Maximize your time investment. That is, commit to as many hours each day as possible to dedicated language learning. It makes sense. If you wanted to grow your financial investment portfolio, you’d pump as much of your assets into the endeavor as possible. Time is your greatest asset and speed-learning is the endeavor—so prioritize the investment to see rapid results. Fast, short-term growth means you have to grab some foundational skills to build upon. A foolproof way to do that? Invest the time—it’s so commonsense and logical that many learners often overlook this point’s importance.
In Mandarin, there’s a saying: 好好学习天天向上 (hǎo hǎo xué xí, tiān tiān xiàng shàng) which means, “Study hard every day and you will improve.” But is it really that simple? When you do study on your own, it can be tempting to try cramming loads of new vocabulary into our brains and then waiting a while before we study again. While this may be effective in the short term, it’s ultimately not the way to develop a long-lasting memory. Treat learning a new language differently than you would studying for an exam. There are more effective ways to memorize information that improve the likeliness of long-term learning, such as spaced repetition software (SRS). SRS are computer programs modeled after a process similar to using flashcards. These flashcards are generated by sophisticated algorithms that space out the time intervals indicated when each card will appear again on the screen. In other words, easier cards appear less frequently than harder cards, allowing users to spend more time studying the cards that are more difficult. The tough ones continue showing up until they are mastered, giving you the chance to actively learn them more efficiently than other learning styles. By replacing cramming with spaced repetition software, you’ll be saving yourself lots of studying time, and thus learn faster.
Another way to learn at a more rapid pace is to value fluency over accuracy, which is one of the most difficult, yet powerful concepts to comprehend. First, let’s clarify what I mean by “fluency” and “accuracy.” Fluency is the ability to express oneself easily and articulately. It means using the language smoothly in real time. Accuracy, on the other hand, is the ability to be correct and precise. It means communicating without any grammatical, vocabulary, tonal and other errors. Yes, these two are distinct entities. You can be fluent in a language without having 100% accuracy. Alternatively, you can have language accuracy while still not being anywhere near fluent. The ultimate goal when learning a new language is to use it fluently, not accurately. This does mean we should forget the importance of accuracy. Yes, you may have slip-ups when using your new language, and that’s okay. Think about times when you didn’t accurately follow the rules of your native language, but you were still perfectly understood by others. It happens more than we realize.
If you give yourself an option of using your language skills, chances are you’ll choose to not use them. Our brain will instinctively choose the decision that’s simple and requires less thought. Like acquiring any new skill, learning a new language is going to require strong will. You must consciously lock yourself outside your comfort zone and not allow yourself to step back inside it for a while. It’s not an easy decision, and may require some creative thought, but the results are well worth the effort.
I live in Shanghai, and many foreigners tell me this is not the best place to learn Mandarin. “Get out of the big city and move somewhere more rural and really Chinese,” they argue. But I disagree that camping out in a tiny city is necessarily the best way to learn Chinese. You can be in a big city and speak Mandarin everyday, or go to a rural town and seek out the five other English-speaking foreigners there. Last year I lived in the Yangpu district of Shanghai, far away from the “foreigner-infested French Concession,” as my friend joked. Yet I surrounded myself with English speakers, and my Chinese didn’t improve. This year, I’m actually living in the “foreigner-infested French Concession”, but I feel more immersed in the language. I speak Chinese to my Japanese and Korean classmates, to my landlord, to my elderly neighbors, to my favorite restaurant owners, to Chinese friends. I live in one of the most foreigner-friendly parts of China, yet I’m doing better than ever with the language.
The Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK) is a Mandarin proficiency exam administered in China and abroad. There are six possible levels of achievement, the most elementary testing you on 150 words, and the most advanced testing your knowledge of up to 5000 words. Some people take the HSK for Chinese university admission, others because they are hoping for a short-term language study scholarship. For those of us with only vague plans what to do with our Mandarin skills, I suggest taking it as an end goal. It’s often easier to push yourself if you’re working towards something concrete. The exam tests your listening, reading, comprehension, and composition skills. The cost depends on your level. The spoken part of the exam is separate. For more details, check out the website.
Both podcasts and audiobooks are incredibly useful when you want to improve your spoken English at home. You’ll do one thing while helping yourself in two ways. Firstly, you’ll get your hearing used to the English language and secondly – you’ll enrich your mind with useful information on certain topics such as technology, life, Brexit, music or – again – Harry Potter! Or The Lord of the Rings, The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude and so on. The people that record audiobooks usually have amazing American English or British English accents (take Jim Dale for example) and hearing them will bring you closer to the accent you always wanted to have.
Eschewing English-language social networks in favor of their Chinese equivalents gives you a good reason to use Chinese characters on a daily basis, as well as the opportunity to network with a large community of Chinese netizens. Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China at the moment, but you can use their local equivalents, Renren and Weibo. I used to be wildly frustrated when learning Chinese characters because I saw it as too much work for too few immediate rewards. But I remember the day my iPod Touch arrived at my door, after I’d ordered it online having spent the previous day struggling to read Chinese terms and conditions. When the right product turns up at your home, it’s tangible proof you can use your Chinese skills! I still find Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, difficult to navigate because of the cluttered interface and overwhelming array of products, but I can now use Amazon.cn with no problems, as the layout is similar to the English-language version.
Consuming Chinese pop culture is an enjoyable way to build your vocabulary just by sitting on your tush, and a great chance to test your listening and comprehension away from the classroom syllabus. What you should watch or listen to depends on your preferences and language level. I’m a child at heart and a big cartoon fan, so I’ve gotten hooked on Xǐ Yáng Yáng yǔ Huī Tài Láng (“Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf”), an outrageously popular Chinese animated TV series. It’s intensely cute, and easy for anyone with a basic grasp of Mandarin to follow. I suggest focusing on just one particular show or mini-series to start with. I find I get emotionally involved with the storyline, which gives me added incentive to keep watching, and it helps my listening skills to focus on the accents of only a handful of people. One of my favorite dramas was a 2005 Taiwanese series called “The Prince Who Turns into a Frog.” With each passing episode I grew increasingly familiar with the characters’ voices, and it became easier to understand their dialogue.
People learning Chinese who aren’t native English speakers are great language partners: 2. You are less likely to fall back on English to communicate. Swapping English for Chinese as part of a language exchange with locals is fine – but with my Japanese and Korean classmates, Chinese is often our only common language, so we speak it all the time. There is no need to structure our sessions. We hang out after class when the material is fresh in our minds, and use all the words and idioms we’ve just learned. I don’t worry too much about being right or wrong, but focus on just opening my mouth and trying to use the language as much as possible, without English to fall back on.