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.

Learning speed

Nanjing University has one very smart policy: they let students try out various levels and change classes in the first two weeks of term. The teachers in Gao Shang were abominable, so I shifted up a level to Gao Xia, or ‘upper advanced’. The class was harder, and quite overcrowded, but at least our teachers explained what would happen in the class and what the structure of each unit was. I thought it could work.


But then this happened: I missed a class on the Monday of the second week, and came back the following day, unprepared. The full class was spent going through the details of two paragraphs we were supposed to prepare. Had I done my homework, this would have been the most boring class – and indeed, all students were remarkably passive. As it was, it wasn’t thrilling at all. I started wondering, should I multitask and bring some writing to class, or could actually I skip en masse. But then I thought: I didn’t come all the way to Nanjing to skip classes or multitask. My Chinese is not that good yet. Surely, there must be some way for me to learn something here.

There’s a level above Gao Xia yet, called the Wenhua Ban, or ‘culture class’. I heard it was impossibly fast and stressful, with ruthless teachers just pacing on. I still thought I should give it a try, since I started to plan quitting options anyway… And the class was amazing. I enrolled on the spot.

The main difference between the Wenhua Ban classes and the Gao Xia classes is not so much the level – both have difficult material with relatively rare words, and activities require quite precise understanding and a capacity to put together an option – but the speed. In Gao Xia, the teacher explains all components, whole periods are devoted to close-reading a paragraph or a set of new words, with long feedback loops between students and teachers. In Wenhua Ban the focus is on contents, and you’re expected to follow. No word by word explanation of each sentence here, few Sheng Cis – all this is homework if you need it. And no waiting for someone to volunteer an answer, you’re put on the spot, and the teacher will expect a quick reply.

I believe in speed. When you’re biking surfing or skating, speed is key to balance. Slow down too much, and you’re sure to fall. The same I believe applies to learning: go fast and you may skip a few points, but you’re getting there, and enjoying the journey, pushed ahead by some natural impetus. Our advanced class teacher understands that, even encourages us to guess if we don’t know the meaning of a word, or be comfortable with blurry knowledge, if the time is too short. Lower levels at Nanjing University force you to dismount and push your bike at the smallest obstacle. It’s definitely painful, and I’m not sure it works. So why is it happening?

Teaching a system – on Chinese vocabulary learning

My first class at Nanjing University was a disaster.

Chinese classes are organised by level, based on an assessment of students’ competence at the beginning of term. I took the test and was placed in a ‘gao shang’ class – or early advanced. I saw this placement as a quiet achievement – after all, I studied the language on my own and at achieved quite a bit in parallel. And I was excited to start: I would meet other Chinese learners from around the world, I would finally get some proper guidance in my learning, and I would gain motivation from the classroom setting to cement all the Chinese I wasn’t sure I knew.

That’s not what happened. Our class began with a long presentation of rules and assessment criteria. Then we all introduced ourselves in turn. Seven girls from Korea enjoyed reading and music but couldn’t sing. Two Germans were looking forward to their classes. A Japanese guy really liked alcohol. And then we started looking at p.9 of the book, ‘Shengci’.

‘Shengci’ – ‘new words’ – became an immediate nightmare. This was our very first class. We knew what our assessment criteria would be – participation in class, exams, and regular dictation tests – but nothing had been said about actual learning goals, or the topics we would address, or what the book structure was. No, the first step was on p.9, looking at word after word: ‘sweet snacks’, ‘invite someone over’, ‘resist’, ‘temptation’. The teacher painfully wrote them on the blackboard and started with number one. Followed thirty minutes of pure detail.

I realise I was lucky with my education. This was surely the worst hour of teaching I attended since middle school. I felt intense depression. I’d been told I shouldn’t expect too much of the teachers, but I wasn’t thinking that bad. Was that their idea of language learning? A pile of unconnected and arbitrary details to memorize, then regurgitate in dictation tests,? I was at least able to put a name on my plight. I’m a super-intuitive learner, I need the full picture, I cannot get the parts if I don’t have a sense of the whole.

I may not have the most common intellectual profile internationally, and maybe China doesn’t value this type of mind much. But still, I think there’s a double problem with the way this class was conducted. The first is the lack of order and priority:  we’re given a list of ShengCis based on an arbitrary text, and expected to memorise all of them – though clearly some are important, others accessory. More importantly, the structure of the class does not encourage or help us integrate these new words into the linguistic system we’ve all developed already.

Language forms a system of interconnected parts, and linguistic progress happens when parts of that system become more precise – when the learner is able to know when a certain grammar structure is appropriate, better distinguishes two sounds, or develops alternative ways to say ‘good’. At least, this has always been my teaching philosophy: my students are not empty vessels to fill with knowledge. They come with an existing system in their head, and my goal is to clarify, expand and improve what is already there. That is why I believe that piecemal ShengCi learning is a complete waste of time. And this teacher I got in Gao Shang should seriously retrain.

Learning goals

Five days into my Chinese classes, I identified and articulated my learning goals. From then on, I knew what I should focus on, and I was ready to go. So for the coming four months, this is what I’m planning to do, learning-wise

1)   Abstract vocabulary building (reading, listening, writing, speaking)

Develop solid and intuitive understanding of about 400/500 root characters and their combinations used to express abstract relations (structures, groups, connections) and cognitive phenomena (feelings, ideas, judgements).

2)   Grammatical correction in production contexts (speaking, writing).

Word order and connecting words/prepositions are correct and idiomatic in over 90% of sentences produced. In particular, expressions of time and aspect are correct and intuitive (use of 了,过,起来,得及,继续,将来,等等).

3)   Phonetic accuracy (speaking, listening, reading aloud)

In optimal environments (quiet place, stressless interaction, high energy levels), correct articulation of all Chinese consonants and vowels, capacity to recognize and realise all four tones and tone combinations, correct attack and positioning of syllable stress.

4)   Endurance (speaking, listening)

Capacity to carry on a conversation in sub-optimal environments (noisy setting, complex relationship, low energy) for up to 30 minutes, or interact in an optimal environment for up to 4 hours without significant drop of quality.


This list is possibly the most important thing I’ve done this term. Every day, I can reflect on my language practice, and how it fitted into one or more of these four areas. Once in a while, I can revisit the list, and check if I’m progressing well, or if some new, more advanced shortcoming has emerged. Whether I read a book, write a piece of homework, talk to someone in a bar, or listen to the radio, the list is guiding my attention, helping me make sure I address what I need at this stage of my language learning journey.

Making up the list was neither quick nor easy. Years of language tutoring have developed an ear for linguistic shortcomings and a capacity to propose practical next steps. I’m not sure all language learners have the skills necessary to clearly define what their needs are, and what’s quite OK. Yet none of our teachers have encouraged us – let alone assisted us – in developing such a personalised learning program. Teachers didn’t even encourage us much to work outside classes, or provide any guidance on how to do so, beside preparing class material and writing essays on topics they provide.

And yet – as I wrote previously – the needs of advanced learners are extremely diverse. For international students especially, who came in country to gain confidence and fluency, this failure to guide personalised learning goals is a remarkable absence. If Nanjing University gives a feedback form at the end of term, this would be my clearest criticism. I wonder where this absence comes from though. Teachers unskilled in personalised assessment? A learning culture of doing as you’re told? Or fear from the university body that such focus on learner-based activities and progress will undermine the very concept of institutionalised learning, and make it obsolete.

Good students, heritage speakers and adventurers: a typology of advanced Mandarin learners

I’ve been learning Chinese for about five years now, and I’ve become reasonably fluent in the language. But I walked along an atypical path: I studied by myself or with language partners for most of the journey – never followed a curriculum, never had recurring mistakes identified and corrected. I’m not alone though. The path leading to Chinese fluency – or indeed, fluency in any language – varies greatly from one advanced learner to another, and at some stages at least, most advanced learners have studied or practiced outside institutions.

Nanjing University runs a placement test for all its international students, but then has the great intelligence to let people switch around classes for two weeks until they find an appropriate one. My early days were focused on choosing the right level and teaching style – and part of the process involved observing other students, to see where I fitted. This is how I developed a typology for Chinese learners in advanced classes – building on my previous discussions with fellow sinophiles.

The first is the good student: European-American or East Asian, she majors in Chinese at university, or studied through school and still takes a formal language classes. She’s got an extensive knowledge of characters and a wide vocabulary, she can write characters by hand, knows about chengyus, and often read classic texts. But she’s young, and brings a ‘student attitude’ to class – passive expectations and exam stress. And if her Mandarin skills are high, especially reading and writing, she may not have spent a lot of time interacting with Chinese people, and therefore lacks confidence when speaking or expressing an opinion.

Heritage speakers form a second group. They speak Hokkien, Cantonese, or some other dialect at home – even Mandarin sometimes. They identify as Chinese, like Chinese pop culture and practice the language watching films or singing KTV. Most of them attended Sunday Chinese school in their childhood, and picked up some extra skills on trips to their families. They can understand almost everything, and speak semi-fluently, sometimes with a strong accent. But they struggle with characters, if they can read them at all. The tech-savvy ones you recognise easily: they spend half the class bent over their phone or ipad, using pleco to convert hanzis into pinyin and vice-versa.

The final group is made up of ‘adventurers’: these people came to China with little or no language skills, on a scholarship, international internship, or just on a whim. There they met people, got a job, fell in love – and along the way, they picked up some language skills. Or they have Chinese friends at home, even a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend, and learnt a number of characters on the go. They can speak and listen reasonably well, though tones are probably quite messy. Some can read, even quite well; few can hand-write. They bring high levels of self-motivation and confidence, but make numerous mistakes, and have multiple holes to fill, including basic structures.

These three groups have different learning needs and learning styles; yet they come together in advanced classes, where teachers don’t make much effort – if any – to specifically develop activities targeting the strengths and weaknesses of each group. I say – what a wasted opportunity. So I would like to start thinking of ways that differentiated learning could increase the results of advanced learner classes, and find ways for students in each of these groups to best improve their own language skills, and help other students by reflecting on their Mandarin journey.

Any tips or suggestion – please write a note in the comment section!

Learning Chinese in China – announcing a series

Since early September, I’ve been enrolled in Chinese language and culture classes at Nanjing University, thanks to the Victorian Government’s Hamer scholarship. The humid heat of the Yangtse region, the qualms of cross-cultural adaptation, and a thorough water-pipe upgrade in my neighbourhood left me too tired to write for a while, but sweet autumn has arrived, the pipes are laid, and I’ve made friends with my local environment. I’m ready now to share some of my September experiences in a series of blog posts – so watch this page for more.