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Showing posts from July, 2021

Journey to Perfection

We each of us are inherently drawn towards those that we consider our idols, those idealized symbols of perfection that we hope to someday emulate. From them, we learn and model ideas and behaviors that we believe are similar to our own internal image of perfection, and in doing so arrive closer to this goal that we have always sensed inside of our self  but have never been able to clearly express in words. The more we learn from them, the closer we get to this internal image.  But once we have learned and modeled all that we can, it is time to move on, with gratitude in our hearts, because not doing so will hold us back from our goal of moving closer towards our model of perfection.  This is not because our idols are imperfect, but because their ideal of perfection is different, and the journey they must make is along a different path. Following them on their path can only delay our own journey and might even take us in the wrong direction.  And so, at this point, we must learn to wal

Tones in Mandarin Chinese take a little work

Most native Chinese speakers don’t realize how hard it is for people from other languages to adjust to hearing tones and producing them easily.  For most of my life, pitch was just something that automatically changed to express emotion or to accentuate a part of a sentence. It was never precisely controlled for every syllable to express meaning like it is in Chinese.  As a result, my brain doesn’t always hear tonal differences when listening , and often changes tones based on emotion just like it does for my other languages when speaking.  Understanding how Chinese uses tones has been a complete paradigm shift in the way I understand language and has helped me improve my understanding of language learning in general.  My current process for learning Chinese is more about  patiently unlearning all the “bad” habits of my previous languages accumulated over a lifetime, and starting with a blank slate, just like a child, so I can learn to hear and produce the language properly.  It’s stil

Learning a new language can be humbling

I just saw an interesting “Chinese for beginners” lesson on YouTube where a parent interviews her child by asking her very basic questions about herself. The child was able to talk about herself, her hobbies and the languages that she speaks. She was able to ask her mother questions in return as well.  It was then that I realized that even after I completed HSK1, I would have the vocabulary of just a four year old child and this four year old in the video would still sound more fluent than me.  If I then went on to complete HSK2, I might get lucky and catch up to a six year old.  Realizing that I can’t even keep up with a four year old and probably speak like a three year old at this point was a humbling experience. It definitely put my language skills in perspective.  One thing that I also realized though, is that it took me less than two months to reach the level of this hypothetical three year old and hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with the four year old in another month or so. 

Pinyin - A necessary evil, but a terrible way to learn Chinese

I’ve just come to the incredibly late realization that pinyin is a horribly inaccurate approximation of the actual sounds in Chinese.  Learning pronunciation by relying on pinyin instead of my ears is a terrible idea, and even after I hear the correct pronunciation of a character, every time I see the pinyin, I will focus on what I see and forget what I heard.  The longer I rely on pinyin, the longer I hold myself back from improving my pronunciation, because every time I see the English-like text, I go back to a bad, approximate pronunciation instead of trying to recreate what I heard.  Even knowing this, I can’t do much at this point. I have to use pinyin as a crutch until I learn the hanzi and remember the pronunciation of all the characters that I need for now, at which point I can hopefully stop relying as much on the pinyin.  Ah well. Another day, another completely random insight.

Everything but this moment is just in your mind

The past is just in your memory. It isn’t happening any more.  The future is just in your imagination. It hasn’t happened yet.  The only thing that is real is what is happening right now, in this exact moment. You can still learn from your past and plan for the future, but always remember that the only thing that is real is this present moment in time right now.   Nothing else.  Once you understand the true significance of this, it will change your life.

Speaking a new language can feel incredibly limiting

Sometimes I feel that switching to a new language cripples my ability to express myself freely, and while I no longer have a fear of making mistakes like I used to, not being able to say what I want to say as well as I can makes me resist speaking in the new language and want to fall back to my native tongue.   Now if I were to try to express this same thought in Spanish, it would sound very different, partly because I would be trying to translate from English rather than thinking and feeling as a Spanish speaker would, and partly because I wouldn’t have a large enough vocabulary or sufficiently complex grammatical structures at my disposal to do these feelings the justice that I believe they deserve.  Now a lot of this is probably just me overthinking things, and chances are that what I want to express could have been said in a single sentence using simpler words and would convey more or less the same meaning, but could you really say that nothing is lost when I use a simple sentence

Describing your feelings - A simpler way to write

My language partners often ask me what they should write about in their moments when I suggest using them as a way to improve writing skills.  What I usually tell them is, if you can’t think of anything to write about, post about your day, what’s on your mind, or something that creates a strong feeling such as happiness, frustration or sadness.  Describe what happened and how it made you feel. Try and explain why it made you feel that way.  This is the kind of writing that will challenge you and help develop your ability to express yourself, especially during conversation.    For example, when I’m frustrated about something I faced during language learning, I might write a long post just describing that one single feeling. If I have some insight or experience that made me very happy, I might immediately start writing about it.  Learning to put feelings into words is the essence of writing, so find a feeling and write about it.  That’s all there really is to this.

Speak later if you want to learn languages faster

I just had a reasonably long text chat in Spanish where I talked about my current language learning habits and goals, and while this might not seem like a very big achievement to most people I thought it was a pretty big milestone for me - communicating in what I consider a reasonably fluent manner using my limited vocabulary.  One thing I have started doing nowadays is to not try to force myself to speak using complex sentences the way I do in English, but instead to speak in simple sentences using only the grammar and vocabulary that I am extremely confident with. When I chat this way, it feels a lot more natural and effortless. I don’t have to struggle to say something complicated by trying to create completely new sentences in my head.  I realize that using only simple sentence structures temporarily limits my ability to express myself and might be slowing down my learning process.  However, by doing this, I also avoid accidentally using (and thus practicing and internalizing) bad

The joys of trying to learn multiple languages simultaneously

It’s a little odd to first learn to aspirate my Ps for American English and then have to learn to do the exact opposite for French. To make the pinyin D sound more like a Spanish T for Chinese and then realize that my Spanish DE has started sounding like TE because of my Chinese practice.  My poor brain and tongue are in a perpetual state of confusion from practicing multiple languages simultaneously and I can never be sure what sound is going to come out of my mouth at any given time.  It’s an unusual but also, oddly enough, exhilarating feeling, almost like I am a child still stumbling over his first few words as he slowly discovers the sounds of his first language.  The really cool thing is that, little by little, my brain is figuring out and compartmentalizing this information so that my pronunciation and vocabulary in each of these languages is improving without affecting any of the others.  It’s only during this transition time that I slur words and speak with a lisp as if I am d