Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #4

Here ya go… last couple thoughts about learning Chinese. Events of the past week kinda put this on the back burner – but here’s some ideas about the progress of the Chinese student.

Satisfaction is the enemy of the language student, and it normally rears its head after many months of studying Chinese. No one is foolish enough to think their Chinese is good enough when they’re in their first month of study. But after about a year, and the linguistic challenges of daily life, travel, and simple work no longer stress them out, it is very tempting to think you’ve got the language beat. There are many ‘false summits’ – it looks like the mountain peak is just ahead.

Especially for those who exhibit natural talent in language acquisition, learners are often deceived into thinking they can cruise to the finish line. That they’ll just learn ‘the rest’ by immersion in daily Chinese life. Maybe. But it’s far more likely that you’ll be handicapped at a substandard level for the rest of your ministry. Immersion is sufficient for children, but our brains are simply not that flexible anymore.

If you are raring to get involved in ministry, you will be even more susceptible to this pitfall. If you are – as a disciple of Christ always is – longing to bring the Gospel to the Chinese people you meet during your first year of language learning, you will be tempted to launch out from the shores of language study into the waters of ministry. This desire is godly and to be encouraged, but it should drive us not only to ministry, but to effective preparation for that ministry. There will be so many praiseworthy things appealing to you to devote your study time to other pursuits – but learn to swim well before you launch your boat out.

For this reason, we suggest (and require from our language school students) that they only do ministry that 1) they can do well, and 2) doesn’t affect their language school time. Meaning, no one is allowed to talk like a caveman in any of the ministries of the church. If you can’t say it right, you’re not going to say it. Strict attendance requirements also must be maintained. You’ve got to keep sitting down with your helper and working out those aspects of the language that are still troublesome for you.

Finally, the role of a fairly-brutal mentor is beneficial here. Who is going to make sure you don’t quit before you should? When my own came to China, he was on a mission to ascertaining my real level. It would have made me feel a lot better if he had just taken my word for it! My good friend and his wife are missionaries studying Chinese with us – his board has made their expectations clear: learn the language or switch fields. Sure keeps them motivated!

Last of all, I don’t want it to sound like I want language school to stretch on for five years. Obviously, language learning is a lifetime endeavor. But, while I am still learning new English words, my ability to function in an English-speaking environment is in no way impeded by my language ability! How long should it take to get to that level in Chinese? One of the problems Chinese language learners are faced with is the lack of expectations concerning their rate of progress. The Chinese teachers are usually preoccupied with your test scores. But the HSK (standardized test for Chinese learners) is a joke, revealing next to nothing about your real ability.

If you don’t know five people who have got to the level of functioning that you want to reach, it can be very hard to sketch out a timeline for your own learning. But I would suggest devoting two years to the endeavor. Not saying that you shouldn’t do any ministry in that time, just that language study must be your chief occupation. Take the first year and a half or so to learn to speak and listen, the last six months to read and write.

Interesting note about time needed: Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book ‘Outliers’ cites studies that suggest genius is far less about talent than about invested time. 10,000 hours of time to be specific. Though there are obviously other factors at work for different areas of expertise, the principle is encouraging when learning one of the hardest languages in the world: 10,000 hours is enough for most people of merely average ability to learn to excel at a given skill. At twelve hours a day, that comes in at a little more than two years. So maybe aim for that, and see how you’re doing at the end. Count the hours you’ve been studying Chinese, not the months!

Let me reiterate: be in a hurry to learn, but take the time to learn it well. Don’t sit back and say, ‘Chinese is hard – this is going to take a couple years.’ TEN years of that won’t be enough. Get an ambitious plan – set goals and test your own progress.

And spend that time in class! Meandering around town, chatting with someone every fifteen minutes or so is near worthless. The problem with chatting with random people is that you’re going to get really good at answering the same five questions. After a couple weeks, you’ll have no problem making polite chit-chat. But you’re not getting closer to the finish line. ‘Languages aren’t learned in the classroom’ has become a mantra among students. I agree with the thrust of that, but where are they learned? They’re not learned at the coffee shop  or on the train either! They’re learned in the barraged brain. If you’re comfortable, you’re not learning!

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One Comment on “Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese #4”

  1. Dani Wang October 1, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Great advice on learning Chinese, and very detailed! I’ve nothing more to add 🙂

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