Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New Year Resolution: learn to speak Mandarin Chinese

OK, so here's the deal.  What if you were offered $1 million dollars to learn to speak Chinese?

It's a simple challenge. As soon as you can speak Chinese at the level of the average school-leaver, you'd get your money. (This is hypothetical situation, please don't send me an invoice.)

Do you think that, before you went to bed tonight,  you'd learn 10 more words? And maybe you'd revise yesterday's words too? Do you think, if getting a language-exchange partner would get you to your million dollars one year sooner, that you'd make the effort to find someone you could converse with?

Would you listen to more podcasts? Use flashcards more? Watch more Chinese-language movies?

Forgive me for being presumptious ... but of course you would!

What you do, and Why you do it

There are two aspects to achieving any goal: (1) the technique behind what you're learning, and (2) the motivation to keep on applying that technique.

The reality for most people, however, is they focus on the technique - and they ignore the requisite motivation. And then they fail. Bummer.


Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that you get all psyched up, banging your head against the wall, shouting, "Yes, dammit yes. I can do thisssssss!!"

But if you go back to the million dollars example, I think we all know that if there was enough resting on it, you'd find the time, you'd make the effort. And your excuses about how hard Chinese is, and how little time you have, would be forgotten as you work your brains out to get your reward.

But of course you don't need to have a million dollars at the finish line. Sadly, no-one has offered to pay me money once I'm fluent in Chinese - and yet here I am, 00:50 on a Monday night (uhm, Tuesday morning) blogging about learning Mandarin, thinking about what works and what doesn't work.

Make it happen

So spend a little time trying to work out why you're learning (or going to learn) Chinese.

But don't be lazy - don't wait for the inspiration. Try to create the inspiration. Get excited about travelling to China, or conversing with Chinese people in your local area.

And if you really think it's better to focus on learning, and to not worry about your motivations, then ask yourself .... who is going to become fluent first? Will it be the person who only has access to one podcast series, one textbook and one dictionary (but who has a million bucks resting on fluency)? Or will it be the person who had access to lots of podcasts, many textbooks, medical research papers into the optimal way to memorise lists  - but no real interest in becoming fluent?


So some of you are reading this post, rolling your eye-balls, and wondering if I've lost the plot. But others of you are (I hope) are going to take a little time to examine your own motivations.

If you're already learning Chinese, what got you motivated in the beginning? And what excites you now? Are there things you could do to re-ignite the flame?

And if you're new, take a moment to work out why you've set yourself the goal of learning Chinese. It really doesn't make a difference whether it's a dumb reason - if it fires you up, then use it.

Perhaps rate yourself on these questions, on a scale of 1-10 ...
  • Do you want to know another language?
  • Are you embarrassed about only knowing one language? (Or two, or ...)
  • Would you like to be able to impress the cute girl/guy in Accounting because you can speak their native tongue?
  • How about aiming to impress your friends by ordering in Chinese, at a Chinese restaurant?
  • Would you like to travel China, speaking to the locals in their own language?
  • Would you like to make more friends? (There is no shortage of awesome Chinese people wherever you look.)
  • Or would you like to move to China because of the opportunities that country offers, but you'd like to be different to all those people who go there and hang out in their little communities without learning the local language, even after several years? 
  • Is this just another challenge, because you're the kind of person who thrives off challenge and personal growth?

But don't take my word for it ...

Once you've read this post, there are two things you could do.
  1. Quickly learn some Chinese words. You might start off by reading one of my WordPacks, and find 3-5 words you don't know - and learn then. It won't take more than a couple of minutes.
  2. Do something else. 
If $1 million were resting on it, you'd do #1.  But I'm guessing you're probably going to opt for #2.

What more evidence do you need that - ultimately - motivation is everything?


  1. "how hard Chinese is"

    Japanese adopts a lot of Chinese characters, so, some Japanese know the advantages of the Chinese language. A learned Japanese states that Chinese language is very systematic and logic. He looks at Mandarin from a different angle.

    Some people say the sound of Mandarin is poetic.

    I am a published author with 5 books on Amazon.com. I’d say the writing of Chinese characters could be beautiful.

    It’s also very interesting to note that every Chinese character and pronunciation has a reason or logic behind. That means we can
    learn Mandarin much easier if we
    understand the reasons or logic behind. My
    books demonstrate how easy learning
    Mandarin could be!

    Actually, learning Mandarin can be easy,
    entertaining and fun!

    Sam Song - Author

  2. Great post man! Really inspirational. One of my biggest tasks for this year is to become more fluently in conversing. Just today, I work at student IT registrations, and two chinese girls came in to register their laptops. I'm always called 'cause I have to help with Chinese laptops, so they stood there waiting for me to finish. I knew that this was my chance, if I was going to learn to speak fluently now is the time. I said my chinese is bad and asked them what they studied. It wasn't much, but it's a step in the right direction. I felt nervous, but taking the first steps always count.

    Good luck and peace!

  3. Sam: Thanks for stopping by. I know what you mean - when I got excited about learning to read & write Chinese, and not just about speaking it, it gave me a new passion to my learning. And that new interest resulted in my listening to even more podcasts than before, even though my excitement was about reading not listening.

    And that's part of what I find so interesting about Chinese - I can always take a different direction to get the juices flowing again!

    Niel: Thanks for your kind words. And for the story about how you took your chance to speak Chinese. It is actually really lazy of me when I speak English, knowing that I could speak a few sentenes of Chinese. Sometimes it's embarrassment, somtimes I'm just mentally tired.

    But I need to remind myself ... those are just reasons for not speaking Chinese, they are not excuses. The risk, of course, is that I start to confuse reasons & excuses. That's when things go really badly wrong!

    So keep challenging yourself, and drop in next time and tell us about a recent conversation you had.

  4. Charlie made a reference to this article in his great Discovering Mandarin blog - you might be interested to see my reply.

  5. I've been a language teacher for over 20 years and I must say you've hit the nail on the head: motivation is everything in learning a language.

    The best schools, software or subscription services won't work if you are not motivated.

    Michael Medlock

  6. Hi Michael - thanks for sharing your experience with us. In your opinion - how successful are teachers who try to create motivation for their students? What kind of things get students excited enough to want to learn more?

  7. haha it's embarrassing to say, but my main motivation is $_$ to learn Chinese, but what yu said sounds good to me, it doesnt matter what it is, as long as it gives me the courage to achieve my goals. However, i started to realize the benefits of it (pride,communication,culture) It's so much more than just $.

  8. It's exactly like staying in shape physically: you've got to be motivated and you have to set a schedule. The schedule part is important because without it you will have to on a daily basis remember your motivation and find that inspiration. If you make a schedule, exactly when and where you study each week, exactly how many words you memorize a week, which podcasts you listen to and which book you will work from, you will find the motivation part less difficult; then you are simply following a schedule.

  9. shiloly: You make a really good point - it doesn't make a difference what your motivation is, as long as it works for you. And without a doubt, motivations do change - it will be interesting to hear what your motivations are in one year's time!

    Rachel: Very pleased to have you stopping by - has your book been published yet? Your comment about having a schedule really gelled with me, because that's how I accidentally learned Mandarin. You can read the full back-story here (http://mandarinsegments.blogspot.com/2009/10/learning-mandarin-start-off-lazy-build_04.html) but I just started listening to & from work, and next thing I knew - I could say & understand the basic stuff.

    You could even say that now I learn Mandarin because I learn Mandarin. No motivation required, because I have a habit - so learning Mandarin is what I do. Not something I feel I ought to feel that I ought to feel (...) that I should do.

  10. Hi,

    To learn Mandarin, like all other varieties of Chinese, you must grasp the mostly monosyllabic words and word elements. There are plenty of excellent hotels to stay in when you decide to visit China to learn a language, it is well known for that will meet your accommodation requirements. Thanks a lot...

    Chinese Language Programs