I moved to Singapore three years ago to attend university. Apart from the rich culture, very efficient transportation and variety of food, I had the opportunity to discover the languages that make up this melting pot. I gravitated towards Mandarin because of the ease of ordering food at hawker stalls. My parents thought I would have picked up the language by now. Three years in, I decided to make it happen. I took a course in Mandarin.
Learning a new language is an active process and frustrating at times. My reference point for grammar and sentence construction is my own mother tongue, which is not a tonal language like Mandarin. I have been corrected many times about my writing. There are many a time a native speaker has explained to me that I have mistakenly written something offensive. The truth is, nuances of mandarin language take time to learn. For example, Mā and Mǎ are very different words, and I have come to accept that in time, I will learn to stop calling my mother a horse.
A way to approach the language is to understand it from the perspective of what you already know. It is helpful to construct the same sentence in English first, before doing the same in that foreign language. This leads you to identify important differences in sentence construction. For example, I learned early on in class that Mandarin has no equivalent for the verbbe nor the articles a and the. Asking, “What is the time now?” in English would be “What time now?” in Mandarin.
Being conversational would also entail having the basic vocabulary to express the words you use every day. This was the goal throughout my class. In 13 weeks, I learned everything from pronouns to hobbies. This was a very fast pace that I struggled to keep up with so I looked into techniques to learn beyond the classroom. For any language you’ve picked, here are four ways to help you:
1. Use cue cards
Did you know that you can buy cue cards from your nearest supplies store? They are much smaller index cards that you can use to test yourself on translations. Highly portable, you can take these out during your morning commute and brush up on your new vocabulary words.
2. Download a language app
The Google app store is full of language apps that have designed curriculums and even gamify the process. The most popular ones are Memrise, declared Best App in 2017, and Duolingo. Both apps are designed such that you can learn a new language without other resources. The best part is that they are free and easy to access with your phone.
3. Talk to people!
One of the advantages of learning Mandarin in Singapore is that I can easily practice and get feedback on my speaking. This is also valuable for retention. Having someone to practice with strengthens your conversational skills and reminds you of your commonly used words. You can even use people as motivation. For example, learning Mandarin helps me liaise with my landlord and connect with my Chinese friends better. In school, this is an opportunity for you to connect with exchange students and make new friends.
4. Consume media in that language
Take this learning beyond the classroom by incorporating it into your daily life. Immerse yourself in that language by watching foreign Youtube vloggers with subtitles in English. This applies to movies and shows as well! Listen to popular music of that country. If you subscribe to magazines, you can even access your monthly issue in the language you’re learning. These are ways to strengthen your conversational ability. You don’t learn words in isolation but rather in context, allowing you to string sentences of your own.
By the time you read this, I will have completed my 13 weeks of Mandarin. I intend to continue practicing because with time and commitment the words come easier. Using these techniques, I still am frustrated with the language at times but I certainly have a more curious mindset. These techniques have enabled me to appreciate the facets of this new language instead of focusing on the chore that is writing the same character over and over. If you are learning a language, or already know several, congratulations on embarking on this journey! I hope that these techniques can help you inject fun into your learning.