Don’t Waste Time Studying What You Can Simply Acquire

One of my clients recently shared this article and asked my thoughts: Learning Chinese: from gruesome, to good, to great.

I’d sum up the three main pieces of advice for getting Chinese to “great” as follows:

  • The first is changing where you talk from, physically. (Don’t sound all high-pitched.)
  • The second is changing how you breathe. (Focus on tones.)
  • The third is changing the rhythm. (Mimic native speakers.)

Although the titles sound like incredibly difficult tasks to accomplish, the practical advice which follows (and I’ve summed up in parentheses above) is not at all bad.

Learn Implicitly When You Can

The daunting tasks above touch on one of the tricky things about the field of second language acquisition: separating what should be explicitly taught from what should be learned implicitly through exposure and practice. For the vast majority of learners, all three of the main points (voice, breathing, rhythm) should be acquired implicitly over time, and don’t need much active focus. (Almost all learners benefit much more from focusing on the main pronunciation issues they’re probably already aware of, and getting a good handle on those.)

Hamster on Wheel

Everyone is different, though, so it’s possible that some people in certain circumstances (such as actors, professional singers, etc.) will benefit from active focus on breathing techniques, for example.

“Voice Quality”

I can give one example of my own personal experience with the one about “changing where you talk from, physically.” When I was working on my masters at East China Normal University (华东师范大学), one of my professors, Mao Shizhen, was an expert in phonology, as well as a voice coach for news broadcasters and the like. This was back in 2006 or 2007, and he once told me that my Chinese was quite good, but that my voice quality (I think he used the word “音色”) didn’t feel like a native Chinese person’s, and that to sound truly native, I should work on that. I later learned that I had a host of other issues I still needed to focus on to sound more native (most of which I’ve written about on Sinosplice at one point or another), so I didn’t worry about the “voice quality” issue or focus on it at all. Over time, though, my “voice quality” started sounding more and more natural due to increased fluency and practice. My Chinese may not be perfect or sound exactly like a native speaker’s, but I regularly fool people into thinking I’m a native speaker on the phone, and that’s good enough for me.

Explicit Tone Learning

An even better example to highlight the “explicit/implicit” difference is the tones of Mandarin Chinese. Most of us start out pathetically oblivious, and we really appreciate explicit instruction explaining what tones are, why they’re important, how to make them, how to practice them, etc. We want to know, and we feel that the explanation helps us, even if deep down we know that you could master tones simply by mimicking native speakers, just like a baby does. Unlike babies, adult learners can actually benefit a lot from explicit instruction. (They still need plenty of practice, though.)

Here’s the thing with tones, though: you need to learn the 4 tones (plus a neutral tone) well. You need to learn the tone change rules well. Everyone benefits greatly from tone pair practice, so you should do that as well (and that one will take a bit longer to really master).

But after you’ve hit the big three, you can stop digging deeper into the tiny intricacies of tones. Are there other, more subtle tone changes going on? Yes. Are all fourth tones created exactly equal? Actually, no. But these are questions that you can delegate to your (under-appreciated, underestimated) unconscious brain.

Conclusion

If you continue to strive to sound like native speakers, imitating their speech patterns as well as you can, you will get closer and closer to native as time goes on, and that includes implicitly learning aspects of the language that you didn’t even know you were learning. Have you ever asked a native speaker a question about their language, only to realize that you know more than they do about this particular aspect of their language (grammar, etymology, tone changes, etc.)? That’s because they’ve implicitly mastered the language and don’t need to be conscious of those concepts to use it fluently.

In fact, some of my proudest language learning moments have been discovering that I had mastered something without even studying it. This has included usage of certain words or grammar points, as well as tiny nitpicky details of pronunciation. Everything is fair game. Because you probably started out learning everything explicitly, it becomes a habit, and you may think that you’ll always have to do it that way. I’m happy to say that this is not the case. The better your Chinese becomes, the more you can (and should) learn implicitly, through exposure and regular practice.

So remember: you need practice, you need input. Focus on comprehension and imitating native speakers. You’ll learn a whole lot more implicitly than you think.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. Well said. Brilliant post.

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