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Berlin 2011

It might seem quite weird to go to Berlin to take an exam in Chinese, but that still was the principal reason for this weekend’s trip to the German capital. I arrived home safely earlier today after a three-day sojourn, and even though I don’t have much to offer by way of visual impressions of my journey (there are some photos on Facebook) , I still want to write a few words about both the test and about Berlin in general.

The test in question is the standard Chinese test used in Taiwan to assess the language level of non-native speakers and I attempted the highest level. I knew beforehand that it would be difficult (results from mock tests lead me to believe that I had a fair chance of scoring around 85%), but it turned out to be more difficult than I thought in two ways. First, it wasn’t easy to get to the test site in the first place. We went there on Friday evening to make sure I knew how to get there the following morning (our hostel was located in the north east, the university is in the south west). I took us little more than one and a half hour to get there and that included some serious detours.

I left the hostel around 7:30 and thought that two hours and fifteen minutes would be enough. It was, but only barely. It turned out that a station that was open during Friday was closed for construction work on Saturday, so I had to improvise a new route. I don’t know much German and if there is one thing I’d like to complain about regarding Berlin, it’s the lack of accurate information for tourists. I asked staff that directed me in the wrong direction, I spent an hour and finally ended up exactly where I started. I gave up and took a taxi to a station that had a direct link to the university. I ran the last kilometre and arrived on the test site five minutes before the test started, winded and a bit annoyed.

I’m going to write a long, Olle-style analysis of the test itself, so I won’t say very much right now, instead I’ll just say that it was harder than I thought and harder than the mock tests. I don’t think I passed, but it might be close. If I pass, it’s because I’m lucky, not because I’m good. And for those who don’t know me very much, I’m not being humble here. The test was really hard and to anyone who has managed it with reasonable grades, respect. This isn’t something anyone will pass without working very, very hard. To summarise, I will (probably) fail because I cannot parse spoken 成語 (idioms) that quickly and I suck at deciphering single sentences without a context. Also, I my reading speed isn’t up to par. I will lose approximately 10/70 points on the reading part because of this and that’s too much. Still, I’m not very disappointed. This is merely a sign that I need to study more, but more about this later.

What about Berlin in general then? Well, it was cold, seemed to consist only of construction sites and suffered from a lack of decently priced restaurants and grocery stores. Berlin did have some nice things to offer, too, such as several museums and some cool buildings (such as Berlin Cathedral and the new Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church). Still, the city wouldn’t have been worth a visit only for these reasons, especially not in mid-November (it was quite cold, especially on Friday). Fortunately, I didn’t experience Berlin alone, but was accompanied by two friends (Martin and Svante). In their company, the overall rating for the journey climbs above “it was worth it” mark. I probably wouldn’t have gone if it weren’t for the test, but I don’t regret going, even if it turns out I botched the test completely.

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Visit Hacking Chinese instead: This post about studying Chinese is partly or completely obsolete. A revised version, along with much more related to language learning can be found at Hacking Chinese. This post is kept here for the sake of consistency.

Although I can’t say that I’m a veteran, I’ve done some travelling in countries which language I’ve studied in school, namely France and the Republic of China. Since Chinese is what I’m focusing on right now, that’s where the main focus of this short article will be. I’ve heard many people say that a good way of learning a language is to travel, and I’ll do my best to explain why I think this is wrong in at least one important way. Travelling is a way of learning a language, but not in the way most people think. Of course, I realise that all learners aren’t one and the same, but I do think that what I’m going to say is true in a more general sense.

What has to be realised at first is that learning a language is an extremely time-consuming project. There are thousands upon thousands of words to learn and numerous grammatical points to understand. There are two ways of learning this, either one can grow up in an environment where the language is spoken or one can study it in school. There are ways of mixing these two, such as playing computer games or watching TV in the target language, but I’m making this distinction in order to simplify things.

Travelling is a very bad environment for learning large volumes of vocabulary (which I consider the most important thing when learning a foreign language), because that requires revision and planned studying to be effective. Of course, when travelling, one will pick up words here and there, but considering the time spent, it’s a very ineffective way of expanding vocabulary. When it comes to a language such as Chinese, the situation becomes even worse, because hearing a word is simply not enough to learn it (even though I can distinguish the various tones in Mandarin, it’s still very hard to learn words only by listening).

So, what use is travelling when learning a new language? I’d say that the three most prominent advantages are self-confidence, cultural context and listening ability. First, having learnt a language in school, it’s something quite different to actually use it to communicate. After the first threshold is passed, one’s self-esteem grows for almost every conversation. The language learnt actually works and people can understand what is said. This feeling is wonderful and is perhaps the most important thing with travelling. Perhaps there is a nagging feeling in the back one’s head that asks if this language is real or just made up in the classroom. Travelling kills that thought instantly, regardless of how weak it was from the start.

Second, travelling in a the native country of a language allows one to pick up lots of things that’s impossible to learn in a classroom. Even though it’s possible to know a vast amount of words, no text book will teach in what situations certain words are really used and what they mean. To do this, it’s necessary to hear those words time and again in different contexts. Only then can the words truly be understood. In addition to this, language and culture are sometimes highly integrated. People in the street don’t simply speak English with Chinese words, they speak real Chinese. Everyday conversation translated into English would seem extremely odd in England or the United States, because people think and talk differently (what I’m trying to say here is that even the content of a conversation might differ between languages). Travelling around and meeting a lot of people is probably the only way of acquiring knowledge like this.

Third, listening ability is very important when travelling, especially if one doesn’t share another language with people in the country. When I do things here in Taiwan, almost no one understands English, which means that I’ve no choice but to rely on my Chinese. If somebody says something to me, I can’t always nod and smile, I actually have to understand what is said in order to buy food, find my way and so forth. It makes many conversations to miniature listening ability exams, and, as everybody knows, practise makes perfect. Understanding the locally-flavoured Chinese is extremely hard the first time, but it becomes more manageable for every day. It’s important to hear as many people speak as possible, because they have different voices, difference dialects and different ways of expressing themselves.If travelling is to expensive or impractical, watching TV might be a good substitute.

When it comes to actual language usage, travelling makes one able to use what has been learnt in school. Perhaps one’s knowledge of grammar and vocabulary is great on tests and so forth, but being required to use them in a real context is a marvellous way of truly learning. Don’t expect to learn many new parts of a language when travelling, but consider the positive effects of mastering what you already know, and, in addition to this, picking up useful information about how words are actually used within the culture. Travelling will make you improve a lot, but it’ll do it through strengthening what is already there, rather than expanding into new territories. So, in a sense, one can learn a language by travelling, but not without prior diligent study.

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