Your accent isn’t important. Your pronunciation is.
Aug02

Your accent isn’t important. Your pronunciation is.

The majority of hard-core, nerdy, nitty-picky language blogs on the net promote having an authentic-sounding or ‘native’ accent as being the ‘holy grail’ of language learning. I’m looking at you, Ramses. I’m not saying having a decent accent isn’t important, or that your accent isn’t worth working on, but it definitely isn’t as important as many of these other language enthusiasts make it out to be. To clarify, the distinction I draw between an ‘accent’ and ‘pronunciation’ is as follows: Your pronunciation is your ability to pronounce words in a way that makes them intelligible to other speakers of the language. One can have the strongest accent possible, but as long as they are understood, they will usually be pronouncing things properly. An example of incorrect pronunciation would be pronouncing ‘down’ as ‘dawn’. Your accent includes things like your intonation and rhythm of speech. It is anything that makes you sound foreign. The classic ‘accent trap’ is pronouncing things exactly like you would in your native language, rather than actually listening to the way they are pronounced in the language you’re learning, and imitating it. So, as you can see, having good pronunciation is necessary for being understood. Your accent, however, has little bearing on you being understood. You can have the biggest French (or whatever) accent, and people will still understand. People like Ramses are extremely proud of their ‘native’ accents in the second-languages they speak (in his case, Spanish). And rightly so. It’s an impressive feat. However, I think putting too much emphasis on its importance is actually doing language learners a disservice, as it tends to scare them off and instill in them a feeling of helplessness. Ironically, I’m currently in the process of writing a guest post on his new blog, The Language Dojo, about how to acquire a native like accent. If you’re really that intent on pretending to be a native, and on impressing people with your impressive language abilities, then you should probably reconsider your motivation for learning another language. You have to be intrinsically motivated to learn a language, for more profound reasons than mere bragging rights, in order to learn it successfully. He says that you should be working on your accent, and trying to achieve a native-sounding one, from the get-go. Otherwise, he says, you’ll be learning bad habits that are hard to get out of. I actually have a completely opposite point of view about the matter. I was fluent in French before I started developing anything near to a native accent! As many of my readers will know, when I was 15 I spent 5 months in France living...

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The Secret To Learning Foreign Languages
Jul24

The Secret To Learning Foreign Languages

You lucky devils. Today I have decided to share with you all the one true secret that I believe is essential to learning a language. Sure, knowing this information alone won’t be enough to learn a language, but you also can’t learn one without knowing this rule. Surprisingly, it is quite logical when you think about it. However, I think that this secret is, unfortunately, largely absent from traditional language teaching in schools and the like, despite the fact that, unless they are native speakers, every language teacher knows this secret and would have had to consciously acknowledge it in order to learn the language that they teach to fluency. Yadda yadda yadda. You guys just want to know the secret, right? What is it, you ask? The overarching rule of successful language learning is that the process itself must be enjoyable. What is so frustrating about this rule is that it is extremely easy to forget. Chinese is my fourth language, and yet I often find myself getting frustrated at myself for forgetting characters, or for not learning as fast as I would have liked – but this is the worst thing you can do. The learning process must, above all, be fun and enjoyable – you can’t force yourself to learn a language. You may be able to mindlessly rote learn a few basic phrases, but to gain any substantial ability to communicate in a new language, the process itself must be enjoyable. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but people often say to me that I must have a gift for learning languages. I hate hearing this, because what the person saying that really means it that they think they aren’t gifted, and so they can’t learn a language. This is definitely up there in the biggest excuses potential language learners make. I always reply that I’m not any more gifted than anyone else. This isn’t false modesty, this is the truth. Really. The reason I’ve been, so far, relatively successful in my language learning comes down to these four things: Language learning is my hobby, not a chore. I’m not learning Chinese to get that big job promotion, or to impress people. I’m learning it because I absolutely love learning new languages and about the cultures of the people that speak it. Nothing gives me a bigger rush than speaking with someone from China about government corruption, the one-child policy or the growing divide between the ultra-rich and super-poor. Call me a nerd. I’m not fixated on the end result. Perfecting a language (if that is even possible) is actually a sad thought for me. That...

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Why Simplicity Is Almost Always Better Than Complexity
Jul17

Why Simplicity Is Almost Always Better Than Complexity

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Leonardo Da Vinci So it’s been a couple of crazy, jam-packed weeks for me since I finished semester. I’m on holidays from University for a month at the moment. Before I get into the nitty-gritty of this article, here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been doing with myself (apart from learning Chinese). I’m gonna take the liberty and pretend like you all care, since, like, it’s my blog and I can write whatever I want! Working on my own business. Yep. In the coming weeks (hopefully), I’m going to be launching my own project dubbed ‘Write Fluently’, which will be an affordable essay and assignment editing service for international students, run by Australian University students with high levels of written and academic English. Although it is a for-profit endeavour, I’m not a heartless capitalist and so there will also be a program for motivated economically disadvantaged students to get their essays corrected for free.  Organising volunteering for AMEP (Adult Migrant English Program). Next semester I’m going to be volunteering with AMEP teaching English to immigrants. I was looking for a way that I could give back to the community (that sounds so cliché) and I think I’ve found it. I’m passionate about learning languages and I really think I could give the students some food for thought about how to take charge of their learning and about my own approach to language learning which is quite different to methods promoted in a traditional classroom environment. Opening a Crêperie with a friend. That’s right! I don’t think I mentioned this before, but for a year and a half I worked in a French Crêperie here in Melbourne so that I could hit two birds with one stone – making a bit of cash whilst also maintaining and improving my French (the staff were all French). My boss was an asshole, though, unfortunately, and so I left. Now, though, I’m the head crêpe chef of this new place that will be open soon! Anyway, back to the article. Simplicity Over Complexity As a background to this story, my parents are both University professors/lecturers, and both have a large number of international students in their courses (most of whom come from China, actually). It has come to my attention, mostly because of the test-corrections I’ve been doing as part of my preparation to launch my project, Write Fluently, that many English as a second language speakers have a strong tendency to use extremely complex language, when it is both appropriate and inappropriate to do so. In academic and other University level essay writing, it is more or...

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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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Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning Chinese: The Start of the Journey
Jun07

Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning Chinese: The Start of the Journey

I recently received an email from a friend of mine who read my blog and really enjoyed it (if you like what I’m doing, let me know! Seriously, it makes my day), but who was still hesitant about making the first step in beginning the journey of learning Chinese, for the simple reason that he did not know exactly where to start. From his message, I understood that he was also unsure about what this journey entailed (for it is a journey, albeit an immensely enjoyable and rewarding one, if done correctly), or what to expect along the way. This article is for all of you in that very position. This is for all the complete beginners who don’t know where to start, particularly those that are on the fence about whether to start learning Chinese, or any other language, at all. There are 7 days in the week, and someday is not one of them. I will break my advice down into Myths, How to Begin, Essential Qualities of a Successful Language Learner, General Tips, and Motivation. This is a long, long, article. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible. You have been warned. ———————————————————————————————————– Common Myths and Excuses About Learning Chinese (And Other Languages) I’m not talented or smart enough to learn a language. This one is particularly prominent in people who once tried to learn a language, but have since given up. This is common where people have learn a language for many years at school, but who didn’t really learn anything. Now, firstly, it’s important for me to say that your success in school language classes are not at all representative of your actual ability, as these programs are designed to cater for a large class and do not take into account the different ways people learn (which is essential in language learning, where some techniques that work for some simply don’t work for others). They are also generally not very fun, as they tend to be geared toward passing exams and having perfect grammar, rather than actually being able to communicate in the language. Some language classes can be fine, too, but in order to really learn anything, the student is required to venture further and engage with their learning on their own. The only way you can ‘fail’ is if you give up for good. Humans have an inherent ability to learn languages, we have always been good at it. Throughout history, it has been commonplace for people to be bilingual – speaking their mother tongue as well as languages from neighbouring tribes and villages. In fact, the majority of the world today are...

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One Month Challenge: How To Change Your Chinese Learning Habits in 30 Days
May31

One Month Challenge: How To Change Your Chinese Learning Habits in 30 Days

Lacking motivation? Keep putting off that Chinese study? Haven’t learnt a new character since you bought that World of Warcraft expansion pack? One month challenges are for you. I first heard about them online a couple of months ago, I think in a psychology journal (I can’t remember which, sorry!). Anyway, I read that habits are formed in around 30 days (less in some people), and that by setting yourself a goal of doing a specific task every day for a month, we are likely to assimilate it into our life as one of our everyday activities. So, armed with this newfound knowledge, I set out precisely one month ago on my first One Month Challenge: to get 1 hour of Chinese input a day. Studying seriously becomes so much easier when it becomes a habit. Lemme explain. What is a habit? And why do we have them? People like to believe that they have absolute free will over their actions and behaviours. That they are the one master of their destiny. In reality, most of our behaviour is hardwired into our subconscious – we don’t notice, of course, but a lot of what we do is governed, and explicable by reference to these unconscious processes of the brain. An example of this is psychological addictions, such as addiction to drugs such as marijuana that, chemically, have no physically addictive qualities. Specific behaviours develop and strengthen over time. In order to use it to its full potential, we must recognise that the brain is a muscle that must be trained, just like the muscles needed to physically carry out the brain’s messages. The reason you cannot immediately play a guitar the first time you pick it up is not only because your fingers can’t physically perform the required movements, but also because your brain doesn’t have the capacity to do so yet. Over time, your fingers develop ‘muscle memory’ that allows them to quickly snap from chord to chord. Your brain simultaneously develops the neural connections associated with playing the guitar, without which you would not be able to play. We can extend this to the question of why people procrastinate. Why do they seem unable to stop themselves? In case you don’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out for you: they have gotten into the habit of procrastinating and cannot just simply, well, stop. They need to train their subconscious to ignore the temptation, and their conscious mind will follow. How does this apply to learning Chinese? We are creatures of habit. If you can commit to doing a bit of Chinese every day...

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