How is it like to learn a second language as an adult is a question I encounter with on a daily basis when teaching my students Chinese. I started learning Chinese when I was 20, but before that I already had experience in learning a foreign language. I started English at 9 years old, German at 11 and Swedish when I was 13. But how is it like for adults who start their very first foreign language and it happens to be Chinese?
First an article on Hacking Chinese came to my mind: You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old. Olle reminds as that even though it’s easier for children to master the pronunciation of a new language , we adults are much smarter and thus are much better at learning. What we should learn from kids though is that they don’t give up and they aren’t afraid to make mistakes.
We adults often expect results way too quickly and get frustrated when we don’t learn a new skill right away. Remember that learning anything new takes time and effort, so does Chinese, and don’t be afraid to make lots of mistakes along the way.
Speaking of confidence, a blog post from Sinoplice, Confidence and Tones, reminds us how important it is to be confident in your studies. The perfect balance is with having the correct information (knowing the correct pronunciation) and being confident enough to open your mouth and say those words out loud. Children aren’t afraid to speak up so we should definitely learn from them!
I didn’t learn the Chinese pronunciation well when I started. Our teacher just made us listen and repeat after a CD recoding for hours and hours, without explaining why we were learning this way. She didn’t explain where and how all these new sounds should be pronounced in our mouths. She didn’t correct our tones enough and let us get away with bad pronunciation.
When I came to China I noticed that it could take me 5 minutes to try to order yì bēi shŭi one glass of water just because my pronunciation was so terrible. During the years I’ve noticed plenty of foreigners complaining how the Chinese don’t understand their Chinese, I felt the same way at first. But then I realized that it’s my fault, my pronunciation just wasn’t good enough to allow the listener to easily understand me.
Learning Chinese pronunciation is tricky, it takes lots of time and effort, but the good news are, that after you master it (or become good enough), learning Chinese becomes much easier. At first it may seem like that you never learn those difficult initials like j, q, x or zh, ch, sh, but that’s not true. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, study hard and you will notice how native speakers start to understand you.
It may take a while to get that first feeling of accomplishment, but trust me, it feels great! One day you realize the taxi drive understood where you were going, the waitress got your order right and you just said your very first spontaneous Chinese sentence without translating it first in your head.
John from Sinoplice describes learning Chinese in 5 stages, starting from “Ching-chong-ching”. At this first stage Chinese seems something completely alien to you. How could these sounds be learned? And how is it even possible to recognize the different tones, do they even matter? After learning Chinese for a while, with a good teacher, a learner will gradually realize that Chinese is a language just like any other language (Stage 2). You start to understand that for the Chinese the difference between mā with a first tone and mà with a fourth tone is as big as the difference between A and B letters is for us.
I wish that my students don’t make the same mistakes as I did and think the tones or correct pronunciation doesn’t matter. Yes, Chinese will understand you Xièxie (thank you) and fāpiào (incoive) no matter how poorly you utter them, just because these are the two words they are used to hearing from a foreigner’s mouth. But try something else and you find yourself having communication trouble.
We also have difficulties with non-native speakers of our own languages if their pronunciation is way off, it’s the same with Chinese. English and Chinese just happen to be quite different languages so it takes a bit more effort to nail the pronunciation. So let’s make it easier for us and for the listener and learn those new sounds. Just like a kid, don’t be afraid to make mistakes!
Now after learning Chinese for 6+ years I finally understand how valuable it is to listen to the advice or advanced learners like Olle from Hacking Chinese and John from Sinoplice. They have gone through the journey, made the mistakes and are sharing their wisdom on how to avoid those mistakes our selves.
As a final word for this not so coherent blog post, I would like to say that don’t give up. No matter how hard it might seem in the beginning, you can learn to speak Chinese. No matter if it’s your first or fifth foreign language, you are never too old to learn new things. Advance on your own speed, but take an advantage of the tips of other learners.
Good luck! Study hard!