Diving into the immersion experience
By Chris Vedelago(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-11-18 06:00

If you really want to learn a language, you have to go where it's spoken.
There really is no better advice, especially for someone who wants to learn
as much as possible and as fast as possible.

This is particularly the case for complex languages like Chinese. For native
English speakers, there is very little about Mandarin that isn't strikingly
different. The tones, sound pronunciations and characters are so foreign to
English that it's not hard to see why it's considered one of the world's
hardest languages to learn.

This is where a focused, immersive learning experience can be so valuable.
Learning a new language is an enormously time-consuming and labour-intensive
effort, and for someone who wants to learn quickly, taking a few hours of
lessons a week without having the opportunity to speak it regularly just
isn't enough.

Take me as an example. I enrolled in the Manda School of Chinese in
Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, in August as an absolute beginner. I believed
that an intensive private tutoring programme in China would give me a better
foundation in Mandarin than part-time instruction in Australia.

Experience has shown that I was right.

In six weeks I completed 100 hours of instruction, which would have taken
about six months to do elsewhere. Speed isn't everything, of course. A
student can only learn if they have professional, patient teachers, and
Manda certainly has those.

The worst thing a person can do when learning a language is to misunderstand
the fundamentals. Fortunately, with this kind of compression learning, I had
very little space to make errors that weren't quickly identified and
corrected by my instructors. It's hard enough to master the basics of
pronunciation and tones without making it worse by magnifying my errors
through unknowing repetition.

Then there's the benefits that come from living in a place where Mandarin is
spoken all day, every day. In class I would learn how to ask for directions
one day, and be using the lesson to find the post office the next. Classroom
learning was compounded by its practical use outside, accelerating my

With so few people I meet speaking English, almost every daily activity
shopping for groceries, taking a taxi, mailing a letter or paying a bill has
required me to use what Mandarin I have learned. Often I've failed to be
understood, and sometimes the results were comical, but each interaction has
been an opportunity to practise, learn and demonstrate, in my limited way,
that I'm trying to fit in. There's an often repeated adage amongst
travellers that people appreciate when you try to speak their language, and
I've always found this to be true.

When I do get it right, there is something so rewarding about understanding
and being understood.

It's something that will be sorely missed when I leave. Even in
multicultural countries like Australia or the United States, which have
substantial Chinese minorities in the big cities, there simply isn't an
opportunity to practise on a regular basis.

Then there's the chance to see China for myself. So much of what we learn
about other countries and cultures comes from books and news reports,
sources that are great at conveying facts but even with good story-telling,
simply cannot replicate what life is actually like. For that you actually
have to be there, walking the streets, eating the food, and, when possible,
communicating with people.

The author is a freelance travel writer from Australia

(China Daily 11/18/2006 page10)