Errors in learning a foreign language, 2 years in

April 2021

Mandarin Chinese is the first foreign language I’m learning by myself, and I’m surprised there are so few universal best practices. Resources with hacks and tricks(like http://hackingchinese.com for Chinese) are a great starting point, but they still leave room for delusions.

Here are some of mine.

You have to master the language before using it

When travelling in China in 2019, I didn’t talk to people as much as I wanted1, because I was afraid to “fail” a dialogue, making people uncomfortable. But in my experience, nobody cares if you don’t speak perfectly. More than that, if you’re positive and respectful, then even a dialogue where both sides fail to understand each other is often mutually amusing. Still, I have to suppress the fear of fucking up when talking to strangers in Chinese. Those who can suppress that fear, have a crawling, mumbling baby advantage of failing fast and learning faster.

You better finish your textbooks2

School taught me that to learn a foreign language you pick a textbook and stick with it. Using one textbook series for years is convenient for mass education, but rarely the best approach. Why? Pareto principle says that only a small fraction of a textbook will give you the most value, and the rest - very little. So you better identify and understand the important parts, then move on.

I think if I’m trying to finish a textbook, I’m afraid to miss a crucial concept. But if something is really important, you’re gonna see it again and again. Also, as completing textbook chapters gives a feeling of progress, it’s easy to forget that learning a language is the goal. If a textbook doesn’t move you closer to that goal, drop it and search for a better one.

The harder the text, the more you learn

From the start, I was anxious to stop reading adapted “his apple is green” stories and dive into real media. Early on I tried reading teen comics multiple times, expecting to read slowly and have fun doing it. Turns out the experience of looking up every character and still not understanding the sentence is miserable. More than that, it’s not efficient for learning, as you’re gonna read little this way. To learn a lot from reading, you need to read a lot, and for that you have to understand at least the gist of what you are looking at.

People(including you) are happy to sacrifice convenience for your study

While living with a Chinese girl, I expected to effortlessly learn new phrases every day. To my surprise, while practicing existing knowledge is easy, learning new stuff through dialogue is not.

My expectations were based on dialogues with natives who speak only their native language. Talking with them, you constantly hit the limits of your knowledge, which forces you to make something up on the spot and see if people understand you. You get immediate feedback that improves your knowledge.

But when a native speaker also knows a language you both speak easily(like English), it doesn’t work that well. At the same limits of your knowledge, now there is always a temptation for the speaker and the listener to switch to the easy language. You can agree to not use other languages, but that never becomes the automatic process I imagined.

  1. shoutout to a little girl making faces to me in a Huangshan restaurant, alas, five imaginary dialogues with you never happened 

  2. same for language learning apps, courses, youtube channels, etc 

Thanks to Simone for reading drafts of this.
Time logged: 24h 8m
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