In 2015, one of my former professors at MIT asked me to go to Singapore to represent MIT in a two-week long robotics competition. The most interesting part wasn't the robots, but rather that the competition was held entirely in English. Except for a handful of us, every competitor's primary language was not English. Japanese, Thai, Arabic, French, Korean, and Chinese could all be heard.
Shortly after the event began it became apparent that this was not a robotics competition at all, but rather an English-speaking competition. Regardless of an engineer's skill, lack of ability to communicate with their teammates proved devastating. Explaining why the electronics are on fire is hard when you don't know the word for "polarity", and impossible if you can't say "backwards" or "wrong".
This was deeply humbling. I knew next to nothing in any language other than the English I've been speaking every day since shortly after birth.
Over the remainder of that year, that experience crystallized into a resolve to learn 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
- want it
- read and listen fast and loose. It's ok to stumble through a sentence and only get 50% of the meaning. It's difficult to do this because it's been a long time since I struggled to get the meaning of something written in English.
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.
This was a really good idea
Delving into Chinese has led me to take communication much more seriously than if I'd continued towards becoming a psychopath-engineer. See, when I'm speaking in Chinese, the likelihood that I'll utterly fail at communicating something skyrockets. This puts my communication ability in perspective, and pushes me to consider how my English communication ability could be improved as well.