Chinese is considered to be one of the most challenging languages for native English speakers to learn. Both Cantonese and Mandarin are defined by the U.S. Department of State as Category IV languages — meaning that their difficulty requires around 2200 class hours to learn. This should certainly not discourage you, though!
While it may well be difficult to learn Chinese, with some dedication and a training strategy, you’ll soon start to understand how the language works. There’s a lot of incentive to take on the challenge, too. Learning a new tongue is known to improve your cognitive abilities, and rewire your brain in ways that improve flexibility. Not to mention that you’ll be opening yourself up to conversations about a rich culture. In fact, it’s this last that can actually help to make the process easier — through experiential learning.
One of the key tensions in learning Chinese is that Chinese and English share very few common aspects. From the characters to a lack of morphology, it is a very different way of communicating. Lower category languages tend to share more familiar characteristics, have common roots, or follow similar grammatical rules. As such, it can take native English speakers longer to get to grips with.
On top of learning new tonal sounds and sentence structure, another challenge is the lack of opportunity to utilize what you’ve learned. Language learning is usually more successful when you can immediately apply your lessons to practical tasks, and gain an understanding of context. An inability to speak and hear the language frequently can contribute to difficulties. Unless immersed in Chinese culture, few native English speakers tend to have immediate access to this resource.
Addressing these challenges is where experiential learning can be most effective. The approach was first posited by educational theorist David Kolb in 1984. He noted four stages to the theory — concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. In essence, the application of each of these stages revolves around how to help students grow through a learning experience; graduating through understanding what is happening to them, to using that information to change their thoughts and actions.
In practicality, experiential learning requires students to go beyond the classroom. This includes taking field trips to see connect the theoretical ideas to the practical application. Students get to see the direct consequences of actions and reflect upon them as they occur. The experiences provide context to the ideas.
When it comes to learning the Chinese language, you can see how this approach not only can provide a richer learning experience but also address the core challenges learners face. Experiencing the Chinese language in its native setting gives opportunities to become familiar with the tones, structures, and grammar that students struggle with. It also gives students the chance to practice communicating with Chinese language partners, who can provide them unique insights into nuances that generally only native speakers would be privy to.
How to Gain Experience
In linguistics, there is a tendency to avoid talking about learning a language, and instead, focus on the acquisition of it. This is because it is increasingly accepted that the most effective way to become fluent in a language is by experiencing its use and acquiring it accordingly. However, it’s not always practical to just drop into China and start acquiring the tongue, so you have to simulate the process.
- Devices. People are living at a time in which voice recognition software has improved significantly, and many language learning applications also come loaded with this software and will highlight mistakes in your tone or vocabulary.
- Language Partners. Linguists often refer to “language parents.” These are native Chinese speaking partners that you arrange to meet a couple of times a week to talk only in their language. Platforms such as HelloTalk connect you with partners who will exchange text messages and video calls with you.
- Storytelling. Many language educators agree that storytelling is one of the key elements of experiential learning, and can be done through movies or TV. However, this still has to be followed up with conversing about these stories in Chinese with your language partner.
While it is possible to learn Chinese from a traditional classroom, experiential learning can make the process not only more effective. Acquiring a language using experiential techniques allows you to gain a better understanding of the context of the language, reflect upon your lessons, and gives you a forum through which to apply your knowledge. Take a step outside of the usual educational environment, and embrace new learning methods to really get to grips with Chinese!