3 Ways to Maintain Foreign Language Mastery without Having to Live Abroad.

I have not written anything during the whole month of April. The reason why is that I have been in post-culture shock moving back from China to Indonesia. There have been quite a lot of readjustments with my daily routines which make writing now become less of priority. No more Mandarin classes, no more Chinese speaking environment; which is devastating because my intermediate Mandarin was just about to take off (just almost), and having the entire supportive environment nullified is a huge setback to my goals on trying to master Mandarin.

The biggest challenge I have to deal with now is how to maintain (or if I am lucky enough, improve) my language proficiency even without all the supportive environment and studying privilege I had before. I have been experimenting with my routines on how to make my aspiration fit in. Ultimately, the answer is going back to this simple principle: if you don’t have the supportive environment, you ought to create one.image

picture is courtesy of www.technikant.com

In this post, I will share three methods I have been using around to try to ensure my Mandarin proficiency is still in shape. Even though I practice this only for my Mandarin skills in particular, but I think the drills are applicable for any languages (hopefully).

Make up your environment

The easiest way for a made-up environment is to actually find a community or a group of people who have the same aspiration. Whether it’s a language or other skills (let’s say debating or MUN or a skill to gossip about other people behind their back), it is always easier to sharpen your proficiency with accompany. There, you can practice your speaking, share your invention, and have some more motivation from people around you [ergo, competition] to study harder.

Now what if there is no such community around? What if all the people around you happen to have zero interest on what you are up to? It is either that you are born in a wrong family or that you just have to step it up a level harder and create your own imaginary self-bubble. For me, I prefer the latter. So here is what I [attempted to] do:

1)      I committed to set apart 1 hour from my daily schedule specifically for studying Mandarin. I sign up to an online course (for free!), listen to their conversations and grammar lessons, jot down 4-5 new vocabulary, and make sentences out of it. I do it everyday and pretend like this is real, must-attend classes. Better yet, because this is an online course, the timing is pretty flexible to my like and there is no coming late to classes. But remember, because the teachers can’t call you out for not listening and that you don’t have accountability partner, this means it requires enough amount of discipline to really drag your ass, login and stay tune everyday.

2)      I change my whole gadgets’ language into Chinese. Of course this will hurt your eyes at first, especially with Mandarin where the strokes are crazily entangling one another. And in my case, I often push wrong buttons: retweeting other’s tweets as opposed to replying or quoting them. But since most of the time we will be interacting with our gadgets, having all your gadgets stare back at you with those shiny foreign characters will make them turn into the powers-that-be to make you get used to all those characters.

3)      I think in Mandarin. Whenever I know the words, I’ll talk to myself using Mandarin.  I even go as far as interpreting the Sunday’s preaching and write a short transcript out of it using Mandarin. Ain’t that “when there is no one else around you to rely to, you have no option but to hang on to yourself”. So, if no one around you can converse in the language you are studying and since we are talking to ourselves all the time, why not making ourselves our own accountability partner?

4)      The lousy part: I watch Chinese drama, listen to Chinese music, and sorting out to Chinese influenced entertainment that exists within my reach. If you are a nerdy-geeky type, you can dare add listening to a variety of news program, like M*tro Xinwen, Wideshot, or Channel News Asia; read Chinese articles; or stalking your Chinese friends on QQ.

Practice, practice, practice!

It is never enough to stress that practice makes perfect. This is especially true when studying foreign language: there is no way you can master a language unless you practice it with persistence. What is important about practicing is no other than making yourself get used to and feeling comfortable with that language.

When I said I jot down new vocabulary everyday, I honestly never try to memorize them. What I did is to just make myself aware that those vocabulary exist. I keep skimming my notes from the previous days and allow my brain to automatically process the words without a single attempt to cram on and stuff them in my pitiable brain. I believe our brain is really good at things that come up with repetition. So I figure if I just keep repeating the same words every day will then let my brain get comfortable with them and are aware those words exist. Hopefully, when I need to express them in the future, they will come out in handy from my subconscious memory (ain’t that what happen with the lyrics of our favorite musics that we put on repeat mode every time? We never really intend to memorize all the lyrics but it seems that our brain has little difficulties operating in automation recalling all the prose from the beginning till the end after quite a while). After all, what is the point of memorizing new words everyday if you will then easily forget them the next day? Trying to memorize vocabulary and trying to be comfortable with the usage of those new words are of two very distinct approaches.

Teach and share

Finally, I think the best way to preserve your knowledge especially your language is to pass it to someone else. When you teach others what you know about the language, it allows you to rethink and evaluate whether you really understand the root logic behind that language. You don’t have to really sign up as Mandarin lecturer to really have the capacity to teach the language. There will always be people around you who will be interested to know the basic expressions in that language. As in my case, I also share the new #Vocab and a piece of #Grammar lessons I learned from that day via my twitter account.

As amateur, we’ll sure make lots of mistakes when teaching. When I first tried to teach my younger brother Mandarin, I found myself perplexed which one is six () and which one is eight (), they are plain basic, but hey, they look quite similar, too. But teaching others allow you to look back at what you have learned, and when you make mistakes you will remember it for life. Because human nature tends to remember things with personal feelings and attachment to it, pointing out that you make a mistake [or having that pointed out to you] will sort of stick those moments into your mind. As a result, you’ll remember them better now as you don’t want to be exposed to the same shameful moment, ever again. Now at least, I remember the Chinese writing for six and eight for life!

Just be sure to be honest when you realize you have committed a mistake, you don’t want to victimize the innocence of people you are teaching. Besides, if your students later figure out you have been teaching them wrong after all this time, your credibility will deplete three times worse, while if you openly admit those mistakes, most of people will actually sympathize with you for being a human.

That’s about summing up the 3 ways studying foreign language that have worked out for me after one month experimenting with them. If you have other ways that I might haven’t thought of yet, feel free to share with the rest of us! :)

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