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“When I first set out to learn Chinese, I was aware that China was well on its way to becoming a huge technical superpower and all I planned to do was to be ready when this reality was realized,” said Justin.
Justin majored in computer science and now works in a cutting edge IT company. He started learning Chinese long after he had finished university, on the side while he was working full time, knowing a second language would give him an edge as a software developer in the IT industry.
A second language is an asset – as Justin found when interviewing for a position at his current company. Knowing Chinese and being willing to travel there made him stand out from the other developers with the same technical skillset. He was also happy to join a company who showed they value language skills.
“I was selected by my company as the sole engineer who would be representing the company at various workshops and events in China. To prepare for those events, my company has been financing my language learning as I pursue a higher level of fluency in Chinese.”
While he is in China, Justin is expected to give presentations from a rehearsed script. But he would like to be able to speak naturally about technical topics related to his work with blockchain technology.
Languages can change your career path
Justin is now more likely to seek a job or career path that brings him closer to more diverse groups of people. “Since starting to learn Chinese, I have exclusively worked remotely and I find that it really suits my personality. It gives me the flexibility to continue traveling and learning about the world.”
It’s not only knowing a second language – knowing how to learn languages in general and diligently studying can help your career in a multitude of ways, as Justin has found out. “Knowing how to study languages gave me confidence to study new programming languages and technology as well. ”
From starting to learn Chinese while working until this trip, it was about 8-9 months – a very efficient learner! On the side of Justin’s full-time job, he is focusing on improving his Chinese because his company would like him to travel for work. He finds it slower going than when he was immersed and not working, but he has found other strategies to learn effectively.
How to start learning Chinese
Finding something that deeply interests you in a language helps you get started and keeps you going. Justin says that he had no idea what he was getting into, but he was driven by curiosity. He also wanted to learn a language that was completely different to anything he had learnt before, fascinated by the idea of language that didn’t use a phonetic alphabet system and had tonal pronunciation.
Justin started learning Chinese long after he had finished university, on the side while he was working full time. He studied using apps to drill Chinese vocabulary and simple grammar on his daily walking commute to work – 30 minutes each way. It was the most convenient way to start.
Because learning during your commute is daily, you’ll be able to remember and recall what you learn a lot easier. Eventually, he decided to quit his job and move to Taiwan to be more immersed in the language.
Justin was pleased with how far he progressed just using language apps on his commute: “It certainly gave me the basic foundation, I was aware of the writing system and how there is a stroke order to write characters. Upon arriving in Taiwan, I could say the basic travel phrases, and get around with what I had learned.”
Learning basic vocabulary and grammar only during your daily commute can let you communicate and solve problems in person. But with Chinese, the writing system is a more difficult hurdle, “At that time, I found it extremely difficult to remember how to write a character. It wasn’t until I started classes that I got more proficient.”
Intensive courses must suit your goals
While Justin appreciated the intensive course’s focus on reading and writing, he wanted to use Chinese conversationally, and to choose topics to study that were more closely aligned to his interests. “It was nice for that aspect [writing and reading], but I felt that my speaking and listening wasn’t improving at the rate that I wanted to. I enrolled for three months then I left to have more time for meeting up with local students who were interested in language exchange – I found that that was a little more helpful to learn how to speak naturally.”
After finishing the course, Justin continued to study on his own, reaching HSK2-3 before embarking on a solo trip around China. “I used more apps, including spaced repetition flashcards and various Chinese learning apps to supplement my learning, and reading through the next textbook in the series on my own.” As he was able to design an approach to learning that suited him specifically, Justin was able to learn specific grammar and vocabulary faster.
It was also easier to immerse himself in the language naturally while travelling. “In China, there were fewer English speakers and I was able to get around, communicate and make friends, talk with the locals”.
Time management: learning a language while working
As Justin now has a lot of experience studying while working full time, he has developed strategies to schedule his learning and balance work, study and life.
“Because I don’t have kids, I still have the free time to spend as I see fit, which definitely makes it easier. While learning and working, the commute was by far the best thing for my language development. By walking or taking the bus to work, I had time where I could build a habit and automatically use an app or something to learn a language.”
Schedule time to make language learning a daily habit
“Now it’s more difficult. I have to schedule time in my calendar, such as lessons or tutor sessions. I need to set aside time to study and learn because work can get really busy, and life gets busy, so unless you stake out a time ahead of time to learn, it’s easy to let it slide. “
Justin has found that stacking language learning on another daily activity helps him, even though he no longer commutes. “When I go to the gym, I can listen to language learning podcasts while working out – I can get two things done at the same time. As I don’t have a commute, I rely on that as a daily thing to work language learning into my schedule.”
Top 3 tips for staying motivated when learning a language
一. Switch it up: Boredom makes you lose motivation. Engage your curiosity by switching learning methods or materials regularly.
“There are so many different ways to learn these days, with technology. You can jump on an online tutoring session, or download a podcast or a book, or use really amazing apps. You can try multiple features in apps like with LingoDeer – there’s the main app and LingoDeer Plus for drilling characters – you can always be changing your method.”
二. Find something entertaining: Ask for recommendations of shows you are interested in, but watch them in your target language with subtitles.
“中餐馆 (Chinese Restaurants) is this show where Chinese people go to a different country with the goal to open a Chinese restaurant and make money. But they have to encounter all of the cultural differences. They speak Mandarin throughout, so it has been really cool to watch – we are really interested in Chinese food, and also the culture clash in general. We really love this show.”
三. Make it part of your life: Build the cultural aspects into your life, and the language learning will follow naturally. This will keep you engaged in the long term.
“The best way to learn something is if you genuinely have an interest in it – that will carry you through the hard times. Anyone can be dedicated and study every day for a period of time, but language learning is a lot more long term. Even though I have had some breaks, I see myself learning Chinese over several years to get to the level I want. The thing that keeps me going is that I’m really interested in the cultural differences, I love Chinese food … these things will always keep bringing me back to learning more. “
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