#clearthelist September 2019: The Eleven Languages I Spoke in One Month

Welcome to my language progress and goals update for the new month. My focus languages are Mandarin Chinese and Welsh.

You’ll read about the 11 languages I spoke in August 2019 and catch up with top episodes of the Fluent Show podcast.

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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 www.learnmandarintoday.com

What's the bigger world language - Mandarin Chinese or English? by Teddy Nee

In today's blog article, I'm proud to share a personal account from the other side of the world. Teddy Nee is from Indonesia, studies in Taiwan and has high ambitions to be speaking 6 languages: Fujianese, Indonesian, English, Mandarin Chinese, Spanish and Esperanto. Teddy says on his website that learning languages mostly requires discipline and commitment, and in his article today he'll talk more about how English and Mandarin compare.

English and Mandarin from Personal Experience

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “English”? You may recognize it as an international language.

What will you think about “Mandarin”? Is it the second international language?

International Languages

Mandarin has the world’s most speakers, followed by English. Nevertheless, most of the resources
on the Internet utilize English as the content language. W3Techs conducted a survey and showed that more than 55% of websites use English. Moreover, about half of research journal publications in the world use English.

English has also been the most utilized foreign language for international events – conferences, business meetings, etc. The number of English as foreign language speakers has surpassed 700 million people.

English and Mandarin rank top two of the list of international languages – most spoken and most utilized. The importance of English and the recent popularity of Mandarin have made both of them the most highly demanded second languages.

The Benefit of English and Mandarin

I came to Taiwan to pursue my study in Applied Computing at the International College of Ming Chuan University in 2008. After my graduation in 2012, I received a scholarship to pursue IMBA studies in the international program at National Taipei University of Technology, Taiwan.

Having the opportunity to study in these international programs, I noticed that students from around the world use English as the common language. However, Chinese students and students of Chinese ancestry (also known as “overseas Chinese”) will tend to use Mandarin in communicating among one another although Mandarin may be their second language. They mainly come from Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong and Macau. Thus, knowing both English and Mandarin would give you the highest chance to socialize with people of different language backgrounds. Understanding the culture is also important because it complements the socializing manner.

Furthermore, numerous companies have made English and/or Mandarin ability one of their employment requirements. Therefore, knowing them absolutely makes the job seekers, including me, more competitive in the job market.

Personal Learning Experience

I have learned English for more than 10 years at school, just like most of the students around the world. I love reading very much and it is one of my language learning methods. One of my favorite English magazines while I was in school was Reader’s Digest.

Reader’s Digest covers a wide variety of topics, including jokes and games.

Mandarin shares similarity with the Minnan language that I speak as one of my native languages. Thus, speaking Mandarin has been easier than writing or reading. Mandarin has been the compulsory subject of foreign language in the school that I attended while I was in the third year of junior high school.

I also took a summer Mandarin course at National Taiwan Normal University in 2011. You can find numerous resources on the Internet about Simplified Chinese (Mainland China) and Traditional Chinese (Taiwan). Apart from using the learning materials that I found on the Internet, I also practice by reading Chinese articles on websites.

Conclusion

The speaker of English and Mandarin definitely get an abundance of advantages. The difficulty and ease of learning them depend on the learners’ language background. Discipline with the language-learning schedule and commitment to learning the language form two most important principles in my language learning.

Note from Kerstin

Hope you enjoyed today's guest post from Teddy - you should absolutely go over to his blog and check out the wealth of free resources he shares over there: neeslanguageblog.com.

I love how Teddy cites reading as one of his favourite things to do in a foreign language, and hadn't even thought of Reader's Digest as a resource for it. Is there a version in the language that you are learning?

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