If you didn’t catch the first part of my recent learning language blog challenge, check ‘er out, and since then I’ve loved reading Ceci, Sandy, Nina, James, Elinda, Naomi, Shikha, Ann, Ty, Louise, Christos, Tyson, Chris, Stephen, Rebecca, Larisa and Icha’s stories and can’t wait to hear yours
Ever hear someone say our language-learning skills peak at age twelve?
There’s certainly some biological truth to it, but might it also be the case that adults not only lose a touch of brain plasticity, but also the wonder, ease, and social interaction that children employ to learn a language? I think so. Actually, I know so as I tackled one of the “world’s toughest languages” in my late 20s and I believe it was this child-like “how” that enabled me to learn well. In the end, my age had very little to do with it and I’ll try to explain why here…
How I learned Chinese
I arrived in Beijing in 2006 with an iPod app with hundreds of phrases in Mandarin and not a single word I’d learned. Eventually it did help to count to 100 and how to say “please”, “thank you” and “where is the bus”, but that won’t get ya too far, will it?
I spent a total of maybe 12 hours in a classroom. It just didn’t work for me at that point. I needed to guide my own path and be more independent, go at my pace. I learned from conversation and had biweekly lessons with a tutor. I would ask how to say this, that, and this and then I would use those expressions in day-to-day conversations. Pedagogically speaking it was a very lexical approach.
Of course anyone will agree that an “immersion” experience is the way to go, but that doesn’t necessarily mean living in the country; it means “immersing” yourself in the language. I’ve seen tons of expats in China who didn’t speak more than a few phrases after years of living there, just as I’ve seen Chinese students who spoke beautiful English never having left their native land.
I’m a pretty out-going chap and I know that made all the difference in this immersive approach. As I love joking around, for every question/answer I learned, I always had a number of silly responses. This also led to new vocabulary as the conversation was never the same. Since the average Chinese person doesn’t speak any English, my interactions almost always happened in Chinese and that “need” determined a lot of my success too, but so did the fact that I had many Chinese friends and spent LOTS of time with them.
This was one of the guys that took care of security at the building where I lived. Every time I bumped into him, we’d chat for a few minutes and he’d always teach me a new expression.
There was a local hiking group and I jumped right in. Of course, I didn’t understand a lot of conversation at first, but anytime someone would talk one-on-one with me, we’d normally get somewhere and I’d learn something new, practice something old.
I was of course teaching English while I was there and exchanges with my students helped too as I could ask them questions in English and they’d give me more insightful responses than I could expect from a non-English speaker.
I think it’s important to note that I really would talk to anyone which shows two things: how much I love language and social interaction, and also how open Chinese are to talking to a foreigner… easiest interations I’ve EVER had! Doing the same in a European country seems much more challenging to me.
Learning Chinese was intense, above all those first few months. I’d often not understand much, but just listening was key and I’ve always been someone who can sit around a table and listen to a language and watch social interaction regardless of whether I understand much or not. So much to observe!
I’d listen and pick out patterns, inflections (TONES are so tough, but doable) and I’d hear and repeat that language in my mind. This focus on input reminds me of Krashen’s research and also one of Edulang’s apps (English Addicts) which focuses heavily on the listening component as a means of language acquisition. I did try a few podcasts in Chinese too, but they weren’t authentic materials and there wasn’t much personalization available (unlike EA). More than anything it’s a question of exposure, exposure, exposure which takes time and dedication.
Which makes me come back to my first question: is it that many adults don’t have the time or patience to learn a language?
For me, it took a year to start to be comfortable in basic conversation. After 2 years I was much more confident and after living in China for 3 years I was very solid in “household Chinese”. If I had had a full-time job, kids and a busy life, there’s no way I would’ve been able to learn Chinese. Time. Investment. There’s no way of learning a language without that, but if you’re enjoying it… time flies and it doesn’t feel like an ounce of work.
Well, I could go on forever about Chinese and my “how”, but we’ll save that for another time. Again, I’d love to hear your story. Take up the challenge and tell us ‘how and why’ you learned a foreign language. Come on… ya know ya want to