In 2015, Professor Dan Frey at MIT selected me to travel to Singapore to represent MIT in an international robotics competition. The robots themselves were shoddy piles of Arduinos, cardboard, and hot-glue, and proved unnoteworthy. The remarkable and humbling part was that the competition was held entirely in English. Except for one of the Japanese participants who went to middle school in the USA, the Singaporeans, and the four of us from MIT, every other competitor's primary language was not English. Japanese, Thai, Arabic, French, Korean, and Chinese could all be heard, and everyone's English was really pretty good.
However, highly-proficient English speakers were at a clear advantage. Being able to explain why the electronics are on fire is hard when you can't say "polarity", and nigh impossible if you can't say "reversed", "swapped", or "wrong".
Just by lazily existing in the wake of British colonialism, I've picked up a wealth of vocabulary in the what's now the world's most spoken language. Damn.
I deeply value empathy, the ability to understand why another person feels the way they do. Interacting with intelligent engineers struggling to speak English really moved me to want to improve our communication situation. Language learning is a lifelong commitment, and I'm an awful multitasker, so over the next few months I resolved to begin with just one language: Chinese.
Why (Mandarin) Chinese?
- Mandarin is the world's #1 most spoken mother-tongue (i.e. first language learned at birth). There were over 900 million first-language Mandarin speakers in 2017. (English ranks #3, at just under 400 million).
- Written Chinese is pretty distant from English, making initial uptake a very good challenge.
- There's some really exciting engineering happening in China, and it'd be a shame to miss out on that.
How are you learning?
This changes as I change and improve in ability.
I have a copybook (字帖) of 千字文. I have a pretty good kid's science book called 青少年科学百科全书 Young People's Encyclopedia of Science.
For grammar: mimicking speakers on podcasts to gain intuition for sentence structure. For leisure: TV, documentaries
Where are you now?
About HSK 3
Some good advice I recieved
Visualize. A 40 year old Hong Kong born American told me that to translate from one language to another is too slow.
The associations must point directly from concept to language.