A few years ago, when I was in the sixth grade, I was met with an interesting elective choice at my middle school. Every other day, I could forfeit a study hall, and attend a Chinese enrichment class instead. The teachers were directly from the Chinese mainland, and they taught the language at a local university as well. Without hesitation, I signed up for the course. I am not sure why I did so. Maybe it was because the foreign culture intrigued me so much, I was drawn to register in the class. On the other hand, maybe it was the art project I had done a few months prior that was a drawing of a Chinese dragon. Regardless, my fate was sealed with that permission slip allowing me into the class.
Fast forward a few years, to last August. I had not remembered much from the Mandarin class I had taken, but I did have lots of fun eating Fruit Loops and noodles with chopsticks. I decided that I would try to take up the language again, hopefully with more success. I took a few lessons, trying to use pinyin as much as possible, and avoiding Chinese characters at all costs. Of course, I had a few bumps along the way. One teacher I had told me I did not need to learn characters to speak Chinese, but then expressed her disappointment when could not identify Chinese characters she showed me on her flashcards. Ultimately, school started a few short weeks later, and I lost the time, energy, and vocabulary in the back to school rush.
That brings me to today. This school year has been absolutely amazing for me. I have taken several challenging (but rewarding) classes, became the 1st student in my school’s history to move from Spanish 1 to Spanish 3 Honors (another story for another time), and made so many new friends, some of whom are immigrants chasing their own American Dreams in my town! I have also met many Chinese speakers, many of whom I did not know before.
As the weather got nicer and warmer here in the Northern Hemisphere, I wondered what I would do over my summer break. Many things came to mind, such as family trips, athletic camps, as well as relaxing after a busy school year. However, I realized that there was one goal of mine that I never attained from the previous summer; learn Mandarin Chinese.
That’s why, for the summer of 2018, I am going to learn Mandarin Chinese, once and for all! When I first thought about this goal, I wanted to make it permanent, so that I could not let myself down again. I also desired to make my goals known to a large audience, so I could help people with their own struggles, regardless of any language they may be trying to learn. In this article, I will outline all of the steps I will take to learn Mandarin Chinese, the level I hope to be at by the end of the summer, my progress reports I will give to you (my audience), as well as what I think I am in for during this challenge. One thing is for certain… I cannot wait to start!
One obvious question you may have for me is this; how will you go about learning “the toughest language on Earth”? Although it will be difficult, but not as hard as many people think, I will do what I have been doing for all of my other language learning journeys.
First, I will take some formal lessons for the language, mostly online. I find that this helps me a lot, due to the fact that it gives me some information that I may find helpful in my conversations with native speakers. I also like to get some basics in the language down before I begin to have language exchanges with people.
Once I begin to have conversations with people, I will try to continue my lessons online, as they become more focused and tailored to my actual needs (as well as wants) in Mandarin. This helps me to incorporate new vocabulary into my conversations, and therefore helps me stick it into my memory for good.
Another thing that I like to learn at this stage is how to form adverbs. I discovered this necessity when I began learning Italian. When I first began having my conversations, I used molto (very) more than I would have liked. Every adjective had molto when I wanted to emphasize how something was, from molto bene (very good) to molto felice (very happy) to everything in between.
Once I learned how to form adverbs, such as bellissimo (wonderful) and felicemente (happily), I became more confident in my ability to speak Italian. I also received many compliments from native speakers on the variation of my speech. Going into this challenge, I wonder how easy/difficult it will be to form these adverbs.
Unlike my previous journeys with Mandarin, I will definitely make a concerted effort to learn the Chinese characters that I need to this time around. Although it may be difficult to learn all of the characters that I need to, it may be worth a try since my last experience with only pinyin did not pan out so well.
How Will I Stay Accountable to My Goal?
In past experiences, my Achilles’ heel has been not having an “accountability buddy”, or a group of people pushing me to do better, or just stay on track. This phenomenon was outlined in a study that was done by The American Society of Training and Development. When a person sets a goal for him/herself, and commits to another person, the chances that the goal is met is 65%. However, when that same person builds in meetings with their partner to check in on their progress, the same person’s chances of succeeding go up to a whopping 95%!
This makes sense in the world of language learning. Programs like the Add1Challenge have countless success stories of people who never had the opportunity, drive, or motivation to learn a foreign tongue. However, once they are put into contact with fellow learners, who push, inspire, and help their fellow challengers, their language ability soars! The only difference between the Add1Challenge and learning independently is the addition of a whole network of people rooting you on (and what a difference it makes!).
The Add1Challenge has helped many people learn a language that they have struggled with in the past. Regardless of gender, age, or nationality, these people came together for a common goal: the ability to hold a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker. That’s why I will be a part of the Add1Challenge along with several other language learners pursuing fluency in their respective languages.
In addition to the Add1 Challenge, I will be writing monthly updates on my language learning progress. In these updates, I will include videos from my lessons/conversations, and insights on what went right/wrong, and any adjustments I may be making to my process.
One really cool aspect about my town is that there are a few different Chinese restaurants, run by immigrants from China! Although it is always neat to connect with speakers of Mandarin Chinese over the Internet, I always prefer face-to-face conversations with people. These interactions that I hope to have with the native speakers will be very fascinating and inspirational, and I anticipate that I will be able to share videos of these conversations with you. 😉
What Level Am I Aiming For?
In determining what level I aim for, I have a little analogy that I like to use. You may have heard this before: language learning is like a mountain. You will push and struggle, and the “mountain” will be very steep and slippery at times, but when you eventually reach the summit, all that you have sacrificed and struggled for will be worth it in the end.
Although a helpful comparison, this is not actually the one that I use. When I think of my personal language mountain, I think of a certain level that I would like to achieve, usually way higher or out of reach for me (but not too far out of reach). Then, I put my head down, and work extremely hard on reaching that point on the mountain.
Why do I do this? Too often, I see people set good goals for themselves, but then ultimately go at a slow pace, knowing that they will reach the goal at some point. What ends up happening is that these people eventually lose interest in the original goal, because they are going at such a slow pace with their work (Note: This is solely based on my own experiences with people setting goals and learning languages).
I, on the other hand, would like to work hard on my progress, and then come up a little short of my goal. Although I may be disappointed that I missed my mark, I usually reach a level higher than I thought possible, because my original goal was so far-fetched. If I had set my goal at the level I had reached (say, B1), I would have only probably reached an A2, just because I have set a lower bar (mentally) for myself.
For my Chinese, I will use the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK) standards to measure my progress. In case you are not aware, the HSK is the way people measure their progress in Mandarin Chinese. It is basically the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) of China.
In three months, I aim to be at HSK Level 4 (roughly a B2 for CEFR). What does this mean? The official definition of the HSK Level 4 states: “Students can speak about a broad range of topics in Chinese and can communicate with native speakers on a high level”. On a reading level, it requires knowledge of anywhere from 250-600 characters.
To memorize the characters that I need to, I will probably use tools such as Memrise . I may try reading Chinese magazines and newspapers, or even comic books (although that may not be my cup of tea). If I want to get bold, I may try immersion on my computer and/or other devices!
To conclude, I cannot wait to start my Chinese challenge! I believe that it may be difficult at times, but I will have a phenomenal group supporting me, from my friends to be at the Add1 Challenge, to my family encouraging me at home, to you, the readers, whom I will stay accountable to.
This summer will be one of the busiest summers I have ever had. I have work for my classes in the fall, will be attending some athletic camps, all on top of relaxing and spending some quality time with my friends and family. And, of course, learning Mandarin Chinese tops the list of things to do!
If you have any tips or hints for me, please let me know! I would love to hear from you, and try your suggestions!