Want to learn Mandarin? Channel your inner baby.
Learning to speak Chinese can be challenging for native English speakers. The grammar and vocabulary pose obstacles, to say nothing of the unusual sounds and the semantic tones.
The problems posed by the new grammar and vocabulary are more or less the same as those posed by learning any foreign language, so I’ll leave them aside for this post. But if you want to learn to speak Chinese, the unfamiliar sounds that exist in Chinese that don’t exist in spoken English, and the semantic tones that distinguish one word from another will be the most critical and difficult challenges.
One way to learn the new sounds is to practice assiduously, to enunciate them over and over, and to listen to them repeatedly until you can differentiate them. You can practice, for instance, the essential tight ü sound, over and over, with words like lǜ (green). And you can repeatedly practice speaking and hearing the differences between mā (mother) and mǎ (horse).
Practice is crucial to climbing the mountain towards competency and, eventually, fluency. But with only practice, you won’t get there.
Practice is an adult thing, a thing we have to try to do, something we put our minds to. But the adult mind is not the mind that best learns languages.
Consider this: When and how did you learn your mother tongue? I’m going to guess you learned to speak your mother tongue effortlessly as an infant and as a toddler. You learned to speak and listen perfectly, and you learned the language completely.
Why did you learn so well as a toddler? You gained fluency mostly because of shamelessness.
Channel You Inner Baby
Infants don’t know shame. They don’t care much about what others think about them. They can shout out unfamiliar syllables of the language they’re trying to learn, and no one thinks less of them, and even if someone (like a sibling) does think less of them, they don’t care. They get halfway to fluency (we call it ‘baby talk’), and they don’t care. They still have no shame about talking loud. They keep going, they keep learning, they keep listening. They keep speaking the unfamiliar syllables aloud until what they hear coming out of their own mouths is identical in sound and tone to what is coming out of the mouths of those around them.
Their shamelessness helps them achieve a perfect accent.
To learn Chinese, I channeled my inner baby. I was shameless about sounding foolish. I knew I didn’t have the pronunciation quite right, but I kept listening to myself and to the people around me, noticing how the sounds that came out of my mouth were different from those coming out of theirs. And I kept it up. I laughed aloud at myself to overcome my shame.
If you can be shameless in your daily communication in Chinese, you’ll improve your accent and achieve fluency faster. This is challenging for us as adults of course, because adults are acutely aware of what others think of them. Shame is one of the most powerful and poisonous emotions we experience as adults. It shuts us down. So you need to channel your inner baby; you have to choose to look and sound foolish.
Shamelessness is important, but it isn’t quite all of it of course. As infants we learned the language also because of necessity and effort.
Learning was necessary because everyone around us used the language, and we had no other way to communicate our increasingly complex needs. Crying and smiling will only get you so far. You’re a human being; you have complicated needs (especially in China).
You can create necessity by immersing yourself. Go to China. Go alone. Go spend a lot of time in farflung parts of the country where no one speaks English. The Chinese language will suddenly be necessary to find a toilet, to find a meal, to find companionship.
If you can’t do total immersion, do as much of it as you can. Necessity is the mother of fluency.
Finally, babies learn languages perfectly because they’re tireless. They keep making the effort every day, every hour, every minute (except perhaps at naptime). Channel your inner baby, be tireless. And when you can’t be tireless, take a nap. And then wake up, and put in some more effort.
If you can be shameless, and you can put in effort, and you can make it necessary, you’ll learn Chinese (Mandarin, Cantonese, or any dialect for that matter) in no time.
Just don’t be afraid to be a baby.