No Worries Wednesday – Language Acquisition

Author: Chris Yeast

No Worries Wednesday is a series where blog contributors speak to a topic which they were worried before they participated in an education abroad experience. Leaving all that you are surrounded by and comfortable with can be challenging or even frightening. This series will hopefully dispel myths and ease worries for students who are considering taking part in exchanges, field schools or other international learning opportunities!

During my undergraduate degree, I took Chinese (Mandarin) language courses on a whim. After a few years of taking classes in Canada, I decided to go on exchange to China and study language classes at a Chinese university in a fully immersion environment.

When I found out I was going on this journey, I was super excited but also hesitant. I knew learning a language in an English-speaking context was a completely different experience from what I was going to take part. It was more different than I could have imagined! I went from learning 30 vocabulary words every two weeks in Canada to having 200 new vocabulary words every week in China. And those 200 words were just from the vocabulary lists in my textbooks! There were many more words that I came across every day in my textbooks or in conversation that I didn’t know, as well.

For the first month, I was a fish out of water! While I knew I would have this experience, it was a big learning curve for me. As each week went by, my language skills became better and better. When I returned to Canada, I was able to say I was fluent!

Here are some of the tricks that I used which I found helpful in my language learning journey:

1)      Make mistakes

I regularly reminded myself it was okay to make mistakes. I had a difficult time giving myself permission to make mistakes when I was speaking, writing and using Chinese. I found that when I was scared to make mistakes, I generally didn’t engage in conversations that were happening around me. I wanted to be perfect!

I had to give myself permission to make mistakes. Mistakes are a great opportunity to learn. My goal was to communicate and as long as I could express my meaning and other people could understand it, I was achieving my goal.

2)      Acknowledge your limitations

Learning takes time! I realized I did not have to know everything today. As I came into this realization, I became more comfortable telling people if I didn’t understand the topic of conversation, or if people were speaking too quickly. This helped me communicate more easily with people because they had a better understanding of my language skills.

3)      Treat every experience as a learning opportunity

I carried paper and a pen with me everywhere I went. If I was in a shopping centre and I encountered vocabulary I didn’t know and I thought it would be useful in the future, I wrote it down. I did the same thing when I had conversations with people and take note of useful phrases or sentences to remember for later.

4)      Be gentle to yourself

I knew my language skills were improving over the long term but I had a hard time seeing that day-to-day. I would have bad days where I misunderstood things as simple as someone saying “hello” when the day before I might have been having fluent conversations. This would affect my confidence for the rest of the day. For me, this tied into giving yourself permission to make mistakes. I also found it important to take time to relax and take care of myself by eating my favourite meals, watching English television, and things like that which gave me a chance to recharge.

Learning a new language is challenging and everyone will have a different experience about what works best for them. These are some things that helped me out with my learning!

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