Today I am happy to be sharing a Mandarin Chinese Learning guest post written by John Fotheringham. John is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery, in his podcast, The Language Mastery Show, and in his detailed language guides.
1. Kill Common Language Learning Myths.
Most people think it would be cool to speak a foreign language, but are discouraged from ever even trying thanks to widespread myths and misconceptions about language learning. This is especially true for non-Indo-European languages like Mandarin Chinese. Here are the three most common I’ve heard; you must slay these thoughts first before you have any chance of success:
• “I’m not good at languages.” The most damaging language learning myth is the false belief that one is “not good at languages”. You may indeed have done poorly in your high school language classes, but that is a reflection of terribly outdated and ineffective language teaching approaches, not your innate abilities. You learned your first language to fluency, so you are obviously plenty good at learning languages. The problem is not you, but your methods, materials, and attitude. You need to use effective, adult-friendly methods, choose materials you enjoy, and most importantly, believe you can successfully learn a language.
• “I’m too old to learn a foreign language.” Our brains retain their plasticity long into old age so this is a self-defeating opinion, not a neurological fact. Contrary to popular belief, adults are actually better (or at least faster) learners than children. We know how to learn, we already have massive vocabularies and advanced cognitive abilities to draw upon, we can seek out interesting materials, and we can put ourselves in meaningful contexts to practice.
• “I have to move abroad.” Living in Mainland China or Taiwan is certainly an advantage for learning Mandarin, but in today’s world of Skype, podcasts, YouTube, Netflix, etc., where you live is no longer a limitation on what languages you can learn. As Benny Lewis puts it: “Attitude beats latitude (and longitude) every time.” Which leads to No. 2…
2. Create an Immersion Environment.
No matter where in the world you happen to live, you can create Mandarin language immersion for yourself in a number of simple ways:
• Change the display language of your devices. With just a few clicks or taps, you can easily change your smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc. to display Chinese menus. This way, you can get valuable reading input throughout your day even without setting out to “study”.
• Listen to Mandarin audio. Audio is a great way for busy people to immerse themselves in a language since one can listen as they do other things: commuting, shopping, doing chores, etc. There are heaps and heaps of Mandarin language podcasts available for free on iTunes (intended for both learners and native speakers), and you can also get excellent audio courses from the likes of Pimsleur or Michel Thomas.
• Watch foreign films, TV shows, etc. Though you can’t watch video as you do other things like with audio (or at least, you shouldn’t!), movies and shows have some major advantages: a clear visual context, the option to turn on subtitles, and engaging plot lines to keep you tuned in.
3. Get a Language Tutor.
As Stephen Dubner shares in Think Like a Freak: “The key to learning is feedback. It is nearly impossible to learn anything without it. Even with good feedback, it can take a while to learn. But without it, you don’t stand a chance, you’ll go on making the same mistakes forever.” And this is perhaps more true in language learning than any other endeavor. A language tutor provides immediate feedback on your language usage, telling you what sounds right and—perhaps more importantly—what doesn’t. This helps you avoid what linguists call “fossilized errors”, those pesky language mistakes that are very difficult to fix once they harden. In addition to helping you engage in deliberate practice, tutors can also help you find good materials that fit your interests and ability level, and provide the external motivation needed to put in the study time each week lest you get to a session and have nothing to say. There are countless tutor and language exchange sites to choose from, but my favorite by far is iTalki.com as it includes ratings of each tutor and an excellent scheduling tool with time zone support to ensure you are both on Skype at the right time.
4. Use a Spaced Repetition System to Review Vocabulary More Efficiently.
Spaced Repetition Systems (or “SRS” for short) are nifty flashcard programs designed to help you learn and review
information more efficiently. They work by automatically scheduling flashcard reviews based on how difficult you rate them. Easy cards are shown less while more difficult cards are shown more. Instead of wasting precious study time on stuff you already know, SRS apps help you focus just on what you are struggling with. There are numerous apps to choose from, but I recommend using either Anki (web, iOS, Android, Mac, Windows) or Flashcards Deluxe (iOS & Android).
5. Use Timeboxing to Study in Short, Effective Bursts
“Timeboxing” refers to studying or working in short, predefined periods of time. The simple approach has powerful benefits, including stronger focus and significantly increased output. One of the most popular flavors of timeboxing is known as the “Pomodoro Technique”, a method developed by Francesco Cirillo that breaks down tasks into 25-minute intervals called “pomodoros” (the Italian word for “tomatoes”), followed by a 5-minute break. After every fourth pomodoro, you then take a longer 10-minute break. Studying in this way, you will not only cover much more material than you otherwise would in the same total amount of time, but you will actually recall more of the information since we tend to remember more from the beginning and end of study sessions. The more breaks you take, the more “beginnings” and “ends” you will have each day. There are great timeboxing apps for all the major platforms; just search for “pomodoro” and find something you like.
6. Move Your Body as You Learn
Sitting at desk is arguably the worst possible way to learn any new skill. Moving your body not only increases blood
flow to the brain, it also triggers the release of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which helps increase the creation of new neural connections in the brain. Moreover, movement itself can help you learn new words and structures in a fun, context-rich way. In fact, an entire language teaching method has been created around the coordination of movement and language called “Total Physical Response” (TPR), developed by James Asher, a professor emeritus of psychology at San José State University. One of the best ways to apply this principle in Chinese learning is through martial arts (see below).
7. Learn Through Action.
If you were learning Japanese, which method would you prefer: cramming grammar rules and vocabulary using a boring textbook, or learning key structures and words while learning a traditional martial art? I am confident that most people would choose the latter, and for good reason! Learning through action (especially a new physical skill, art form, or martial art) is not only thoroughly enjoyable in and of itself, but it’s also an extremely effective way to internalize new skills and information:
• It requires two-way communication with other people.This gets you out of your head, over your inhibition to speak, and focused on the task at hand. You start seeing the language as a means to and end, not the end itself, which tends to make you less worried about being perfect and more concerned about understanding, and being understood.
• It helps build strong “procedural memories”. Learning to create grammatical sentences in a language relies on what is called “procedural memory”, a type of memory that can only be created through action and sufficient repetition. Most formal language study fails because it focuses on “declarative memory”, which only works for explicit facts.
• It’s fun! Enjoyment is by far the most important component of successful language learning. As Khatzumoto of All Japanese All the Time says so succinctly: “Fun gets done.” If you look at language learning as a chore, chances are that you will quit. But if you enjoy the process, you’ll be able to put in the time and effort it takes day in and day out.
Regarding specific Chinese martial arts, I recommend learning one of the following systems:
• Wingchun (Traditional: 詠春拳, Simplified: 咏春拳, Pinyin: Yǒng Chūn Quán)
• Taichi (Traditional: 太極拳, Simplified: 太极拳, Pinyin: Tàijí Quán)
• Baguazhang (Traditional & Simplified: 八卦掌, Pinyin: Bāguà Zhǎng)
• Xingyiquan(Traditional& Simplified: 形意拳, Pinyin: Xíng Yì Quán)
• Bajiquan(Traditional& Simplified: 八極拳, Pinyin: Bā Jí Quán)