Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Is it "self-study" if you have a Chinese teacher?

I mentioned in my last post how my Chinese teacher helped me translate the world's funniest joke into Mandarin. Following that, I got a couple of DMs though Twitter and one email, asking me about how I can have a teacher when I also say that I self-study Chinese ... so I thought I would explain what I think the difference is.

In later posts I will explain how I chose my teachers, and exactly what a typical lesson looks like.

I have self-studied Chinese - I'm clear about that

About 99% of what I know is through listening to podcasts (90% was from ChinesePod and 10% was Popup Chinese), studying books & websites, working through flashcards (read my posts on the topic here), reading comics & children's stories, etc.

I have also learned by having conversations with people, asking questions, having language exchange partners, being corrected by strangers that I'm chatting with ... and having a teacher on & off.

I have not attended classes, lectures, or immersion programs. I therefore am happy with the label that "I have self-studied Chinese" - although I do gladly acknowledge all the help I have received from countless people along the way. (I am even grateful to one my one Chinese friend who, when hearing that I am learning Chinese, told me not to bother - as a foreigner I would never make much progress! Thank you thank you thank you for pissing me off enough to study harder :-)

my teachers

While in London, Athena and I would meet somewhere between once a week and once a month - and even though I haven't had a lesson with her in 1.5 years, we still stay in touch - it's wonderful how well you can get to know someone even when you're talking using really short sentences and simple words!

Now in Hong Kong, my teacher for the last couple of months has been Judy - we're meeting about once a week (though my travel schedule makes that a challenge!), and doing a variety of talking, reading, sentence dissection, etc.

your teachers

I am not saying that self-study is the only way, or even the best way. But for me, I wouldn't do it any other way. And of course people use their teachers in their own way.
  • One of my friends (he's in his late 30s) is learning Russian, and he meets a teacher every week. She's strict - and he's a little scared of her. So usually the night before their lesson he stays up late, doing homework, memorising words. Their relationship works because it's the fear of the teacher that gets him to study. I don't know how sustainable this is, but for now he is further than he otherwise would have been. I can't work that way, but it works for him.
  • Another friend (around 30) is learning German, and he also meets a teacher weekly. He doesn't fear her, but he uses her as an excuse. He seems to think that because he has a teacher he doesn't actually have to learn material himself. So he doesn't. He lived in Germany for two years, with weekly lessons, and I've watched him struggle to ask for a menu and a bottle of water in German. I couldn't let myself do this.
If a teacher helps you, then get one. If you can't afford one, then find a language exchange partner. But do what works for you. And remember that it's your life and your language learning. Please don't let a teacher dictate what & how you should do things ... when you stop enjoying you stop learning.

Ultimately you will only know a language when you can speak it, understand it, read it. There's lots to learn, and only you can do that - a teacher cannot do that for you. Successful language learning comes down to a massive chunk of self-study, so spend some time this year finding your self-motivation ...


  1. My thinking is that if about 80 - 90 % spent on learning the language is done by yourself and a tutor is used for refinement, Q and A and some speaking practice then it's fine to say you're studying the language using self-study.

    Personally I love self-study - I find getting / keeping my attention in a classroom environment is pretty bad.

    Even if I attended class for any subject - the real learning started for me when I had quiet time to immerse myself in my books. What I mean is my learning relies on me anyway regardless of whether I attend a class or meet with a tutor or not. Hope I'm making sense.

  2. thanks greg, your ideas inspire me a lot. I'll definitely work harder on my spanish and french!

  3. Peckish, I think that there are a fair number of people who attend classes, but do little else outside class. They convince themselves that Chinese (or any language) is really difficult because they're not able to progress, in spite of the fact that they attend classes. I enjoy my lessons *because* I self-study between them, and I don't have to spend time in front of a teacher trying to memorise something! ;-)

    See you soon, Judy.

  4. Just a small point, based on some feedback I've received, I wasn't attacked as being inconsistent about self-study and using teachers - the questions were real attempts at understanding how I do things.

  5. I think self study is necessary for a good learner of language . Successful language learning comes for self study of your self-motivation .Self study make your sense effective. chinese courses in singapore

  6. I've started learning Mandarin by myself, but will start intensive classes next week. I think it really depends on the person, you have to try all channels before seeing which one suits you the best.
    I've had some success with the Pimsleur method to work on pronunciation, also some apps are quite good and podcast def a must once you picked up some words.
    Greg do you have an email address I can contact you? I have a few questions for you regarding HK - thanks

  7. Sudt, thanks for extolling the virtues of self-study, and then listing your Chinese courses :-)

    Steven, I agree that people should do what ever works for them. Let us know how your intensive courses go! (Will that be in HK?) You can reach me at: greg [at] MandarinSegments [dot] com.

  8. Hello Friend,

    Create a good Chinese learning environment. There are many things around you are helpful, like TV, internet, books, magazines, movies. To learn Chinese online is the best way to self-study Chinese. You can use social network to know Chinese native speakers, to practice oral Chinese with them. Also, watching Chinese TV programs and Chinese movies is a good way to create an Chinese learning environment. Thanks a lot ....

    Learning Chinese Mandarin

  9. Michael, thanks for your thoughts.

    By the way, I'm thinking of brushing up on my cooking skills, and thought a fun way of doing it would be to cook using a Mandarin-speaking TV show - can anyone recommend a show, perhaps something on YouTube or YouKu?

  10. Self study is the best option of best learning.Self study makes a learner successful of his/her aim. Self study make your knowledge effective.

  11. Hi Manisha - I agree with you that self-study is the key to learning a language successfully. Without being able to find the motivation yourself, it's hard to imagine you will spend the required effort.

    Ultimately you have to learn lots of words, and expose yourself to lots of sentences. And there really is a limit to how much you can do that in an hour's class, rather than an hour on your own.

    However, I do believe that having a teacher or a language exchange partner, to guide you along some of the more difficult bits, is an essential part of self-study.

    I look forward to comments again from you in future.