Home > Journal, Motivation & Attitude > Watching out for Milestones

Watching out for Milestones

Catching those little moments of success. We’ve had these moments many times.
They feel good. right? Then you don’t want to miss them!

Sometimes we are frustrated in our lack of improvement. Sometimes we are at a plateau and feel we can’t get out. Sometimes we feel we’ve improved, but it’s not significant, or it’s never significant enough. While sometimes they are real issues (getting out of a plateau is a whole topic in itself), sometimes it’s all in our heads, or we’re simply too busy worrying without realizing the signs of success.

While I’m not going to address this topic too directly, I wanted to write (and thus share) some little things I noticed recently, that helped raise my spirits, but easily could have been missed. (I actually have stories from earlier stages of study, but I will add them later. Since they’re past, there’s little motivation and priority for my writing them.) Apart from the last one, these all relate to Mandarin Chinese.

Three Messages, Two topics, One Day

The first happened a few months ago. After my Chinese class and trip to China gave me enough immersion to become fast enough to manage instant messaging and texting in Chinese, I’ve gotten used to such chatting without the need of English – as long as I have a dictionary on hand. I’m used to the grammar enough and seem to know enough basic (and useable!) vocabulary to write without much hassle – occasionally having to look up a word in the dictionary is really not a bother and thus not something I pay much attention to.

However, once in a while the thought came to me that unless it was a brief exchange, I was still checking the dictionary roughly the same amount – in other words, I felt like my behavior had been staying the same, and I hadn’t been improving much. Then the time came for me to write three messages. One was a reply to my Chinese professor that mainly updated her on my life after the study abroad program in China, as well as the current state of my Chinese studies. The other two were private messages to possible language exchange partners, and I was introducing myself and proposing how we can help each other. The email was the last one I wrote, and as I neared the end, I got stuck and went to look up a word in the dictionary. That’s when it hit me.

This was the first time that day that I went to check a dictionary. 

Even those two “introductions” weren’t your run-of-the-mill introductions you can learn from a couple of podcast lessons. I was talking about my studies, what I was looking to do, and my hopes on working for mutual language exchange. The realization that I’d written nearly 800 characters of messages with only a single obligatory dictionary-check definitely helped me realize a certain level of progress. It’s that simple notion of “I couldn’t do this before.That’s what you should watch out for throughout your language studies.

5-minute Introduction and Small Talk

Waiting around for a friend, I saw a Chinese girl nearby whom I didn’t know, and started off in Mandarin asking if she was Chinese. Though she was friendly, we didn’t have much of a chance to go for more than 5 minutes, but I managed to keep the conversation in Mandarin, and didn’t feel restricted – I managed to say everything I wanted and didn’t need to switch to English (I would have if I had felt that I needed to) and I understood everything she said, though she had to repeat a sentence a couple of times.

This conversation was pretty basic, but I wasn’t slow or stumbling all that much – a big improvement from meetings I remembered from just a a few months back.

A Few Choice Songs Throughout Your Studies

I’ve been listening to music throughout all my time learning these languages, so I know what songs I was listening to when I was starting out. I may even remember a couple whose lyrics I had tried to make out and subsequently looked up. After these 2 years of study, I’ll go back to them and pay attention once more, and realize how many more words I understand now. (See the first picture in this post.)

This is a neat habit: to have a small selection of songs (optimally, those with everyday language) and check back on them say, every 6 months of study. You’ll definitely notice your improvement in listening comprehension and vocabulary.

Changing an Interface to Chinese

Phone Language SwitchI got my iPhone roughly 9 months ago. After getting used to the phone’s basic features, I remember setting it to Chinese just to see what it was like. I was nearly completely lost. I knew some buttons and options from memory of their locations, but many of them are relatively technical terms, so I couldn’t make out copy, paste, undo, cancel, any loading notifications, much less any error messages. Now, 2 months ago, I set it on Chinese once more, and I’ve left it like that. While I still don’t know many of those words, I recognize more of the characters making them up, so I can tell what they mean from context. Completely new words are learned because I’m even more familiar with the phone, so I may have an idea what sort of things I should be looking at, giving me a bit of context. Notifications and other messages are also much easier to understand from my increased knowledge of words and characters. In fact, I decided to try changing to Chinese again because I’ve decided I’m at a point where I should shift my focus to learning more vocabulary.

It feels good to know that I’ve made this step, and I am now using my phone, school email, and Facebook in Chinese – on top of Chinese sites and programs like Renren, Weixin, etc.

Telling Someone the Name of a Drama

Dalkomhan Insaeng

달콤한 인생 (드라마) / Dalkomhan Insaeng / Bittersweet Life / La Dolce Vita

And finally, this little story is not as significant but relates to my reason for learning to read certain languages, while not necessarily learning to speak or understand them. Despite the fact I am now in fact taking on Korean on the side, my intent in learning to read Korean, Russian, Greek, Vietnamese, and soon, Arabic, is simply so that I can read and pronounce properly enough to be able to relay text I am looking at without requiring the other person to take a look themselves. I do believe there is some use to this. You can be walking down the street and from a distance, ask your friend what a sign says without having them have to come back to you. You can be at a restaurant getting food for a friend back home, and you can report over the phone what the special of the day is, even if you don’t know what it actually is. I thus think it’s especially useful when traveling.

Otherwise, I may be stretching its usefulness, but come on! Wouldn’t it be cool to at least be able to read many languages? You could even play a joke on friends and pretend to know what you’re actually reading! Yes, I’m being a little silly, BUT, if it’s something simple but useful, even a simple “that’d be cool” can be enough of a reason or motivation for you to start doing it.

Well, as for the actual story, my Korean friends didn’t recognize the English name of a Korean drama I was watching – understandably so, partly because many dramas don’t have a single, standard English title. So I looked it up on my phone, and read it back to them, and then they knew which one I was talking about. I looked up and mentioned a few others as well.

Although I had learned the alphabet and even proper pronunciation by the first 2 weeks, it definitely takes more time to increase the level and speed of reading and pronunciation. I can remember that months back, there was a similar situation, but I was still too slow and bad at my pronunciation, so the other person still had to look for themselves. Now, my reading it for them was enough. This only hit me a few hours later, and I was glad to see that my simple goal in learning to read Korean had been achieved.

Wrapping it All Up

In the end, even if you set intermediary goals and checkpoints for yourself, you can’t possibly think of all that would make good ones, and you may be improving in certain areas when you think you aren’t. Assuming you truly are improving, you need to keep aware of various little actions you normally may not be analyzing or paying attention to, and comparing the nature of those events with those from earlier. My last example was in fact related to a a specific goal, and the iPhone matter was a checkpoint I had made for myself. The first three, however, weren’t of that nature. They were matters of speed and frequencies, which improve gradually, but you will experience challenges that have happened before, so if you keep your awareness up, you will notice them and be able to compare with your past experiences. I had been using my dictionary less while chatting, but hadn’t noticed. I’ve had the experience of meeting Chinese people, and easily could had missed that this last one went more smoothly. I could simply enjoy listening to music and not realize I recognize more words.

And finally, do give yourself mini-goals and checkpoints as long as they are SMART: Specific, Measurable (in this case, shall I use noticeable?), Attainable, Relevant or Reasonable, and Timely – well, in this case I’m talking about those you don’t put on a time-table, but DO decide on these markers, and watch for when you reach them.

I could have not dared to try using my phone in Chinese again and would have not realized that I’m now able to. I easily could have missed that my Korean friends’ understanding of the titles I read was significant, because I wasn’t thinking about language study or practice – I’m simply talking to my friends.

What things are you doing now that you couldn’t before? What are you doing faster? More smoothly? Less often?

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