How persistence can get a beginner learner to expert level
I'm almost finished my intensive travels, and can soon catch you up on my summer and get cracking on my next language projects! Make sure to follow my Facebook page / twitter / Google plus for clues for where I'm moving for the rest of the year, and the two languages I'll be learning (one a quick two-week project relevant to where I'm moving, and then a 3-months-to-fluency challenge for a language lots of you are learning). Answer for both then revealed first in the email list, so don't forget to sign up to that on the top-right of the site!
First though, I wanted to share this story from an impressive language learner I found online! Chris Parker has a very impressive level of Chinese, which you can see in the video below. I thought it would be interesting to share the story of his first year learning Chinese. He's been learning it for seven years now, but it's important for those of us beginning languages (including me!) to remember that even those who seem so impressive to us now, had their own beginning struggles too. Here's his video demonstrating his current impressive level of Mandarin, and then it's over to Chris, who you can find blogging at Fluent in Mandarin, or on his Youtube channel gaoyoude1.
The decision I made seven years ago to study Chinese at university changed my life. Right from the beginning I decided that I didn’t just want to learn some Mandarin, I wanted to be proficient. I wanted to speak the language to an advanced level and be able to read a newspaper and write characters with ease. It’s fair to say that I got stuck in immediately, and got completely immersed in my studies!
Seven years later, I can’t say that I’m perfect and don’t make any mistakes, or that I understand and know how to say everything. There’s still a lot of room for me to improve, but I have achieved my original goal. I can speak Mandarin fluently, and I know all the simplified and traditional characters other than the really rare ones. I speak and use Chinese every day, and it has really become a part of my life and a second language to me now.
Experiences that I've had thanks to this include being interviewed on the radio in Taiwan after less than one year of study, going on a Chinese dating show on a local TV station (I was so nervous! I chose not to leave with any of the contestants (and no, I don’t regret it now), but it was amazing looking back at the video, all in Chinese!), travelled around southwest China solo, and have worked as a simultaneous interpreter from Chinese to English.
This may all seem quite impressive, but the truth is that I got to this point because of persistence to not give up when I had tough challenges, and I hope some of you will try to do the same with your own language challenges! Here's some of my initial stumbles:
I remember after I decided that I wanted to study Chinese at university, I went to visit some university departments and spoke to some of the students who were already studying the language “So, how long have you been learning Chinese for,” I remember asking. “Three years,” was the answer. “Are you able to read a newspaper? Can you understand films or the radio?” I asked. “If I read a newspaper, I can get the gist, but I can’t really understand it. I’m lucky if I can understand a few snippets of films. Chinese is really hard, you know?”
I was shocked. I had taken French and Spanish at school and even learned a bit of Russian, but I found it hard to get to grips with the fact that these students, on the final year of their course, found it hard to even understand a newspaper. Was this what I was letting myself in for? I felt determined to learn Chinese and get to a proficient level. How hard could it really be?
When they found out I was applying for Chinese university courses, the teacher at my school responsible for helping with university applications pulled me to one side after class and said, “Are you sure you want to study Chinese at university? If so, I support you, but you have to be sure, since it’s not going to be easy!”
Somehow, though, after thinking it through, I was still ready for the challenge. When other people around school found out, I became the ‘weird guy’, “why don’t you study maths, physics or even French or something?” They asked me. I didn’t really know how to respond, but I thought “it doesn’t matter really, I’m going to be leaving this school soon anyway!”
After I started at university, I had another rude awakening. We were learning so many new characters, and I barely understood the order that you use to have to write the strokes. How could I possibly keep up? Would I end up way behind? I had been one of the top students at school, but this was another story. To make matters worse, the teachers kept giving us texts in traditional Chinese characters, which seemed even more complicated. After a brief panic, I decided to do all I could to stay ahead in my studies. It’s fair to say that a lot of my free time went out the window, as I fought what seemed like a battle to get the characters to stick in my head. I just kept forgetting them, and I dreaded being pulled to the front of the class to write a sentence on the board.
I remember the first Christmas holiday of university I felt quite far behind. I was so grateful to have the time off to try and to revise all the characters I had learned so far. I remember sitting in a car on the way to do Christmas shopping, tracing Chinese characters with my fingers on the back seat.
Trying it out for real
After one year of intensive university study, I felt I had got somewhere in terms of the basics. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to study in Taiwan for the summer holidays. One of my biggest memories is that in a whole year of study, I had only learned the words for fried rice and fried noodles, and suddenly I was being confronted with menus all in Chinese. I bought a little electronic dictionary and I had to look up a large number of characters all the time, just to order food! The language environment really helped though, after that summer I barely had to look up any characters on menus! Studying and traveling around with a dictionary, I made a lot of progress.
This was completely new to me; I was used to sitting in a classroom speaking French or Spanish. This was the first time I actually used a foreign language in the country for a long period. I was actually opening my mouth and speaking to people, even if it was in fairly broken sentences. There was a big problem though, there are still so many things that I just couldn’t say or talk about, and half the time I couldn’t understand what people were saying back to me. This is about the time that I might have lost momentum and just have stuck with what I knew, but luckily for me and my Chinese studies, that wasn’t an option: I had university exams to pass!
If you engage in any kind of study for a long period, you will always end up evaluating what you are doing every now and then. After I came back to the UK, I just wanted be able to express more, and be able to actually understand what people had been saying to me. The most important thing was to keep the momentum up. I started to pool resources and find all the electronic aids and apps I could to help me.
My second year of learning Chinese wasn’t always fun. There was definitely a pain barrier in reading texts, I spent a lot of time looking up words in dictionaries, often several times, forgetting the word each time. I would listen to podcasts and have to pause constantly to look up words. After doing this for about another year though, I started to understand more and more, and I felt that I was really getting there! On my subsequent trips to China, I was gradually able to understand and say more and more.
Never give up
Looking back, I have gained so much from learning Chinese over almost seven years, and I really think the main reason why I am able to speak it well today is that I made the decision to start learning Chinese all that time ago, and I have stuck with it to this day. I would be hard-pressed to recommend a single textbook; I think there is something you can learn from every course or person that you speak to, and for me it was all good, the most important thing was persistence! I now use Chinese every day in my life and work, and it is starting to feel like a second language for me, but there is so much for me still to learn. Who knows where I will be in another few years’ time!
Great thoughts Chris! Remember the rest of you, that even if you dream to do the kinds of things Chris has done with his Chinese some day, in your target language (whatever it may be), that there will be struggles, but that persistence despite frustrations, will ultimately get you where you want to be! Check out Chris' blog or Youtube channel for more of his stuff. You can also see my own article for encouragement to learn Chinese if you're a beginner in this language.