Learning Mandarin: Speaking and Listening
We mentioned above that there are four language skills to develop when learning a new language: reading, writing, speaking and listening. In this section and the next, we will discuss the best approaches for learning these skill sets. Here, we will look specifically at speaking and listening.
“Splitting” your brain open
Robert Stockwell, a linguist at the University of California (Los Angeles), wrote that between any two languages there are six primary differences. While we will not discuss all six here, there is one which you should be familiar with prior to embarking on your journey to learn Mandarin.
Robert Stockwell defined the “split” difference as the process the brain goes through when learning to hear new sounds, and the mouth to produce new sounds. During this process, your brain is “splitting”, or learning to differentiate between similar sounds. Linguistically, after a certain age our brains stop learning to hear new sounds. Patricia Kuhl, when giving a talk at the 2011 TED convention, spoke further about this concept, citing studies suggesting that our brains stop learning to differentiate between sounds as early as seven to nine months after birth.
So, how does this apply to you? Essentially, this means that it will take time, practice, attention, and a lot of exposure to the new sounds in Mandarin before your brain learns to hear a new sound. Most learners new to Mandarin cannot differentiate between the different tones right from the start, and it takes time for new leaners to be able to correctly identify which tone they are hearing. This, however, is not impossible, it just takes time and, most importantly, practice.
It’s the tones, stupid
Once you have a good grasp on pinyin, you will want to start focusing on getting the tones right. Mastery of pinyin is worthless if you cannot master the tones, and vice versa. In order to speak standard Mandarin, you need to invest as much time into learning the correct tones that go with each word as you would the pinyin.
In short, when you learn a new word, learn the correct tone. Do not move on until you know the tone. As you are learning new words, it may help to move your hand or finger in the air (as if you were sketching or doing a math problem). This type of kinesthetic approach to learning is likely to help you develop better pronunciation habits at the outset.
The old adage that “practice makes perfect” should be changed to “perfect practice makes perfect”. If you practice a new skill incorrectly, you will never be perfect. You have to practice perfect technique in order to achieve perfection. As such, when you are practicing speaking, make sure you are paying attention to pronouncing words carefully and with the correct tone. Even though you may speak slowly to start, with time you will eventually be able to speak just as fast, and just as clearly (perhaps even better!) than natives.
Acquire a taste for humble pie
It is said that if someone is told they should run for president three times, they will start to believe it. A mainstay of Chinese culture is showering others with praise, whether or not they deserve it. Teachers are always told by their students and students’ parents that they are excellent teachers. Doctors are praised for having a fantastic knowledge of their specialty. Even cab drivers are praised on their knowledge of city streets and knowing the fastest routes. In China, Chinese will find some reason to praise someone else, even if they are not sincere.
As such, regardless of how horrible your Chinese is, you are going to be praised and told that it is fantastic. It would be a good idea to completely disregard this praise. The last thing you want to do is become complacent with your studies, as the more complacent you become, the more likely you are to stop studying and striving towards perfection. If you want a completely unbiased opinion on how good (or bad) your Chinese is, do not ask a Chinese person. Chinese-forums.com (linked to above) has several “rate my Chinese” posts where you can attach a recording. You will get honest feedback there.
Also, do not be surprised if you hear others laughing as they repeat what you have just said. You are going to be mocked… a lot. As you practice you will pronounce things incorrectly. Making mistakes is part of the learning process. For some reason, the Chinese get a kick out of repeating pronunciation errors made by language learners.
No one will understand you in the beginning
Unless you have prior language learning experience, or have a natural gift for picking up Chinese, it is very likely no one except your teacher will understand anything that comes out of your mouth for the first month or so. Be prepared to be confronted with blank stares, hand gestures, shrugged shoulders, or people responding to your inquiries in English while you learn to grasp pinyin and tones. Nothing in life comes easy, and being understood in Chinese is no exception.
Making mistakes is an inevitable aspect of learning any new skill or language. You are going to make mistakes, and a lot of them.
However, you should welcome the mistakes you do make, as they are a testament to the learning process. When you make a mistake, you learn through trial and error how to do something correctly. Do not be afraid to make mistakes!
Learn to think in Mandarin
As English and Mandarin are two radically different languages, both rooted in very different cultures, expressing one’s self is not just about saying what you want in Mandarin, but saying it in a way that the Chinese themselves would say it. In other words, part of learning to speak Mandarin should also be learning to think like a Chinese person would. There is no one textbook on the market that will teach you how to think like a Chinese. This is something you will only learn from experience and practice.
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