Communicating in Chinese can be hard, especially if you are from a completely different culture. With globalization and the rapid business contact with Chinese, it is important to understand Chinese culture in order to ensure smooth communication between parties.
It’s easier to switch to English if you can’t think of how to say something in Chinese, but if you do that every time you run into a problem, you will never learn how to express yourself in Chinese. It is hard. It will become easier with practice.
Interesting things to know
Focusing on communication to learn Chinese:
There are many people who advocate a very hands-on approach to language learning, urging us to simply use the language as much as possible and let learning (acquisition) take place along the way. They focus mostly on communication and very little on the form.
This approach works, but it’s a lot harder for Chinese than for languages closely related to your native language (check what Scott Young said after his adventure in China after learning French, Spanish and Portuguese, for example). In order to be able to communicate in a language, you need certain basic knowledge, which takes somewhat longer to acquire in Chinese.
It’s all about efficiency:
However, the main question I want to discuss in this article isn’t if it works or not, it’s how good the approach is and if there might be better ways of doing it. The reason I don’t really care about if something just works or not is that (almost) anything works if you spend enough time. Let’s look at vocabulary acquisition as an example:
You can learn characters and words without studying at all, but you’re going to forget most of what you learn unless you spend an awful lot of time using the language.
Focusing on communication as a beginner:
As a beginner, it’s very hard to spend enough time on communication with the limited amount of language you have learnt already. There are no endless sources of good listening and/or reading material for you (although you can find a lot here). If it’s extremely demanding for you to speak and write Chinese, you won’t be able to spend enough time to learn efficiently. You will burn yourself out or go crazy. This doesn’t really go away until you reach a level where you can understand Chinese written or spoken for a native audience, and speak Chinese for extended periods without tiring too much.
This is because as a beginner, you don’t really need tones to make yourself understood, the listener can probably guess what you want to say anyway because the possible things you can say are very limited based on the context and the fact that you’re obviously a beginner. This does not mean that tones are not important for communication!
The same can be said about many other areas of Chinese, such as writing characters, pronunciation in general, and perhaps also grammar and word choice.
A balanced approach:
I think communication is the essence of languages and also of language learning. Way too many people, especially in foreign language classrooms around the world, spend too little time actually communicating in the language they’re learning, not too much! I don’t want anyone to interpret this article as a call for less communication in general.
Communication is great for a number of reasons:
- It’s motivating and fun
- It helps you find problems
- It’s practical not just theoretical
- It’s about skill, not just knowledge
I want a lot of communication, but I want it mixed with actual studying. For most people, using some kind of spaced repetition is by far the best way of rapidly building and maintaining vocabulary. For most people, it’s necessary to focus explicitly on tones and pronunciation to get the basics right. For most people, drills help to expand our ways of expressing ourselves in Chinese, even at an advanced level.
Communicate as much as possible:
The fact that it’s hard to communicate doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it. If you don’t, you’ll never learn Chinese. Many schools have no-English policies and this is a good thing if not taken to extremes. Yes, it’s easier to switch to English if you can’t think of how to say something in Chinese, but if you do that every time you run into a problem, you will never learn how to express yourself in Chinese. It is hard. It will become easier with practice. I will discuss no-English rules more in an upcoming article.
Communication is the essence of language and it’s also the goal of language learning, but as I have argued in this article, focusing only on communication isn’t the best approach. I think we should use the language as much as possible, but I also think we need to study hard to overcome our weaknesses and learn more efficiently, regardless if we are beginners or advanced learners.
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