Nice job finishing 國語! The next set of books, 生活, will raise the learning curve considerably.
But before we tackle that, I think it’s time we took a look at the third and final pillar of language learning (according to Doug), Communication.
The Three Pillars of Language Learning
In Phase I of your journey, you learned about all the nuts and bolts of becoming a student of Chinese. Because this section was mostly informational in nature, you could approach it they same way you approach any classroom situation: read the material, study the flashcards, and move on. And so far, this method has probably worked out just fine. But as you’ve probably figured out by now, this style of learning won’t work forever.
There are a few reasons for this. First, because of the sheer number of words and phrases you will need to learn to become competent in a language; and secondly, because of the speed with which you’d need to translate all those words and phrases in order to be fluent. It’s more than just knowing the information, it’s about understanding and responding naturally.
My solution to this is the Three Pillars. First, learn the Vocabulary (in the form of Flashcards). Second, read and speak the new Vocabulary in the Context of authentic native materials (i.e. the School Books). Third, practice using the new Vocabulary, in proper Context, in Communication with another person. This combination of drilling, contextual input, and conversational experience will make each word a part of you.
You’ve already been using the first two pillars to complete the 國語 textbook, so let’s take a look at the final pillar right now.
What Is Language Exchange?
Language Exchange is just what it sounds like; an English speaker who wants to learn Chinese, exchanging help with a Chinese speaker who wants to learn English. Meeting regularly with a (preferably bi-lingual) native speaker can be just as effective as getting private tutoring, and it’s free!
In my system, language exchange is used primarily to (1) get listening practice, by having the partner read selections from the book that you’ve already studied; and (2) get experience using newly learned words and phrases in your own short conversations.
Here are a few ways you can meet people to exchange language help with:
1. Living in a foreign country ~ If you can find a way to live in a foreign country, you will be surrounded by people who are experts on the very thing you are trying to learn. That said, you still have to make time for language study. Living in Taiwan, I always run into expats who have lived here for years, only to go to English-speaking jobs, struggle with language classes, hang out with other expats; and after years of living abroad, remain unable to improve past the basics. If that’s you, don’t feel bad about it, just fix it! You’ve probably already gotten offers for language exchange, so now is the time to follow up on them!
2. Facebook Groups! ~ A quick search of Facebook will bring up dozens of groups whose main purpose is to connect people who are looking for language exchange partners. Groups like “Language Exchange in Taipei” have thousands of locals who want to improve their English, and foreigners who want to improve their Chinese.
3. Dating Sites! I know it sounds cheesy, but dating apps like Tinder can actually be a great way to meet new people. Believe it or not, not everybody on these sites is looking for true love (or a ONS). Many are just looking to meet interesting people and make new friends. And language exchange is part of that! Just remember to meet in a public place, and come prepared with all your study materials, so the “Language Exchange” isn’t confused for a date!
That said, I’m not advocating getting a girlfriend just so you can get free language practice. That would be incredibly shallow, now wouldn’t it!? Only for love, boy and girls! 😉
How to Spend Your Language Exchanges
Your new friends aren’t teachers. They will probably not know what to do during the language exchange, any more than you do. So it’s best to walk into the situation with a plan. Here are THE MAIN THINGS you should do to keep your Language Exchanges as productive as possible.
1. Freestyle Conversation: Just talk. It’s the simplest thing you can do, but also the hardest, because of the enormous gap between what you want to say and what you actually have the ability to say at the moment. Right now, the only Chinese you probably know are the Basic Phrases and some stuff about animals and holding hands from 國語. That’s okay! Just say what you can, then move on to one of the next Language Exchange Activities in the list. Of course, your partner might also be speaking English to you, for her own practice, so be a good sport and respond in English sometimes too.
2. School Books: Bring your laptop, load up some of the passages you’ve already learned (or just print them out), and have your partner read to you, while you try to listen and understand. Your partner should go slowly on the first pass, and then re-read the passage faster and faster. Three iterations is a good average. You can choose to say nothing, repeat what she says, ask a question, or even have her ask you questions about the passage, which you can answer in Chinese.
3. Vocabulary Experience: Take out your School Books flashcards (or whatever Vocabulary you are currently studying), look at the first card, and then try to talk about the word, phrase, or grammar point on that card, in Chinese, while your partner responds and corrects any usage mistakes.
Using whatever method you prefer, find a native-speaking person who wants to practice their English and set up your first a language exchange!
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get back to the School Books! Next up, the Book of Life.