Well, it’s been a while!
I’ve been studying Mandarin at National Taiwan University for six months and am now taking a break in formal studies to focus on self-study, work and working on other projects. This seems like a good time to reflect on what I have actually learned in this time.
I should point out that this analysis comes from someone who learns languages as part of their profession. What this means is that my language goals might be different from yours, as well as my ability to meet them!
Reading: Very Good!
For me, reading has always been my biggest strength in any language. Give me a book or a document and I will read it. On the other hand, make me talk to someone in person and watch the social anxiety take over! This works twofold for languages I do not yet feel I am fluent in.
Furious and dogged study of Chinese characters (with the help of an unfortunately-overpriced app, Skritter) together with my prior knowledge of Japanese characters has really helped my reading improve. In 6 months I can gather at least the general gist of most documents in Mandarin. I can also decipher the general sense of even very old documents if I’m given general context in advance.
Writing: Okay – Very Good!
This would just be “Very Good!” as well if it weren’t for time having elapsed since I finished studying! One of the annoying things about Chinese characters is that the moment you stop writing them all the time, the muscle memory starts to atrophy. I can write just fine using a phone or computer. The moment I have to think of the characters off the top of my head, I have to bring out the dictionaries… I’ve encountered similar issues with Japanese despite having studied the language for seven years, so I don’t think this is a time thing so much as just the nature of the characters (apparently it’s a not limited to language learners, either)!
As someone with social anxiety the context of my listening really changes my results. In six months, if I’m sitting in the audience of a concert or watching television, I can follow relatively easily. If someone is addressing me directly, however, it often takes a good thirty minutes or so before I’m comfortable in their company and my brain hops back out of panic mode. This is not very useful when it comes to important business transactions that go beyond the mundane (i.e. shopping for groceries, clothes, night market food, etc.). However, I’m hoping by the time I leave Taiwan in March I’ll have gotten over this hump somewhat.
It takes me a while to warm up to people when I meet them. From six months of study, I am not hesitant to speak Mandarin to strangers so much anymore. On the other hand, I have this sort of bell curve of panic when talking to people. I can get through all initial pleasantries okay, until the inevitable “oh, your Chinese is so good!” compliment. After that I feel the pressure of expectation! I start stuttering, second-guessing myself, and stumbling awkwardly through conversation. Then after maybe half an hour, my body relaxes and my speaking gets better again. I’ve managed some very satisfying conversations with people about politics, culture and life, extending far beyond small talk. I would definitely be in a much better position now if I didn’t hate “language exchange” so much and more actively sought out opportunities to speak instead of waiting for them to come to me. However, that’s probably an idea introvert me will need to do a little soul-searching to make peace with!
When talking about important things such as rent, utilities, visas, etc. I still find myself reverting to English just to make sure that there is no ambiguity. This is not an issue I have in my most proficient language, Japanese, so I assume that this will also pass as I feel more confident in my own abilities.
Pronunciation/Tones: Very Good!
During my six months of study, I focused on my tones to the detriment of my speed in speaking. What this means is while my colleagues have better fluency in the words they speak, I tend to be understood much better than my companions as my tones have good foundation, even though I’m slower. Personally I’d recommend this approach if you’re serious about gaining fluency in Speaking Mandarin, as once recognising and producing the correct tones is second nature to you, the words will come more quickly. My friends can get by in artificial situations such as language exchange and in a classroom setting, but they often complain of not being understood in the real world of Chinese speakers.
So overall, I think I’m going pretty well in six months. Not bad given it has the highest difficulty ranking for native English speakers according to the Foreign Service Institute!
How you progress in any language is going to depend on a variety of factors, but I definitely believe that the most important factor is always going to be enthusiasm and self-reflection. If you know what you want to achieve in a language, you are much better equipped to work towards those goals. Do you have any strategies? Feel free to tell us in the comments!