Lingosteve’s wisdom on learning Mandarin

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Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advice on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “Lingosteve’s wisdom on learning Mandarin

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