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Excerpt from ChinaCultureCorner:
Many Westerners in China have a love-hate relationship with the Chinese language. No matter whether learning for professional for personal reasons, Westerners all over China and abroad attempt to improve their Chinese language skills on a daily basis but to no avail. Despite having studied Chinese for many years it is common many Westerners to be unable to speak Chinese fluidly or fluently. It is then no surprise that many wonder if they will ever be able to succeed in learning the Chinese language.
In fact, the Chinese language is by no means beyond the grasp of Westerners living in or planning to move to China. It simply takes the right approach and focus. After five years in China I have identified several important factors which can make a big difference in attaining a verbal fluency in Chinese. I list and discuss them below:
Spend Time with the Chinese, Not Westerners
When Westerners or other learners of the Chinese language ask me how to improve their own Chinese skills, they often confess to spending most of their time in China with other expatriates. This is a big problem. Chinese cannot be learned by repeating a few phrases each week in restaurants or on the street. It cannot be learned by going out to Western bars. It cannot be learned by speaking English every day. It can only be learned by engaging in real and in-depth conversations with the Chinese everyday and by immersing oneself in a Chinese environment. Many Westerners assume that by being in China they are immersing themselves in the language and culture and the rest will follow. This is unfortunately not the case. Learning to speak Chinese well takes effort everyday and requires one to make Chinese friends and spend time with them regularly speaking the Chinese language. Even Westerners outside of China can immerse themselves in a Chinese environment by seeking out overseas Chinese communities and surrounding themselves with Chinese video and audio material.
There is No Substitute for Making Mistakes and Feeling Awkward
When attending business events and social gatherings, I rarely see Westerners actively trying and speak Chinese with the locals. The room usually separates out into two groups – Westerners and overseas Chinese speaking English and local Chinese speaking Chinese. This is the easy way out, and certainly not an effective way to learn the Chinese language. The way the Chinese language is learned is by putting oneself in Chinese-only environments, and constantly taking risks to try out new words or expressions. Most of the time one will make mistakes, and will feel awkward or embarrassed. But this is an absolutely necessary part of the Chinese language learning process. How many times do babies fall before learning how to stand? The same applies very much to learning Chinese. When one makes a mistakes it is clear that one is pushing at their own limits. Only through persistence and dedication can one surpass those limits and increase their fluency in the Chinese language.
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