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Reflections on a US-based Chinese Language Journey (2)


In my first post, I talked about the early days of my language learning journey and how I came to understand the nature of the challenge. In this post, I will introduce a strategy that has worked for me.

STRATEGY: PLANNING THE JOURNEY

On my journey I came to realize that my key to a successful strategy was found not in the details of methods, grammar, or vocabulary but in the answer to one simple question: How do I maximize contact time with the language?  Focusing on that one question resulted in a subtle change to my mental framework, from thinking in terms of language learning to thinking in terms of language acquisition or absorption. That one question introduced joy into the process as it became a process of experiencing life, rather than an academic subject.  

Along the way I discovered that this approach to a language acquisition strategy was actually grounded in theory, in the work of Stephen Krashen, with whom most people in the field are familiar. 

According to Krashen’s theories:

  • Language acquisition does not require extensive use of conscious grammatical rules and does not require tedious drill.
  • Acquisition requires meaningful interaction with the target language – natural communication – in which speakers are concerned not with the form of their utterances but with the messages they are conveying and understanding.
  • “Comprehensible input” is the crucial and necessary ingredient for the acquisition of language.
  • The best methods are therefore those that supply  “comprehensible input” in low anxiety situations, containing messages that students really want to hear. These methods do not force early production in the second language but allow students to produce when they are  ‘ready,’ recognizing that improvement comes from supplying communicative and comprehensible input, and not from forcing and correcting production.
  • In the real world, conversations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful. 

Krashen’s body of work encompasses only one aspect of the multi-faceted language challenge,  but became a cornerstone of my strategic approach. (You can find a fuller summary of his theory here.)

LANGUAGE ACQUISITION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

About ten years ago I started focusing on the ‘comprehensible input’ aspect of Krashen’s theory: I began watching Chinese TV programs on YouTube. I didn’t just do this on occasion; I have watched perhaps two to three thousand hours of Chinese television, in the form of a hundred drama series. 

Early on I discovered a very useful trick: by slowing down the speed of the video, I could understand almost everything. YouTube itself provides the ability to watch at 50% or 75% playback speed. I discovered other plugins that allow for finer speed gradients in 10% increments. I began watching at 60% speed, and slowly increased to 80%. I still avoid listening at full speed because of the continuous flow of new words and phrases, the result of each screenwriter’s unique voice and methods of expression.  

The great thing about Chinese is that, because of the wide use of dialects in China, almost all programs are subtitled in Chinese characters, the great unifying factor in the Chinese language. I started with both Chinese and English subtitles (when available), but quickly realized that reading English subtitles reinforces a “translation” mindset of “this Chinese word means that English word,” rather than a “native language” mindset. Instead of trying to learn grammar, I trusted that my brain would eventually build the neural pathways to know intuitively the correct way to say things. In the process I discovered that approximately six months after I struggle to understand something, all of a sudden it seems natural. 

The advantages of this strategy of focusing on language acquisition were significant. I was able to learn to pronounce characters in real time. I was able to understand language in context, whether in a business meeting, on a sports field, in a restaurant, or in a home setting. I began to pick up cultural nuances, which although distorted through the dramatic license inevitable in drama series, are still rooted in basic daily realities.  

I have watched programs actively. I have listened to programs passively. I have made use of all possible opportunities to engage. In short, the digital age has allowed me to learn how to absorb the language remotely, instead of studying the language. In the process have absorbed many cultural norms as well. 

BUILDING A FOUNDATION FIRST

As everyone knows, written Chinese represents a language barrier greater than the Great Wall of China: it is ideographic rather than alphabetic. This barrier is two-fold:  1) Chinese characters do not provide a built-in pronunciation guide (although there are pronunciation “clues”; and 2) It is a “sound-poor” language with a limited number of phonemes, with each tied to multiple characters/meanings.

As a result, the relationship between the written and spoken language is unlike our western alphabetic languages.   Consequently, the initial language learning steps are important: mastering pronunciation, tones, while being able to read the “students list” of characters as well. 

In overcoming the written barrier to Chinese language, the digital age has yet again changed the world. Apart from using language textbooks that cover basic topics, or perhaps more advanced topics like business terms, the best way to learn characters quickly is through either a “pop-up” app, or a digital interlinear text that includes both characters and pinyin.

My personal choice is a digital Chinese Bible with Pinyin. After reading through the Old Testament there are few characters that remain unfamiliar. Just recently I pulled the Chinese version of The Startup Owner’s Manual off of my bookshelf, and started reading; no dictionary in sight.

FINALLY

Is my strategy perfect? Of course not. I barely passed the HSK Level 5 exam. Because I learned to recognize characters in context, rather than through the more traditional stroke-by-stroke character memorization method, I stumble when seeing characters in isolation, such as on signage. 

However, given that time is the most precious and limiting factor in language acquisition, I believe focusing on an approach that allows me to spend the most time in comprehensible contact with the Chinese language, in the most natural contexts possible, has allowed an older man living in the US for the past 25 years to be further ahead in functional language capabilities than I could have imagined.

Danke Ahn

Danke Ahn (pseudonym) served in Taiwan and Singapore in a variety of management and finance positions. He is a life-long learner who now makes his home in the Denver area.View Full Bio


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