People are amazed that I can speak Chinese fluently. I’m a native speaker of English, and at the beginning the concept of a tonal language, in which the pitch of your voice can change the meaning of a word, was completely foreign to me. In fact, learning to speak in tones was the hardest part of learning Chinese. I tended to butcher the tones when speaking. Then I went to Shanghai for six months and I was so often misunderstood that I had to learn the tones. I believe that in order to master Chinese, you must partner up with a native speaker. That face-to-face conversation is absolutely critical if you don’t want to make mistakes.
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When I decided to learn Spanish, I began to look for a self-study method. The one I chose was based on listening to CDs with a complete course of Spanish. Each lesson was very cleverly structured. It started with simple examples, then I had to infer the grammar rules, and finally they were explained. I felt like the Sherlock Holmes of language structures and I relished it. I quickly reached the end of the first part of the course, thrilled by the ease with which I’d learned some dialogues. By the end of the first month I was able to make small talk almost flawlessly and with correct pronunciation.
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I started learning German on a course. We were expected to master some grammar rules first. I didn’t think it would be so tough, though I was aware that grammar is more complicated in German than in English. I put a lot of effort into producing the first sentences. It was a disaster. The grammar drills we focused on during the course didn’t require many new words. As a result, although I’d learnt the rules, I wasn’t able to communicate effectively, because I didn’t know the German equivalents for basic English words and expressions. I still struggle with my German when I visit friends in Berlin.
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I’d always dreamed of speaking Russian, so I decided to enroll on a course in Moscow. The first weeks were an intense learning experience. My teacher made me memorize words and phrases, and encouraged me to use them to communicate in the street. To tell you the truth I hadn’t expected it would be that difficult before I went to Russia. I’d assumed that when I learnt some vocabulary and basic grammar rules, something in my head would click and then Russian would be rolling off my tongue like a tumbleweed. However, my theory that I’d merely “pick up the language” failed. My brain, like a computer, had to have the information entered in before I was able to retrieve it.
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