The Danger of Perfectionism
Sep26

The Danger of Perfectionism

CHINA UPDATE: I’m back in Australia! I was in Nanjing for just over 5 months at Nanjing University. It was a phenomenal experience, my Chinese improved immensely and I had a ridiculous amount of fun. I find myself continually daydreaming about the time I spent over there. I did quite a lot of travelling and feel like I have a good grasp of what the country is all about and what it stands for (and yet there is infinitely more to learn). —- Perfectionism is a quality that many people possess – maybe due to a lifetime of parental pressure or societal expectations more generally, or perhaps because of the common characteristic of education of emphasising a ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ answer or marks-based system, which can condition students to have a crippling fear of making mistakes. Particularly, in regard to language learning, being subjected to years of rote-learning  verb conjugations throughout school can leave you with an acute sensitivity and distaste for small errors (even those that don’t affect your meaning) and often an expectation that an incorrectly executed grammar pattern might result in an embarrassing correction by the person you’re communicating with (as language teachers often do). Perfectionism is often characterised as being a good thing. And, often, it can be. For example, spending hours ensuring your university or college essay is correctly cited and reads well will often pay off and may very well be a worthwhile endeavour. However, speaking a language is an instantaneous phenomenon. You don’t have time to agonise over every word that comes out of your mouth, and a belief that this is important is likely to result in you being too afraid to open your mouth, or too slow to engage in a proper conversation if you have to make sure every sentence is flawless speaking it. If you think you are a perfectionist in your language learning (I used to be, and often still am) then I encourage you to stop reading this article for a moment and think for a moment about what the ultimate goal of languages is. Go on, do it. … … I think that the obvious answer is that language is a vessel for communication. Perfectionism then can, I believe, be defined as worrying about flawlessly using the language to the point that it becomes a barrier to communication. If you agree that communication is the main purpose of language, then you must see the incompatibility of perfectionism with this goal. When I was learning French, I got so caught up with trying to speak it perfectly and with an impeccable accent that I was often...

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The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It
Jan28

The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It

I’ve been spending an hour or so every day the last few days reminiscing about my childhood and playing the Chinese version of Pokémon! Why is reading in Chinese so damn important? Reading, when learning any language, is a useful method of acquiring new vocabulary, grammar patterns, and of seeing how words are used, and in what context they are used. In Chinese, however, reading has an extra level of importance due to its system of writing. Unlike a language that uses an alphabet in its written form, reading in Chinese allows you to constantly review the characters you’ve learned. If you’ve ever tried to learn characters, then you’ll be familiar with the constant struggle of memorising them, only to forget them moments later. Sometimes you’ll feel like you’re making lots of progress, only to realise that although you’re learning 10 new characters a day, you’re forgetting 20. The fact is, without a regular and sustained routine of review and practice, basically any given character you learn, no matter how easy it may seem, will eventually slip from your memory over a long enough period. The power of reading is that the constant recall of every character will help ingrain it into your brain. I haven’t done a huge amount of reading into how memory works, but my understanding is that new information passes first from your short-term memory to your long-term memory (‘learning’) but that the information remains vulnerable and likely to be forgotten unless it is recalled or reviewed a number of times over an extended period. Eventually, though, after enough reviews, the paths in your brain should theoretically be strong enough that the information basically won’t be forgotten. Being in China, I’ve been thinking a lot about how such a large amount of people are able to learn the thousands upon thousands of Chinese characters necessary to become functionally literate. The secret I believe is due to the fact that the characters are everywhere, unlike in my own country where my only exposure to them is when I open my textbook. In China, you can’t escape characters; they’re on every corner, on every shop, every sign, and every subway station. Even when surfing the Internet or messaging their friends, Chinese people are practicing their characters. How they are able to retain a working knowledge of so many characters, when taking this into account, suddenly becomes clear. My theory is that recreating this character environment, at least until they are so ingrained that they will not easily be forgotten, is necessary to learn and retain enough characters to be literate in the first place. How do I...

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December Challenge!
Dec29

December Challenge!

Okay, so the short answer is that I failed. The long one is that I succeeded. What? Turns out, December ain’t a good month for doing a one-month challenge. I mean, if you’re an obsessive and goal-oriented person like me, then every month is one-month challenge month. However, at least in Australia, you basically have to write most of December off productivity-wise as it signifies the end of a year of school, university, work, whatever, and so everyone is out and ready to party. It’s also the start of the Australian summer – this is bad news for Chinese study and other nerdy endeavours. To top it off, this December was particularly bad as I am just recovering from a week of hectic food poisoning that nearly killed my whole family (not literally, but it got nasty). Coupled with the week I spent away in Hobart on holidays (where studying Chinese wasn’t really an option as I was only travelling with one other person), that gets rid of two full weeks from my month of study. Therefore, I had half as much time to complete the challenge. But I got much more than half-way through! In fact, if I kept up the average amount of words I studied per day I actually studied for the whole month, I would have beaten my monthly goal. Therefore, the long answer is that I succeeded in my mission. Kind of. Not really though. Anyway, let’s have a look at the cold hard facts. Part 1: The Input/Listening So, here is a record of all of the listening I did (podcasts, TV, etc) over the month. I actually did pretty well for this stage of the challenge. My goal for the month was to listen to 1 hour and 30 minutes of Chinese EVERY DAY. You can see that many days I made that, some I went over, and most fell slightly short. The overall amount of listening comes to 2355 minutes, which sounds like a lot when you put it like that. Averaged over the month, that’s 78.5 minutes per day. My goal was 90 minutes. But it’s not over yet! I have to add the time I spent doing my audio/character Anki reps, too. 2355 + 299 = 2654 minutes. Per day: 88.46 minutes, Goal: 90 minutes. Ah! So close! A mere 1.54 minutes a day extra and I would have done it! Oh well, close enough for me!     Part 2: The Words/Characters Now for the interesting bit. The other part of my goal for this month was to learn a total of 500 news WORDS (including however many...

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Guest: Highlight on Chris Kamp: Australian, Accredited Translator and Fluent Mandarin Speaker
Nov25

Guest: Highlight on Chris Kamp: Australian, Accredited Translator and Fluent Mandarin Speaker

My name’s Chris Kamp. I’m a student at the University of Queensland doing a dual degree in Law and Arts (majoring in Japanese, which I don’t speak terribly well). I started learning Chinese in 2010, before taking a year off to live in Harbin in Northeast China, where I learned to speak Mandarin while trying not to freeze to death. I now work part-time as a freelance translator. I’m also currently the Vice-President for Education of the Australia China Youth Association at UQ. If you’ve been learning Chinese (or any other language) for any length of time, chances are you will have come across hundreds of these “tips and tricks for learning a language” lists. There are plenty of them scattered across the internet. And it’s a good thing, too- because only a handful of those methods will work for you, and they probably won’t be the same ones that work for your friend, or even you in six months time. There is no one right way to learn a language (though there are a lot of ‘wrong’ or ineffective ways), so take this post for what it is: a list of things that worked for me, one or two of which might work for you. It’s written with Mandarin in mind, but a lot of it would be applicable to other languages. Before we get into it, a bit about my background. I’m Australian, and didn’t seriously start learning a foreign language until I got to university. I’m still a student (not majoring in Chinese), and also an accredited translator (Chinese > English) doing freelance work. It’s fair to say I speak ‘fluently’, however you want to define that. I started learning Chinese in late 2010, then went to a place called Harbin in northeast China in early 2011, where I lived and studied Chinese for a year. I started out at a language school, then did a semester at a Chinese university. I learned pretty quickly, though much of that can probably be put down to having a lot of free time in a city where it’s too cold to do much besides sit at home and study. That said, here’s some advice based on my experience.   1. Find a Good Language Environment There’s no doubt that people living in a Chinese-speaking country will generally learn faster than people who aren’t. If you do have the opportunity to study overseas, choose carefully. Different parts of China and other Chinese-speaking areas have very different accents, environments and lifestyles. Beijing and Northeastern accents are considered more ‘standard’, which is a bit of a problematic concept, but that is...

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On Comprehensible Input
Aug26

On Comprehensible Input

Hey guys! Sorry it’s been a little longer than usual since my last post – I’ve been extremely busy lately! Aside from being a full-time University student, I’ve also been running my own company (or trying to) and doing a lot of work for an organisation called ACYA (Australia-China Youth Association or 中澳青年联合会) for which I’m a Vice-President of the Monash University Chapter. In fact, I’m writing this post from the plane! I’m on my way home from the ACYA National Conference that was held in Brisbane. I met an amazing bunch of people, including many Chinese people with amazing English and quite a number of Australians with flawless Chinese – it was definitely an eye opener and reassurance that reaching a high level of fluency in Chinese is definitely possible. Anyway, on to it! —————————————————————————————————————— So, comprehensible input. What is it? I believe the term first appeared in the work done by Stephen Krashen on language acquisition (if you haven’t heard of him, look him up). Essentially, he devised a model for language learning based around input (reading and listening) as an alternative to the traditional grammar-based approach favoured in classrooms. More specifically, he contends that in order to maximize efficiency in language learning, the input should be comprehensible: meaning not too hard that you can’t understand, but not too easy that it isn’t challenging. I am a strong believer of the input model, as are other many far more accomplished language learners than me. Input, and listening in particular, makes up about 90% of my Chinese learning. The rest is spent learning characters and speaking. In the past 3 months I’ve been trying to average an hour a day of listening, and in that time I’ve progressed tremendously. Like, seriously, my Chinese is infinitely better. I wrote an article about my first month doing this challenge, which you can read by clicking here.   Why an input based approach is so effective: It’s the way we learn our native language. Have you ever wondered why everyone (pretty much) is able to speak their native language flawlessly and naturally? Or why you rarely make grammatical mistakes despite never touching a grammar textbook? The reason is because from your first day on earth, you are bombarded with an intense dose of input. A baby just sits there all day, absorbing the language being spoken around them. The result is that they have a seemingly ‘natural’ feel for the language. The good news is that you can be baby. You have my permission. Take some time out of your day to turn on your iPod and listen and absorb the...

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Words That Don’t ‘Stick’
Jun12

Words That Don’t ‘Stick’

As any seasoned language learner will tell you, sometimes you come across words that simply don’t ‘stick’ in your brain. Others, too, seem to stick easily and often effortlessly. Why are some words committed to memory effortlessly after the first hearing, while others continue to torment you after several conscious attempts to learn them? This can be because of several reasons. The main two would be: You don’t understand the word properly. Did you hear the word in context, or are you simply trying to rote learn it from a word list? Words that you see in conversations or other authentic material are, in general, far easier to remember, as the context serves as a cue for your memory. When learning Chinese, it can be useful to learn the meaning of the individual characters that make up the word (just the Pinyin is fine for speaking). Also, if you don’t understand how it’s used, you’re unlikely to remember it, or, at least, you won’t be able to use it. And if you can’t use it, what’s the point, right? The word doesn’t have enough perceived importance. If you don’t really care about a word, or, subconsciously or consciously, aren’t fully convinced that it’s worth learning at this point in time, then you probably won’t remember it. If you believe the word is essential to your survival in the language, then believe me, it will stick. The clear solution here is only learn words that are actually important for your current level. It makes no sense to learn the word for ‘biotechnology’ in your target language before you learn how to say ‘where’s the toilet’? Even if you are a scientist-type, the latter is going to be more important as a beginner learner. That’s not to say that learning complex words aren’t important – they are, but only when you’re at a higher level and looking to have more profound conversations with people. How Do You Make Words Stick Like Superglue? When I was in High School, one of my favourite subjects was Psychology. We learnt a lot about the brain – in particular about sleep and memory. I thought that it was so relevant to be learning how to learn things. Without boring you all too much, let me just say that the important things regarding memory that you should know is that your short-term memory can hold about 9 items. After that, without a proper ‘mnemonic device’ (memory technique) you will start forgetting them. I think the short term memory can store information for about 30 seconds, too. Therefore, you gotta make a word sink through to your long-term memory in...

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