In country learning

A common trope of language learning advice is that you don’t need in country learning anymore, since you can design your own linguistic environment anywhere. This is both entirely true, and extremely short-sighted.

Indeed, with online news, TV and radio, international communities, and resources like lang8 or skype teachers, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment. But how much effort and willpower does it take to craft and maintain this environment.

I taught myself Chinese, most of it outside China, and passed an HSK 5 last year. I am the living proof that you can self-teach outside China. Yet I am a very strong advocate of in-country learning.

I’ve been in China for just over four months now, skipped about half of my classes at uni, and made more progress than I would ever have in Melbourne. Necessity has a force of its own. I needed Chinese for my everyday life, and I needed Chinese to fix issues at home. More importantly, I needed Chinese to develop a social life – I soon had enough of the local expats, and most of the locals spoke only minimal English. On average, my friends in Shanghai or Beijing don’t speak Chinese as well as those living in second-tier cities. They never properly learnt, because they never had to.

Learning a language is an extremely demanding task, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Suddenly, simple cognitive tasks become significantly harder than they used to be – suddenly, you’re no longer able to perceive or express intellectual subtleties – and you feel exhausted all the time. The temptation to give up is extremely high, no matter what level you’re at. Learning at home is all very well, but by the time you’ve carefully blocked out all English and crafted your Chinese bubble, do you still have the moral strength to stay there and learn, or resist the many temptations of home – the cup of tea, the phonecall, the facebook page, the drinks with friends. That’s not to say you cannot succeed – I managed. But every step requires a double effort – not only learning, but also keeping that artificially constructed second-language environment alive, possibly keeping out friends ad family who will bring you back to your mother tongue. In country, you can just focus on learning, and every step forward is a step towards more social integration.

Language is a social bond, that creates emotional and intellectual communities. And for that reason, I believe the is nothing like in-country learning to build the necessary motivation. For that reason, scholarships sending students in country are extremely valuable – and I am very happy both that I was able to receive one, and that our government was enlightened enough to set them up in the first place.

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.