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How I learnt to speak some Chinese (Mandarin)

I quit my job earlier this year, packed my bags and went off to China to learn Chinese! Here is how I decided, learnt and achieved my goal.


In July 2019, I decided to quit my job. On the surface it seemed like an extremely difficult decision to take because I knew that it would impact the organisation and the great people within it (even if only very little). Quitting my job would ensure a loss of status, loss of a guaranteed monthly income and loss of work that I found meaningful and at times challenging.


Beneath that surface I had a yearning to learn something new, something that could connect me to my heritage and something that did not look like my everyday. I wanted to learn Chinese (Mandarin) so that I could indulge more in the Chinese side of my family and more importantly, my grandmother. She had 8 children and because of her 24 more people exist (my cousins) so why wouldn’t I want to learn about her? Also, Mandarin is the 2nd most in-demand language to learn.


How I made the decision

I looked at my everyday life and measured “contentment” with work, relationship, friends, health and family (yes, in that order and this was part of the need to change). What I noticed was that family and learning had the lowest scores on my scale. Whilst I had the opportunity to learn new things everyday, I was longing for a new skill or a new badge outside of my industry. I was longing to see my family more and connect with my Chineseness because I am so British it actually sometimes hurts (pints and English breakfasts).


I stayed up all night tossing and turning the day before handing in my resignation having turned my decision into a goal: Become conversant in Mandarin in 3 months! I added another: make as many connections in China as possible! I was as excited but nervous about this decision and in all honesty, it wasn’t a conversation I wanted to have with my boss!


So that was it, I applied to Keats Mandarin School in Kunming China for a 5 week intensive programme (1-2-1 for 4 hours everyday), got my visa and booked my flights. On the 8th of September I was off!


How I learnt Chinese

Before getting to China I set a goal to learn 200 words from the HSK vocabulary lists which gave me a lead in time of about one month. At first I started writing it down in my notebook but when I was out without my notebook, I couldn't access it. I also kept losing my notebooks. Then I downloaded Chinese Skill, a panda-character app, to help me stay connected to my vocabulary goal. I decided to learn just the words in pinyin (romanised Chinese) without too much emphasis on the tone. Since then I’ve received a lot of criticism lol.

I did manage to learn the words - if you said it in Chinese, I could tell you it in English and then later in the month was able to say the word in Chinese if you asked it in English. I used a memory palace to do this initially but it took me longer to build the palace than it did to put words inside of it!!! More about memory palaces later.


I was fairly happy with my progress but hated the sound of my Chinese (not even having a teacher to tell me it was off, I just knew it). I wanted to get there quickly so I also started dumping words that I didn’t think would serve me in a conversation with my grandma, like “yinhang/bank”. This was definitely not my greatest decision either because I had to live functionally in China for two months.


I took an assessment on my first day and was scored at HSK level 2 moving into HSK Level 3 (conversational only because I decided not to learn characters just yet!!). HSK is the standardized test for Mandarin. Both my teachers and I were surprised about this given that I only had one month of pre-learning. The truth be told I mostly learnt on my own through vocab acquisition, sentence mining, watching Chinese movies and listening to Chinese songs. I used my 121 classes for conversation and to practice my new words and sentences. Getting messy, I needed a place to track all my words and sentences, a place to test myself, so I scavenged around the internet for “best free quiz card app”. I found Anki!!! I won’t use any other provider just yet although Pleco is pretty good too. Anki uses spaced repetition and you can fine tune how many days you want new words/sentences to be spaced apart, especially if you keep getting them wrong (ahem). I refused to learn grammar. Instead I opted to learn proper sentence structures and questions through memorising sentences and questions. This allowed me to note patterns in the language naturally much like children do - no one ever taught me the “past present continuous” at school yet I use it everyday.


How I stayed motivated

Chinese feedback can be very direct. It is a tonal language and I was apparently monotonous. I had two teachers and their feedback style varied but both were still direct. “Your tone has a problem” or “This is a level 1 word, how come you still don’t know it”? In week two, I had a mini listening assessment and I really struggled to make sense of what was being said. I felt my heart sink and I questioned my own learning approach and I questioned my commitment. This lasted for exactly 4 hours until I made a brand new action plan and congratulated my own self for what I’d achieved so far which was that I could hold a basic conversation with locals about food!).


The new plan:


1. Make an Excel spreadsheet listing all the words and sentences I know, exported from Anki.

2. Mark the rating out of 3 - 1=mastered 2=need to learn/kind of know and 3=no idea.

3. Go through all of the DU CHINESE elementary course content again (listening only)

4. Send my current word and sentence lists to my teacher so she could form lesson plans based on my target language. I reasoned with myself that it was unfair of me to hate my performance when I was being tested on content I hadn’t learnt.


I spent the weekend executing this plan and on that Monday, I had so much confidence in my class that I was trying to say words I’d never learnt! (Poor Teacher Dou). Week 3 saw a spike in my language use. I wasn’t so nervous to go out and ask how much this cost or where I could buy that or that I didn’t eat meat or comparing table manners between China and the UK! I was happy and I engineered that myself! If the reader knows me, they’ll be confused that I was nervous to speak to people. I love connecting with people yet the language barrier scared the hell out of me! Actually, this has given me much more empathy for my foreign friends in London who sit in a pub and have to listen to a range of accents and colloquialisms (I had to spell check this and I used to teach English).


Bottom line: count every good thing that you do even if it is tiny and keep track of your goals. Also, you can still connect with people without knowing their language - smiles and Google Translate go along way!


How did it go for me?

I spent the remaining 3 weeks at the Guangzhou Canton Fair and exploring Beijing. I was able to have basic conversations with people, go to dinner with suppliers, buy stuff, ask for advice and of course, ask for directions (not understanding the reply mostly but I struggle with that in English too).


I ended up in Malaysia to test out my Mandarin skills on my grandma who is hard of hearing and speaks a Malaysian version of it. The real test was going to be with my very critical but best speaking Mandarin family member, my youngest aunt. So I turn up and immediately she begins speaking to me in Mandarin, quickly, not even adjusting her pace. Somehow, I managed!!! I have to repeat a few times and ask her to repeat a few times but I managed. I felt good but I also felt pressured to perform in a way I didn’t when I was in China - family does that to you sometimes. My grandma struggled to understand me at first but once I started shouting and slurring my Mandarin, I became comprehensible. Happy to say that I achieved my goal but have a lot more to do to before I can say I speak Chinese.


So, what are the next steps?

To continue the learning, I need to find some Chinese speaking friends in London, continue to mine sentences, acquire vocabulary and track my learning. Even though I won’t have the luxury of time that I did in Kunming, I know I’ll have to practice the language daily, which is why I’ve got a daily 30 minute Skype call with a friend I made in Guangzhou.


Bottom line: keep goals in mind and let people help you learn through conversation!


Want to learn a language and discover more about Chinese? Register for crowdFixr’s 6 week Conversational Chinese (Mandarin) taught in a warmly lit cafe in London.



#learnlanguages #chinese #setgoals #crowdfixr

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