“The two biggest language learning clichés combined into one. Let go of your inhibitions and just speak. Mimic. And build skills over time.”
Benefits and “Methodology”
A drunk person’s method of interacting with others:
- Throws away her inhibitions. Goes up and talks to strangers. Doesn’t care that she may look foolish, because she always has the excuse, “Oh sorry, I was drunk.”
- Verbal vomit. Ever notice how drunk people have a tendency to ramble without caring whether or not people completely understand what they are actually saying? In fact, they just keep talking because they want to communicate.
A baby’s method of learning a language for the first time:
- Absorbs the environment and mimics everything he hears and sees like a game of shadow. Repeats sounds verbatim (even the intonation and inflections). Watches facial expressions. Copies how people move their mouths and bodies.
- Talks without caring about whether he makes sense (like the drunk person). Waits for people to praise him if he got it right or look confused if he got it wrong.
- Gets emotional – if someone does something to make him angry, uncomfortable, happy, etc. he just says so. For babies it’s usually through tears or laughter, but eventually they develop the language to communicate these feelings (until they are taught to hold back in order to be more socially appropriate).
Tip in Practice (True Story)
Okay, so I’m not actually advocating for you to go around acting like a drunk baby. That would be disastrous! But I do agree with some of the reasoning behind these clichés. I think the best way to learn a language is to be comfortable looking foolish every once in a while, especially in the beginning.
Children can accept that they don’t know enough to write a treatise or a novel. However, when you learn as a grownup (me included), sometimes it’s really frustrating to talk to someone your age and only be able to discuss simple things. But, you have to start somewhere.
All of this goes back to being realistic about your language goals. If your motivation for learning Chinese is strong enough, you’ll be willing to put up with looking silly, being uncomfortable, or sounding like a child (at least for a while) until you get to a more functional level.
For me, when I lived in Taiwan, I met a really cool person who I wanted to hang out with all the time. I didn’t want to sound dumb around him, so I worked really hard during the week that we were supposed to hang out. I asked friends how to say certain phrases; I looked up vocabulary; I planned out scenarios and dialogues. And, I improved a lot. I didn’t care what the people at the local 7-11 thought when I asked them questions or practiced phrases with them, but I certainly cared about what he thought.
Well, first I had to fall flat on my face when we hung out and feel mortified for weeks. I resolved to work harder before we hung out, and I would pick the people who I didn’t mind making a fool of myself in front of, so I could look *less* silly in front of him. He was always impressed with my progress (the positive feedback), so I kept working even harder.
First, think about what motivates you to learn Chinese, and gauge your comfort level from that.
Then, do activities which build your confidence. If you need some artificial help for a while, get it.
- Memorize dialogues from a podcast.
- Ask someone to help you write out a script for when you first meet new people.
- Make a (native Chinese speaking) friend who you know won’t judge you, and ask them how to phrase certain things.
But remember, all of these suggestions are training wheels. Eventually, you’ll have to take them off. Besides, once you’ve exhausted the script, if you still want to talk to that person, you’ll have to do some improvising anyway.
Finally, as soon as you can, start meeting people. Sign up for a language exchange (or several). Talk to native speakers on skype. Go to wherever Mandarin speakers in your area live; read Chinese language magazines or books in a café until someone talks to you; respond to them in Chinese. Attend a Meet Up or conversation group with people who are learning Chinese. Chat online. Move to a Chinese speaking country. Basically, talk to anyone and everyone you can.