The success story series continues. I don’t know about you guys, but these stories are really inspiring me. They really get me going. You may or may not find this hard to believe, but I sometimes doubt myself. I wonder whether the whole Japanese thing wasn’t just a random fluke. Yeah, crazy, huh? I guess it’s a natural consequence of having a somewhat slightly open mind and being exposed to people with differing opinions. Still, between these success stories, and other successful learners I run into every so often, there’s a lot to confirm what you see here. Dang, I need to go brush my teeth. While I’m doing that, you read Ivan the Terrible‘s (still en route) success story.
Ask, and you shall receive!
A (partial) success story, 為了提高別人的士氣! Though as applied to Mandarin rather than Japanese.
I’ve been studying Mandarin for a long time. Well…’studying’ belongs in parentheses, I think. Huge amounts of time were lost due to procrastination, poor study methods, and simple disinterest. I started my language study the way a lot of people do: listen to language tapes or podcasts a half hour or an hour a day, practice writing a few characters every now and then, then set the language aside until tomorrow while I go off to play an English language game or watch an English language movie. ‘Language learning as daily chore’ about sums it up, and the result was I treated it precisely like I treat most chores: put it off as long as possible and feel relief when it’s finally out of the way. A missed day wasn’t a rarity at all, and by the time I finished the third and final set of Pimsleur Mandarin CDs my Mandarin was still awful.
So I devoted more time. I bumped up the number of ChinesePod podcasts I listened to a day. I set aside two hours every night to studying characters (Heisig-less character study, which meant I found myself studying the same characters again more than a few times). I amassed gigantic piles of hanzi flashcards. Still, I felt something close to despair whenever I looked at a Chinese Wikipedia page. There seemed to be simply so much there that learning the language to any kind of fluency in any reasonable time frame would be impossible. I found myself on the verge of just abandoning the whole idea and taking on an ‘easy’ western language more than once. A westerner, learning Mandarin to fluency? Reading the two billion and one characters necessary for fluency just like a native? Saying a long sentence and hitting every tone right? Pfftt. The whole idea was hubris from the start.
A funny thing happened while I was browsing the forums at ‘How to Learn Any Language’, however. Someone put up a link to your web site, asking for opinions. At that time, I knew next to nothing about Japanese and had no intention of ever studying it, but I checked out the web site out of curiosity. I was more than a little skeptical about the claims (18 months to fluency? Who does he think he’s fooling?), but the more articles I read, the more excited about the whole concept I became. Even if the results weren’t true, my methods at the time were going nowhere. Besides, it isn’t like constant exposure could hurt my language ability. So I filled up my iPod with Mandarin language music and podcasts, ditched anything in English, and off I went.
At first, I have to admit maintaining the environment was tough for me. The siren call of English language YouTube had a bad tendency to lure me off the path, in those moments when the longing for words I could understand was particularly strong. The method itself is also a bit rougher for Mandarin, given that you have to learn thousands of more hanzi than the student of Japanese, and without a ready-made Heisig book to guide you step by step. I had to use the Heisig method for myself, starting from scrap and making up my own stories and keywords as I went using the character tree at zhongwen.com and a couple of character dictionaries I had lying around the house.
Nevertheless, the logic of the method becomes extremely obvious the farther you go. I used to wonder what possible use it could be to constantly listen to things in a language when you haven’t learned any of the words you’re hearing yet. The answer now is clear: you get used to it. Even when you don’t understand every word, the mind begins to accept these strange sounds you’re hearing day in and day out. They stop being foreign and start becoming the simple background of everyday life.
The greatest problem I once faced in Mandarin was that my mind kind of….rejected the words. Chinese was an hour or so a day, not much more. Every word had to be painstakingly drilled in order for it to stay there, and often ended up being forgotten anyway. It was like the immune system of the mind would leap on the new, obviously-not-English word like a foreign bacteria and chew it to pieces before it ever had a chance to stay in my long-term memory. Why couldn’t my mind simply accept a new Chinese word with the same ease it accepts new English words?
Because (of course) Chinese was an hour or so a day, not much more. As soon as conceivably possible, the mind must learn to treat the language as an old friend to be welcomed rather than a foreign intruder to be expunged. And the only way to make this happen is…wait for it….constant exposure to the target language.
Though it took me awhile to fully embrace the idea (I used to tag the English definition to every word I added to the SRS, worried that I would misunderstand if I stuck purely to Chinese), the monolingual dictionary is also an immeasurable help. Using one, you begin to understand two things:
1) There is a whole lot to learn. Much more than anyone can reasonably expect to pick up taking a language class a few hours a week. Learning a language to fluency simply cannot be a part-time project; there are a lot of objects and concepts in the word, a very large proportion of which must be mastered if you want to be fluent, so you must be able to approach it with passion for long periods of time. And, in order to do that, you must enjoy studying it. Anyone who views language learning as a matter of ‘willpower’ is taking the wrong view; you must find yourself in a position, as I have on occasion, where you are stuck doing something that isn’t in Chinese for a few hours and really wanting to go back and do a few more sentences/watch another Mandarin movie/play another Mandarin game. When you have to use willpower to avoid studying your language (because your boss at the Taiwanese 補習班 (cram school) doesn’t approve of the English teacher speaking in Mandarin all day, for example), you’ll know you’re on the right track.
2) There isn’t really all that much to learn. Yes, a paradox, but a good one. Put simply, the more words you pick out from the monolingual dictionary, the more you see the same words cropping up over and over. A language is like a jigsaw puzzle; at first, you don’t even know where to begin, but as each piece/word/grammar idea drops into place, the whole becomes more and more obvious and easier to understand. Always keep in mind as you go that this is not an unending road; so long as you keep adding sentences to your SRS, there will eventually come a day when you stumble across a long, intricate definition and find you understand every word of it. How soon that day comes depends on how high you manage to keep your enthusiasm, and how high you keep your enthusiasm depends on how much you enjoy what you are doing.
Today, I live in Taichung, Taiwan. I’m not yet fluent, by any means, but getting closer every day. I have my characters and sentences separated into two Anki decks: the former is now up to 3500 characters and the latter up to 3000 sentences. Ripped audio from the Mandarin dubbed versions of The Incredibles (超人特攻隊), Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫, but to me it’s 魔法公主), alongside any number of songs and Taiwanese TV shows. When I find myself delayed, I always have a Mandarin book or 漫畫 handy (presently sentence-mining my way through Animal Farm; 所有動物生來平等，但有些動物比其他動物更平等!). When I get the chance, I end up playing the Mandarin version of Civilization IV (文明帝國四).*
Everyday conversation is rarely a problem. English speakers who have been here for years typically turn to me to translate Chinese characters for them. My computer uses a Traditional Chinese version of windows, which becomes easier to use by the day. I cannot yet hold a meaningful debate on particle physics, perhaps, but…eh, I can’t in English either.
What is my chief difficulty now? Containing my anxiousness to start Japanese. I never intended to study it before, but constant exposure to AJATT, KanjiClinic, Heisig, etc. has had an effect. I have learned to stop worrying and love the knji, and besides, it will feel good to finally know how all those little squiggly ‘hiragana’ things I keep seeing are pronounced.
* Antimoon mentions playing adventure games like Secret of Monkey Island in English, and if you’re studying Chinese, I cannot recommend enough picking up this game. Not only will you be bombarded with new vocabulary, complete with lots of helpful pictures, but it comes with it’s own internal 中文 encyclopedia for you to check that vocabulary as you play. I usually turn off the music and listen to a Mandarin movie soundtrack. Just wonderful in every way. Skip the expansions, though; no 中文 versions available.
That’s his story . If you’ve had success with the methods discussed on this website, please email me about it! I can put it up here and it’ll inspire other people — including me — and you’ll save me some writing!