A collection of posts about my travels in China.
Finding motivation in language learning
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 anything you dislike. If you hate taking the train, then don’t study on the train. Although I’m not discussing learning methods, avoid those you particularly dislike, however effective. Anki is a great tool, but if you feel soulless after 10 minutes on it, don’t use it.
Conversely if you walk around the park listening to an audio you are linking language learning to a positive experience. This has the added bonus of exercise, which also increases retention.
Just as important in maintaining motivation is goal setting. It’s fine to aim for fluency or to do well in a proficiency exam, but it should be clear how you will act upon your goals.
At home, a simple way is to make a 30-day mini-goal: study the language for a set amount of time each day. The amount of time and how it is designated can be adapted but it must be clear how you will spend your time. Check out Dan’s article for more on goal setting. Here is an example for a Spanish learner:
- 30 minutes of learning per day
- Maximum of three missed days
|Beginner||Pimsleur audio lesson (30 minutes)|
|Intermediate||Morning||Walk while listening to Notes in Spanish Podcast (15 minutes)|
|Afternoon||All Anki repetitions|
|Read One Piece comic in Spanish (until session totals 15 minutes)|
Especially if you are a beginner, keep it simple to avoid putting off goal setting.
For some people, it can be effective to set the complementary goal of missing less than two or three days in a thirty day cycle. This can help prevent slacking off, and ensures one missed day won’t make you want to give up. If, occasionally, your only chance to study is at two in the morning, then allow a few days off.
The easiest way to help you stick to your goals is to get people involved. Simply having a friend or housemate who takes an interest in your goals can make a huge difference.
To complement this you might also like to raise the stakes: ask yourself, what will happen if you don’t succeed? American author Tim Ferriss has some great ideas on this subject. For example: if you don’t reach your goal, you will have to donate $100 to Bronwyn Bishop’s political campaign. This doesn’t have to involve money; having to do anything you absolutely detest will work fine.
When overseas, you should set yourself the simple goal of no English. Expect that it will be extremely challenging not being able to express yourself readily.
For many people, obligations such as family at home, emails or simply frustration will make entirely no English virtually unattainable. A good compromise is to allow yourself a set amount of time each day in which you can speak English. Ideally this will be about an hour in the afternoon.
You should immerse yourself in the language at the start of the day, to allow yourself to get in the right frame of mind. Use your English “break time” only for things you need or really want to do. Don’t go reading Facebook articles and watching bad YouTube videos.
To make it easier on yourself, do not have English television shows, music and books on hand. Take the choice away and it won’t test your discipline.
Similarly, try to avoid people that speak to you in English. It might sound harsh but consider their detriment to your learning. Speaking English is more than a missed opportunity to practise your new language. Most likely, it will snowball into your other interactions and disrupt the immersive environment that forces you to learn.
Regardless of what you do however, occasional dips in motivation are unavoidable. You just have to find a way to raise your motivation levels again. Reward yourself for the effort you have put in. This will be tied into your reason for learning the language in the first place.
If you’re doing it for the chance to interact with other cultures, see if you can ask for directions in another language. If it’s because you want to look for work, then check out some cool job ads on Google. If you’re learning because you love the culture’s food, take yourself out to a nice restaurant. Even the little things can be surprisingly exhilarating.
No matter your reason for learning the language, just don’t doubt that you will get there.
If you’re from somewhere like Australia or America and have never done much travelling before – you might want to start elsewhere than China and ease your way into it.
Although I have travelled before, including in Asia, China is the country most unlike my own in comparison to the others I’ve visited. And, despite being relatively China-literate (and yet so illiterate compared to some of the foreigners I’ve met here so far), I was pretty shocked from the moment the plane touched the ground.
So you might want to start with a more ‘comfortable’ Asian country before coming here.
On the first leg of my flight, from Melbourne to Shanghai Pudong, I befriended the Chinese family sitting next to me and shamelessly pestered them for language practice for the 10-hour journey. In reality, they were actually pretty stoked that I spoke their language (even though the daughter spoke quite good English and studied in the States) and even let me use their iPad to watch some Chinese TV shows aimed at 13 year-old Chinese girls.
Language-tip: Fly with a Chinese airline! I don’t know whether it’s out of some sort of China-loyalty or what, but the plane was packed with Chinese with only a couple of foreigners scattered around the place. You’ll probably be seated next to some poor Chinese guy who will have to endure your endless questions.
I transferred at Shanghai to a second flight destined for Beijing. I watched a couple of other foreigners trying to ask airport staff whether they spoke English so that they could tell them where they were supposed to go to catch their connecting flight, but their efforts were in vain: people don’t really speak English here. People will tell you that in the big cities, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, etc, you will find people who speak English at every corner, but it’s a lie, I tell you!
I’ve only met a few who could, and they were at places that had a lot of contact with foreigners. You would think at a major airport you could find someone who could speak it, but from what I saw in Shanghai, I wouldn’t count on it. But maybe I’m just used to Europe, where you can pretty much count on people speaking English in many countries (and on them insisting on it, which is annoying if you’re trying to learn their language). I noted when I spoke to my Australian friend who met me in Beijing that many tourists in China have this arrogance in expecting people to speak English, as if they should just so they can help out some silly laowai (foreigner). It’s like a Chinese person going to America or Australia and expecting someone to speak English. At this point I was pretty glad I’ve been hitting the Chinese practice fairly hard recently and that I have a level that allows me to talk to people, even if I make a lot of mistakes.
I freaked myself out because I misread my boarding pass and thought that the boarding time was the departure time, and was having a heart attack at passport control because I thought my flight was leaving in 15 minutes. I was fresh off an international flight and I was tired and didn’t feel like having all my luggage sent to Beijing whilst I missed my flight and tried to find somewhere to stay in Shanghai.
My friend picked me up at the airport with his Chinese friend who was working at the orphanage that he is volunteering at for the year, and together they got us a ‘black cab’ (an unmarked and unofficial taxi) and took me to a hotel right next to his apartment. I think the area is called Hushayu, and it’s basically the Essendon of Beijing – or for non-Melbournians, in the middle of nowhere.
That said, it was an extremely eye-opening experience seeing what he would be doing for the next year, but yeah, a bit of a shock for someone who’s never been to China.
I thought my hotel room didn’t have a shower, but as I was brushing my teeth I looked up and saw a lone showerhead sticking out of the wall. Apparently this is a thing in China, you’re just supposed to have a shower in the middle of the bathroom. Water goes everywhere, all over the toilet and the floor, it’s chaos, but hey, I guess it makes sense in terms of efficiency as shower doubles as washing the bathroom floor.
I got up early the next day, and because I knew my mate would be teaching, went for a walk around the marketplace. It was there that I saw one of the strangest things about China for the first time: the huge disparity between rich and poor, and the fact that, and Beijing in particular, it is seemingly a walking contradiction; China is at the same time rich and poor, dirty and clean, derelict and modern, unfriendly and welcoming.
In the middle of this run-down and dirty cluster of shops were a combination of shitty e-bikes (electric scooters) and a few Porches. I got some weird looks as I walked around, they probably don’t get a lot of foreigners around there. It was pretty strange. There was a park next to it, with all of the trunks painted white up to about a metre. What a task, painting every tree in Beijing white. Who pays for that? My friend was told that it has something to do with stopping the water freezing and cracking, and killing, the tree.
As I walked around, I heard what sounded like gunshots, which turned out to be a few guys standing in the middle of the basketball court with huge whips, whipping away. I wasn’t game enough to ask what they were doing, for obvious reasons. I walked on and found what I can only describe as a community square, it was basically an auditorium overlooking a large flat area where at least 20 people were all dancing to K-pop. People walking in the park would pass them, stop, watch for a moment, and then begin dancing away themselves. People were also rollerblading around the square. I must say I was tempted to join in the festivities, but as my face was now completely frozen from the Beijing winter cold I went back to the hotel and watched some Chinese TV until my friend was done with his English class.
I had lunch with the group he was staying and working with, and met a strange combination of foreigners and Chinese. The program they run is part of a religious order, and so I met a few priests at the table.
After that my friend took me to the ‘Baby Home’, which is, as its name suggests, a large house full of babies. I saw at least 20 babies, who were being looked after by a large number of Ayis (aunties). It seemed like a pretty nice place for a baby, they were getting a lot of attention and they had lots of toys to play with as the place receives a lot of foreign funding. They were really cute, and I had fun playing with them, but it was sad because they are all there because they were all there in the home because they were waiting for medical attention and surgery, often for some pretty bad illnesses, heart problems and the like. Many of them had been given up by their parents who were unwilling, or unable, to look after them.
I was staying with some other friends that lived in Beijing who I met through ACYA (the Australia-China Youth Association) that night, and so I went to the train station with my huge backpacker’s backpack and boarded the train. I don’t know if I’m just the wussiest backpacker ever, but man, carrying that pack for more than a minute sucks. It weighs 21 kilos, and I struggle. When I reached my final stop I was unfortunately at the wrong doors (the other ones opened for this station), and so by the time I reached the exit people were flooding in (they don’t wait for people to get off) and the doors were about to close. I reminded myself that this is China, and did the necessary to avoid being forced to extend my journey, which basically involved pushing people off the train and shouting 下车！
Shortly after I arrived at my friends’ apartment in Wudaokou, which is a student area that is also both laowai and Korean-central, we went out for dumplings at a nearby restaurant. We ordered about 5 or 6 dishes and a few beers and it only cost us 25 kuai each (about $5 Australian Dollars). Back at the apartment, I pulled out my laptop and saw that it was 12 Midnight, which made sense as I was pretty wrecked at that point. Except that I then realised that I forgot to change the timezone and that it was actually only 9pm, but I decided to hit the hay soon after anyway.