I Just Discovered a Life Hack to Learn Chinese - And Any Other Language

I love epiphanies.

I’m excited. This hack probably exists already, but I stumbled across it organically (which means I’m going to call it my own – ha!). Let me share with you guys how I set up one simple hack that makes using online language tutors 10x more efficient.

But first context:

So here’s the deal, readers. Trying to learn an Asian language while living in Colorado is like trying to grow a flower in the desert. It’s not going to happen without serious effort. While the Denver area is great for learning Spanish and German, you are hard pressed to find any Chinese.

I’m running a ragtag collection of initiatives to keep things going; podcasts, video learning software, books, and of course my Chinese roommate Ran Wei who is more likely to insult my Chinese than correct it (our relationship's foundation is humor and sarcasm - it's great).

There’s no replacement for one-on-one teaching. My best gains came from my tutor in Shanghai, and I made some advances with my Lafayette tutor – but all the good tutors are more than 30 minutes away. My life / work combo has me on the go and out of town frequently, and I can’t commit to an hour commuting time for a regularly scheduled 2-hour session.

What does that leave? Online tutors.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about online tutors. Hopping on Skype to meet a stranger, even for academic purposes, feels like something out of an awkward online chat room scenario from the 2000’s. It kept me away for a while.

But then, I had a breakthrough that changed everything. I discovered software that records your Skype calls.

Your knee jerk reaction could be that this sounds sketchy – but actually, it’s not uncommon. If you have done a Skype interview for a job, it’s not unlikely the hiring manager had software running in the background (Google it, you will find a few different software programs – most cost $15-20). Video chat recording software lets you capture all the little details you miss when you are in the moment.

Which is GREAT when you are learning a language.

Meet LuLu Chen, my new tutor.

I just had my first online tutoring session with a Chinese tutor who lives near Beijing. I listened to the whole recording after I finished. What did I learn? A lot.

  • When I want to speak fast, I drop tones. Chinese is a tonal language – no tones, and I have no idea what you are trying to say. I want to speak fast to sound legit, but the faster I speak the more tones I lose.
  • My nonverbal sounds get really weird when I speak Chinese. I take on this really weird, strangled laughing sound. It comes from mimicking Chinese – they laugh a lot. Sometimes they are laughing at something funny, and sometimes they are laughing to cover embarrassment or awkwardness. Whenever I get going into a conversation, I adopt those styles.
  • Sometimes, I just flat out say the wrong thing. I know the right word. I even hear it in my head. Then the wrong word comes out, and I don’t even notice it. Example:

(In Chinese)

Tutor: Easter was this week, right?

What Nathan Wanted to Say: Yes, Easter, it was Sunday, I celebrated Easter this past Sunday.

What Nathan Actually Said: Yes, Easter, it was Sunday, I forgot Easter this past Sunday.

Explains her following comment about how I must work all the time. That makes much more sense now.

Proof: the beginning of my first lesson.

Increase Retention

You can get a lot out of tutors – insights on vocabulary, sayings, and specific usages of words. But unless you write it down, you lose it. Even if you write it down, you may still lose it because you may forget the context.

But if you record the call, you now have the entire conversation. You can listen to yourself to see where you mess up, how your tutor corrects you, and re-experience their entire explain for how to correctly say “the pros and cons of online versus traditional shopping.” You can analyze your own body language to see how you act when you speak. You don’t even need feedback anymore – you can give yourself feedback.

Basically, I’m wild excited about this (and am taking zero time to edit this blog as a result). I’m essentially converting my online tutoring sessions into personal podcasts of me interacting with native language speakers.

And, that my friends, is my first ever respectable life hack. Well worth the investment. Want to learn Chinese? Korean? Turkish? Try it out.

Resources:

http://www.verbalplanet.com/ - find a tutor

http://www.ecamm.com/mac/callrecorder/ - cheap software that auto records your Skype calls - no hassle.

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