Language

A complete archive of all of my posts about language learning.

language

GUEST POST: Finding motivation in language learning – Todd Neve

Posted by on 3:21 am in Culture, Motivation, Travel | 3 comments

GUEST POST: Finding motivation in language learning – Todd Neve

Finding motivation in language learning Todd Neve Of course we would all love to speak another language. But few are willing to commit the time to learn it. Even less are able to stay motivated for the time and effort it takes to become fluent. My own language journey started in school, like everyone else’s. And like almost everyone around me, I bitterly despised those French classes. It felt like I was being forced to learn what I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without living in France for twenty years. It was not until I was in my gap year that I started to learn another language again: this time, Spanish – with a fresh attitude. Then earlier this year, with the generous help of the Walter Mangold trust fund, I was able to travel to Madrid on exchange and make the leap to fluency. So what was the difference this time? Truthfully, I was not incapable of learning a language. I just hadn’t applied myself. The difference was all about my level of motivation. So here is my practical guide to finding your motivation and staying motivated. An important first step to take is to truly convince yourself that speaking another language is possible. Reach out to someone who was in a similar situation and successfully learnt to speak a new language. It’s not enough to hear or read about a stranger’s experiences. For me this involved seeing friends (including Dan) return from exchange, fluent in other languages. Without someone to inspire you, you’ll always find an excuse to give up. The next step is to clearly define your reasons for learning the language. From my experience in sport, athletes will often train the hardest when improvement will bring the opportunity to travel to cool places and most importantly meet exciting, new people. How can speaking the language make your life more exciting? Start with clear reasons that inspire you. For most language learners, these reasons will relate to the country’s people and their culture. If you’re looking to improve career prospects, have a well-defined job in mind that you are passionate about. Be clear about how speaking the language will help you get it. Next, find a way you’ll be able to use the language. The clearest (and most fun) solution is to move overseas, especially if this is your first time learning a language. Pick somewhere you’d really love to live and find a reason to live there – to work, study, volunteer or even learn to salsa. Make it clear and make it happen. You should aim to be at an intermediate level when you get there. If you are in the early stages, I would recommend a year of learning before heading off. Of course it will depend a lot on your circumstances, but if anything you should head off sooner rather than later. Not only is it hard to stay motivated for something so far off, but remember Parkinson’s law: the more time you allot to a task, the harder it will seem. Now you’ve defined your reasons for learning the language, the biggest challenge will be to maintain your motivation. First and simplest is to cut out anything that might hurt your motivation. It is best to avoid associating the language with...

read more

Chinese Interview on SBS Mandarin

Posted by on 7:27 am in Chinese Learning, Mindset/Mentality, Motivation | 1 comment

Chinese Interview on SBS Mandarin

Hi guys! I’ve actually been neglecting my Chinese in recent months due to my return to law school (and reality) – however a couple of weeks ago I was interviewed in Chinese by SBS’s Mandarin channel about living in China, learning Chinese and about Asia Options (an organisation I’m a part of). It was broadcast today. The interview was actually on the day of my Chinese oral exam at University – it was a great warm-up! You can listen to it...

read more

The Danger of Perfectionism

Posted by on 2:15 am in Advanced, Beginner, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Mindset/Mentality | 3 comments

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 quite self-conscious when using the language. This happened partly because of a level of competition with some of my French-learning friends. The effect was that I often made even more mistakes, and my speech was often slow and unnatural. It took a long time to get out of this habit, and even now some of my past perfectionism remains. I think that, learning French, I also thought that people would judge me for making mistakes. Now, when I think about it, that seems silly to me. When I think about all of my foreign friends, practically all of them make mistakes speaking English, but this is never a problem unless...

read more

8 Ways To Win The ‘Language Power Struggle’

Posted by on 4:10 am in Beginner, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Learning Techniques | 10 comments

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 exchanges even. Just get out there and make some friends, or talk to old people. Taxi drivers are great (but often have very hard-to-understand accents) as they kind of have to talk to you since you’re paying them and you’re both trapped in a confined space. Plus they’re generally pretty hungry for some conversation to break up their day a bit. For a more scientific-esque discussion of language power struggles and why they actually occur in the first place, click here to see John Pasden of ChinesePod’s article on the subject. How do you win? Despite the language power struggle being a battle of the minds, with the stronger personality...

read more

The Importance of Reading and How to Do More of It

Posted by on 12:56 pm in Advanced, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Learning Techniques, Resources | 5 comments

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 do more of it, then? Well, we’ve discovered that the way Chinese people remember so many characters is because they are relentlessly exposed to them. The means of recreating this is therefore simple: we have to immerse ourselves in characters. Believe me, I know how hard it is to motivate yourself to get out the books and repeatedly write out new characters and ones we’ve forgotten. The good news is that if you actually use the written language in your daily life, then this will both provide you with the necessary review and will allow you to continue to grow your repertoire of characters. If you’re in China, then you...

read more

December Challenge!

Posted by on 5:55 am in Advanced, Beginner, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Learning Techniques, Mindset/Mentality, Motivation | 7 comments

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 characters they required). All up, I learned 355, so, 145 less than my goal. That sounds like a long way off, but considering that I only really had slightly over two weeks of actual study time as I explain above, it’s not bad. Not bad at all. I’m happy with it. What’s important here is the actual speed of which I was learning the words – an average of 15-20 to sometimes 30 a day, consistently. I remember reading some writing done by the infamous ageing polyglot Steve Kaufmann (founder of LingQ) explaining how when he was learning Chinese he used to sit down in his apartment and learn words...

read more

My Personal Method for Learning Chinese

Posted by on 3:10 am in Beginner, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Learning Techniques, Resources | 12 comments

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 to remembering them and in particular how they are used. The two main sources of Chinese I use at the moment are ChinesePod’s Advanced podcasts (which are 100% in Chinese) and the mostly shitty TV shows to be found on Youku.com or on my iPad with the PPS app. The benefit of TV shows is that they generally have subtitles in Chinese characters, presumably because of the range of Chinese dialects and accents (making the words easy to identify and look up). Phase 1 is to watch or listen attentively and look up and save the new words you hear with Pleco. This is the first exposure. With many other...

read more

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

Posted by on 1:31 am in Advanced, Beginner, Chinese Learning, Intermediate, Learning Techniques | 2 comments

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 generally the perception. More importantly, though, choose a place where you will have no real choice but to speak Chinese. Smaller cities where there are fewer English speakers are a good bet. It can be difficult to find opportunities to practice in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where most people around you speak English better than you speak Chinese. There are also a lot of distractions- I know more than a few people who’ve come back from a semester in Beijing without learning much more Mandarin that ‘干杯!’ You can still learn just as well if you seek out opportunities to practice, but it’s a lot easier when you have...

read more

How To: Get Audio Flashcards For Anki Using ChinesePod

Posted by on 1:20 pm in Resources | 6 comments

How To: Get Audio Flashcards For Anki Using ChinesePod

Audio flashcards are an incredible resource for learning languages. They turn listening and reading activities (which are passive) into active ones. Unsurprisingly, you need passive activities to improve your passive language ability (for example, your listening comprehension), and your need active ones to improve your active language ability (producing the language). The size of your your passive vocabulary can be very different from the size of your active vocabulary. I’m planning on doing a couple of posts in the next few weeks about how I use flashcards, and why. The first premise of my flashcard theory is that audio flashcards are the go. I’ll explain later. Don’t question it, just do. Here’s how to get them using ChinesePod (on Google Chrome) . Even if you don’t listen to many of their podcasts (which I don’t recommend – if you have a subscription, their podcasts and the ability to listen to dialogue only versions are extremely good) it may be worth paying for a subscription to have access to their glossary. Step 1: Go to the ChinesePod glossary page. Step 2: Put in your search (I recommend writing the characters, rather than the Pinyin). Step 3: Click the play button, then right click on the button and select ‘Inspect Element’ Step 4: This little box thing will come up. Click the ‘network’ tab. Step 5: Press the sentence’s play button again. You will see something like this come up in the box. Step 6: Click on the ‘rec’ one (not the other one). You should see a ‘Request URL’ that starts with http://s3. Select and copy this address. Step 7: Add a new card to Anki. Simply paste the URL into either (or both) card fields. Step 8: Copy the sentence from ChinesePod. Step 9: Paste the sentence into the deck. That’s it! Rinse and...

read more

How Long Does It Take To Learn A Language?

Posted by on 1:20 am in Chinese Learning | 12 comments

How Long Does It Take To Learn A Language?

Hey guys! Today I wanted to address one of the most asked questions by language learners, and potential ones. This is, of course, the question of “how long does it take to become fluent in a language?”. I remember well that when I was learning my first language (French) I was constantly asking myself and everyone around me this very question. I would spend a lot of time googling things on the internet, or by annoying Luca Lampariello or Steve Kaufmann with emails. It’s strange, really, that there is such a burning desire among learners to have this question answered, when really this question can’t be answered (even by the most seasoned polyglot) with any certainty whatsoever. I received this email a couple of days ago: Hey Dan, I watched your French video on Youtube and was really inspired. I’m also a LLB/BA student, and I’m considering picking up French next year. It’s such a beautiful language and I’d love to speak it fluently one day. Do you think at 21 years of age, I can attain a fluent level of French if I start learning now? How long do you think it will take and what learning methods do you recommend. So, why can’t this question be answered? Well, anyone can give you an estimate fact or figure, but in reality it can’t be answered accurately because the rate you get fluent in a language is entirely contingent on: Your motivation. The more motivated you are to learn a language, and your ability to maintain that motivation and not lose interest is the single most influential thing on the success you will have. Exposure alone, in the form of classes or from being in-country, is not enough to learn a language beyond the basics. This is evident from countries like France, where the kids learn English from a young age, yet who after 10 years of study have little more than a feeble grasp of the language. The time you invest. In all honesty, it takes a lot of time in terms of raw hours in order to learn a language to fluency. It gets easier and faster the more languages you learn (Steve Kaufmann recently learnt Romanian in a couple of months), but your first one will take longer than the rest. The good news is that I believe that the time spent learning langauges provides a fairly observable return on investment, meaning that the more time you put it, the more you will notice yourself improving. I believe that as long as you reach a ‘threshold’ minimum amount of time per week, then fluency is an inevitable result (ideally you should study every day, though). There is a cause-and-effect relationship between the time you spend and the closer you get to fluency, if that makes sense. The extra silver lining is that it really is an amazing experience learning your first language – also, I truly believe it brings you a huge increase in cognitive power. The extra competitiveness in the job market it gives you is only a secondary benefit to me. I plan to learn languages long into my old age – I think it could be the secret to staying lucid. Frequency of study – this is kind of related to point No.2, but it is important enough...

read more