Language-Learning Can Be Traumatic

Language-Learning Can Be Traumatic

Yesterday, I had the distinct privilege of speaking with a highly intelligent individual whose sole job over the past year has been to learn Chinese, in China. She engages in formal studies at a Chinese university and spends significant amounts of time studying both independently and with private instructors.
By all accounts, her Chinese is quite impressive.  And the level of fluency that she has been able to achieve is made even more impressive by the short amount of time in which she has been able to do so.
I asked her what the key to her success is.  She walked me through a few things that work for her.

1) She tries not to compare herself to other language learners.


I like this.  With this approach, she is less likely to become frustrated over being able to keep up with someone else. Her complete focus can be on her individual journey. Limiting one’s frustrations during the language-learning process helps a lot.  Frustration takes time, energy, and focus – all of which should really be going into learning one’s chosen language. Also, in not comparing herself to others, she is much less likely to limit herself.  It is human nature to think that we can rest a bit easier once we know that we have “a lead” on others.  In staying true to herself and her own journey, she is much more likely to maximize her own potential.  I love it!

2) She described the desire to quit as being a regular part of her early learning cycle.

In the beginning, she wanted to quit every 6 six weeks.  I could identify. At the start of my Chinese learning journey, I wanted to quit every month and a half. I started to feel “stuck” and as if I was not making any progress. I have since learned to work through those frustrating moments, with an assurance that I will indeed see the sunlight once more.
However, she did not become distracted by discouragement, as I had.  She persevered each time she became frustrated and came out stronger.  I left China and vowed not to go back.  Because she did not quit and has only continued to advance.  I admire her character, her strength and dedication to her goals.

3) She acknowledged that there will be tears and immense frustrations.

She did not elaborate on this issue. But, personally, I cried many times trying to learn Chinese in China. Though I was studying every waking hour of everyday, what my teachers wanted from me seemed absolutely impossible. But, I thought, ‘If Chinese people can do it, so can I!’ So, I would try harder and harder.  And my grades continued to get worse and worse. My native Chinese-speaking teachers expected me to learn up to 50 new words everyday – with their characters, pinyin, correct pronunciation, and the correct stroke order for each character.  The teachers were trying to cram over 250 new terms down our throats every week, and we were expected to learn how to use said terms fluently.  I found the situation frustrating beyond words!
There were also about 5 new grammatical constructions to learn every single day; that’s about 25 new grammatical construtions each week.  There were crazy grammar exercises to test our written fluency – which we were supposed to have magically mastered solely from reading selected Chinese texts. And to top it all off, the so-called English “translations” in our textbooks were written in broken English. It was a mixture of Chinese grammar with English vocabulary words; something that is often referred to as “Chinglish.”  Much of the time I had no earthly idea what they were trying to teach me.
The teaching assistant would write in huge red letters on my daily quizzes that I needed to study harder. In a conference meeting with that same teaching assistant and two of my private tutors, he finally admitted that he thought that I was too old to learn Chinese.  I had treated them all to dinner.  He was the only one who ate.  He only admitted that he felt the fault lied completely with my age after scarfing down an entire heaping plate of jiaozi (Chinese buns) that had been dipped in vinegar, then letting out a huge belch.
The situation was absolutely insane.  So, yes. I cried and I, too, had been extremely frustrated.

4) She explained that the process of establishing a foundation in Chinese is non-linear.

Her conclusion was that there are no specific steps to be taken in order to transition smoothly from English to Chinese. Now, I believe that she was specifically referring to learning Chinese in an academic setting, or perhaps another high-pressure environment in which there are performance expectations. In these settings, students are oftentimes expected to pass HSK* 3 in a matter of 12 months.
*The HSK is the Chinese proficiency exam.  There are 6 levels to this test.  HSK 3 represents roughly 3 years of study.
In a more relaxed setting, there would be more sufficient time allowed for students to learn pronunciation, pinyin, tones, etc., in stages. In a more relaxed setting more time would be allowed for laying a solid foundation. But that is not the way that things work in an academic setting, or when your job has sent you to China to learn. And this leads to her 5th point.

.5) Learning Chinese is traumatic.

When she said this, I must admit that something on the inside of me reacted. My reflex was to judge her wording and to try to find a softer way to explain the process of learning a language. After all, it was just a language. How can learning a language be traumatic? Isn’t that wording much too strong?
No. The wording absolutely is not too strong. I am two years into my Chinese language journey and I can honestly say that the process to getting my brain to adapt to this language has, on one hand been beautiful and rewarding; and on the other hand, it has been purely traumatic. The cycle of forcing the brain to create new processes, then giving it a few weeks to adapt, then forcing it to create additional new processes but on a deeper level, then giving it a few weeks to adapt…repeat, repeat, repeat.  No matter how one looks at it, it is a painfully frustrating process. And so we arrive at the final step.

6) Take breaks.

Speaking with this wonderfully-intelligent and well-rounded individual, I realized that there needs to be a sense of balance.  I simply cannot go at 100%, 7 days a week, without any breaks, and expect my brain to continue to function as it needs to.

7) I would like to add a note here and that is that – acknowledging that there is room for improvement in the educational process takes some of the stress off of the language learners.  Instead of judging ourselves, we can explore better methodologies which may assist us, individually, or the language learning community on a whole.

Not a single one of my Chinese teachers, who learned English using this Chinese method is confident with his/her English.  Five years later, ten years later, even twenty years later, they are still unsure of their ability to use English. They know that their grammar is not native, that their sentence structures are unnatural, that their pronunciation is often difficult to understand.
Likewise, I have yet to encounter a native English speaker who has achieved Chinese fluency outside of China, or without having been raised in a home where Chinese is spoken by natives. Our pronunciation is poor; in fact, many of us even downplay the importance of tones. Our Chinese grammar is incorrect, as are our constructed Chinese sentences. We use the verb “to be” incorrectly and forget that time should be indicated at the beginning of the sentence and not the end. We are not clear on how to indicate the time in which events take place, because Chinese has no verb tenses.  And the word order for Chinese and English are totally different, once one moves beyond basic sentence structures.
The Chinese system for teaching language indicates that students should simply memorize-memorize-memorize. Memorize thousands of characters. Memorize pages and pages of text, verbatim. The Western system for teaching language says that we should memorize tons of material, in-context. But when one is presented with context, there are dozens of nuances that must be explored. Questions arise about why it is appropriate to use a particular construction in one situation but not in another. And insufficient time is granted in both the Chinese and the Western systems for the student to wrap his brain around this information.
The result is that language learners speak a sort of Frankenstein-esque version of both languages.
And so, yes.  I can honestly say that as a native English speaker who is dedicated to learning Chinese (and to learning the language well), it does often times feel as if I am forcing my brain to do something completely unnatural.   The process is uncomfortable.  It is frustrating.  And it is, indeed, traumatic.
But I am determined to persevere on my journey.  And, with that, I am off to study!

I did not intend for my recent conversation with this individual to be a topic for my blog. But her words of wisdom made such an impact on me that I could not stop thinking about them and how they applied to my own journey. I wish to thank her for taking the time to speak with me. You are an inspiration. Best of luck to you in your studies and with all that you do moving forward.

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