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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: