Lessons in Learning Chinese: Chris Hubbard

For the fifth entry in our Lessons in Learning Chinese series we interviewed Chris Hubbard, a reader of the blog and expat living in Taipei, Taiwan.

Chris is a great example of someone who’s taken language learning into their own hands. After coming to Taipei to learn Chinese, Chris started out at a local university’s language learning program, but quickly found the  learning environment stifling. After finishing the program and starting to work full-time, he was still determined to learn Chinese with the little time that he had. With books, music, movies, language partners, and a newly formed self-directed approach, Chris’s Chinese started progressing and he’s been on an upward journey ever since.

Chris was kind enough to share some details about his personal experience, methods, opinions, and of course – valuable advice. Enjoy!

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What’s your approach to learning Chinese?

Since I work full time, my approach is to use what time I have, to do what I can – but not place a ton of pressure on myself to learn too fast. The minute I start pressuring myself or comparing myself with others is when I start getting frustrated and stop enjoying the learning process. I’ve accepted that this is a long term journey that I chose to go on, and so I’m allowed to travel at my own pace.
What methods have been the most useful to you along the way?

I think the method that I’m currently using has been quite effective for someone in my situation. Basically, I study in my textbook for an hour a day, meet with a tutor for a few hours on Fridays, and use flashcards and game apps during the week to help solidify what I’m learning. I also try to go out a least a few times a week and just speak Chinese to people, either in the markets or the bars, and watch some Chinese movies during the week.

Also, some months ago I decided to start doing language exchanges again. This time though, I wanted to structure them differently. In the past, I found language exchanges to be pretty awkward. It felt really hard to find things to talk about, and they would always just degrade into speaking English the whole time anyways. So, I decided that I wanted something more like a tutor exchange. I would bring a list of about 10 words I was trying to add to my vocabulary and ask the person to focus just on these words – helping me to fully comprehend their use. Most people weren’t expecting this of course and it seemed to throw people off (particularly those who I felt just wanted to sit around and chat with me in English, or be on a date with me.) But, the technique worked really well for me. It not only helped me fully learn my new vocab, but it also helped me quickly find people who were good language exchange partners for me.

On a related note – any tools you’ve found particularly useful or just plain essential? 

The Anki flash card app is pretty essential for me and I use it almost daily. But, I do have to say that there seems to be a lot of room for new and interesting language learning apps. I found that while using a text book and flash card app is effective for learning new vocab, it gets boring really quickly for someone like me. I’m a visual person and actually hate just sitting around memorizing things. I’m constantly trying to find new ways to keep myself motivated.

I also recently discovered one of the best language learning game apps I’ve seen so far. It’s called MindSnacks. Although it has its own kinks to be worked out, it’s one of the best of its kind. It’s fun to play and will help you learn new words as well. For me, an app like this works well when I know I should be studying but I’m just sick of it. I can play this MindSnacks app and it feels more like entertainment than education.

I also watch a lot of Chinese movies and listen to lots of Chinese music. This is entertainment too, and I find that if I can turn my entertainment into learning experiences at the same time, then I’ll learn more fully.

If you could go back and talk to yourself when you were just starting to learn Chinese – what would you say to yourself?

Don’t expect it to all happen overnight. For most of us, the learning takes a lot of time, and a lot of effort. Sure, if you can afford a full-time one-on-one tutor and spend your days just speaking chinese, you’ll learn quicker. But for those of us who’s time and money is more limited, it’s going to be a longer process – but, that’s OK. Don’t stress out about it. Do what you can and don’t worry about making a fool of yourself. Think of yourself as being at a certain age in the language. I’m currently speaking like a six-year-old in Chinese, so it’s OK if I mess up. I’m six for crying out loud!

What’s your favorite thing about learning Chinese?

My favorite thing about learning Chinese is the new doors it opens up to you while living abroad. The better I get, the better and more interesting my quality of life seems to be while living here. I have the opportunity to meet more types of people. I’m not just limited to the English speaking communities anymore. I also enjoy the pure challenge of it. For me, learning a second language is a journey with a whole different array of challenges that change dramatically overtime and as you progress. One week I’ll feel as if I’ve made a lot of progress, and the next I’ll feel as if that progress wasn’t any real progress at all because I’ve realized a whole new set of obstacles – but, it’s interesting and something to continually work on. I always thought about learning a second language but never did anything about it, and now that its actually happening. It feels great.

Chris writes at From Here to Over There where he blogs about his life and times in Taipei, Taiwan.

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