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...

Read More
8 Ways To Win The ‘Language Power Struggle’
Feb04

8 Ways To Win The ‘Language Power Struggle’

What is it and why do you need to win? A ‘language power struggle’ is the term that has been unofficially been adopted to describe the phenomenon where two people from different linguistic backgrounds, each learning the other’s tongue, engage in a battle of wits to determine which language will be used for the exchange. As a quick disclaimer, I still think that it’s important to be respectful when trying to win this battle. No need to be a dick. The general rule should be that, out of general decency, the person trying to speak the language of the country the two people are currently in should prevail. In my hometown of Melbourne for example, although I will definitely try out some Chinese on the Chinese people I meet,  if they indicate that they absolutely want to speak English then I will, of course, concede. I’ve been in China for about three weeks now, and I’ve actually had an overwhelmingly positive experience in terms of speaking Chinese. I’ve really only met a couple of people who insisted on speaking English (even after I pulled out a number of the nifty moves I’m going to teach you below), so it hasn’t been a huge problem so far, even in the big cities where you would expect that more people would speak English. I quickly ejected myself from the conversation in these instances – ‘cos ain’t nobody got time for that. In all seriousness, while it may seem harsh to just walk away from a person merely because they won’t speak Chinese with you, but it’s absolutely necessary if you’ve come all the way to China to learn and are serious about learning. Your time here is (I assume) limited, and not only is time spent speaking English to people time not spent speaking Chinese, but I’m convinced that speaking too much English disrupts the immersive environment that you should be creating that, if achieved, greatly accelerates the rate of language acquisition. Compared to most European countries, in China people are much less likely to speak English in my experience, even though they are all forced to learn it for years at school. People are also generally very self-conscious and will generally rather speak Chinese with you (if you show some signs that you speak it). They’re also often very interested in learning about your country and culture, and in sharing theirs, making for the perfect language learning environment. Therefore, unless you’re Chinese is at a very basic level, you shouldn’t have any problems finding people who are willing to talk to you in Chinese. Really, you shouldn’t be doing language...

Read More
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...

Read More
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...

Read More
My Personal Method for Learning Chinese
Dec05

My Personal Method for Learning Chinese

Hi guys! Hope you’re all well. I’m just now crawling from under my Law school exam-time rock and reacquainting myself with the real world – my apologies for the low number of posts in the last month or two. I hope you enjoyed the recent guest post on how another fellow Australian learnt Chinese to a near-native level in one year. The good news is that I have lots of ideas for articles and a lot more free time to write them! As you may know, I’m also leaving my hometown of Melbourne to spend around 7 months travelling and studying in China – I’ll be posting regularly about language and culture, and also doing weekly video updates (in Chinese! But with subtitles) to show my progression and to add a bit of extra pressure/accountability from my end. So look forward to that! I leave on January 7th.  ________________________________________________________________________________ MY CHINESE METHOD  MY TOOLS Chinese content to mine words from (podcasts, TV etc) Pleco (a Chinese dictionary app for iPhone/iPad, and probably Android) Microsoft Excel TextEdit (or equivalent) Anki The ChinesePod Glossary (optional) A good old fashioned pen and paper As a brief introduction to my method, I have developed it after learning about the way my own brain works. As such, it may need to be modified slightly depending on the type of learner you are, or hey, it might work great for you too. I find it to be very time efficient, and through it I am able to learn 20-30 words (often comprising of more than one character) per day in under an hour of study and with a retention rate of about 90-95%. That’s pretty good, I think. However, for it to work the best it can, you really need to do it every day or the process will be disturbed. The way it works is essentially by creating a maximum number of ‘exposures’ to the new vocabulary, spaced out over time, allowing the words to naturally move from  short-term memory into  long-term one by convincing the brain that the information is valuable, rather than passing stimuli to be discarded. I believe that this repetition, coupled with the relatively stress-free context (in that I’m not forcing the words into my memory but relaxing and letting them enter naturally) is the key to its success. Phase 1: Let’s go word mining. Although one can learn vocabulary from word lists or frequency lists, I greatly prefer finding my own words in the material I’m studying firstly because: a) word lists are boring and I’m not a robot, and b) finding words in context is a great aid...

Read More
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...

Read More