Will the machine help us learn – or will we learn to use the machine?

Last year, I followed a MOOC called ‘Education and Digital Culture’. I deliberately came to the MOOC with Marco Polo Project glasses on, and in the end, one core question about the future emerged: will we develop better systems for learning languages, or will we develop better translation systems.

At the moment, both are growing in parallel through the power of the web.

On the language learning front, the following is happening:

  • Traditional teaching methods are adapted and circulated online: podcast series offer a full language curriculum,  tutors are available through skype, and Language teachers share their wisdom through blogs (like Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese).
  • Companies are developing more ergonomic language learning tools online – all-inclusive training apps like duolingo, or more focused vocabulary building apps like skritter.
  • Collaborative platforms facilitate peer-to-peer learning – foremost among them Lang-8, which organises a multi-lingual community of amateur bloggers correcting each other.

Meanwhile, we can observe similar developments in the translation space, :

  • Dictionaries are available online or as apps – in Chinese, MDBG and pleco come to mind.
  • Translator forums, such as Proz, offer peer-to-peer support on difficult constructions.
  • Google translate and other companies are developing automatic translators.

Learning a language online – whether assisted by online curriculums, apps, or forums, will still require effort and time from the learner. Online dictionaries and translation forums also reduce the time needed to translate, but still imply effort. Automatic translators, however, differ in quality. The dream beyond automatic translators is to go ‘beyond babel’, allowing direct communication between people speaking different languages, and by-passing the need for language learning altogether.

So what future are we heading towards? Wwith better training, translation tools may not be so necessary? But with translation tools, language training may not be so useful either. Or will we need trainers to use these automatic translators? At present, google translate is improving, but complexities still require interpretation, testing, rephrasing. Teachers will help new humans master the machine that overcomes the language barrier.

Both scenarios hover between a utopian vision of a post-babel super-humanity to more dystopian visions of the future. On the one hand, a ‘mental athleticism’, or cognitive hyper-competition, where if you stop studying, more languages, faster, with better tools – you fall behind. On the other hand a ‘technical-only’ education that forgets about the beauties of idleness in the name of efficiency, or an education losing the wisdom and choice. Maybe, too, the division between a privileged class of overeducateds wired-in ergonomists at increasing distance from under-privileged undereducated people.

That uncertainty about the future of automatic translators and language learning tools also has political implications: if we’re on the verge of developing efficient translation tools, then why invest time in learning foreign languages – there’s better things we can do with our children’s time and our education money. Conversely, if better tools are coming, we should make sure we adopt them early, and train our people for a future where multilingualism will be a basic form of literacy.

We can’t predict what will happen, but we should be well aware of these tensions, and that no scenario, in the present, is at all certain.

Educating global leaders? Let’s give them Humanities!

On the Hub Melbourne yammer network, a friend recently posted the following note: “Am currently at a collaboratory meeting to recreate management and leadership education. These are the 3 questions today ; 1. How does the future leader look like ? 2. What is a globally responsible leader ? 3. Can we teach how to become a globally responsible leader.”

I found it inspiring, and suggested the following: “A good education base for future global leaders will be found in classics, history, philosophy and humanities, rather than ‘business and economics’. Management and leadership theories – or economics and ‘social sciences’ more broadly – tend to come in flashy new clothes. They decay more quickly than solid Aristotle, Plutarch and Montesquieu. In a fast-changing world, you don’t want fast-aging leadership education. Close-reading texts of ancient wisdom will teach future global leaders how to find meaning in complex, ambiguous settings; and reflecting on the distance between past and contemporary value systems will prepare them for accepting diverse, sometimes conflicting, world-views – and negotiate their way forward.”

I wanted to share this reply here, and reflect further on the topic. Everyone likes pushing their own agenda. I was trained in the Humanities – and find myself now more and more among people with a background in business, management and economics. Diversity benefits groups: people solidly trained in arts and classics are rare both in corporate and small business worlds, and their presence is likely to make for better decisions. I also do believe that the practice of translation and close-reading, which I learnt in France, is precious when working as an innovator. Translation is a good bullshit detector, and finding good ideas and people requires a solid capacity to filter out the dross. Innovation is also typically nothing but an old idea adapted to a new settings – who knows whether Medieval monastery rules, immigration models in old Athens, or Teutonic lending systems don’t hold the key to some future and precious model for social innovation in Australia.

Why I quit class – Trust and teaching institutions

I’ve been to class once in the last month, and I may not return. I don’t think I’m a lazybones, my Mandarin has been growing steadily, and I have made significant progress on all projects I came here with. But classes have been a great disappointment. I’d like to reflect more on the reasons why I decided to no longer attend the course I enrolled in. 

Superficially, my decision was based on a simple premise: attending classes required considerable amounts of energy, but only yielded limited results in areas of low priority for me (specialised vocabulary and advanced character recognition). On a personal level, my teachers were enthusiastic, smart, and encouraging. But the shape of the course and evaluation, rather than serving as a learning accelerator, was a cause of stress and made me passive – impairing the goals I had set myself, whether for cultural understanding, network development, or actual language learning. The contradiction became very manifest after I returned from a trip up North to meet a number of partners in a literary project I’m putting together. And again, after a trip to Shanghai attending a conference on Social Enterprise models. My teachers already knew I was doing a lot outside of class, and I told them I wouldn’t sit exams. Then I stopped attending, and shifted my focus outside.

I have written elsewhere about the lack of personalised goal-setting, how classes lacked proper differentiated learning, and how I ended up in a class too difficult for me, but with a more suited learning speed. These factors played a role in my decision to stop attending university. But the core reason is more fundamental: I developed a radical lack of trust in the system. That lack of trust started through rumours and hearsay, voices warning me that the Chinese education system was teacher-centric, inefficient, dull. I arrived doubtful, and was not proven wrong. After a month, I entirely stopped believing  that Nanjing University and I shared a similar goal – increase my ability to speak, read, write and understand Chinese based on my current level and future needs – but started to believe instead that the system has a goal of its own, and would not hesitate to trample over me for the sake of its internal logic.

From the start, and at a very material level, the university didn’t seem to care much about my well-being, or that of my fellow students. Registration was one of the most painful administrative processes I ever experienced. I queued for a total of 7 hours over two days, not knowing at any point whether I had all the required paperwork, or would need to come back again, and encountering nothing but seemingly rigid bureaucracy. Later, I shifted levels upwards from ‘Gao Xia’ to ‘Wenhua Ban’ because the speed of progress was too slow, but also because one of the classes had no working air-con. Daytime temperatures in Nanjing vary from 35 degrees in early September to 4 degrees or less in December. After two days of heavy sweating in class, temperature control didn’t seem a trivial matter anymore, and I chose the class in a room with air-con. These negative experiences had nothing to do with the curriculum – they shaped my experience nonetheless, and from the onset, made me doubtful about the level of care that students could expect from this institution.

Evaluation, however, was the root of the problem. In both ‘Gao Shang’ and ‘Gao Xia’ classes, teachers announced weekly ‘dictation’ tests on new vocabulary. I didn’t sign in to be failed for lacking skills I never intended to build. Hand-writing disconnected lists of new words is far from my top priority. In our ‘Oral Chinese’ class, a core part of our final exam will require us to write a short essay (by hand), and a vocabulary test. Isn’t the class about spontaneously telling a story, or taking part in a conversation? That’s my goal at least, and a legitimate one I think. If a test is not adequately measuring against learning goals, then how can I trust that it will reveal anything about my success or failure? More importantly, how is it going to tell my teachers – or myself – anything about my future learning needs? And if it doesn’t – should I still attend the classes that prepare for it? Maybe I should have asked for special treatment – but the culture was far from inviting to that option.

Universities are complex institutions, with their own performance management systems and internal feedback loops. Student evaluation occurs within this framework, and is not exclusively based on pedagogy. Beside, students from different backgrounds carry their own expectations, and vocabulary quizz may be what they wish to be tested on. I’m an atypical Mandarin learner: whether the system is radically flawed, or whether it simply doesn’t suit me, I’m not sure. Trust is a personal matter.

Maybe these early weeks I did attend class had a positive effect on me, maybe they simply taught me what I needed to study. In the end, my Mandarin did improve significantly over the five months I spent in China, I learnt a lot about the country, and I’m now collaborating with local student clubs to run translation workshops – not to mention the networks I built and projects I progressed. It has been a superbly valuable stay. Still, I feel that something was wasted. My own time and early enthusiasm; the time and skills of my teachers; and the learning bond I could have made with my fellow students.

I wonder how often learning institutions fail in their mission because students stop trusting them, and whether it’s a problem with no solution – that some individuals will just always be dissatisfied by the system – or whether there are simple (or complex) ways to make the situation better, and develop stronger trust between teachers, students and curriculum designers – and people attending learn better.

Three core tips on pronouncing Chinese

From years of experience teaching French and English phonetics, I know that often, one simple change in the way we make sounds can improve our pronunciation dramatically. But few teachers – and almost no untrained native speaker – can accurately describe what a non-native needs to change in order to pronounce better.

I studied Mandarin on my own mostly – and like most Westerners, I’ve struggled with phonetics: tones, vowel quality, rhythm, aspiration. I didn’t know quite how much until recently. Early during my stay in Nanjing, I had an opportunity to join a singing show on Chinese TV (in the end, it didn’t happen). Before my interview, I wanted to check that a live performance wouldn’t cover me with ridicule, and recorded myself singing Chinese on my iphone. ‘Thick laowai’ is about what I sounded like. But this unpleasant experience had one very positive outcome: I was able to pick out some of the problems with my pronunciation, and based on what I heard, improve it.

The three tips below are based on this experience, and represent three areas of pronunciation where I feel I made significant progress just by changing one element in the way I articulate Mandarin. They may be strictly personal, or work for you – try them out!

1) More vowel, softer consonants

I’m trained as a classical singer, and I have a particular fondness for Schuman’s lieder. I also grew up in Strasbourg, and German is he first foreign language I learnt: trained ears still recognise echoes of it in my English. I could hear more than faint traces in my rendering of Jay Chou. I could hear every consonant exploding, hacking the flow of sound, like a pounding march: it sounded nothing like Chinese. I remembered some of my French classes: I improved some of my students’ accent by instructing them to de-articulate their consonants. I needed a serious dose of that. I recorded myself again, making sure I avoided any strong impulsion from my lips or jaw in between vowels, only softly closing them in between vowels. The result was astounding: it radically changed the quality of my singing, and I thought: “this really sounds Chinese”.

3) Use your diaphragm

Softening my consonants was a real improvement, but now my pronunciation was two soft. I listened to Chinese tracks again, and they all had a rhythmic beat I lacked. I thought again of my classical practice: one of the things we were encouraged to do was se our diaphragm on stressed syllables to mark an impulsion. I thought, if the structure of the Chinese language is such that every syllable has its own independent meaning – and a tone – maybe they all need an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tried, while keeping my consonants as soft as I could, and it worked! More importantly, I tried the same technique to speak aloud, and for the first time, noticed a radical improvement to my tones.

Tones – like all linguistic elements – form a system. And ‘bad tone pronunciation’ must be systemic. In a tonal language, changes in pitch carry word-meaning, as in the often quoted: 妈,麻,马,骂. These characters/words are all pronounced ‘ma’, with tone 1,2,3 and 4 respectively, and mean mother, hemp, horse and curse. Western learners (or teachers) generally focus on the difference between tones, trying as best we can to use a first, second, third or fourth tone, as required. But more fundamental is the difference between marking and not marking tones; yet we never learn about this more fundamental difference. From this experience, and others later, I have come to believe that these changes in pitch require every syllable to start with an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tested the theory with a few Chinese friends who concurred, feeling that in Mandarin, the sound came from ‘down below the throat”. Therefore, to speak better Chinese, the first step to to give each syllable its own impulsion from the diaphragm.

Concretely, when you speak Chinese, at the start of every syllable, you should push forward with your diaphragm. To check that it’s happening, you can put a finger just below your solar plexus, the bit where your ribs come together at the front of your chest, and push it forward by contracting the vert top of your abs. If you do that simple move well, speaking Chinese will feel like a series of small jumps and hops, you will start sounding more like a native, and you will experience the four tones as a different type of dance step.

3) Use your nose

The balance of consonant and vowel improved, and the general beat of the language improved, but something was still off the mark – I still sounded like Bel Canto practice. One of my goals in coming to China was to learn the beauty of Chinese opera: to my untrained ear, the singers’ nasal shrill sounds were simply unpleasant. But my own non-nasal voice was certainly not right. I tried: I sang in a nasal voice – and sounded like a Beijing opera star.

How do you speak or sing in a nasal voice? The sound (and air) goes both through the mouth and nose. It’s particularly clear when pronouncing a Chinese ‘i’. Imagine that there is a vertical piece of cardboard in the middle of your mouth. Then, try to imagine that the sound is resonating inside a small sphere located somewhere between your back teeth and your nose. You can also place your hand in front of your nose – if air comes out as you speak, then you’re nasal.

No teacher ever taught me these three tricks, and I never saw them explained anywhere else. Maybe because they don’t actually work – maybe because nobody’s bothered to research and describe them – or maybe they are widely known, and I just didn’t know where to look. I encourage you to try them at least – and see whether they bring any improvement. Please share your own advice on pronunciation here.

Language levels – beginner, intermediate, advanced

Students of a foreign language are typically classified into three bands based on competence: beginner, intermediate, advanced. In my experience, progression is not strictly cumulative, but requires returning often to the same contents until the student integrates it. For that reason, most students are at an ‘intermediate’ stage, which is also the most difficult to teach. Language is a performance, like sport or music – you don’t only ‘know’ a point of grammar or the word for a certain object or action, but you can apply it in a setting to perform a communication or expression task. This is very common knowledge. Less often understood is this second point. Each language is a system, and forms a totality. Therefore, each new element we learn needs to find its proper place in the system. Tenses or word order rules, for instance, form a whole, but so does vocabulary. For that reason, language learning requires three very different activities:

  • ‘Growth’. Learn new words or refine the meaning of known words, learn more advanced grammatical patterns, improve pronunciation accuracy, and develop more adapted rhetorical skills.
  • ‘Clarification’. Correct errors in pronunciation, grammar, use of words; fill up gaps in certain semantic or pragmatic areas, so that the learner will understand and correct recurring errors. This clarification phase could also be called ‘systemic integration’, as what needs to happen is a fast check of the whole system every time an error is detected.
  • ‘Endurance’. Automate whatever is known already: the same task should be done with less effort and more quickly, with more distractions present, or in a more stressful setting.

Based on this analysis, I would advocate for a radical rethink of language teaching pathways, while keeping the traditional division between beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.

Beginners should have a clearly articulated pathway to grammatical and core vocabulary building. I base my teaching on quickly developing basic syntactic patterns for localising and naming the immediate environment, expressing modality (I want, I can, I must), and simple interactions (a similar method is described in this blog post). In classes, growth, clarification and drills should be balanced, to ensure quick integration of the core structures. The beginner stream should finish by one or two sessions of systematic revision focusing on automating question and assertion; time, space, and aspect; persons and possession; modality and causality. Meanwhile, beginners’ vocabulary may be limited to a few essential objects, family names, and core action/relational verbs.

Distinguishing intermediate and advanced students is in itself a challenge, but I would propose the following criterion: advanced students are autonomous language learners, which means they can progress on their own without a teacher or structured method, through sheer immersion, while intermediate learners still require scaffolding from a teacher, a book, or any structured learning system.

Advanced students still benefit from the presence of a teacher or structured environment, along two different lines. On the one hand, advanced students can particularly benefit from a few targeted one-on-one sessions that will focus on correcting remaining errors in pronunciation, syntax or semantics. On the other hand, classes on a topic of interest delivered in the target language by teachers aware of linguistic difficulties can be particularly beneficial to build endurance, nurture motivation, grow vocabulary in specific areas, and clarify some confused pockets – particularly in semantics. But mostly, advanced students will strongly benefit from a stay in-country, where their existing levels will allow them to enjoy full immersion, and practice informally in all sorts of social settings – while building up confidence and training their endurance.

Intermediate students present by far the biggest challenges to teachers – mostly along two distinct lines:

1) Intermediate students are extremely diverse. All have a thing in common: they have major gaps in their linguistic knowledge to fill. However, not all have the same gaps, because not all followed the same beginner’s track – or any track at all – and not all integrated the same parts of whatever they learnt. That’s before even considering their individual motivations and learning styles. Even though institutions do their best to stream intermediates into various bands, each class will have massive discrepancies that have to be dealt with.

2) Intermediate students need very strong internal motivation. On the one hand, their level is still too low for them to enjoy a film, a book or even a conversation in the target language, unlike advanced students. On the other hand, their progress is less perceptible than beginner students; and since perceived progress is one of the strongest motivators for further studies, their risk of dropping out is very high.

I haven’t cracked the code yet of how to best teach intermediate students, but I believe the ultimate solution is to find ways of reducing the time students spend at ‘intermediate level’. My personal style is to delude myself into believing that I’ve reached an advanced level very soon, so that I can sustain motivation through direct encounter with quality contents. But less confident learners may feel discouraged by materials or situations too hard for them – and lack the generic cross-linguistic skills I’ve developed through years of language practice. Another possibility would be to remain in the beginner track longer, and ensure that bases are extremely solid, so that ‘intermediate’ studies mostly focus on growth.

Do you have any experience of teaching intermediate students? Please share them here!

I used grammarly to proofread this post. I’m not a native speaker of English and sometimes still wonder if my grammar’s all OK. They do a great job of spotting minor mistakes, and it means I can save my native friends’ brainspace for more in-depth advice on the contents of my writing. 

Chinese lowlights – internet and hardware

Internet has been the lowlight of my time in China. Unreliable, slow, and expensive. At home, I used a 3G stick from China Unicom: 300 yuan for nine gigabytes, three nationally, six locally. The first one went quickly – I bought a second from a small shop, which turned out to be registered in another province, and so ran out after three gigabytes of usage only. Neither anger nor diplomacy got any result from the shop ladies, so I bought a third stick, which has lasted me till now. Overall, the connection was highly unstable and slow, with or without VPN. As for cafes (or even youth hostels), WIFI quality was a regular source of frustration – it varied from place to place and from day to day, without any clear explanation. Bad internet connection affected my mood and productivity considerably. I run online projects, I have collaborators in Australia: if I can’t get online, I can’t work. As time passed, my patience wore off, and in the last month, I have seen myself give up a few times before midday, after spending long periods of time re-loading pages in between timeouts.

Hardware issues made the matter worse. I bought a MacBook Air in October 2012 – it came highly recommended, and indeed, I found it amazingly practical to use. Then in October 2013, while I was visiting a friend in Tianjin, just before a week of back-to-back meetings in Beijing, my computer crashed: a flashing folder with a question mark appeared on the screen when I tried turning it on. The SanLiTun store delivered harsh news, my flash-drive needed changing – all data was lost. More annoying, they didn’t have a spare part. After much insistence, I got them to order the piece in a Shanghai store, and set up an external boot-disk, so I could use my computer in the mean time. Planning an appointment in Shanghai was another ordeal – their complicated and all-in-Mandarin online appointment system didn’t work, and the phone assistant refused to help. But in the end, I got my computer fixed, and an apology from the manager for the bad experience over the phone. All important data was on dropbox and google docs, and I got over the annoyance.

Then four days ago, as I was browsing the net at a friend’s house, my screen froze. The flashing folder was back. I went to the Shanghai Apple store this morning, and got the same harsh news: my flash-drive died.  They were decent enough to recognise that after three months, this was an embarrassment. ‘SSD drives never break’, said the guy from the Genius Bar. But they didn’t have a spare part for me, so I’ll have to get the thing fixed in Melbourne. Fortunately, I bought a warranty extension in October – so won’t have to pay extra. And fortunately, I did regular back ups on time-machine, so won’t lose much data. But the Shanghai people weren’t able to properly order the piece for me in Australia – though they did say they would try to send an email – which means possibly more back and forth trips to the Apple store in Chadstone.

These IT issues have been a constant drain of energy throughout my stay in China. It’s hard enough to deal with everyday interactions in Mandarin, get used to a new country, make a new set of social contacts, all this while preparing two collaborative international projects and studying the language at an advanced level. Now imagine the same thing with your tech cyclically breaking down, and no reliable service to fix it. I guess Apple was alright, in the context of China. Their phone service is a nightmare, their repair did last for only three months, and they’ve got a short stock of crucial spare parts. More generally, multiple details in attitude and expression, which could be summed up as ‘cultural differences’, added to the sense of frustration. But I did manage to get a temporary boot disk, and the technicians in store were polite, understanding, and helpful to an extent.

More importantly, though these IT issues were a great drain on my usual productivity, they were a great learning lesson on three fronts:

* I learnt to let stuff go. In general, I’m a reliable planner: I give myself a list of things to do, and then I do it all. For the last month, I slowed down, both socially and professionally. There’s emails I may never send, blog posts I’ll never write, New Year’s greetings I’ve missed, articles I will not translate. That’s OK, when I get back to Melbourne, ‘where things work and people smile’, I’ll take stock of my losses, and start afresh.

* The frustration of unreliable tech gave me direct emotional insight into the multiple frustrations that people in China live through every day. It explains the tired faces and the cynical words, both among locals and expats. The frustration extends beyond tech – it’s everywhere in a society where service and infrastructure is unreliable. I’ve come back to my reflections on trust – as I learnt, you can’t even trust an Apple computer to work here, or a repair from a genuine Apple store to last over three months. Gradually, you trust everything and everyone less.

* Finally, my interactions with Apple were a great opportunity to reflect on culturally hybrid spaces, and the particular challenges they pose to globalising economies. At every step, my relationship with technicians and customer service people was distorted through a number of lenses – my attempt at adopting a ‘Chinese’ mode, their attempt at servicing a ‘Westerner’, and our common struggle to fit these cross-cultural efforts within the framework of Apple’s generic service processes.

I came here to learn the language and the culture. These tech issues were very painful, and they did harm projects I was trying to set up from here. But they might have made my learning better – so that ultimately, I’m not unhappy that I had to face them. A four month stay abroad will have highlights and lowlights. And I believe the wisdom of a true cross-cultural learner is to take both of them in. Learning is not always pleasant in the moment it happens. Sometimes, what you learn is even slightly grim. But you’re still that little bit wiser, and better ready to face the future.

My language progress

Ten more days in China: time to review what progress I made in the language – and start thinking of a plan for when I get back to Melbourne. I have made significant progress in four areas: reading speed, phonetic accuracy, endurance, and confidence. These concrete example demonstrate my progress:

* I bought a novel yesterday, and read forty pages between last night and this morning, enjoying the plot, and with minimal gaps in my understanding. Though I still need to use pleco for the meaning of certain words, reading a Chinese text – including a large monograph – is no longer something I consider impossible. I am also able now to read and understand 90% of weixin messages sent to me without using an electronic translator, up from about 40% when I arrived.

* Three different Chinese people have complimented my pronunciation, saying that, in certain instances, I could be mistaken for a local. And I no longer experience problems getting people to understand what I am saying. I do note that my pronunciation becomes blurry under stress or when I get tired – but for a short period at least, I have reached my desired level of fluency.

* About a month ago, I had an in-depth five hour conversation with a Chinese friend on a wide range of topics – social enterprise, the meaning of life, family values, multiple server hosting, language learning. Between Christmas and New Year, I took part in a walk around old Guangzhou with a group of young Chinese people, and was able to lead and follow many conversations, one on one or in a group, while navigating the city, and was energised after this event.

* Yesterday, I made three phone calls in Chinese, including an important one to a writer I want to invite to the Marco Polo Festival. I was able to organise an appointment, explain the core concept of the festival, and get an in principle agreement exclusively over the phone. I still find phone conversations remarkably demanding – the low sound quality and absence of any non-verbal cue make it very difficult to communicate – but I am no longer terrified at the thought of making initial contact in Mandarin through this medium.

The main thing I want to pursue while in Melbourne is read, even read aloud. I also want to find a few Chinese friends who will speak to me primarily in Mandarin. And I need to find a series of podcasts or radio series to follow, so my listening keeps on track. I am also thinking of getting a few sessions with a tutor to brush off remaining mistakes, and make sure my bases are really solid – if you want to support Marco Polo Project, this is a great way to volunteer, and I promise to give you detailed feedback on your pedagogy. Anyone in for that :-)?

Language learning and general intelligence

Teachers and students generally think of language learning as its own intellectual bubble, and linguistic fluency as a somewhat unique (and odd) skill, somewhat like wood-carving or tap dancing. But the capacity to read, write, listen and speak in another language, like the capacity to run, is closely intertwined with a number of other, more fundamental set of intellectual abilities, ranging from basic spatial and numerical competence at beginner level to solid understanding of history, geography and economics for advanced learners.

Here’s a concrete example: in one of my classes at Nanjing University, the teacher gave us an article to read about the Chinese economy. Students, in turn, had to define words like ‘GDP’, ‘investment’, or ‘real estate bubble’. My Chinese is possibly the poorest in the class, but I studied philosophy and worked in government strategy, so could compensate my limited linguistic ability with a good general understanding of the concepts and ideas discussed. Sometimes, I did better than other students who knew many more words, made no grammatical mistakes, and had a perfectly authentic accent. Note that is not just an arbitrary classroom exercise, but what may actually happen in – advanced – conversations where people debate and argue, coming back to the concepts and pulling out threads of meaning to support their view, bring others into their world, or just entertain.

Well conducted language classes may be an opportunity to train ourselves in these rhetorical skills, and particularly, go beyond the labels of media talk and management newspeak: empty strings of words often translate badly. In fact, last year, as part of my cross-cultural training during the Asialink program, we did just that all in English: one of our exercise was to define a complex concept from our field of work – multiculturalism, somatisation, risk management – using exclusively basic semantic blocks. Reformulating ideas as if addressing people with completely different assumptions about the world. And in fact, I did that kind of exercise often in my Greek philosophy classes, when we glossed and paraphrased the use of certain words – aletheia, arche, basileus – to understand what different world views and social structures they referred to.

General intelligence and culture will probably make it easier for you to master a foreign language. Conversely, learning a foreign language may contribute to your general intelligence – and therefore, we could make a case for increased emphasis on cross-linguistic competence as a core skill to be developed in schools, alongside mathematics, and native language literacy. What do you think?

In country learning – on motivation

Has anyone ever told you, with a serious face: ‘If you want to learn a language, I think you need to go to the country, that’s where you’re gonna learn’? And in retort, have you never come across a post on a language learning blog explaining that, with the possibilities of the net, you don’t need to travel to create your own language learning environment? I’ve been living in China for three and a half months now, and my language skills have made tremendous progress as a result, even as I attended classes less and less. I’d like to reflect on this recent experience to provide my insights into the ‘travel or stay home’ debate about language learning.

It is true that, with internet media, skype-tutors and multicultural communities, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment in any major western city. Conversely, the same elements of globalisation mean you can live in China without ever speaking Mandarin, surrounding yourself with expats, hanging out in English-speaking cafes and restaurants, and streaming American movies on your laptop. It is particularly easy when you live in Shanghai or Beijing, where expats are many, and often have a great story to share.

There is no necessary scenario playing itself out, and learning will take efforts. The nature and degree of effort needed, however, may vary. Learning a new language is extraordinarily demanding, at an intellectual level certainly, but in terms of motivation too. Not only do you keep forgetting the words you learn, not only do you find yourself articulating vague statements along the lines of ‘Australia good, bad, China good, bad, same same’, but whenever a parameter changes – noise in the background, someone speaking in a soft voice, or a topic you’re not familiar with – you find yourself unable to perform at the level you thought you’d reached months ago. And often despair strikes in.

Learning Chinese in China can be remarkably painful. The taxi driver will not understand you when you say ‘Nanjing university’. The waiter will not understand that you’re saying ‘black coffee’. That pretty girl or boy that you met will have an impossible accent; or the loud music will bang bang their speech into syllable mash. You will stare at the bus timetable, and not find your stop among the sea of characters. Easily, you will fall into the comfort of expat bubbles, or avoid anything involving speech and movement. But when your energy returns, you just have to step on the road, and you’ve got Chinese all around you. More interactions with your environment will require – and develop – further language skills. And sometimes, Chinese will just barge into your comfort zone, in the form of a loud neighbour, perplexed waiter, or bill to pay.

Learning from home, the opposite will be true: your Chinese bubble will be fragile, and require ongoing care and attention. Sure, you can build a community of Mandarin speakers around you – but if you bring anyone else into the mix, the group language will shift towards English. Sure, you can listen to Chinese radio, but can you do that when your friends are around. And sure, you can read Chinese books and papers and magazines – once you’ve reached a certain level – but who’s around to talk about them – and where do you get them from?

Finally, when you learn in-country, opportunities will increase your appetite for the language, and your desire to learn more. Whether it’s appealing books at the bookstore, business meetings and partnerships, or good-looking locals, you will have a direct sense of how much more you could do if only your language skills were better – and that sense will help you get through the pain and frustrations of learning. While at home, learning that foreign language requires an extra layer of discipline – to reject other more appealing offers, drinks with friends or colleagues, a film with your partner, a short week-end on the coast. And when you’ve spent the cognitive energy to reject these offers, stick to your discipline – how much is left for study?

Living in the country for a while won’t help you learn the language out of necessity – but possibility.

Have you learnt a foreign language at home or by living overseas? What was your experience like – please share it in the comments of this post!

Measuring progress

I’m now past halfway through my China stay. Two months ago, I wrote a study plan based on the gaps in my knowledge. Now is time to take stock and confirm whether I learnt anything, and how I progressed. I am sharing this here hoping it may help other students of language when facing similar situations.

I noted four main points of focus: abstract vocabulary learning, phonetic accuracy, grammatical intuition, and endurance. I will review them one by one.

1) Abstract vocabulary building:

What I did:
• Every day, I wrote twenty words in a notebook. Some of these words were vocabulary learnt in class, but most of them were words I kept looking for when rehearsing a conversation in my head before a particular meeting or on a particular topic.
• Based on this ‘gap-filling’ method, I made a list of about a hundred ‘core abstract characters’ referring to groups and systems, which I then organized, based on semantic research conducted during my PhD.
• Finally, last week, I wrote a list of about 1000 core characters, combining my own intuition and pleco, and grouping by semantic affinity [this was also part of a systematic study of tones – see next point].

What are the results:
• As expected, I noted significant improvement in my capacity to express ideas, relations and situations, both in speaking and writing.
• More interestingly, the systematic work on characters (combined with tone-study) changed my way of reading. I particular, I am beginning to develop an etymological understanding of Chinese, comparable to what I experience in Greek, which is both rhythmic and semantic. I will analyse this in a further blog post.

What comes next:
• Finalize the list of core characters, share it on this blog or the Marco Polo Project blog, and fully memorize it.
• Extend my vocabulary in new semantic areas – in particular, I noted a gap in expressing actions and movements.

2) Phonetic accuracy

What I did:
• I was unable to find a good tutor to train my phonetics, and so resorted to self-diagnosis. For that, I recorded myself singing Chinese with my iphone voice memos. This allowed me to focus on phonetic accuracy without having to monitor tones. I clearly noticed a number of errors, in particular that my consonants were over-articulated, and the overall syllable impetus was unnatural.
• Based on my diagnosis, I made two changes in my pronunciation: I reduced the effort put in consonants (or spoke with softer consonants), which brought immediate positive results. More importantly, I accompanied every syllable with an impulsion from the diaphragm [more on this in a future blog post], which produced dramatic improvements.
• I recorded myself reading out texts, and applied the learning from my singing exercises, to confirm that results were positive (they were). And I tried applying them in live settings.

What are the results
• I developed an insight about the role of the diaphragm in pronouncing tones [I will describe this in a future blog post], and therefore significantly improved my overall intonation pattern, as well as my capacity to hear and produce tones.
• I realized a key gap in my knowledge of character tones, and proceeded to systematically learnt the tones of the core 1000 characters, by listing them two columns, character and pinyin on one side, tone on the other.

What comes next
• Fully memorize the tones of the core 1000 characters – in particular, one exercise is to read all characters seen on the street out loud, and check the right tone at the least doubt. Never ‘guess the tone’ of a character.
• Apply these pronunciation insights to daily practice and conversation – attempting very high level of phonetic accuracy for up to 5 minutes.

3) Grammatical correction in production contexts

What I did:
• I read all articles in a book listing common grammatical mistakes made by foreigners in Chinese, and tried applying some of the structures analysed when speaking or writing Chinese – with a particular focus on expressing time (location, succession and duration).
• In my conversations on WeiXin, I attempted grammatical correctness – chatting allowed me to adopt the casual tone of oral speech, while giving me time to focus on grammatical correction.

What are the results:
• My confidence in producing speech and written text has increased, and I am now able to regularly self-correct mistakes. However, progress on this point has been slower than the previous two, and I have not had any significant insight or cleared a milestone.

What comes next
• Continue WeiXin writing and seek feedback from conversation partners on grammatical accuracy.
• Focus attention on grammatical words in the 1000 character list developed, particularly those expressing time, aspect, causality, relations and point of view, and apply them in production contexts.

4) Endurance

What I did:
• I placed myself in a number of social and professional contexts where only Chinese was spoken, and I was expected to understand and reply without relying on a prepared script, and with no simple escape route.
• In particular, I had a one-hour meeting with a journalist, presented Marco Polo Project at the Shanghai Makers Festival, joined discussions in the Nanjing Hacker Space, took part in a meeting of the 创V innovation salon, and regularly talk with the managers of the BanPoCun café.

What are the results:
• I noted significant improvements on two occasions.
o I had a late night dinner with four Chinese people after the first Marco Polo Project translation event, and was able to follow and take part in a conversation about religion in the spite of tiredness and late hours.
o I had a two hour one-on-one conversation with a Chinese angel investor about a whole range of uncoordinated topics, and left with a feeling of joy and energy.
• I developed greater self-awareness and assertiveness, and insisted on finding quiet spaces for meetings and discussions to be held in Chinese.

What comes next:
• Continue to build endurance through regular exposure.
• Better identify warning signs of linguistic exhaustion, and develop assertive ways of alerting conversation partner(s)
• Develop assertive strategies for reformulation and clarification.

So these are the results I reached after two months in China. I think I’m happy. I’ll check back before leaving, and see where I’ve got by then! Meanwhile – I’ll be posting more here about learning tips, trust, and insights on life in China.