The most important factor in the success of learning Chinese

In the movie Matrix, I was impressed by how quickly people can learn a new skill. Whether it is martial art or piloting a helicopter, just load it up to the brain. Outside of the movie world, learning a new skill means that we have to clock in enough hours and to do enough exercises. Learning Chinese is no exception. As it is hard to learn, many people love the idea that there is something that can help them acquire Chinese language effortlessly. 

If, let’s suppose, there is one factor which will guarantee the success of learning Chinese, what would that be? This question is at the back of many people’s mind. And the answer always seems to be either being super smart or having a Chinese girlfriend. However, deep down in our heart, we all know that it is not true. This most important factor is in fact something very simple, nearly a cliche. It is being persistent.

Let’s make it into a story about three men who just started learning Chinese. Each men represents a group of people who share the similarities. (These three men could, of course, be three women.) The first man is very smart. The second one has a Chinese girlfriend. The third one is persistent in his learning. 

Let’s see what happened.

The smart one

Everything comes easily to this smart man. All the numerous rules of Chinese grammar, all the new words, and strange Chinese sounds, nothing is difficult.  

You will not be surprised to know that, at the start of his Chinese class, his performance was spectacular. He had native-like pronunciation, mastering the tough sounds, such as j, q, x, in a split second. Chinese grammar was easy. His Chinese teacher even taught him more advanced grammar, such as when to move the object in front of the verb, to test his boundaries. He understood it instantly and could make a few correct sentences. 

However, he was the first one to drop out of his Chinese class. He did so well in the class but hardly spent anytime outside of the classroom studying. Although he could understand and comprehend quickly, he had a great deal of trouble retaining what he had learned for more than a week. Consequently, after a few months, he was overwhelmed, and had to stop.

The one with a Chinese girlfriend

He is surrounded by Chinese people, his girlfriend and her friends and families. They are all very willing to help him learn Chinese. 

When they knew that he learned to use “你好吗 ni hao ma?” to greet people, they hurriedly explained several other more authentic ways of greeting, saying “you don’t really say ‘ni hao ma’ to your colleagues, friends or families. Let me teach you what we really say.” Some other friends went along to explain how to address different people based on their relationship, as well as different customs and habits in different regions in China. Moreover, his friends have a keen interest to correct his pronunciation and the tones, trying to help him sound better. He was overwhelmed by all the suggestions and constant corrections. He always ended up speaking more English with them.

If he didn’t find a way to avoid all the help he was getting, he would be the next in line to quit his Chinese class. 

Having many Chinese friends to talk to is great for higher level students, but disastrous for lower level students, because many people don’t know how to help.

The persistent one

For the benefit of telling this story, let’s assume the third man has an average IQ and he is living in an environment where not many Chinese people are around. 

In his Chinese class, there were things he understood well, and there were things not so well. He did great during some class activities, and sucked at others. After class, he would find time to review past lessons, to do homework, to listen to the recordings, or to spend a few minutes on vocabulary. 

There were times he wasn’t very much in the mood to study Chinese, and there were times he was distracted, or even stopped, by other things, but he always managed to get back to his lessons and books. 

So he carried on. After he finished the first Chinese course, he signed up for the second. A year later, he could use Chinese to exchange ideas with his Chinese teacher and with other students. He had a couple of virtual tours to China and he learned a lot. When he finally had a trip to China, he found he could talk to most Chinese people. He did not understand one hundred percent of what Chinese people said, but he understood enough to get him around and to have a good time.

The moral of the story

The ideal situation might be a smart man who is persistent in learning Chinese and also has many Chinese friends who are willing to help and also know how to help. 

When we are not in such a situation, we need to recognise that the most important factor that guarantees the success of learning Chinese is something quite simple, stay persistent. Brilliant brain has its shortcomings. Helpful friends can make matters worse. But persistence always produces great learning results. Being persistent can also overcome boring Chinese textbooks and achieve remarkable success despite terrible Chinese teachers.


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