Language Learning is Messy I

I was just on the phone with my dad (one of the world’s great educators) and we were discussing how learning anything (Chinese, math, music, tennis, etc.) doesn’t always go according to plan. As much as teachers try to write an organized syllabus and learners try their best to pass the tests, the fact is: learning doesn’t always happen on schedule. Learning doesn’t always follow an outline or a formula. It’s messy. It’s organic. You sometimes learn things you’re not “supposed to” and don’t learn the things you are. For those of us learning Chinese, it’s important to stare that fact in the face and deal with the messiness of the language-learning process.This is the first post in a series about the disorganized, random, confusing, mistake-fraught process of learning a foreign language as an adult.

I think one reason so many learners of Chinese get discouraged and give up is that the process is too messy, disorganized, or just too hard. Many people come to China with a plan (usually unwritten) that reads something like: “I’m going to be in China for X months/years. By the time I leave, I want to be at a certain level of fluency in Chinese.” Maybe they have an actual commitment to learning a certain number of vocabulary words per week, or spending a certain amount of time per day studying Chinese. Those are all great goals, but what happens when things don’t go according to plan? Is it still OK to have a plan? What should your language-learning goals be? How long should it take to learn Chinese? Before we get to those excellent questions, let’s take a step backwards…in time.

Children are often idolized as being the perfect language learners. A good deal of research has been done to try to figure out what advantages children really have when learning a language. That’s actually a difficult question to answer. Some research says children learn faster while other research says adults do better. Regardless, I think one of the biggest advantages children have is that they don’t seem to mind the messiness of learning a language (if they’re even aware of it at all). Some things I think children do well when learning a language are:

  1. Children talk a lot. Even before they are actually saying words, children are babbling away with “bababa” and “mamama.” Once they really do launch into words, it’s often difficult to get them to shut up (not that we want them to). They mimic what others say (so watch your mouth), they ask the same questions over and over, and they want to tell you all about everything they can (several times).
  2. Children make lots of mistakes. Even five-year-olds are still making mistakes and using “non-standard” grammar. For example, children may overgeneralize grammar rules and say something like, “Yesterday he goed there” instead of “went there.” Or, they may overgeneralize concepts and call everything that is soft a “kitty,” like the cute little kid in Monsters, Inc. One of my favorite utterances by a child is my cousin Hayley’s first sentence to my sister after they woke up one morning: “Besides, do you like Barbies?” I like that creative use of “besides” at the beginning of a sentence to introduce a new topic.
  3. Children learn what they need. Children typically have the vocabulary that directly applies to their daily activities. They know how to talk about playground games, dolls, X-Box, family members, etc. You don’t see children pouring over dictionaries trying to download as many new words as they can into their heads. Their vocabulary has all come from their lives and is usually rather limited.
  4. Children don’t have language goals. A typical child will not say about their language learning, “I’m just not learning enough,” or “I should know more by now.” Children seem to be able to relax and learn at whatever pace they naturally slip into. Not all children learn a language at the same rate. If children do have goals, they are much more likely to be something like, “I want to play with those kids,” or “I want to play that game.” Their goals are focused on what they want to do. For them, language is just a tool, not a goal.

Whether those principles can apply to us adult language learners (who are learning Chinese as a second, not first, language) will be seen in the following posts in this series. Unlike my other series, I don’t have the other posts all mapped out already. I’m trying to take my own advice and accept the fluid and organic nature of this topic even as I write about this. So I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Besides, do you have any insights or stories about the messiness of learning Chinese? Feel free to leave a comment.

See also the other posts in this series:

15 Replies to “Language Learning is Messy I”

  1. The analogy between childhood language acquisition and learning a foreign language is indeed very helpful. It reminds us not to fear making mistakes, to master simple language before complex, etc. It’s possible to make too much of the analogy, though. For example, some people recommend using childhood learning as a model for teaching foreign languages. They say teachers shouldn’t use bilingual vocabulary lists, ponies or dictionaries, shouldn’t use the students’ native language to explain things, and shouldn’t teach grammar.

    The fallacy of these ideas is easy to demonstrate: By the time a child is six years old, he or she has been exposed to at least 21,900 hours of language (using a conservative estimate of 10 hours per day). To get that same exposure, an adult who spends two hours every weekday studying and attending foreign language classes would need over 42 YEARS. Also, the child is in a “sink or swim” situation while the adult is not. Is it any wonder that children seem to learn languages faster than adults?

    Some teachers use the childhood acquisition model to cover up their own inadequacies. It doesn’t help the students. Bilingual materials, explanations and grammar lessons are a necessary evil in learning a foreign language.

  2. Great topic and I certainly believe their is much truth in it. I don’t have stories about analogies with learning Chinese, but having read your post, it strikes me the way you described is actually the way I picked up most of another language I learned a couple of years ago. Talking to our gardener and watchmen about all the mysterious diseases of our chickens, how to grow vegetables, things that happened in and around the house and about family matters (basically everything that concerned my life as I was stay-at-home-partner). I learned heaps of stuff that wasn’t even mentioned in my textbooks (even words my husband, who was fluent in that language, didn’t know).

    Unfortunately, an appartment really isn’t a place to rear chickens or grow vegetables…

  3. I am teaching children aged 3-14 Mandarin Chinese (see a German school. I fully agree with you on methods of teaching a foreign language to children. For little ones, 3-5 years old, I found songs, games or activities such as painting, drawing useful. They help the children keep the interest. They learn fast although they seem not to concentrate. Once I was simply playing the song over and over as background music while the children were drawing a picture according to the meaning of the Chinese word, after a session of 20 minutes, I was amazed to realize that most of them could sing the song already!

    On the other hand, for the older children, they need more material to be able to understand what they learn. They need more explanation and examples. Actually the children above 10 years old can “read” Pinyin. So I am using flashcards to help connect the Chinese words to the Pinyin.

    Teaching children Chinese should not follow the same strategy. Children at different age can learn better and faster, given right guidance and instruction.

  4. Pingback: Learning » Chinese For Kids

  5. good comments, puts a lot of things into perspective. a time frame is nice to have, but patience is ultimately and understanding or awareness of the points you mentioned are far more important.

    thanks for the advice


  6. Thurman, I completely agree with you as evidenced with my own personal experience. Specifically, my progress has increased many fold from several years of self study to meeting my Beijing fiancee 4 years ago. Of late, however, her English has gotten so proficient, that she no longer has the need to depend on my child level Mandarin to communicate.

  7. Good experience,nice writing. I do like the “childern make mistakes so they learn” part. It is one of the very good ways. But of course, you’ve got to remember those mistakes and avoid repeating them. It’s actually applicable to other languages as well, I think. At least, for me to English. I learn English by making mistakes. It’s just so ideal to learn another language if you can be corrected by a native speaker.

  8. I study Chinese, but do not teach it. My understanding is that when we read English or pinyin we are accessing and utilizing one side of our brain and that when we read Chinese characters, we are accessing and using the other side (since a character is in essence an image.) English speaking adults generally use English or pinyin in learning Chinese. I believe the mental shifts between the two sides of your brain, when you try to learn this way, slows the learning process down and that Chinese can be learned faster by sounds, repetition and images and characters, which, it seems, is more like the way a child learns, instead of attempting to use one language in one form to learn another language in a different form.

  9. Language tutors are more helpful than books, audio cd. If you got native chinese language tutor is will become easy to learn chinese very quickly. Yes you are right, chinese language learning process is too messy, disorganized, or just too hard. But this is not the case where you get native teachers and professional tutors like one on chinesesphere. Thanks for the post.

  10. Pingback: An Interview with Albert Wolfe of Laowai Chinese | Lingomi Blog

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