently I have gotten back into Mandarin Grammar Books and find the grammars a bit imperfect. But the truth is that even the best of English grammars are equally imperfect. Oxford put out a tome that is about 1400 pages and more than a foot thick by Quirk, Greenbaub, and others — but I actually teach material that has never been discovered by those Brits.

    Grammar is all about the link between semantics and syntax. Native users of the language discover these without a grammar and just know them. So the results are you have to discover from native users what is acceptable. The published tomes are only so useful, and at some point all are questionable.

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