9 things I learned about Mandarin and about myself

(Originally written for GoEast Mandarin.)

I’m nearly finished with HSK3, starting from zero Mandarin skills just over a year ago. Here are 9 things I learned about language and myself.

1 — Learn to enjoy learning

Don’t aim to learn faster and faster. Learn to enjoy learning, then everything else will follow.

2 — Keep your goals close

Fluency is a very abstract term and difficult to define, and for beginning students like me, very far away. Rather, set a more concrete goal which is more under your control, such as finishing a course within a few months, or being able to order a whole meal in Chinese. I do hope that someday I’ll reach fluency, but right now, I’m way more motivated to finish HSK4 so that I can watch simple Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles.

3 — Look back to see how far you’ve come

Micro-goal setting also works backwards. Take a look at your notes from a few months ago and see how far you’ve come. These are my notes from one year ago (left) and now (right). At times it may feel like you’re standing still, but this is pretty motivating!

4 — Stop translating English into Chinese

Let go of English. In the beginning, ‘我要咖啡wǒ yào kāfēi’ misleadingly follows English structure, but the two languages only grow further and further apart onwards.

5 — Don’t worry, language intuition will come later

I still make mistakes with 没méi and 不bù, but it’s getting better. Especially 就jiù gave me panic when I learned how you can just about put it anywhere in a sentence, but some weeks later I feel I’m starting to understand. Don’t get stuck on it, it’ll fall into place later. (The bigger point is: don’t worry about not-understanding everything right away.)

6 — Stop feeling sorry for yourself

When I first learned that the ‘觉’ from juédé is also the ‘觉’ in shuìjiào, I laughed and complained. Yet you’ll only come across more of these. Now, instead of pointing out the things every Mandarin student has done before me, I just go with it, not wasting valuable class time. Every time you complain, you feel a bit worse about yourself too.

7 — Get a great language partner

Morris老师 became my teacher midway HSK2, and although we’ve always been good, now we really have a rhythm going on, twice a week, burning through the HSK3 book. He knows exactly my struggles and which words I know, so within that vocabulary, we fire questions at each other, gradually adding new words & phrases to the rotation. Without Morris老师, I’d definitely feel lost in this language.

8 — Learning any language is only meaningful if you actually speak to people

The books are essential, but a bit boring. I like reading the book aloud with Morris老师, but once I need to read on my own, my mind trails off. Come the end of HSK3, that motivation runs a bit dry. Now I much rather speak Chinese with Chinese friends — which not only helps me learn, but also provides motivation to learn.

Learning by doing applies to everything, whether it’s painting, knitting, or speaking. The world can always use more paintings, scarfs, or conversations.

You’ll probably never feel ready, but just go for it. I think of dancing. I’m often shy to dance myself, thinking I’ll look like an idiot. And yet while I watch other people dance, I never-ever look at them as idiots. In fact, I feel like an idiot standing on the sidelines.

A benefit of having real conversations is that you’re learning outside the clinical environment of APPs and flashcards. They neatly show separate words and characters at your convenience, but conversations are a different game.

9 — It might be one of the proudest performances in your life

I’m from a small Dutch town, and as I grew up my world wasn’t much larger than the few villages around us. At school I was never very bright, especially not with languages. Speaking Mandarin (and living in Shanghai) may be a small thing for some foreigners — but for me, it’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done — because to me I’ve been able to overcome my own struggles. And coming from a small town as mine, that means the world to me.