Have you ever started a long-term endeavor and then completely lost track of how and when you started? This is how I feel about my Chinese studies. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been going at it for about a year, while other times it seems like I just started yesterday.
Whatever the case may be, I’m convinced that learning a new language is one of the most rewarding processes you’ll ever go through. It’s difficult. It’s exhausting. But it’s not something you will ever regret.
I’ve been amazed at how much I’ve learned already. And I’m not just talking about the Chinese language. Sometimes the true lesson isn’t what you learn in class, but what you learn in-between classes. That’s definitely been the case for me.
Here are six lessons that I’ve learned after six weeks of language learning:
You’re Not Just Learning a New Language, But Also a New Culture
Not only are you forced to learn new ways of speaking, you’re also learning about new ways to think. Whether you realize it or not, your words reflect your culture. The way you express things in the West are not always how you would express them here. Whenever I ask my Chinese tutor to translate something I say in English, she will often comment, “Chinese people wouldn’t say it like that.”
Here’s an example. In the West, we generally like to be accurate and exact with information. If someone were to ask you the distance between two locations in your city, you would probably give them an approximation in either minutes or kilometers/miles. If you posed the same question to a Chinese person, they would either say the distance is “very far” or “not far.” Accuracy and exactness aren’t valued in China the way they are in the West.
Use Text Messaging to Your Advantage
There are several times when we receive calls from people and have a very difficult time understanding them (usually because of their thick regional accent). In some cases, we’ve found that texting works as a great alternative to talking on the phone.
Last week, for instance, I had to express mail some documents to the United States, and the guy who worked for the delivery company tried calling me to explain that he had overcharged us by 100 yuan (almost $17 USD). However, because I couldn’t understand him over the phone, I asked him to send me a text message instead. Not only did we clear up the issue, but he ended up telling me that I could call him anytime if I needed help!
Celebrate Every Breakthrough, Even the Small Ones
It’s really easy to get down on yourself when you’re learning a new language, especially if you’re living abroad in a foreign country. It’s even easier to start doubting yourself in the process. Since starting, I’ve struggled with these questions: Is my language getting any better? Shouldn’t my Chinese be better by now? Am I studying hard enough?
Rather than always thinking about what I can’t say in Chinese, I’m learning that it’s far more helpful to focus on what I can say. Don’t be your own worst critic. Even the smallest of breakthroughs should be acknowledged. You’d probably laugh if you ever saw how psyched up I get whenever I tell a taxi driver where I want to go and he goes there without asking for clarification.
Language Learning is a Marathon, Not a Sprint
I’m sure there are some strategies for quick language acquisition (within 3-6 months), but they usually require shortcuts that won’t help you in the long run. Because my current approach to language learning follows more of a long-term (at least 2 years) strategy, I must pace myself accordingly. Just like a marathon runner doesn’t expend all his energy during the front half of the race, neither can a language learner “sprint” through his language acquisition.
I feel that you retain more through repetition than through intensity. This can mean having a similar conversation multiple times with different people. I usually have to use a word dozens of times in real life conversations before I’m actually using it properly and with the correct pronunciation. It drives me crazy sometimes, especially when I know how to use a word and yet it comes out wrong. Repetition is one of the best ways to fix this.
Stop Comparing Yourself with Others
This was a huge struggle of mine when I first started practicing my Chinese last year. Because my wife and I were studying at the same time, we would often share with each other the things we were learning. Despite my best efforts, I found it extremely difficult to not compare her ability with mine. I would inwardly grumble because I thought her Chinese was far superior to mine. Not only did this hinder my studying, but it also negatively affected our relationship. Comparing yourself with others doesn’t help you – it hurts you.
Your Learning Capacity Just Might Surprise You
I used to say to most people that I’m not great at learning languages. I’m sure many of you would identify with this. Whether it’s a lack of time, motivation, or any other reason, we all can come up with plenty of excuses to dismiss our own capacity to acquire another language.
You’ll often hear people say that we learn languages best at a younger age. But what I’ve discovered in my own learning process is that I can retain a lot more new information than I first thought. I might not be at the “prime age” for language learning, but I can learn a new language…even though I once thought I was incapable of doing so.