Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #3

This post is about where you’re going to get your instruction…

The complex nature of language learning makes all attempts to systematize it near futile. Nevertheless, many students enroll in educational institutions and never give their language progress another thought! This is so dangerous. Please remember that the school isn’t going to lose sleep worrying about whether or not you make it. Ask to see their product – who has this school taught to speak Chinese? If the average student finishes two years here without learning to speak, why are you going to be any different? You might be, but you better have a plan outside of ‘do what my teachers tell me.’ I always went to school – because I needed a visa anyway. But there had to be some extracurricular activities.

Related to this is another dangerous ‘trust.’ Don’t trust Chinese people to tell you how you’re doing. Polite people just don’t tell you that you sound like an idiot. To some people, ‘great Chinese’ means ‘Chinese I can understand.’ Most of them are grading you on a scale; many Chinese people have never spoken to a foreigner who could communicate well. So you’ll have to work hard to find someone who’ll tell you that you stink! I regularly am complimented on my Chinese after just saying ‘hello’! That should alert you to the fact that most of your compliments aren’t really well-founded.

I would recommend finding those rare people that have learned the language very well. I mean they can do everything that you want to do in the new language (preach, teach, converse comfortably, conduct business, etc.), and seem to do it very comfortably. Languages are like mountain peaks: some of them are harder to summit than others. Some of them have been climbed so many times that there’s a ton of resources available to help you make it to the top. How can we begin to compare the difficulty of climbing Everest today with the difficulty faced by the first man ever to make it to the peak? So find the guys that have gotten to the top, and ask how they got up there! Make sure they’re really on top – many climbers settle for the view halfway up!

You’re going to need someone to sit down with you for about four hours or so five days a week. This person’s job is to listen to you try your best to talk. They will help you learn to say what you don’t know, and help you learn to say correctly what you do know. You should instruct them to correct everything – not to let anything slide. I would suggest that you spend 80% of the time with your helper speaking (with their constant, vigilant correction). You don’t need to hire someone to listen to them speak Chinese – you can get that just by turning on a television or radio. You need to pay someone to endure the excruciating torture of listening to you speak!

Important! Do not hire someone who thinks of themselves as a Chinese teacher! Two reasons. First, they will think they know what you need to do to learn the language. They almost certainly do not. They will push you to memorize characters, read poems, learn the stories behind idioms, and generally waste four good hours of language learning! Second, a teacher wants a teacher’s salary. And you don’t need a teacher. Any random person off the street will do. So save yourself the money. Don’t hire someone as a teacher – avoid the word – just say you need someone to help you study.

What you want is a native speaker who is…

  • brutal enough to tell you when you’re wrong
  • available enough to be with you 20 hours a week
  • cheap enough for you to hire for 20 hours a week
  • patient enough to repeat something a thousand times
  • disciplined enough to not speak to you in English… EVER!

Word of advice that someone gave me that I think is quite good: don’t do your four hours of study at home. There’s too many distractions. Learners need to be in a work-type environment with a structured schedule.

One more warning: that whole ‘I’ll-teach-you-Chinese-and-you-teach-me-English’ never works. It sounds good (especially the price), but generally the aspiring English-learner is further down the road in their quest than you are, and you will both default to speaking English. It’s best to hire someone with no interest in learning English or no ability to speak English. If they can speak English, they’ve got to understand that it’s not okay to do so during class. At our school, we let our teachers say one word in English if the student asks (in Chinese) what a Chinese word means.

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One Comment on “Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #3”

  1. Mike G August 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm #

    Hey Jake and Steph! This is Mike, I met you guys last summer with Dustin and his students from Dongguan. Thanks for the Chinese tips, did you ever write any more of those grammar drill books? I found those to be extremely helpful and definitely want more. So if they’re for sale, let me know where to buy them!

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