Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

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Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby adabaf » Wed Sep 30, 2020 1:03 pm

Hi there,

I'm going to be in a fairly unique situation, and I figured all you SLA gurus would know how to make the most of it.

My employer is sending me to China, where I will live and work for several years. One of the perks is that before moving, my job will be entirely to learn Mandarin. I'll have several hours a day one-on-one with a tutor, and the rest self study, with regular exams. This training period will last about a year and a half. I'm expected to then do my job, mostly in Chinese. Some of this will involve technical language (which, of course, my tutor will help me learn) - but I must attain a fairly high fluency. Looking at CEFR levels, I think about C1-C2.

I recognise what a huge privilege this is (and the lengths many people would go to for a similar opportunity!) - so I'd like your expert advice on how to make the most of this. Any hot tips or 'force multipliers' (i.e. regular conversations with native speakers?) would be much appreciated. I've done some googling and reading of this forum - there are lots of fantastic resources (thank you Iversen, rdearman, Ericounet).

Some background, if relevant: I enjoy learning languages, and have a good memory for vocab, though I have historically struggled with complex grammar (very thankful for lack of tenses/conjugation in Chinese). I think I learn best in a playful way that lets me explore culture through language. I have decent, conversational German (from high school) and smatterings of French and Spanish (from uni/travel). I spent a few months studying Chinese while living in Asia (not China), so am familiar with the tones/pronunciation.

Many thanks,
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby Axon » Wed Sep 30, 2020 6:12 pm

What an excellent opportunity! Clearly you're worth quite a bit to your company.

As you already know the basics of Chinese and you're familiar with language learning on your own, plus you have the benefit of a regular paid tutor, I don't think there's much people on here can offer you. I'm really interested to hear how your learning goes!

For Chinese specifically, I find that you can learn a lot of words and expressions and be quite comfortable using them with a few people, and then you meet some new people and they use a set phrase that totally throws you off. Therefore, I strongly recommend you do your best to expose yourself to authentic media and high-quality textbooks from various locations and time periods. For example, YouTube has thousands of hours of Chinese TV shows from the 1990s and early 2000s, which naturally include slightly different turns of phrase than the newest TV from the late 2010s. Our user Snowflake has shared a lot of helpful experience balancing the vocabulary used by various Chinese-speaking communities worldwide.

How comfortable are you now with reading Chinese characters? Comfort with characters takes a seriously long time to develop and will also be a very necessary part of your job. I would definitely use some of your tutor's time to help you learn to read a written character text aloud in Chinese at a moderate speed. It is very likely that you will still not be able to do this for most texts after 18 months (even university-educated speakers of all languages make mistakes reading aloud), but it's a demanding exercise that will help you in a big way.

At regular periods, check that what you're learning how to do with your tutor is relevant to what you'll be asked to do when you work. Perhaps at three months you can try explaining the function of some technical equipment (I'm assuming you'll work in tech or manufacturing) and see where your weak parts are, and then try the same thing again after another month or so.

Also, don't burn out! You'll almost definitely have days where you feel you've been set with an impossible task and you can't stand the sight of a single Chinese character. This is normal! Pace yourself and take days off now and then to just enjoy thinking in English or doing things unrelated to either your work or Chinese.
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby ASEAN » Fri Oct 02, 2020 7:52 pm

Steve Kaufmann was a member of the Canadian diplomatic corp in the 1960s and 1970s. He chose to be sent to Hong Kong in 1967 or 1968 to learn Mandarin as Canada prepared to open up diplomatic relations with China.
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby Purangi » Mon Oct 05, 2020 8:49 pm

Axon already gave excellent tips. I would add the following:

1. Learning to write characters really helps remembering them, but it is also the most time-consuming aspect of learning Chinese. If you want to progress faster, I would put emphasis on learning to recognize characters, instead of writing them by heart in the correct stroke order. This is especially true for characters beyond the most 1500 common ones.

2. As soon as possible, start using pinyin input software on your phone and computer and play around with characters. Mastering pinyin input technology is 10x more useful for life in modern China than a beautiful handwriting and correct stroke order.

3. Take advantage of the fact that nearly all Chinese tv shows come with subtitles and are available online for free. Pick one and stick with it. If Chinese shows are too hard at first, a tons of US sitcoms are also available with Chinese subtitles.

4. If possible, learn characters who have a common basic element together. Although this means you will have to learn a bunch of “rare” characters from the start, it will avoid a lot of confusion later on. If you know 狼, learning 浪 and 琅 will be a piece of cake.

5. Mnemonics are your best friends, see Heisig!

Good luck with your project and keep us updated!
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby Jim » Tue Oct 06, 2020 5:10 am

This paper written by two teachers from the Foreign Service Institute is worth a read:
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby adabaf » Mon Oct 12, 2020 9:57 pm

Thanks all for the excellent feedback, tips and advice. The Steve Kaufmann video was interesting - particularly to hear more emphasis on reading and listening than, say, speaking. And that's a great FSI paper, chock-full of good anecdotes and little bits of data.

Thanks Axon and Purangi for the advice on Chinese TV shows - I think I'll take advantage of the recent proliferation of them on Netflix (I'm already a fan of 'A Bite of China'). I'm curious about 'mastering pinyin input technology' - I've used some before and had thought it pretty self-explanatory, but I guess there's more depth to it (ie the order in which characters appear as you type the pinyin, or different entry methods (drawing characters)).

Also, appreciate the advice about not burning out and getting comfortable with reading characters. The coming months are slightly daunting, but mostly exciting.

I'll set a reminder to check in every few months and give an update here.
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby Flickserve » Sun Oct 18, 2020 4:11 pm

I would say, revise tones and pronunciation again and raising it to a higher level of consistency. Shouldn't take too long but if you are going to be dealing in technical language for work, having clear pronunciation will certainly make things easier.

Train listening skills ++. For mandarin, it's been excruciatingly difficult. I like to think something like 60-70% of the time will need to go to listening. Train active listening by transcribing - it's slow but useful. Another method was recording my online class. I would listen again and isolate some sentences where the teacher would have a word where not knowing that one word would affect my comprehension of the sentence. I sent the MP3 back and then asked the teacher to write down what they had said and I then reviewed. I found that quite useful as it acted as a review, and the teacher realised what my true level of comprehension was!

I spent two years listening to the radio almost everyday for 30mins driving to work. Maybe it helped catch the rhythm of the language but not much else.
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby leosmith » Tue Oct 27, 2020 4:58 am

I think it is important for westerners to learn pinyin very well in the beginning. We often lag the most in our listening skill. If you feel comfortable already, I recommend checking your listening with pinyin practice tone combos. If your pinyin is good, you should get these right 90%+ of the time.

Maybe somewhat contrary to what another poster here said, I believe while avoiding writing may speed things up in the beginning, it’s not efficient to put it off for long. Ime, most advanced learners can write (not just type) to some extent.
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Re: Being taught Chinese for my job. How to make the most of it?

Postby adabaf » Fri Feb 26, 2021 8:13 am

Hi all,

A quick update, as much for my benefit as anyone's in taking stock after one month of Mandarin tuition. Technically it's been five weeks, but I'm subtracting one after spending all of Chinese New Year - and the accompanying break in tuition as my teachers went home - in quarantine...

Some general thoughts:

- Four and a half hours one-on-one online tuition per day, while of course an immense privilege, can also be pretty gruelling. Classes are 9-12 and 1-2:30, spread across three different teachers. Afternoon classes are more focussed on listening and speaking, but even the morning sessions have plenty of non-textbook Mandarin chat. It's broadly pretty fun/interesting, but there's an inevitable 20% that drags. The teachers are excellent.I'm a little over halfway through HSK2 at the moment. Also doing the NPCR at a much slower pace - only halfway through the first book. But I suppose it's a good chance to review, as well as learn a slightly different lexicon.

- I find I have very little motivation for further classroom study after the day's classes. I basically punch out my new Anki cards, review any particularly tricky grammar and then go for a wander (outside! in the fresh (actually quite polluted) air!). There's an odd combination of mild quarantine-induced agoraphobia and a bit of travel shock - not culture shock, more like the first few days/weeks of a long-term trip where you find yourself uncharacteristically shy and introspective. I find I'm experiencing irrationally large swings in my own perceived ability and progress - while I'm apparently progressing just fine, some days you feel like everything makes sense, others it's just a string of mistakes and constant corrections from the teacher.

- Handwritten character drills make me want to cease existing (I believe you'd say something like '手写汉字,我死了‘) - I think because it feels like a very inefficient use of time. That, and I think it'll be the least-used component of the language for me. Recognition is vital, of course, but I should almost always have pinyin input. Thankfully I've managed to just avoid most of the drills by impressing my teachers with character recognition, almost entirely thanks to Anki (free spaced repetition software). My deck has about 500 cards at the moment, containing perhaps 400 distinct characters.

- Anki is fantastic. Sure, it's clunky and a bit ugly and there's a learning curve, but it removes such large pain points (review timing and the actual construction/writing of the flashcards). It's invaluable. For anyone else using Anki for Mandarin, I highly recommend the 'Chinese Support Redux' addon, which automatically fetches pinyin, English translation, Google text-to-speech audio, and word frequency within the add card window after you enter the Hanzi. It's pretty amazing. Some say you lose something by not having to search for each character's exact definition, but if you're adding ~20-50 cards/day it's a large timesaver.

- It's very satisfying to gradually be able to have a more fluid, in-depth conversation - even if it's just with teachers at this point. You realise that word you couldn't remember a few days ago now springs to hand when needed. I'm sure that's nothing new to most people, but it's nice to recognise.

Anyway, that actually wasn't so quick. I'll check back in after a few more months. Thanks for all your tips and engagement.
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