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Learning Chinese? You gotta 趁 your 机会s

Going to class and book studying is not enough to learn a living, spoken language. If you’re aiming for ancient Hebrew or Koine Greek then schoolwork is enough because you’re never going to speak it; you just need to read it. But not for Chinese. A living language isn’t just knowledge in your head, it’s a skill you practice and develop — something you do, not just something you know or can recognize on a page.

Of the many valuable things you can do in addition to class and book homework, two that we do just happened this morning, and it makes for a good example:

  1. Build language into your daily routines/environment, and
  2. Recognize and seize the opportunities to practice that come your way.

1. Fill Your Daily Life/Routines with Language

Maximize your exposure to the language by controlling your daily environment as much as you can. Going to class for a couple hours, doing a couple hours of homework, but then shifting mental gears into English for the rest of your day is a recipe for frustration. There are all kinds of ways you can increase your exposure to the language. Which ones are most helpful depends on what stage you’re at in your language progress. Probably the best thing you could do is get Chinese roommates (who wont try to speak English with most of the time). Beginning students often label all the objects in their apartment. Intermediate students will start listening to and learning Chinese pop songs. We found bilingual versions or translations of fun, classic children’s stories. Every night when we put our daughter to bed we have the option of reading in English, attempting to read in Chinese, or both. Anyway, the more creative (or resourceful) you are, the more options you’ll have for building Chinese into the structure of your life, into your daily routines.

2. Recognize & Seize Practice Opportunities

There are more opportunities to practice than people tend to realize. And seizing them doesn’t take too much extra effort. The problem is we often don’t recognize the opportunities that come our way. Or we think we’re in too much of a hurry to bother taking advantage of them. Every time something’s broken, or we have to run an errand, or text a friend, or whatever — anything we do that requires us to use Chinese — is an opportunity.

The default behaviour for most language students is to just rush off to accomplish whatever it is on our long list of tasks for the day, muddling through with whatever language ability we have. After all, we don’t want these daily annoyances to suck up too much study time. But these daily tasks are study time, or rather, practice time — valuable practice time. It’s worth the effort to look up the relevant vocab and grammar before you go do whatever it is you need to do. If you already have enough Chinese to get through whatever it is you need to do, you can still sharpen your vocab and grammar, using more accurate Chinese instead of “just barely enough to make myself understood” Chinese.

Example

There’s a leaky solar water heater that we don’t use on the roof of our six-storey building, but the electric control panel for it is in our bathroom on the first floor. Water is leaking down the electric wires and dripping out from inside the panel. So I started to text the landlord. I knew how to say “leaking water” but couldn’t remember how to say “down the wire.”

So I had a choice. I could write the text anyway and make myself understood by simplifying or talking “around” the meaning. But I remembered that in one of our daughter’s bilingual bedtime story books, Yertle the Turtle king, standing on top of a tall stack of turtles, looks down the stack to see who’s complaining at the bottom. So I chose to go to my daughter’s room, open the book, find the phrase, and import the grammar into my text message — “looked down the stack” became “leaking down the wire.”

When the landlord comes over this afternoon I’ll get to practice the phrase in conversation (or discover it’s the wrong phrase and learn the right one). It’s learning through an interactive real-life experience rather than by looking at a text book. By making the small effort to look up the phrase in the book and attempt a more accurate text message, I’m engaging the language more than I would have otherwise. And no matter whether the phrase is right or it gets corrected in conversation this afternoon, it’s sharpening my language accuracy, too.

So these two non-classroom aspects of language learning work together: because we’d already built language into our daily lives by using bilingual bedtime stories, I was able to seize the opportunity of the leaky water heater to sharpen my vocab and grammar. And for very minimal extra effort. It’s just a mundane little example, but a filling your lifestyle with these makes a difference in language acquisition.

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