No-English week and day: Being on a Roll and Keeping the Ball Rolling
I’m extremely busy as I’ve had some hardware failures on my computers that put some of my data at risk, but I wanted to see if I could take a bit of time to knock out an unfancy post. There may be typos; I will correct in time.
I’d like to share two good, recent, level-up / improvement experiences involving Mandarin. One was self-created, while the other was more coincidental, and I put the effort in to keep it going,
Since I always consider my language learning as quite the side project that I mostly fit into literally spare minutes and seconds, I always say I have very “lazy” and relaxed approach – something I would NOT necessarily recommend to someone, but something I’ve realized is still an option. For the most part, I have no goals other than “keep learning and see how it goes.” I have no motivational urge other than “Do it when you can – just make sure you notice those times when you can.”
However, I’ve developed drives, hopes, and somethings like goals as I’ve gone deeper into languages, particulalry Mandarin and Japanese. So, for those I have a focus on, I do give myself a push once in a while. My “lazy” approach is not a chosen method I subscribe to; it’s merely a relaxed, stress-free approach out of necessity, but if I realize I can afford the time and effort, I will definitely add that effort.
The Chinese-only week (really, a non-English week)
I have a few Chinese friends and some more Chinese acquaintances. I can’t get myself to practice speaking with them. I don’t have a lot of time, it’s hard to find good friends, I don’t see them often, etc., so when I do see them, I’d rather use that time wisely to get to know each other better and just be friends, rather than “waste time” practicing Mandarin. That being said, I’m at a level that, while speaking and following conversation is still pretty problematic, I can actually manage a lot – as long as the other person slows down a teeny bit and is willing to work with me. I’ve met people and spoken to them for 30 minutes to an hour. I go to an Asian market and get around in Chinese. But I needed to do this with my friends.
So I simply announced I would be doing this for a week. If I ran to any other friends or acquaintances who didn’t see / couldn’t have seen my announcement on social networking sites and they tried speaking English to me, I’d tell them this was my “Chinese-only week” and would kindly request their help and support.
And it worked, of course. I had a little bad luck in that I had less chances to see my friends than usual, but those I saw worked with me and stayed away from English. Only when something really problematic or important came up, did I switch to English. Merely by listening to people talking to me and being able to ask a few questions as necessary, I even picked up a few new words, confirmed the usage or pronunciation of some words and phrases I had learned but never heard before, and got a few corrections.
Two weeks later I had a different situation.
Taking Advantage of things going Your Way
A Chinese friend invited me to an early Thanksgiving get-together; there were American, Chinese, Indian, and French students attending - among others – and a few of them were mutual friends. One of my Indian friends was there and he’s very helpful with Hindi, so when he had disappeared for a while and finally came back, I made sure to learn from him how to say “Where did you go? With whom?”
I was introduced to a young man from Beijing, all in Chinese, so I went along with it and talked to him in Mandarin. Despite his clear (but not extremely heavy) Beijing accent, I understood him pretty well, despite some surprised due to the accent (ie., 词儿), and we spoke for probably 30 minutes straight. We spoke about life here, school, language and culture, Chinese puns, games, and more. Throughout the rest of the party, I probably spoke Chinese for what amounted to at least 15 minutes more.
I also got to practice some French with the friend who invited me (he lived in Montreal for a while) as well as the two Parisians there.
Coincidentally, for the following day, a friend I met in Beijing had already asked to Skype with me that morning, so I got to continue the last night’s practicing by speaking to her for an hour in Mandarin, retelling what happened that night as well as updating her on some other things in my life. Then she updated me on what’s new with her, and then we had a more two-way conversation before finishing in English so that in the end she also got an hour of English in.
With last night’s practice being so fresh, as well as the events I was retelling, I actually noticed I did pretty well!
Day 3 (note that these days were all in a row):
Another Thanksgiving get-together! Two Chinese friends who had left for another campus invited me and two other mutual Chinese friends to go see them for this get-together. We were going early, and I chose to drive the two friends going with me, so I was going to be around them for most of the day. Having just had two straight days of decent Chinese practice, what do you think I did today?
I told my friends I’m “on a roll” and would like to keep it up. Let’s try Mandarin-only again!
So we did. When I picked them up, I needed a nearby a gas station to check my tire pressure (it’s a 2 hour drive!), so I asked in Mandarin and my friend guided me there in Mandarin. All of our conversations were in Mandarin and I’d only switch to English when really necessary – even then I’d try more for a Chinglish sentence. Anytime my friends asked me or commented or something, it was in Mandarin.
Halfway there, I had a little break. Things had gotten quiet and my friends had fallen asleep. I put on my earphones and had my phone play through Southern Min / Taiwanese and Shanghainese phrases and words my friends had recorded for me, and I’d repeat them out loud, drilling myself for 30 minutes. Then I turned it off and personally did some hard recollection of Cantonese phrases and words – I had time, so I managed to make myself remember a lot things I thought I had forgotten. Did that for 20 minutes, practicing speaking the phrases and words I was remembering. It’s pretty cool how much memory you can reconstruct if you put the time and effort in. My friend from Beijing actually knows a good bit of Cantonese, so by the time she woke up, I only had two questions for her.
Finally we reached our destination, and I let those friends hosting us know that I was on a no-English day, and used with one of them the mere couple phrases of Southern Min that I know I could use. While she stayed to do the cooking, the rest of us went to check out some apartments for the two friends who came with me. One of those cases simply involved visiting one of my host’s friends, so I paid close attention when they were discussing what the apartments were like.
Then I went to a post office to send off a letter. As I was finishing up, a young woman came in and it turns out she was Chinese, so I spoke a little bit to her in Mandarin as well. She was really quite nice and is studying to teach ESL - no wonder her English was so good! There’s more to the story though sadly not relevant to this post, but I’ll share she was from Wuhan, which is known as one of the “Three Furnaces” of China – one of 3 cities known for their highest summer temperatures – but there’s more to the city at least historically, though sadly I don’t know too much myself – yet!
Back at our hosts’ apartment, it was Mandarin as much as possible throughout various random conversations, and things really got crazy for me when the people started pouring in. I couldn’t follow any huge group conversations, but I did better than usual. I managed better by trying to stick to a smaller group at a time, such as with my friends, or one-on-one with any new acquaintances. Of course, when the host had everyone introduce themselves to everyone, I did that in Mandarin too – and that was my worst part because I didn’t notice when we actually started and didn’t know what was expected for me to say, so I made sure to listen to what everyone else was choosing to say. Even though you’d think it would be simple, the slight unfamiliarty caused me to stumble a good bit - for example, as I worked out a way to express something like “Them, these two, and I all know each other from [campus name here]” without translating from English.
The only sad little thing is that speaking Mandarn still takes some effort, of course, and that effort uses up my brain’s resources, so it can be more difficult to read people’s emotions, take more conscious control of the conversation, or even simply come up with something to say. All those social skills decrease, but hey, I guess it’s part of challenge, and it’s not really my fault since my decision to avoid English was the best for such a get-together anyway. Still, I wish I had been able to talk to my friends or been involved in their conversations a little more. However, what I probably felt worse about, was regarding one of the invited guests who was actually someone I knew from my school program in China last year! She was among the better friends I made on the trip, among the people I had the best impressions of and liked better, and although I’ve tried to stay in touch, it’s been hard. I was excited to see her, but in that environment, I just couldn’t say much or couldn’t keep up a decent conversation – especially not before someone else would step in and take her attention. If I did have the opening, I couldn’t think of what to say. I did what I could, even in English, but I would have needed a much more relaxed situation.
Finally, on the drive back home, I had a longer conversation with one of my friends while the other slept, but mostly English since some of the conversation was much more complex, and I felt like a more relaxed conversation this late at night after the long day was in order.
A Small Interesting Takeaway
You run into so much random vocabulary in a natural conversational environment, that it’s unrealistic to care about understanding or learning all of them. Especially when a conversation needs to keep moving, you BETTER have a very quick and efficient way to note a word down before you’re uncomfortably holding back the conversation. However, if you have a chance to note something down and it’s not the most useful word, just consider if it could be good enough, and note it down. If you successfully learn it, it’s one less word to learn later.
What random words did I learn? 气味 (qi4wei4, odor/scent)，漏水 (lou4shui3, water leak)，静电 (jing4dian4, static electricity)，加热 (jia1re4, add heat / warm up)，（加）油站 (jia1you2zhan4, gas station)，邮局 (you2ju2, post office).
Oh, guess what? I actually did NOT note any of these words down. However, I remember exactly when I heard them, and I pulled out my phone AT THAT VERY MOMENT. Remembering the exact situation, who said the word, who told me the definition, the visual reinforcement of checking the dictionary, and the personal effort to remind myself that night and the day after, was good enough.
Go back at that word list and see if you can’t get the context and realize when I probably learned them, haha!
In Conclusion: Don’t Forget to Challenge Yourself!
That’s what a lot of what this was. Whether I initiated it myself (the No-English week), or chose to continue a streak (the No-English day), when I realized I could use or should give myself a challenge, I did. I normally just go with the flow everyday and don’t think a whole lot about how to force some language practice, but I constantly remind myself to make sure I DO practice when possible, and that I DO keep up the language. So if I haven’t practiced a language in a while, I’ll find a time to review (eg., my Cantonese drilling in the car). If I feel like I could use a little push for speaking practice, I’ll put an extra effort in to challenge myself (No-English week). And finally, especially if the stars and planets have lined up and the gods are looking down favorably on you so as to give you some nice opportunities, take them (30-minute talk at Thanksgiving party) and use it as a springboard to push yourself even further! (No-English day)
Language Practice Totals for My No-English day:
- Mandarin: 6 minutes texting
- Mandarin: 2 1/2 hours speaking with friends
- Mandarin: Occassionally throughout 10 minutes at the post office
- Mandarin: 2 hours listening and speaking as possible at the get-together
- Mandarin: 10 minutes working on tongue twisters with my friend on the drive back home
- Shanghainese and Southern Min / Taiwanese: 30 minutes driling listening and speaking
- Southern Min: 3 minutes review with my friend and host who speaks it
- Cantonese: 20 minutes drilling myself speaking
- Cantonese: 10 minutes studying once my friend woke up
- Japanese: 5 minutes group review of set, polite phrases with some others at the party
- Korean: 2 minutes “teaching,” since someone asked how to say a couple of things