It’s been one month (and a couple of days) since I got into Taipei with the objective to speak fluent Mandarin in 3 months. So it’s about time I gave you a status report on my progress, before I share my next Mandarin video with you
on Friday tomorrow! (This photo is a teaser for that fun video!)
Since uploading the first video, I’ve gotten some great feedback (as well as some not-so-great feedback), and taking them and my own awareness of my biggest issues into account, I have changed my strategy quite a bit. It’s important to note that I am always working to improve my current level - so a typical day for me in my first week, my fifth week and my eleventh week will each be completely different!
There isn’t one way and one strategy to learn a language, but you must adapt to your needs, environment and abilities.
Toning down on tones
As you can see from that video, I was focusing a huge amount on attempting to get my tones as correct as I could, and this required serious mental power as I said each syllable. This was based on the advice from a lot of people that I should focus on tones as much as possible in the beginning. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, because all that energy on tones meant that I had no flow at all in the language.
So, my approach since then has been to learn words as best as I can, always attempting to get the tone right, but speaking quicker and sacrificing perhaps a few syllables to incorrect tones because of this.
It’s an approach I would highly recommend to other learners; definitely lots of work on tones at first, since it would be so much harder to fix bad tones when you are used to speaking the language for longer… but when your tones are “pretty good”, focus way more on speaking full words and sentences.
A few days should be enough for this – the two weeks that I gave it was too much.
The main issue with my first video was that I had to think a lot about each syllable and this lead to far too many pauses within words, which can lead to as many misunderstandings (or more) than speaking quicker with some tones wrong.
All that work on tones meant that I wasn’t able to get into conversations longer than brief interactions at all for almost my entire first month! That video was scripted and it still took me forever to say simple things, and this isn’t practical for real conversations.
If I had done my usual approach of saying things quickly as soon as possible and not worrying about mistakes, I’d be saying way more and conversing way more right now. But then again, it may be much harder to fix my tone issues. It has yet to be seen if I will have made the right choice, but what’s important is that right now I can converse and I am doing so with OK tones, so for the moment I think I made the right decision.
You’ll see in the video on Friday that I still have lots of room for improvement, but it’s way less awkward to listen to me speak, as well as being much easier to follow.
Getting over the plateau and finally conversing
This week I have reached a major milestone, just in time for my 1st month update: I can converse in Mandarin for long periods of time!! The temporary restriction (while I improve my comfort level and flow) is that I can only talk about certain things, and only with someone who knows to speak slowly.
I was stuck in a plateau for over a week of not feeling any important progress. My routine was similar to the frustrating day that I described, but my spoken practice was still for brief bursts, lasting only a few seconds each time. I was at the stage of being an “advanced tourist”, but far from being able to actually sit down with anyone for any length of time to talk, and was at danger of being stuck there for perhaps several weeks.
Speaking for any longer than a quick exchange was draining and a little stressful since it completely deflated my ego every single time it was one of the many new situations I was intentionally getting myself into, so I was keeping it a little at bay and studying a lot. After a very brief exchange, I’d retreat back to the books for several hours before the next one.
My main problem was that I wasn’t comfortable enough to speak. Whenever I tried, I’d freeze and wish I could look up the word, or realize how slowly I’m speaking and make an excuse to abandon ship. Most people’s solution to this problem would be “learn more words”, “improve your sentence structure” or the like, but I had a much better idea:
Force myself to speak with someone for three entire hours every single day
If you are learning to swim, you can either ease yourself in the shallow end with a floating device… or you can ask someone to push you in so you have to swim. As frustrating as speaking at this stage was being for me, I decided to, once again, run head-first into that frustration. Bursts weren’t enough – I needed no choice but to fill long periods of time with conversation.
So this week I’ve set up language exchanges and new lessons with different teachers, where the person would be motivated/paid to listen to me struggle, and I’d have to say something. I met one teacher who didn’t speak any English at all with me – after the class I felt once again like my brain was melting, but I had survived without simply repeating myself over and over. I had indeed successfully chatted about my time here, my work etc., and asked her about herself, and the particulars of our classes and future meet-ups, entirely in Mandarin.
This whole week I’ve kept this up and have spoken three hours of Mandarin every day, and my conversation skills are starting to appear! I feel like such an idiot all the time I’m speaking, but I’m ignoring that and doing it anyway, and I can feel the progress every single day. I finally have the flow that I was lacking in my first weeks.
The fact that I can only do this with teachers or a language exchange is a temporary (and expensive) setback, because I am improving quick enough that I will be ready to talk to someone speaking a little faster and about a wider range of topics very soon. For the moment, it’s a useful stepping stone to be on.
Rather than wait until I’m “ready”, I’m attempting to properly socialise in a non one-on-one situation in the language every few days, and will be attending a party this Saturday with mostly locals. I’ve already tried this and failed miserably, returning home feeling like my Mandarin is worthless, since I’m trying something way beyond my current level, but persistence will yield useful results. This week I am way more likely to be successful, and if not, then next week I’ll be even more likely.
Way more restricted character learning
Another problem with my first weeks, which I do regret, is that I was learning too many characters. Rather than apply the triage system I’ve discussed in many posts, I was learning essential words both spoken and written. This may sound like an excellent strategy for the long term, but for the short term it’s quite worthless.
I do indeed need to speak the likes of verbs and such, but I do not need to read these words with the same urgency.
What I need to read must be focused on vocabulary in signs and menus. In this sense, a word like “to live” (in a place) is essential for me to speak as it’s very likely that I will say (and hear) this very frequently in conversations, but I won’t be reading this on any typical menu or sign. So my character studies have been sliced down into just reviewing some Anki decks related to food for the moment, and even within that I am discarding many cards that come up as they don’t fit my personal requirements.
I’ve also tossed aside Heisig’s book, which was recommended to me by so many, as this is also far too focused on the long-term, in the sense that you systematically go through the book and after you know it all well, then you’ll be able to understand the meaning of the most useful characters as a whole. Even that is still unhelpful as it doesn’t cover words, so it’s yet another “long term investment”, where knowing individual characters will help you figure out what a word means… sometimes. At best, I’ll be using the book as a reference next month when I return to learning characters with more focus.
Reasons why too much of a “long term investment” approach can actually be an incredibly impractical way to learn a language is something I’ll discuss in much more detail in a later post.
There is a controversial point in learning Chinese, where so many people recommend that you focus on characters as much as possible, as soon as possible. Unlike the tone issue above though I am quite confident that I can learn these for non-essential words later. It’s way more efficient to focus on learning what is essential to you right now. On top of this I’ll be learning them for words that have full context in my mind, as I’ll be comfortable in speaking them.
This is actually the way most Chinese people learn the characters too – they will be aware of and have fully incorporated the sound as a child and then learn how it looks some time later.
Some day I would like to read a newspaper comfortably in Chinese (for this mission, I just want to get the gist of one if possible), but right now I need to read menus and signs. After that I would like to read short simple sentences and can focus on key vocabulary in those then, and so on to expand each time to something a little more complicated.
This advice will annoy perfectionist learners, but I highly recommend you streamline your character learning, rather than learn as many as you can as you come across them. It’s inefficient to try to learn everything if you plan to use the language in the real world any time soon.
Anyway, I’m certainly not avoiding character learning as I see the same ones when using my Pleco app, or in my books. So I’m getting used to seeing them all the time, and they are not foreign to me – many characters I’m most used to seem like the best way to describe a sound or even word now! But since speaking opens up so many more doors and opportunities than reading does, I am focused on that much more.
Frequently Asked Questions
I asked those who have liked my Facebook page (as well as twitter) to leave their questions for me to answer in this post, and here are a few of the most interesting ones, which were relevant to my Chinese mission:
- How did you improve your ability to differentiate/recognize tones when hearing multisyllable words?
In my opinion, focusing too much on learning individual characters (i.e. syllables) is a mistake. Words should always be learned as containing all their syllables in quick succession, as we do in every other language.
When doing this, you learn the tones in sequence, rather than individually. So for me “problem” is not wèn, 問 a falling tone, the core word sometimes meaning “ask”, followed by tí, 題 a rising tone, core word sometimes meaning “topic, subject” etc. which requires so much damn thinking, but simply wèntí (falling-rising) as one unit, not caring about the component parts, unless I come to them another time as an individual word themselves. I’ll discuss the techniques I’m using to remember multi-syllablic words with their tones another time.
Learning them individually will leave you speaking like I did in my first video, or needing a native to slow down far too much. Just for the moment I need a native to slow down at the word level, not at the syllable level.
- Compared to all the other languages you’ve studied, how does Mandarin compare in difficulty?
I’m actually at exactly the point I was hoping to be at after one month. I was much slower to get into conversations than in any other language I’ve tackled, but the sentence structure is so much more logical that I am expressing myself as coherently as I would be in learning any other language in a different language family after this amount of time. European languages require way more thinking in terms of very complex grammar issues and conjugations, and I almost have none of that to slow me down here.
The time it took from forcing myself to start speaking for longer periods of time, to actually being decently comfortable in having conversations has happened in a matter of days. In this evening’s conversation session, I would actually even go as far as to say that I was comfortable speaking (within the limited topics I can discuss) without feeling like my brain was melting the entire time as I’ve been up to now. While this is quite fast, keep in mind that 9 hours of pure speaking, with a native constantly there for feedback is a lot of time!!
So it’s harder to get into it, but when you do it’s way easier to make progress faster. This balancing act means that I still have no reason to think Mandarin is “harder”.
Vocabulary is an issue since I have almost no cognates I can rely on, as I would do in European languages, but then again, learning new vocabulary is way easier because the words are so short! There are a lot of homophones (words that sound the same), and this can be confusing… but it can also help you to learn because there is such a limited amount of ways that words can be pronounced, and you can use one word to help you learn the other if you do it with an efficient enough mnemonic.
In this way, for every “disadvantage”, I’ve found something that totally balances it out. I plan to write a detailed post about this much later. In the mean time, regarding difficulty levels in general I’d highly suggest you read this post.
- How did you pull off an hour long conversation without hitting stumbling blocks like not knowing the right word or not knowing words that your conversation partner was using?
If the other person is speaking, I use extrapolation. Take the words I do know and try my best to figure out if I can know what they were likely saying. Context fills in so many of the holes that the conversation can indeed continue.
If I’m speaking and don’t know a particular word then I use a simpler word. Basic verbs like “to do” get overused, but with enough context it’s also quite clear what I’m talking about. Since I’m mostly talking to my teachers, they would be experienced enough in doing this with foreigners. Once again, this is just a stepping stone. I’m doing lots of work on vocabulary and will be using work-arounds less and less, so the other person has less of a need to adjust for me.
It’s very important to realise that “the right word” is not important at all. It’s a “good enough word” that you really need if you are trying to get by.
- Do you have a Chinese nickname?
Not yet – some people reading the blog have offered to give me one, but I’d rather get one from a friend I make naturally here. I did this with ASL and am very pleased with my sign name because it has a personal history.
- Given the fact that your other known languages do not belong to the same linguistic family, do they still help you learning Mandarin and if so, how?
Oddly enough, my basic American Sign Language has been helping me because it has a similar word order!
Otherwise there are other features that crop up, like the fact that “Yes/No” questions are answered with the verb of the question since there is no word for yes/no, as in Irish, and these questions have a question particle as in Esperanto. There are also general advantages of having learned other languages that give me a head start like being absolutely sure that the world won’t end if I go up to someone and speak the language (it takes some time to realize this!)
- What’s the most challenging thing for you when learning Chinese?
The greatest challenge I am having by far has nothing to do with the language itself. When you learn languages in Latin cultures, or when I was learning Turkish or Tagalog etc. I found that people were very quick to approach me and start conversations. Asian cultures are quite different and in Taiwan most people let me be. For me it’s quite strange that in an entire month nobody has come up to me or tried to make any conversation, but I imagine it’s because I’m Caucasian and therefore unlikely (based unfortunately, on most likely interactions with other westerners) to speak Mandarin having a lot to do with it.
Although when I do the speaking first they are always quick to encourage conversation, so using skin colour as an excuse is quite weak. Nobody has switched to English if I start in Mandarin, since I do some simple things to make sure it doesn’t happen.
The problem is that this puts a lot more pressure on me to do all the approaching and hopefully make friends, and this is important as socialising in the target language is very important for me to improve quickly.
I’d say Portuguese is one of the easier languages to learn not because of its grammar etc. (which is more different to Spanish than most people think), but because Brazilians are the friendliest people I’ve ever met. I was approached by strangers every single day in Brazil – and conversations flow from this. The Taiwanese are definitely friendly, but in a different way – out of respect I suppose. Then again this may just be in issue in Taipei city, with those in the countryside being quicker to approach strangers, but I’m comparing it to my experience in cities in general.
This is not actually a major problem – it just means that it’s extra work for me that I don’t usually have, and I’m already working myself very hard…
This month I’ll get into socialising much more, and figuring out how to do that in such a way that I can start using the language more naturally is going to require me to put on my thinking cap. But discovering how to get around social and cultural differences is all part of the fun!
That’s it! There were lots of other questions, but I’ve either answered them elsewhere or they weren’t so relevant, or I’ve answered them anyway within this post.
Hopefully this long post gives you an idea of where I am at – so far so good On Friday you’ll see my one-month-level video, which I wanted to separate from this post.
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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