Although this site is primarily focused on photography, I find it a bit funny that I have essentially not even mentioned language learning, which is an even bigger interest/hobby of mine than photography and has impacted my life in major ways. As usual, I don’t really have a clear outline of what I’ll write here, but my intent is to talk about a bit of my history with language learning and then go into my present experiences regarding it. As this is about language learning, I will also write a Chinese version of this blog post, since many of my readers are located in Taiwan. Although, the Chinese version will be a slightly simplified version due to linguistic limitations.
I have had contact with foreign languages all my life. My mom studied Spanish as a second language and tried to expose my brother and me to Spanish from a young age. My entire family lived in the Philippines for several years when I was around the ages of 8-11 years old. Aside from that time, the majority of my childhood and adolescence was spent in California, which is relatively linguistically and culturally diverse.
In high school I studied Spanish for two years, and after that, as a result of playing World of Warcraft on a server with many Brazilians, I started studying Portuguese in my free time and interacting with Brazilians online. When I was 17 I attended a summer exchange program in Japan and learned a little Japanese at that time. I also must have studied 10-15 other languages for varying lengths of time, most of which I am no longer able to speak or understand now. The first time I really learned any language beyond the intermediate level was when I learned Chinese, starting from around the age of 21.
The circumstances that led to me learning Chinese are a bit unusual, since I actually didn’t choose to learn Chinese and had little interest in Chinese language or culture prior to that. It was because when joined the army I selected a job related to languages, and was assigned to learn Chinese. At the military language school we studied around 8 hours every day for 1.5 years, and had to balance that with our military trainings and obligations. Even though it was basically my dream to be getting paid to learn a language, I was not super enthusiastic about learning while I was at that school because by the time I finished classes and did the mandatory homework, I was basically so tired that I wanted nothing to do with any Chinese stuff for the rest of the day. At the time, I was not a very dedicated or hardworking student, and my grades were generally around the average in the class (although the class average was probably like 90%).
In the years following, I only occasionally used Chinese besides the 3 years when I worked as a document translator, and my Chinese level mostly stayed the same until I was 29 years old and moved to Taiwan (where I live now).
In Taiwan, I live in a place that would be considered somewhat countryside, and where not many people speak English compared to in the bigger cities, so I find myself speaking exclusively Chinese with people outside of work. At work I speak English with the few other English teachers, but with my supervisor and most of the other teachers and faculty I primarily use Chinese. Aside from the difficulty of making friends in this area, I enjoy the overall circumstances of my life here, and am glad to have so many opportunities to speak Chinese on a daily basis.
Interestingly, it took a very long time before I started really noticing that my Chinese had improved after moving here. The first 6-9 months I knew I had learned a bunch of new words, but my overall ability to understand and communicate didn’t feel like it had changed that much. It’s hard to notice very small incremental changes, but after about a year of living here I really started to realize that 90% of the time I can really just immediately reply to people and understand things without really having to think at all, which is definitely much better than I was prior to moving here. Maybe one of these days I’ll try to take a Chinese test or something to determined my level.
I have basically not seriously studied Chinese at all since I moved here, probably for the same reason I didn’t study that hard in language school – at the end of the day, I’m usually quite tired from using Chinese all day and don’t feel like continuing to push myself by consuming Chinese-language media or studying. Although, sometimes after work I spend my free time studying Vietnamese for fun, but can’t find the energy to study Chinese.
My primary reasons for language learning throughout my life have been mostly related to personal interest or having fun, I never really had any ambition or intention to use these languages for work, although I did always dream of living abroad again ever since my experience living in the Philippines. I think of language learning somewhat like a fun game, like I’m figuring out a puzzle that has the added benefit of allowing me to communicate and connect with new people.
Since my reason for studying languages is usually personal interest (intrinsic motivation), it can be very hard for me to maintain motivation in my studies beyond the first 3-6 months, which is the time when the language is fresh and new; this initial, high motivation stage is also when people usually make the most progress – from understanding nothing to understanding some things. It somewhat makes sense why the only language I have reached a high level in is Chinese, since it’s the only language I ever had a specific goal or external use for (extrinsic motivation in the form of avoiding punishment in the army and qualifying for my job).
As people continue learning a language, the progress becomes less and less noticeable because the 1000 most common words in a language make up a high percentage of overall language usage, while all the other words (waaay more than 1000) make up the remaining smaller percentage. You can probably get to a low-intermediate level in a language in a few hundred hours, but it may take a few thousand hours before reaching an advanced level, and many more thousands of hours before reaching anything that could be considered almost ‘native-like’. This steep slope for learning really makes it hard to get past the initial stages of language learning without having a clear goal or some form of extrinsic motivation, hence me having studied more than a dozen languages to the beginner-intermediate level and then switching to learn new languages. On the other hand, if you have no intrinsic motivation, the process of learning may be boring and you’ll likely burn out. The most ideal situation is to have both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
One interesting thing I’ve noticed regarding my perceptions of myself and my Chinese learning is that when I lived in the US, I felt my Chinese was decent, since I could understand and communicate a lot of things, and I was more advanced than almost every other Chinese learner I had met. But after moving to Taiwan I started thinking my Chinese was bad since I had difficulties even communicating basic things sometimes, and also because almost everyone I know here are native speakers of Chinese, so they are my natural point of comparison. I have to try to remember not to compare myself to native speakers, since it’s not really a useful comparison.
Due to living in Taiwan and using Chinese every day, I am able to much more easily remember new words and expressions than I was in the US, since they are now relevant to my life. I often think about this and feel that I should try to spend more time actually studying, since it’s likely that it would be much more effective now than it was in the past. It’s just hard to find any form of motivation to ‘study’ in traditional boring ways like reading textbooks, using flashcards, or doing other things like this. My preferred method of study is texting or speaking with people in the language, and learning through the interaction, but I know that this is not the most time-efficient method, even if it’s more fun. Another difficulty is that I started learning Chinese almost a decade ago, so any excitement and newness that I once felt is now long gone.
Looking at this essay I’ve just written, I am somewhat not looking forward to translating it into Chinese! But maybe this will be a good exercise for me in my Chinese learning haha.