They say the best place to learn a language is to be surrounded by it. Well I’ve been here a month now. I’m not so sure…
Within a foreign country, you can spend all day listening to conversations to try to follow it, or at least recognise words you know. However, with a beginner’s vocabulary, the words are so smothered in gibberish, and your knowledge so new, that you can never tell if it really is the word you know! Even it if was, you have no confirmation – and therefore cannot really learn!
As with any skill, the best way to learn a language is through practice. Perhaps you get this practice when you submerse yourself in native speech? The problem with a beginner is, who will speak to you in simple terms? Even if you can string your side together, you’ve got no chance understanding the reply!
It is true that living in a country provides language practice, but I don’t think it is the right kind. Certain phrases I learnt very well because I used them all the time, such as asking how much something is and understanding numbers. Without underplaying the importance of these things, the time I spent repeating these phrases could have been spent developing many more under controlled practice. I spent a lot of time copying out words from the dictionary and memorising them. After a while I could string together simple sentences – but had no opportunity to share them! Without this, your memory does not last. On my last day I didn’t even understand the word ‘like’! In a classroom this would be one of the first things you would learn absolutely inside out.
There is an option that is not difficult to find in China: a ‘language partner’. This is someone who will teach you Chinese while you teach them English. Maybe this would give opportunity to develop?
Language partnering is a popular way to obtain English language teaching without needing to pay. My friend rightly told people ‘she’s not here to learn the language’. I needed an income, and though I now realise that language is necessary for living here, it was still secondary to work. Even if I have the time and got a partner – would I get my fair share? I knew from my training as a language teacher that you need skills to teach your native language at a basic level. Language partners are students of English, not teachers. I think they would be good for people of intermediate level because you could gain practice. But by the end of my trip, I could only just make incredibly simple conversation.
So, to all you China converts, my advice is this: Try to learn some Chinese before you arrive. If you are beyond beginner level when you enter the country, you will benefit far more from the opportunities that are available here. Listen in your leisure time – get it on your iPod!