Learning a New Language, and more Specifically Learning Mandarin

Collectively, I have a good few years of language learning under my belt. Not only did I naturally and instinctively learn my native language, much in the same way we all do. I also went through the British education system, meaning I studied both French and German for two years each respectively. How many words can I speak in either language? A small smattering at best. A handful of words that wouldn’t get my by in either country, shameful really, especially after so many years of such dedicated study …..

I recently began the long and winding road that is learning a new language, this time with a little more enthusiasm than I had once possessed in my school years. However this time learning a language will be slightly different. Now, as a language teacher, my views and perceptions, even my knowledge of language acquisition have grown and changed. Before, sitting in a classroom felt forced and unwanted, but I can see now what I wasted opportunity all those hours have become. Possessing any number of languages above and beyond your own is completely invaluable in all manners of your life; your personal life, employment, business and many more. Even more so as I have moved to the other side of the world, language has become ever more important in my life and in the not too distant future.

For me, as is the case for many others, obtaining a new language does not come very easily. This is for several reasons, some I believe I am not at fault for, whilst others are exactly the opposite in their nature. Firstly, in my experience, I don’t possess a head/mind for languages. Possibly an odd statement considering my current area of employment, but on the other hand teaching your own language is significantly less challenging than learning a new one. What I mean by this is that new words, for example, struggle to stick in my mind, their pronunciation and meaning are often lost to me much faster than I would like. The problem is only exacerbated when you consider how alien Mandarin appears to your tongue. Being a tonal language, again for example, the meaning of a word changes drastically depending on which of the four tones you use. Moreover Mandarin contains sounds that simply do not exist in English. This is what I find most difficult, it simply doesn’t stick. Secondly, there is almost always an overwhelming feeling of awkwardness or embarrassment when trying to speak, especially out loud to actual living people. Making mistakes is definitely a natural part of the learning process, but I really don’t enjoy making mistakes. Its these feelings I need to overcome in order to be more successful. Besides, what is the point of learning to speak a new language if you aren’t going to speak to anyone!

When you break any language down into its four main components: speaking, listening, reading and writing another great hurdle presents itself. Listening, hearing new words and questions from a native speaker, or anyone for that matter, in any manner of speed is without a doubt very difficult. You can repeat the word to yourself any number of times, but as soon as someone else mutters the word, all meaning seemingly disappears. It is certainly a challenge.

But all is not lost! There are simple remedies to these speed bumps. The predominant solution is so terribly obvious I can hear you screaming it now! Its practice. Practice, repetition and more practice, that’s all that is need, and where better to practice a language than its country of origin. Here in lies on of those problems that is self-inflicted. I don’t practice enough nor do I always practice well. Learning vocabulary by myself is an essential part of the process, but ideally I should be practicing more with Chinese nationals, the people that surround me day in and day out. I’m not completely useless in this regard, I do speak to my colleagues in broken Mandarin and they do help me along the way, but in the quest for new language I must do more!

I would like to add, as a footnote, whilst this little post may sound like I’m complaining a little too much, I’m not. I’m excited about the challenges ahead and identifying the problems I face in learning a new language is one of the best ways to over come them. To all those learning a new language, good luck out there and keep working hard.


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