How Sia Learnt Chinese By Saying No To Traditional Methods

Today's guest post comes from a writer whose story is both motivating and challenging. Sia Mohajer learnt more Chinese in 3 months than others learn in a year. Just like me, he's a teacher who says you shouldn't always listen to your teachers. I love how Sia has shared the most important language learning points: Independence and Autonomy! Enjoy this awesome guest post - Thank you, Sia!

sia mohajer

Kung Fu, Learning Mandarin and Not Listening To My Teachers

If you ask me where I’m from, I might give you a different answer every time. The truth is I don’t even like answering this question. My cultural and ethnic roots are so mixed up, I’d rather just avoid the question than give a mini-biography. I was born in Iran, during the height of the Iran-Iraq war, fled as a refugee where my single mother and I sought asylum in Germany, Sweden, France, California before finding our “home” in Canada. 

My house was a linguist’s classroom, at any point in the day you could find people arguing or talking politely in four different languages. Multicultural wasn’t something we thought about, it was just life. So when Jackie Chan came into my life at eleven years old, I was ready for him.  

Jackie Chan's movies were a Hollywood interpretation of Chinese culture. Through him, I discovered kung fu - a whole lot of it. My favorite. My love. My reason for existing as an eleven year old. I grew up on kung fu. 

My mom had been working at a computer company and one of her coworkers gave her some bootleg Jackie Chan VHS tapes. This was during Chan's prolific rise to fame; titles included “Rumble in the Bronx” and “Drunken Master”. I watched those videos probably fifteen times. Somewhere in all that martial arts awesomeness, through crowded-Asian streets and the hustle and bustle, something caught my imagination. I decided there and then that I’d “move to Asia one day”. 15 years later, here I am living in Asia; still somehow enchanted by the adventure of living fifty thousand miles from home despite the occasional turbulence of daily life.

But this story isn't about kung fu or Jackie Chan, but about learning Mandarin.

My Escape to Taiwan

My ambition to one day move to Asia did not include mastering Chinese. The thought had never come to mind. Perhaps, I had relegated it to the realm of impossibility. 

In the summer of 2008, two months after graduating from university in Canada, I moved to the hot-sweaty claustrophobic mess that is Taipei City in the summertime. I got a job at a cram school and embarked on the usual delights of exploring a new culture. I wasn't any good at learning Mandarin, mostly because I didn't care. Almost five months passed and I had only learned embarrassing essentials: "beer", "no spicy", "more beer", "you're pretty" and "I'm from Canada". Beyond that nothing, basically I was your typical ex-pat.

In April of that year, I decided to spend a generous 100 dollar birthday gift from my mother on 10 private Chinese classes. My teachers were terrible. One was an overly flirtatious middle-aged women who taught me absolutely nothing. The other was a wizened-looking older Chinese man with a long ponytail and an office filled with Buddhist ornaments. He insisted on lightly slapping my hand whenever I made a mistake. I, of course, obliged his request - half out of amusement and half out of bewilderment. Needless to say my Chinese learning efforts weren't very fruitful and I was ready to quit.

My Language Learning Paradigm Shift

Near the end of my tenth lesson where I had learned approximately 300 words, I overheard another student talking about a website - Chinesepod. I went home and checked it out. At that time, it was an independently run website that offered free signups for podcasts and Mandarin learning material. 

I signed up, and I was hooked.

I guess I've never been one for classroom learning. I was that student who would rather stare out the window than focus on the task at hand. Chinesepod opened my eyes. I realized that language learning wasn't restricted to a classroom, a teacher and weird light-hand slapping. I could learn where, when, and what I wanted. Most importantly, I was in charge of my own learning.

Chinesepod opened the door to a host of other online language learning programs: flashcard programs, writing apps, video websites and language exchange websites. Before I knew it, I had created an a highly diversified language learning schedule which I tailored to whatever I wanted to learn. If I had a problem explaining something I wanted, I'd look up that topic. If I just wanted to be lazy, I'd watch a Chinese movie.

If I had a language learning itch, I’d scratch it. It turned out that scratching those itches were the best things I could have possibly done. 

Why Working Better Beats Working More

When we approach a problem we generally follow the status quo.

Want to learn something? Study more.

Want more money? Work more.

What this approach lacks in precision, it makes up for in workload. Instead of just studying more and more, I used the most efficient multiple learning methods while avoiding methods that didn’t work. There’s science behind this. 

In 1896 Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered a unique constant in economic calculations. Later known as the 80/20 principle or Pareto’s Principle, it stated that 80% of results come from 20% of the causes. The same holds true for language learning. Finding that 20% allowed me to learn much faster than others, who were forced into methods of language learning that were perhaps not suited to her interests or personality. My 20% were podcasts, writing down absolutely every word I encountered in the dirtiest-little notepad you have ever seen, and practicing with every person I met.

Finding your 20 % is a task you alone can accomplish, but I can guarantee you will start learning faster than you ever have. 

Once I found the method that worked for me, I was studying literally all day long in a virtual learning classroom. The results showed. I was fluent in a year. Even at the three month mark I was already using such complicated grammar and vocabulary that my roommate, a full time Chinese student enrolled in a prestigious intensive Mandarin course, couldn't understand me.

My roommate had bought into the hype of her school. She actually believed the promotional material that said “our course will teach you 5000 words in 10 weeks”. She studied everyday and went home to do the assigned character writing. She was told that students who emerge from the program will have superior Chinese as demonstrated by the institute's history. The problem was her Chinese was nowhere near superior. She lacked confidence, spoke too slowly, often confused words because she knew so many and was engaged in a constant battle not to forget her 15-plus stroke-order characters. Her issues were not a result of bad teaching or her being a poor student, but rather a consequence of classroom-based language learning in general.

What They Don’t Teach You in School

I’ve been a language learner and teacher for ten years and I can confidently assert that classroom-based language learning for adults should be a supplement to real-life learning. Your classroom setting should provide you with the tools and fundamentals to allow you to go out into the world, be curious, make mistakes and have fun. Otherwise, the routines, writing assignments and pressure to learn all the material will detract from your main purpose - to communicate effectively.

Effective communication is developed when you make mistakes that you can learn fromthrough effective mistake-making. The feedback loop of the classroom is an ineffectual one because it is an artificial environment. Artificial environments are great to start off with. All variables can be controlled and you can get exactly the results you want; however, these results often don’t apply in the real world. This isn’t a criticism of classroom learning in general, but as it applies to language learning in this context, I think that self-directed independent language learning in multiple contexts trumps classroom-based language acquisition. In other words: Go to class if you like, but never stay there full-time.

Getting all this done is not impossible. It’sIt’s just a matter of effective time management.  While my roommate was spending one hour continuously writing characters I could have reviewed flashcards, written down ten new words using Pinyin ( English transliteration of Chinese) and had a 45 minute skype conversation in Chinese. 

You Live in the Best Time to Learn Any Language

My new found Mandarin ability eventually found me a great job which I am still at today. I was able to explore new parts of the culture that I previously couldn't access or was simply too scared to. My virtual learning experience led to further professional education, where I completed several distance education qualifications.

My point is this - we live in the best time in human history to learn any language. You are no longer restricted to the classroom. Creating a virtual classroom where you decide what you want to learn and when you learn, infuses your language learning with meaning. 

I can only speak for myself when I say that mastering something that is seen as incredibly difficult is a life-changing experience. It might sound melodramatic, but learning a new language, not just Chinese, might be that spark you need to get yourself going. Your language learning doesn’t need to be defined by a course or a textbook. You can be in charge and create a world you want to study in.

In the end, staying curious is one of the best ways to stay motivated. 

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried alternative methods of language learning and had success. Drop a comment below and let me know. I’ll respond to all the comments. 

If you're a Mandarin learner, you can also find me on

Language Learning Methods: Will Immersion Teach You A Language Faster?

As I was replying to a comment on this lovely blog the other day, I got to read more about one of my regular reader, Angel. She is a Pokémon nut and challenging herself with the impressive language combination Mandarin, Japanese and Russian. Such an ambitious and fearless lady. You'll be hearing more from Angel very soon as a regular writer here on the blog

In her comment on my blog, Angel mentioned immersion classes. She says:

Another reason I'm reviewing Japanese again is one of the interviews I saw in your book mentioned immersion. I want to take immersion classes once I finish reviewing everything (and) make sure that I'm not just going by the level I ended up at in college.

img ©wikipedia

What's an Immersion Language Course?

Immersion is an interesting topic, and one of those words that always come up in language learning a bit like "polyglot method" or "language exchange". There is a bit of misinformation and myth around when it comes to the topic, so I decided to give you guys the Fluent summary.

First of all, let's look at the word. The OED has immersion as the "deep mental involvement in something" and points out that in foreign language learning it means your teacher will only teach you using the foreign language. That's all - immersion is not dependent on where you take the class or who you're learning with, it just means fewer explanations and more target language content. You do not have to live anywhere but where you live right now to make this work.

Advantages of Immersion in Language Learning

Many language learners dream of immersion classes as they promise quick results and otherwise unattainable levels of confidence, all wrapped up nicely with an impressive target language accent.

And all of this is kinda true - immersion works particularly well when building up to bilingualism, that means speaking two languages at practically native level all the time. This type of class challenges the brain in unique ways while forcing a learner to engage with the way language is used. There's no time for getting lost in grammar and rules, the point is to listen, copy and learn how to use language right.

Some more reading about advantages of immersion can be found over at Omniglot.

Guided Immersion Classes

Stephanie from To Be Fluent is an immersion language teacher in Canada, and she's keen to point out that sometimes explaining complex grammar and style issues does require English. But here's how she describes her classes:

We do lots of grammar, and also lots of reading and discussion. We read an article and discuss current affairs every morning. We also work a lot on oral interaction: asking and answering questions, telling stories, listening to dialogues (most of them work-related), doing role-plays of work-related situations (ex. running a meeting, giving instructions to a new recruit, dealing with problems at work, writing a memo). We also make time for "fun stuff" like watching French TV shows and playing games.

Immersion classes sound great! The key ingredient that the learner must have along with some determination is clearly time: It cannot happen while you're spending most of your days out of the foreign language environment. A true immersion environment requires at least a few hours spent speaking the new language, every day. That's probably why many people develop a simplistic view that learning a language comes naturally as a result of moving to a new country. The better logic looks like this: No fluency without classes, no immersion without time, but time can definitely equal immersion and will give you results.

Andrew Weiler, who writes at, makes the important point that people forget the dream of "Learning like a Child, naturally, carefree" is bobbins, because adults are not children. Immersion classes used too early in language learning will result in frustration and the feeling that you're "stupid" for being unable to learn just by copying. Your ego thinks it can understand things first time, and you'd be denying yourself a core understanding if you jumped straight in at the deep end.

And furthermore, immersion is a teaching method that focuses on communicating by sound and vision and can neglect important learning methods like note-taking and revision. The way to use it is key here.


Immersion is a trendy word among language learners and I have an allergy to trendy sometimes (anti-authority streak? teenage rebel?), so I do not personally use the word when describing how I teach or learn a language. The thing I find particularly important when I teach a language is that "immersion" must not mean "there is a teacher rambling at me in a foreign language and I can understand every 6th word".

Immersion will be right for you if you can follow these three simple rules:

1) Commit

As we've seen above, immersion means putting in the hours to study a language. Of course listening and reading are core parts of this, but producing target language sentences every day is another big part. Immersion classes work extremely well as language learning holidays or short programmes, but they're much rarer as ongoing programmes over the years. So when you decide that this is your chosen language learning method, make sure your schedule can handle it.

2) Structure

Good immersion tutors know that the key is to adapt your teaching and content to the skills or the learners. With that in mind, it's easy even for complete beginners to learn through gentle immersion, and I believe that the structure of guided lessons is a perfect environment. If you feel that you have to tackle immersion-style learning all by yourself, make sure you have Skype and italki ready for real world practice.

3) Know Your Limits

If an overambitious learner may use a bombardment of random target language content as a learning technique, they might as well just look at a flag for an hour. Don't put unreasonable demands on your understanding. Instead, know that it is a lot better for your learning to address the words and structures that you don't know, than to hope you will just assimilate them as if by magic. The "copy and speak" method does work, but only if you actually understand the input that you are getting.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources!

Which type of language learner are you?

I thought that today I'll put out some words for you from the view of a personal language tutor. I believe hiring a language tutor is a decision to be taken lightly. It's not the same as language exchange, and not the same as teaching yourself a language. I also want to point to a particularly good and well-written post from Claire at Conquering Babel. She has been sharing why it's a good idea to hire a tutor - many, many reasons of course.

which type of language learner are you.jpg

Having worked with a large group of students both in 1-to-1 environments, my recommendation is not that this lesson format automatically works for everyone. Some people dislike the pressure of the situation, others will want to focus on meeting many other learners. But ultimately, here are three learner types which do very well in this type of lesson. Do you recognise yourself?

1) The shy or introverted learner

You like to build up a good level of trust before telling people more about who you are. Before speaking, you will think through the full statement, and you want to be sure you're getting the words right. Homework was invented for you, because you love revising and reading more about the target language country.

This testimonial from one of my awesome students is a good example of how a 1-to-1 lesson can feel for meticulous and introverted learners:

I loved doing the 1-to-1 sessions with Kerstin because it was nowhere near as stressful as learning at school. The beauty of such sessions is that you get more focused attention and the sessions are based on your own language ability, which helped me because there is less pressure when working at your own pace.

If you have ever felt like classes at school are moving too fast, or you are lacking that speaking courage, then working with an expert 1-to-1 tutor is a great alternative. Good teachers know when to let you think, when to explain something again and when to listen to you.

2) The busybee and multitasker

You like language learning for the challenge as well as the achievement, but it's hard to find time for it between all your other commitments. You listen to language tapes while driving and write your shopping list in the target language, because it's so hard to get some time in.

1-to-1 lessons are perfect for this type of learner, because you will find the language teacher as flexible as you need them to be. Some students of mine love their regular slot, studying online at lunchtimes. They could not find any class that is as convenient. Others need to juggle the class times around commitments like business trips and meetings, so they will appreciate the chance of having a class at the time they can free up for it.

Both of these busy groups benefit from both online and offline classes, and once again having a tutor can be a godsend here. No matter if you want to switch on Skype or have a class in your kitchen, the 1-to-1 format will fit around your own needs.

3) The starter (and not finisher)

You love the excitement of a new project, the new gadgets to buy and the vision of charming all the locals with your language skills. Your enthusiasm can get you through HOURS of study, but after a few months the new language can get boring. Maybe learning knitting would be cool?

If you're this type of learner, the big advantage of hiring a language tutor will be that you are making a commitment and putting your money where your mouth is. Your tutor is an accomplice - once you've hired them, your success is their business and they will know when you get bored.

In fact, this is probably one of the most important reasons for hiring a tutor: They'll work hard to stop you from getting bored or giving up. Now that's a benefit.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.

Kerstin's 3 Steps for Learning Topical Vocabulary

Topical vocabulary means the words and expressions that all relate to one topic, for example cookery, education or firefighting. Today's article introduces a foolproof 3-Step Method, plus get involved by posting your next vocab topic in the comments, and we'll feature you in a blog article next year.

Why is this useful?

If you make it your goal to learn all the words in a language, you'll never know when you're done. Setting a goal like "500 words" is also though, because who counts all the new words they're learning?! So bring on the topical approach. You can get into a topic you're interested in and feel like you're really getting somewhere.

Learning topical vocabulary is not difficult - here are 3 steps to success:

3 steps to learning topical vocab.jpg

1. How much do you know about this in English or your native language?

The key here is to set your goal posts right, so that you'll know the detail of what your topic is all about. Plus, remember that language is never isolated from what it talks about. In other words, the success in remembering vocab is based on knowing what you're talking about. If you want to write like an expert about history, better know the facts before the words.

For example, I once worked at the fabulous Panaz, who make all kinds of flameproof fabrics. I was their Export Sales Administrator, on the phone all day taking and confirming orders in French. I could have learnt all the words for fabric and upholstery I wanted, but these customers wanted someone who first knew her stuff, and then knew all the words for it.

So here is Step 1: Be sure you know what you're talking about, and then you'll know which words and expressions you need.

2. Note it down, then relax-repeat-remember

Forget talent - repetition is the heart of success. Many people recommend "SRS", which means a spaced repetition system. In other words, you will have to go over words again even if you remembered them today. The repetition of running through those lists is what makes it go in, so it's got to be a routine for a week or two. Remember Fluency MC? It's relax - repeat - remember.

For more ideas on getting that vocabulary to stick, check out 6 Techniques for Learning Vocabulary.

Step 2: Follow the 3 R's: Relax, repeat, remember.

learning a language attitude.jpg

3. Test yourself twice

It's easy to check how many words you know, so make your first test an article in the paper and a TV show about your topic. With libraries, the internet, YouTube and Facebook at your service, I challenge you to find something you couldn't read a lot about in almost any language. How about searching for the #tag on Twitter (see below)?

Now for the second test, maybe a little bit more daunting but this is going to be more fun too: Have a conversation, chat about the topic, go listen to someone and say what you think! Of course it should be possible to bring most conversations around to your chosen topic (and an amusing challenge, too!) eventually, and then throw in the new words, ask questions and feel the power. You've just become an expert!

Step 3: Test yourself once by consuming, and twice by producing language.

Twitter search result for "Flameproof" in German - there really is media for anything

Twitter search result for "Flameproof" in German - there really is media for anything

Favourite topics?

As always, I want you guys to get involved and think about how this article will serve you best, so you are invited to write a comment below and tell me what your vocabulary topics are. How about Christmas, cookery or knitting? Or look at the cool Sally Holmwood, who's currently studying personal banking words for her part-time job in an international bank.

Don't miss out on the launch of the Fluent Guide to Vocabulary Learning for Self-Directed Language Learners.

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent - The Language Learning Blog. Don't forget - if you sign up to our newsletter, you will receive a free Guide to the Best Language Learning Resources!

Michel Thomas in Fluent Review

If you have ever browsed the shelves of a book shop dreaming of that date or trip where you speak fluent French, you have probably come across old Michel T. His language learning tapes were a huge success from the 70s and are still popular today. I'm currently using the Michel Thomas tapes myself for my study of Russian. The method is reportedly the same as on the original tapes with the man himself, although here it is a Russian instructor teaching the class.

What I like and adopt about the Michel Thomas method

My own basis for teaching is similar to his - here's a communication-focused approach, in a relaxed environment. Throughout the class, he'll feature learners who are real. They hesitate and make mistakes like everyone else, but the message is: You can do this! Language learning is not some elitist skill for the most intelligent people only - it's for everyone. As such, we language tutors owe a lot to pioneers like Michel. He knew what it meant to take the mystery out of language learning and open them up for everyone through encouragement rather than strict punishments.

I'm a big fan of this message. In fact, it's the first reason I started this blog. I wanted new and experienced learners to find language easy, accessible and fun. This world will hand you the key to many closed doors once you embark on the journey of language learning. My mission is to encourage learners and make things interesting and inverting, much like Michel did.

A review of the Michel Thomas product

The method is based on recordings that the learner is supposed to listen to. There is no book, and no one makes you take notes during the class. Obviously, this simplicity is one of the big attractions about the method: You can download the MP3s on Amazon or Audible, put them on your ipod and listen to them anywhere. I find that this Russian course  teaches vocabulary and speaking/listening, but personally I do not believe that this method is "complete". I miss the written aspects, grammar and seeing the language in real-life use. 

This is of course a commercial product, so they couldn't resist a bit of marketing at the start of the lesson. Here's what I made of it: 



You should get yourself a Michel Thomas as a supplement to other language learning or for a quick boost before your next trip abroad. I don't believe that it compares to language tuition with a real person, which should be like meeting the friendly and encouraging tutor, but getting three times as much out of it, but the method is friendly, open, encouraging and won't tire your brain out.

If you are expecting fluency and linguistic expertise out of Michel Thomas products alone, you will be disappointed but at the price point they are a decent start. Just supplement them with some notes and some reading. Please?

Availability 5/5  (you can get Michel Thomas on Amazon, Audible and in most book shops)

Free Michel Thomas for Audible folks

Value for Money 4/5  (I got mine on Audible for just 1 credit worth less than £15/$20)

Audible also lets you download the first book for free if you're a new customer, just click this link for free Michel Thomas method goodness: 

 Results 3/5  (This is always related to what you expect of course - expect to say a few sentences, not to become a confident conversationalist or able to read much of anything at all. You should use the method together with something else, ideally a tutor.)

PS: This post is not sponsored by Audible, I just think that what they offer is great. The links I provided tell the vendors that you came from Fluent, so you're supporting the blog and getting a good deal. Thanks!