We all strive to achieve it, in various aspects of our lives, whether it be in our careers or relationships. However, just as in these other areas, in language learning, if we are constantly focused on reaching perfection, this focus can become a roadblock rather than a stimulus. While creating challenging goals may inspire you to study harder, striving for perfection can actually become counter-active to achieving successful results in the long term. Below are three “perfect” mistakes which I have seen many people make in their road to Mandarin learning (myself included), that cause you to lose confidence or feel discouraged, and ultimately, result in learning less, at a slower pace, and even Bàn tú ér fèi 半途而废 – giving up halfway.
1. The Perfect Accent
When you walk into your first day of Mandarin class, you imagine yourself someday in the not-so-distant future speaking perfectly with native speakers. However, as you progress, you realize just how difficult it is to master the four tones. One of the most common mistakes I have witnessed in learning Mandarin is the expectation of someday achieving a perfect accent.
Many times in the past I have felt my confidence diminish when someone repeatedly corrected my accent during a Mandarin conversation. And it caused me to doubt myself – perhaps my Mandarin had not improved as much as I had thought. Throughout the language-learning journey, there may be times when people do not understand what you say because of your accent; there may be times when people laugh because you use the wrong tone and end up saying something you did not mean to say. In times like these, you need to remind yourself that perfection is not only not expected, it’s also unnecessary. An imperfect accent should not stop you from using the language you are learning, because those who do not use a language simply do not improve.
Rather than dreaming of one day achieving the “perfect” Mandarin accent, a more effective goal is to aim to improve your accent to the level that native speakers can understand with ease. If you speak Mandarin and no one asks you to repeat what you said, then you should consider yourself to have reached a new milestone. So if the laughter erupts when you introduce your teacher and it sounds more like“Lǎoshǔ” (老鼠mouse) rather than “Lǎoshī (老师teacher), shrug it off, laugh with them, and remember to make a mental note for the future.
2. The Perfect Opportunity
Many people study Mandarin for years but for various reasons fail to find opportunities to speak. As with most things in life, if opportunities do not come to you, you must then take the initiative and create them. The “perfect” opportunity to speak Mandarin may never come and when it does, you may not even recognize it. Rather, you should think of the perfect opportunity as one you create when you decide to go to a Chinese restaurant and practice ordering your favorite dishes; or one when you experiment with a new flavor of Bubble Tea just to practice a new word you recently learned; and you should think of the perfect opportunity as one when you decide to join a local Mandarin event and boldly practice Mandarin with native speakers, even when their English is superb. Upon arriving to Taiwan in 2011 to study Mandarin, I spent some time thinking about how to create Mandarin-speaking opportunities for myself, despite potential shyness of using the language. As a foreigner in a Mandarin speaking city, I was often faced with situations where I tried to use Mandarin while shopping or dining out, but the local shopkeepers or restaurant staff would often switch to English upon realizing that I was a foreigner. I decided to continue speaking Mandarin despite this and I was able to turn what could have been a lost opportunity into a success! Also, by doing so, I also was able to experience an amusing situation in which a conversation continued fluidly in two different languages.
Next time you venture out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant, seize the opportunity to practice your Mandarin, and if the server switches to English, remind yourself that it doesn’t mean you have to make the switch as well.
3. The Perfect Comfort Level
It’s natural to try to stay within your comfort zone. Deciding to learn a foreign language is already an admirable step away from familiarity and throws you into situations you may never have faced before – situations where you feel unsure of how to say what’s on your mind, or scared that you will say the wrong thing, or worse… be misunderstood. While living in Taiwan, I realized that forcing myself outside of my language-learning comfort zone was the most effective method for improving my skills. Driven by my desire to avoid wasting time and tuition money, I decided to enroll in a slightly more advanced class. Upon my first day, I realized that my listening and speaking was far inferior to that of my classmates, due to the fact that I had just arrived to Taipei, while most had started learning from scratch while continuously being immersed in the language. Throughout the semester, I continued to be at the bottom end of the class in terms of Mandarin skill, but each day I pushed myself to keep up. Several months later, I realized that my Mandarin skill had caught up to that of my classmates. By deciding to throw myself into an uncomfortable situation in which my Mandarin wasn’t the best, I ultimately gave myself the greatest opportunity to learn at a much faster pace than the average student. At the same time I learned a great lesson in humility and understood first-hand that being the “best” at something is always relative.
By stepping outside of your language learning comfort zone, you can push yourself to learn more than you ever thought possible. In the future, when you find yourself in a situation where you’re the best Mandarin speaker in the room, ask yourself how you can further your skills by stepping outside of that “perfect” comfort level.
Learning a foreign language, especially one as complex as Mandarin, can be both exciting and challenging. As you continue on this road towards fluency, avoiding the three “perfect” mistakes will allow you to keep in mind the fundamental reason you are working so hard – Communication | Gōutōng | 沟通. Language learning really just comes down to that simple goal. I encourage you to throw out the word “Wánměi完美” from your vocabulary. And in its place, let’s replace it with the word “jin li | 尽力” – try our best. By making this small shift in perception and attitude towards Mandarin learning, your best can only become better.
Now that you have these suggestions on approaching the Mandarin language, start studying with one of the best online resources available: ChinesePod’s unprecedented library of over 3,500 lessons gives you the tools to unlocking the Mandarin you want to learn. Sign up today and get 20% off with code CPODBLOG:
Latest posts by Eng Chan (see all)
- International Women’s Day doesn’t need these two words - March 7, 2019
- Chinese New Year Red Envelopes: How to Give and Receive “hóngbāo” Like a Local - February 9, 2019
- 6 Simple Ways Anyone Can Celebrate Chinese New Year - February 7, 2019