How I learned Chinese (blog challenge part 2)


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, JamesElinda, NaomiShikhaAnnTy, 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?

Brother-in-law and my two nephews... they're not quite 12 but sponges o' knowledge


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.


I would hang with this fella a few times a week as he made his bread and sweets.

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.

Here was a man who sold musical instruments and with whom I’d talk and drink tea every week.

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 ;-)



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  • Berni Wall

    My Mandarin Chinese was learnt in Indonesia when my two eldest children were babies and we had a Chinese nanny. I still remember a couple if nursery rhymes and the words for going to the toilet, eating, drinking and other child-related activities! I understood a lot more than I could actually use. I found it easier to learn via Indonesian than English! I did learn enough Hokkien for the market which always took people by surprise and got me some great prices!!

  • Brad Patterson

    You’ve gone on some adventures, Berni!  I remember reading another piece about your travels in Asia on your blog… just went looking and couldn’t find it.  Wasn’t that you?  I thought it was Burma, but I might be getting things confused.

    Hokkien, huh?  Funny I was just discussing Indonesian too with Chiew and Icha after having read a language fact about Malay and how they double nouns to express the plural.  Ah… languages.

    Nice to see that your Mandarin has hung around a bit.  My Italian has come out of the closet twice in 10 years and it is awfully rusty.  Such is life with languages.  Thanks for stopping by.  Cheers, brad

  • Vicky Loras

    Hi Brad!

    Thank you so much for sharing your beautiful experience learning Chinese! I really really love how you mingled with the locals – in my opinion, the best way to learn a language : )

    I better knuckle down to writing my post for your challenge ; )



  • Estar

    Thanks for sharing Brad! 
    Mine is a bit tricky, i come from Africa and so interested in chinese but no one in my area speaks mandarin so i teach myself online.

  • Patrick Andrews

     I lived in China in the late 80s and am interested in how similar your experiences are.  I very much found that people were very keen to talk and patient, which led to great progress.

    I also agree that it is much easier to learn without having too many other commitments.  Being single at that time, I was probably more approachable.

  • Brad Patterson

    Mingling with the locals is how I’ve learned all my languages and it’s a very lucky oppportunity I’ve had.  Really looking forward to reading your post (no pressure, tho if it’s a busy week/month!)  Cheers, b

  • Brad Patterson

    Thanks for stopping by, Estar and I agree— that’s the beauty of the internet for motivated learners!  Do you do more language exchanges or elearning, both, tutor?  Interested to hear more.

    You must be from more Southern Africa too, as I know there is a large influx of Chinese in the North.  I’ve had a friend or two even move there from China for work.  Wild the way the world is changing fast.  Cheers, Brad

  • Brad Patterson

    Yes, very keen and patient population indeed.  I was always the one that had somewhere else to go or something to do (even if I didn’t).  There were folks that would’ve spent the entire afternoon chatting happily away… or maybe they were just more polite than I was (if that’s what politeness is… ;-)

    And, yes, after I started a relationship my third year, my interactions felt a sharp decrease and that certainly impacts progress.  Cheers for the comment, Patrick and I would have LOVED to see China in the late 80s… I’m sure it must’ve been quite different than 2012!

    Cheers, Brad

  • Kate Bell

    The idea that language learning ability drops off precipitously at some point, usually cited as late childhood or early adolescence, is thoroughly discredited by linguistics researchers.  They call this the “critical period”, ie. if you don’t start or master a language by X years old you never will.  Here’s just one example of research disproving the critical period theory, in case you have some free time:

    Unfortunately the research hasn’t filtered into the sphere of “what people say” yet.  People like to have an excuse for their inability, and I’m assuming that’s what this is for the adults who don’t speak second or more languages.

    But I think adults are actually the most skillful language learners if they apply themselves fully (ie full time).  Kids take years and years to be reasonably reliable speakers of whatever their native languages are, and they continue to make huge numbers of mistakes well into primary school.  That’s not even mentioning the exceedingly small size of their vocabularies compared to educated adults, as well as the very lengthy process required to learn to read and write accurately.  

    I say if an educated adult can get herself to an everyday conversational level in 1-2 years in a new language, and can read and write at that level as well, that’s pretty darn good compared to a child.  I talk to 2 years olds every day and I can tell you, their conversations are pretty limited, however charming.  There’s a lot more pointing and grunting than would be allowed for any adult. 

  • Tyson Seburn

    Yes, I do believe being (or at least acting) an extrovert plays an important role.  During my first year in Korea, I worked at a smaller school, with fewer foreigners there or near where I worked.  Through necessity, I learnt very much very sharply–much more than I learnt in the next 4.5 years there, as I was later surrounded by many more English-speakers.

  • Brad Patterson

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for your well-thought out comment and the link to that research.  I’ll go check it out tonight so I have some academic ammo the next time someone brings up that myth.

    I agree that motivated adults can be wonderful learners, and it is often an issue of time that’s missing from the equation, not an issue of age at all.  

    Cheers, Brad

  • Brad Patterson

    I think that word “necessity” plays the biggest role for most learners.  I hear the argument “you have to love language” and I love that argument (as it’s true for me), but when you get down to it, the students that learn are those that realize they have a real and present (or future) need for English.  Extroverts help… by the way, did you know that it was Carl Jung who invented the words extrovert and introvert (and Freud who invented “psychoanalysis”… where Psyche was the greek goddess of the soul (and a mystical butterfly) and analysis (in greek) meant release… release of the butterfly… or more boringly analyzing the soul!)

  • Tyson Seburn

    I did, actually. =)

  • Brad Patterson

    yer just as cool as i thought you were… can’t wait to meet up next november!

    cheers, b

  • Larisa Dubova

    Great post! So familiar and so close to me that I’ve got almost nothing to add but to replace Mandarin/Chinese to Hungarian (one more tough  language). I went to work to that country in my late twenties. I didn’t realized that German (not English) was number one foreign language there. What a challenge! So I rushed to courses and “immersed” myself in the language. How I loved it! By the way, I’ve also met lots of people who came to work there long before me and learned just a couple of phrases like “this” pointing at some particular thing at the shop or market, and “thanks”. Maybe some of them really didn’t have time or patience. But first of all, I guess they didn’t want to. 

    As for Hungarian people, they are very open,  friendly and helpful. :)

  • Brad Patterson

    Hi Larisa.

    I was blown away by Hungary.  Spent a week there a decade ago and really enjoyed it.  I too found the people very open and friendly.  Good times.  Otherwise, I agree… some folks just aren’t interested or motivated to jump into the challenge/adventure that learning a language requires.

    Thanks for sharing!  Cheers, Brad

  • English Trebic

    Ok Brad, you’ve got me.  Post coming soon!  I’ve been wanting to do this and I’ve had friends and colleagues asking me to do this for a long time, but your posted was the final straw.  So, I’ll get a post up soon about how I’ve been learning Czech.  Thanks!

  • Brad Patterson

    Looking forward to it.  Please do link back so I know when it’s up.  Interested to hear what it’s like learning Czech.  Thanks Glenn!

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