It is interesting to read claims on the web that the traditional grammar-based language teaching model is “under attack”, when nearly everyone still subscribes to this archaic approach. The vast majority of language classrooms, whether in high schools, universities, or private language schools, still spend most class hours teaching and testing explicit information such as grammar rules and lexical items out of context. I read on a blog a few years back that: “Anything students need to know has to be taught, not caught.” This soundbite seems logical, but it underpins the major misconception widely on display in traditional language classrooms and programs: the notion that languages can be taught. The truth is that languages can only be “acquired”, not taught.
If you will visiting or moving to China, you would do yourself—and those you meet—a big favor by memorizing the ten tips in this infographic from Learn Mandarin Now: 1) Learn at least a little Mandarin. 2) Avoid fake taxis. 3) Prepare yourself to use squatty potties. 4) Avoid taboo topics: politics, Tibet, Taiwan, human rights, and Internet censorship. 5) Learn to bargain (the national sport!) 6) Cash is king. 7) Don’t refer to elderly individuals by their name. 8) Never stick chopsticks in your rice bowl. 9) The number 4 is bad luck. 10) Avoid bad luck gifts like clocks, white wrapping, and green hats. Read on to learn more about each.
If you are learning Mandarin Chinese, check out this video interview Olly Richards from I Will Teach You a Language recorded last year. Olly is a great interviewer and even went to the trouble of getting a complete transcript made of the interview (available for free on his site). In the interview, we discuss: 1) My journey to learn Mandarin Chinese. 2) The ways in which Mandarin is actually an easy language. 3) How to best learn tones. 4) The myth that you need to move to China or Taiwan to learn Mandarin. 5) Differences between the Mandarin spoken in Mainland China and Taiwan. 6) The importance of chéngyǔ (成語, “idioms”), which are usually 4 characters in Chinese. 7) My top 3 resources for learning Mandarin Chinese. 8) More about what my Master Mandarin guide is and how it can help beginning and intermediate learners.
Is it ideal to learn Japanese in Japan and Mandarin in China or Taiwan? Yes. Is it a mandatory condition? Absolutely not. Let me be clear: living in Japan and Taiwan for a number of years was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and I go back to visit as often as possible. But while living in a Japanese or Mandarin speaking country can certainly provide learners of these languages many advantages, it’s critical to understand that it’s not a requirement for success. In today’s world, “I can’t learn Japanese or Mandarin because I live in rural Kansas” is an excuse, not a reality. With Internet access, a little creativity, and a lot of hard work, you really can learn any language, anywhere.
I made just about every possible mistake when starting out in languages. I used terribly inefficient methods, slogged through boring materials I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, and almost gave up more than a few times. But this is good news for you: struggling so much in the beginning and later correcting course makes me a much better language coach. You never want to learn from a “natural” who picks up new skills easily. As Tim Ferriss points out in the The 4-Hour Chef: “The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule, make up for a lot. Career specialists can’t externalize what they’ve internalized. Second nature is hard to teach.”
One of the most common questions I receive is, “What do you mean by ‘mastery’?” First of all, “mastery” does not mean “perfection”. Such a thing doesn’t exist in languages. And even if it did, it would not be a “S.M.A.R.T. goal” (covered in detail in my Master Japanese and Master Mandarin guides) and is therefore irrelevant to our purposes as language learners. So if “mastery” does not equal “perfection”, what does it mean? Read on to find out.