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I Messed Up Learning Spanish… and Now I Speak Chinese


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

“I’ll never learn Chinese. Spanish was hard enough for me and that’s an easy language. Learning Chinese would be impossible.”

I felt defeated by my attempts to learn Spanish.

I had just come home to Michigan after three years of living in Latin America. I was preparing to move to China when my brother asked me if I was going to learn Chinese. The thought of trying filled me with dread and disappointment in myself.

When I started learning Spanish, I thought it was going to be easy. I thought it would only take six months and I’d be speaking perfectly. But it had been three years and my Spanish never reached the level I had hoped for.

Learning Spanish was much harder than I expected.

I was certain that I just sucked at learning languages. I figured it must be harder for introverts. I even convinced myself that I was too old, even though I’m still not even 30. I was too busy, I had too much work to do and no time to study.

I had excuses, lots of excuses.

Before I arrived in China I only planned on learning the absolute basics. I wanted to be able to ask where the bathroom is, order food, and count – not much more than that.

However, once I got to China, my plans changed. Not being able to speak Chinese made everything a struggle. I quickly realized that if I didn’t learn the language, that my time here would be much more difficult and frustrating that it needed to be.

So, I decided to do what any introvert would do, self-reflect. I looked back at my experience struggling to learn Spanish and realized there were a lot of lessons and mistakes to learn from. I realized I don’t suck at learning languages, I just made a lot of mistakes.

In this post, I’m going to share these mistakes with you and how I’ve learned from them to help me with Mandarin.

Mistake #1 – I Failed to Work Out What I Wanted

I had no clear goals when I began learning Spanish. I wanted to become fluent but wasn’t even sure what that would look like or how I would get there.

Fluency means different things to different people. I guess fluency in my mind was speaking perfect mistake-free Spanish. Basically I thought to be fluent I’d have to be indiscernible from a native speaker. This unnecessarily high bar doesn’t leave room for error. It left me constantly disappointed in myself.

Nowadays, I agree with Benny’s definition of fluency which is being socially equivalent in your second language as your first one. Being somewhere around 90-95% perfect is enough.

I was learning Spanish to communicate, not to trick people into thinking I was from a Spanish speaking country.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about the steps I’d need to take to reach fluency. That was the only goal. I didn’t break it up into smaller mini-goals to keep me motivated. As time passed, and I remained far from my original goal, I never re-evaluated or made new goals. Instead, I just got down on myself for falling short.

Lesson Learned – Set Clear Goals While Learning Mandarin

My aspirations when I started to learn Chinese were much humbler. In the beginning, I just wanted to be able to express and understand basic things. Later, I decided I wanted to eventually reach fluency. But that’s a very long-term goal so it hasn’t been my focus. Instead, I've set many smaller goals and these have brought me closer to fluency – though I’m not there yet. Some of these mini-goals include…

  • Know the 100 most common characters.
  • Recognize enough Chinese characters to order food from a menu, without pictures, and know what I ordered.
  • Listen to X number of ChinesePod lessons (depending on which difficulty level I was at at the time).
  • Be able to use Didi (Chinese Uber), Taobao (Chinese Amazon) and Waimai (food delivery) apps on my own.
  • Passing various HSK level tests. My current goal is to pass the HSK 5 by December.

None of these goals are terribly exciting, impressive or difficult by itself. But, each of them bring me one step closer to that bigger, long-term goal of fluency in Mandarin.

Mistake #2 – I Assumed Living Abroad Would “Immerse” Me to Fluency

After graduating college, I decided to move abroad and travel throughout Latin America for an undetermined amount of time. Since I knew I wanted to learn Spanish, I of course decided to start studying and reviewing what I already knew before leaving, right?

Wrong.

Somehow, I’d gotten the idea that living abroad is how you learn a language. As if the energy I spent back home was somehow not as valuable. I thought living abroad was all I really needed. Who needs Spanish class when everything around you is in Spanish? Why review verb conjugations when you’ll see and hear them everyday? Why use flashcards to review vocabulary?

Living abroad makes all of this completely unnecessary, right?

Wrong.

Perhaps if I was in a total immersion situation things would be different. But, for most people who go abroad, they aren’t going to find themselves being completely immersed in the language they’re trying to learn.

I know I wasn’t.

I had bills to pay – which meant work to do. I worked online and didn’t have any need or use for Spanish during my working hours. That’s a huge chunk of my day gone right there.

I made lots of friends that I always spoke to in Spanish. However, I also made lots of foreign friends and friends with locals that spoke better English than I spoke Spanish. If their English was better than my Spanish, we would speak English as it allowed us to express ourselves better.

If I wanted to relax and watch a TV show or read, most of the time I would do it in English. Perhaps this was just me being lazy. But, most people will find themselves being lazier than they planned to be. After a long and frustrating day of work, it’s much easier to watch an English show on Netflix than try to follow a TV show in Spanish.

While living abroad sounds like a great way to get completely immersed in the language, it’s easy to find yourself only using your target language rather sparingly.

I thought that if I lived abroad, I would just magically learn Spanish. I’d be like a sponge soaking up the language from everywhere. That didn’t happen.

Lesson Learned – Living Abroad is Helpful but it’s Not Enough on its Own

I got a head start on learning Chinese before arriving in China. I still wasn’t sure how far I wanted to take my Chinese learning. At this point, I thought I just wanted to be able to do the basics. But, even the basics will take some time to learn.

This got me on the right path. I find learning very enjoyable and building the study habit can be rather addictive. This habit carried over even after landing in China.

Not unexpectedly, I found that actually being in China didn’t do much to help my studies.

I understood nothing, could read nothing, could say basically nothing. None of the study resources I used required me to be in the country. I even worked with an online teacher because it was cheaper and more convenient than finding a local teacher.

In the beginning, there was only one benefit to being in China – motivation. After realizing how limited my life would be if I didn’t learn Mandarin, I became obsessed. For the first time in my life, I began putting in the work needed to learn a new language.

When you’re living abroad, there’s so much that’s new and exciting. It’s easy to skip the time studying. But, learning a new language is a very active process. You won’t just pick it up without conscious effort and time spent working on your target language.

I realized from my mistakes with Spanish that actually being in China would only be a small piece of the puzzle. I had to find the right tools to use.

Mistake #3 – I Ignored Spanish Resources and Waited for the “Magic” to Happen

Because I thought living abroad was the magic pill to learning a language, it’s not surprising that I didn’t look more deeply at the Spanish resources I could use.

I never spent the time studying Spanish grammar that I should have. Because of this, I still make lots of mistakes. If I wanted to learn a grammar point, I would expect a teacher to explain it to me and then provide me with ways to practice it. It was all very passive.

I had no method for remembering words that I learned. I somehow expected to remember them without reviewing. Because of this, my Spanish vocabulary grew much slower than it otherwise would have.

I never worked on my Spanish pronunciation and it shows. I have a strong gringo accent and can’t roll my r’s. It’s pretty embarrassing actually.

My only attempts reading Spanish were with native level resources – books and newspapers. They were too difficult for me. Because of this, I almost always got frustrated and gave up. It’s a shame too because reading is one of my favorite hobbies.

I needed to improve my listening skills. Whenever anyone spoke, it was too fast and difficult to understand. But just like with reading, I needed to find materials suitable to my level. And just like with reading, I never did.

Lesson Learned – Find the Right Tools – and Use Them!

I use a ton of different resources for learning Chinese. Most of the time I study is spent studying alone. I’m on a budget and I’ve found the most cost effective way for me to learn Chinese is to learn most things on my own and then have conversation practice.

Now, I’ll find various grammar videos on YouTube and and practice on my own. Later, I’ll work with someone to practice it in spoken situations.

Reviewing vocabulary is essential but I don’t want to waste too much time on it. I’ve found using Pleco or Anki to be a quick and efficient way to review new words I’m learning.

I knew pronunciation was worth learning early on. Changing bad pronunciation habits is something that gets more and more difficult the longer you’ve been studying. There are lots of videos and other resources for learning Chinese pronunciation and getting feedback online.

I’ve been slowly working my way up to read more and more difficult texts. I’ve taken my time instead of jumping right into materials that are too difficult. Luckily, it’s easy to find interesting material regardless of your level. I’ve found that reading in Chinese often feels less like studying and more like like something I would do for fun or to relax.

There are lots of good podcasts for learning languages. For learning Chinese, ChinesePod has been my favorite. Instead of jumping right into native level material, I’ve slowly worked my way up to it. My listening skills are getting better every day.

I’ve used Skritter to learn and practice writing Chinese characters.

Basically, there are a ton of awesome resources for learning Chinese. Making use out of these tools has made learning Chinese much easier and more fun. They also make it possible to find materials that fit my personality.

Mistake #4 – I Overlooked the Role Personality Plays in Learning a Language

Immersing yourself in constant conversation may be a great way to learn a language. But for me, this wasn’t realistic. I get exhausted if I spend a lot of time in conversation – even in English.

With Spanish, I get exhausted from conversation even sooner. If I try to force myself into too much conversation, I get too tired to learn anything from it.

Instead of accepting this and finding other ways to learn, I blamed my introversion as the reason why I was struggling with Spanish.

I didn’t take advantage of my strengths as an introvert. I can study on my own for hours and hours. But, instead of finding study materials to work on independently I exhausted myself trying to do what was too tiring for me.

It also took me far too long to use materials that fit my interests.

When I started trying to read books in Spanish, I started with books that I never would have read in English. They were things that I thought would be easier to read but that I wasn’t really interested in. It wasn’t until reading a book about a topic I was interested in and familiar with that I finally got the reading practice I needed.

Similarly, I tried listening to music that I thought would be easier to understand but wasn’t the style I liked. I love hip-hop and when I finally started listening to hip-hop in Spanish, I found a way to have a lot of extra listening practice.

I like planning and setting goals before starting a task but I never did this with Spanish.

I didn’t appreciate the fact that what works for others won’t necessarily work for me.

Lesson Learned – Personality Matters

With Chinese, I’ve approached conversational practice as a way to practice what I’ve learned rather than as a way to learn everything. If you’re the type of person who can socialize all day, go for it. But I realized that this isn’t a realistic plan for me.

Instead, I’ve learned most things independently and then find someone to practice with. This has been a much more efficient, enjoyable, and affordable way for me to learn a language.

I like seeing the big picture of things and I’ve used this to my advantage with Chinese.

Early on, I decided to take a step back and make some plans. I read a lot about how to go about learning Chinese. For some, this would be a way to procrastinate studying. But for me, it was a way to figure out the best path and avoid wasting energy and making mistakes that would give me problems later.

There is a lot of great content on this website and elsewhere about learning languages. I’ve found it to be worth taking some time to learn from these people. You can save yourself a lot of time and energy by avoiding making the same mistakes they have.

I focused on learning the building blocks rather than trying to learn everything right away. This has given me a strong foundation going forward.

It’s Never Too Late to Learn from Your Mistakes

I made every mistake possible when I was learning Spanish. I went so far wrong that I had given up on learning languages. I thought that it was just something that I’d never be good at.

If you can relate to any parts of this post, know that it’s not too late to learn from your mistakes.

Although, at first I didn’t want to try to learn Chinese. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity. Few things are as exciting and rewarding as learning to communicate in a new language. I see now that the mistakes I made learning Spanish have really been a blessing.

I realized that I needed to set clear and realistic goals for learning Chinese. I knew it was going to be a lot of work over a long period of time. This has helped prevent me from getting burnt out or frustrated by the speed that I’ve progressed.

I also understood that simply moving to China wouldn’t be enough. While it helped with the motivation, I recognized that I wouldn’t passively pick up the language. This has pushed me to take a more active role in the learning process.

It’s never been easier to learn a foreign language than it is today. There are tons of great resources that will make learning much easier and quicker. You can learn just about everything online without spending a fortune. I’ve utilized the tools available to me.

Lastly, I learned to respect the fact that I know myself and what’s best for me. Instead of focusing on my weaknesses, I’ve began to harness my strengths. I love reading, so I read as much as possible. I’ve found the right balance between independent study and conversational practice. I finally understand what works best for others may not be best for me.

I hope you don’t make the same mistakes I did. But if you have, know that it’s never too late to learn from them.

author headshot

Nick Dahlhoff

Elementary School Teacher

Nick Dahlhoff is teaching in Beijing. He writes about his experiences and favorite tools for learning Chinese at All Language Resources.

Speaks: English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese

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