Learning a language can be brutal; especially those that aren’t comprised of Latin letters, which are what native English speakers are most familiar with. Even when it comes to learning a foreign language in school, our choices are often limited to Spanish or French-two languages that essentially use the same alphabet as English.
Thus when faced with the daunting prospect of learning a language like Japanese, Hindi or Arabic; languages that all have writing systems completely different from that of Germanic or Latin languages, people tend to get a little overwhelmed.
Chinese, however, takes this whole language learning thing to new heights of crazy… Even though the languages mentioned above have alphabets that look completely foreign to native English speakers, they are STILL alphabets nonetheless!
So if anyone is intent on becoming a serious learner of Chinese, it’s fairly normal to go through an intense phase of reading/writing panic. (Only 5,000 more characters to go ’til literacy- YES!) It’s easy to freak out and get bogged down by radicals and stroke order memorization. Of course learning characters is a good thing and helps students gain some insight into Chinese culture, but this can often be at the expense of one’s listening/speaking skills.
Let’s face it. Improving upon one’s listening and speaking ability is scary because it usually involves human interaction, and there’s a lot more room for error there. I know from personal experience how embarrassing it can be to misspeak, or that acute feeling of dread (or semi-paralysis) that overcomes your entire being when a native speaker asks a question you simply don’t understand. It’s much easier to sit at your local cafe, sipping on a cappuccino, writing down characters and reading textbook dialogues at your own slow-and-steady-wins-the-race pace.
That’s not to say getting in enough reading and writing practice isn’t important! On the contrary, it’s essential! When I was living abroad in Taiwan, I spent a fair amount of time alone in my room with my head stuck in a book. (Nerd girls FTW, party girls PWNED!) But that being said, for many people being alone in your room can often equal, “I’m not getting judged in here. I’m in my safe place. I like this.” and it’s easy to avoid actually getting out there and COMMUNICATING with people.
I don’t think I realized how incredibly important speech practice was until I got back home to the states. In Taiwan, my landlord spoke Chinese, my teachers spoke Chinese, my friends spoke Chinese, the check-out guy at 7-11 spoke Chinese… I was completely IMMERSED in Chinese- 24/7!
Undoubtedly it could be down right humiliating when I didn’t know what the heck was going on, or when I was trying to say, “you look really pretty today” and actually said something more like, “you smell like cheese”… but it was sink or swim! When you want to order some food to stop that rumbling in your tum-tum or explain to your teacher why you actually DO deserve those extra credit points, you have no choice but to speak up for yourself.
The payoff to succumbing to these daily doses of awkwardness over an extended period of time is this: your listening comprehension skills and verbal communication skills get PRETTY DANG good… It was only after I got back to New York that I realized these acquired skills can quickly deteriorate if you’re not saturating yourself with Chinese every day.
In order to deal with this previously unforeseen predicament, I had to develop new learning methods in order to keep my speaking and listening skills up to snuff:
1. Get in touch with your inner crazy person and talk to yourself. And no, I don’t mean whisper, I don’t mean mumble… I mean full on talk to yourself like you’re having a conversation with the most interesting individual that has ever laid foot on this planet. It doesn’t matter where you find your material. It can be from a textbook, a CCTV drama or even lyrics from your favorite sappy, breakup ballad. (It’s okay, boys- sing like there’s no one listening.) The point is, just open your mouth and SPEAK.
2 Repetition is incredibly important. Whatever it is you’re choosing to say to your self… say it A LOT more than just once. Ideally, we’re going for broken record status. Try to do this when there aren’t too many people around, (my bad roommates, parents and significant others) because this practice can get just a WEE bit irritating. But seriously, keep up the repetition. It solidifies information in your head and makes it that much easier for you to use in applicable situations with native Chinese speakers.
3. Pay careful attention to those pesky tones! I don’t care if you’re speaking so slowly a turtle can run three laps around the block before you finish three sentences; you will NOT neglect those tones! Oh, and I know what you’re thinking: “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” … Be PATIENT, grasshopper! Eventually, your speaking will sound significantly more fluid and tones will become second nature to you. However, in order to do this, building a strong foundation is imperative.
4. Whenever the opportunity arises to speak with native Chinese speakers, you better be on it like flies to honey! Take your ego off the table for an hour or two and just enjoy yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Allow yourself to ask questions. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. No one is perfect and no one is expecting you to speak Chinese as effortlessly as you speak your native language. Language is a tool for communication, and real, unadulterated communication is exposed and accessible. Don’t let something as superficial and fleeting as fear inhibit your ability to thrive and grow- not just as a student of Chinese, but as a student of the world around you.
Alright everyone, that’s all for now. Please do me a HUGE favor and don’t stop talking! Talk to yourself, talk to your mirror, talk to your dog- I don’t give a hoot who you talk to, “JUST DO IT.”