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How to Learn a Language, Part 2

How to Work Hard

From the series Effective Language and Culture Acquisition

There is a beautiful park around a picturesque lake on my Chinese university’s campus. On warm mornings, dozens of students will be seated on the grass, preparing for classes. On my way to class, I can hear many of them reciting English dialogues. They are working hard, but it strikes me as odd. They are diligently learning English, but here I am, a native English speaker, and they don’t even pause to greet me in English. They’re doing homework, but are they learning the language?

Last month, in Part 1, I described four criteria for success in learning a language, namely, aptitude, environment, motivation, and hard work. However, many people fulfill those requirements but still end up in frustration. I suggest that they may be working hard, but not in the right way. So here are suggestions about how to work hard.


First, mimic. Listen to a native speaker’s utterance, then try to reproduce it exactly. Seems easy, but most Chinese learners’ attempts at mimicking sound like “Chinglish,” and most Western learners murder the Mandarin’s Chinese. I believe the biggest reason is because most learners hear an expression, their brains visualize what it looks like on paper, then they “read” the linguistic form from inside their heads. And it sounds like reading, not speaking.

For instance, take the sentence “What do you mean?” Most Chinese learners will “mimic” it as four distinct words. However, native English speakers say it something like “Waddaya mean?” It takes hard work to listen carefully and reproduce it like the native speaker says it.

Develop a Skill

Second, develop a skill. Language learning is different from all other educational endeavors. Learning mathematics, history, chemistry, literature, geography are cognitive processes. The student receives information, memorizes and analyzes it, and demonstrates his acquisition of knowledge on a test. In contrast, language learning includes cognition, but it is primarily a process of developing a skill.

I was 17 when I learned to drive a car. In my head, I already knew how to do it. Start the motor, depress the clutch and put it in first gear, then gradually depress the accelerator while releasing the clutch, etc. I knew all that (cognition), but the first time I sat behind the wheel, I was a nervous wreck. First, I stalled the engine, then I released the clutch too quickly and the car took off like a four-wheeled bronco. My foot found the brake pedal, but I didn’t know how strong the brakes were, and my forehead hit the steering wheel as the car stopped on a dime. Not fun! The next day I took another half-hour lesson. Same result. I persevered with daily half-hour lessons, and a week later things began to get easier. A month later, I took the driving test—and passed! Driving had become automatic. I had the skill!

Language learning is a similar process. Oral language is essentially the communication of ideas, done by physical manipulation of sounds and gestures which are learned by repetition in frequent practice until speech becomes automatic, fluent, skilled.

Be Thick-Skinned

Third, be thick-skinned. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Many learners fear that people will laugh at them if they make pronunciation, syntactic, or cultural errors. Some think they will make fools of themselves if people realize how limited they are in the target language. Better just to shut up and try to look intelligent. “Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; When he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.” (Proverbs 17:28)

But those are false fears. Of course we make mistakes. We even make errors, repeated and often, in using our mother tongue. Incomplete sentences, misused words, hesitations, broken phrases are part of our normal communication. They aren’t signs of idiocy. I believe that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning a language; we learn from our mistakes.

Early in our Mandarin course we learned to count: yi, er, san, si, wu… (1, 2, 3, 4, 5…). We also learned that when quantifying something, we always add a “measure word” after the number, as yige (one [person]), sansuo (three [schools]), wupi (five [horses]). (I hope I haven’t lost you already. It’s not really complicated.) The point is that the numbers remain unchanged in every context, except for the number 2, in which case er (two) changes to liang+measure word when it’s a quantity of two. Thus liangzhang (NOT erzhang) can refer to something like two bus tickets.

We had been in language school about six months when my wife and I wanted to visit some friends one evening. At the bus stop, I asked the ticket seller for erzhang tickets. She said liangzhang? Immediately I knew I had made a mistake. Of course er should change to liang! The ticket seller was just confirming that I wanted two tickets, but that moment is burned on my memory. In the classroom I had learned to change er to liang when referring to a quantity of two, but at that bus stop I really learned it. We learn from our mistakes.

Don't Ask Why

Fourth, don’t ask why, especially at the beginning. Why do they say it that way in Chinese but we say it like this in English? Why do they put measure words after numbers when expressing quantities? Why?

It’s useless to ask those kinds of questions. Either there is no answer to why (that’s just the way they do it) or the answer will become self-evident as you learn more of the language. In the meantime, it is a waste of time for a teacher to answer why because the answer is almost always a grammatical explanation, and that takes time away from learning the language. Remember that grammar describes language, it isn’t the language itself. Grammar will give you a cognitive grasp of the language, but what you need is to develop a language communication skill, and that is done by doing it.

Image credit: English Lake by Katie Putz via Flickr.

Mark Newland

Mark Newland (pseudonym) lived in Taiwan for a decade and since then has lived and worked for extended periods in the People's Republic of China. His PhD is in General Linguistics, reflecting his deep interest in language and culture. He has been involved in a wide variety of pursuits in …View Full Bio

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