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Learning With Attitude

One of the key elements to learn a new skill set is to have the right attitude towards learning. In university I taught 5 of my Chinese friends how to swim. It was not just about swimming laps. The most satisfying lessons come from building confidence, by holding your breath underwater for 30 seconds, pretending the paddle is a surfboard, or playing an underwater charades game with goggles. In as little as two days I witness my swimming students striving to float a couple yards across the pool. On the other hand, I see many swimming week-in and week-out, struggling to get their students to float. The student has a hard time floating. It can be very frustrating at the beginning. Speaking of swimming instructors, I want to tell you about my swimming coach. Some of my teaching methodology goes back to beautiful and wonderful Napa Valley College swimming coach, Miss Gina. I remember as a kid doing cannon balls and swimming races to the floor of the pool. For me Miss Gina is a model teacher and learner. I learn best through interest and fun. This is the way I communicate. This is some of the knowledge I want to impart to my students. The best way I have approached learning Chinese is with the right attitude.

“I am only going to be in China for one year, why bother learning Chinese?” This is the first hint of doubt I told myself nearly 5 years ago. A few weeks later I decided it was important, because I was getting flustered ordering from the food menu or having cab drivers ask me to repeat my destination over and over again. In daily conversations many people wanted to talk, ask many questions about my country, my hometown, my travel experience. With a handful of Chinese phrases many conversations lead to a dead end. I decided to approach only people who speak English, which had me mingling with only a small pool of China’s great population. It is often the case that Chinese bilinguals are very versatile with communicating skills, and when I was left out of conversations because they had turned to an individual or group, I felt left out, anxious and useless. I tried to learn Chinese time and time again. Buying books, apps, VIP memberships, and every method I could get into my hands. After about 6 months, I noticed that my frustrations lessened. Among my group of expat friends, I could lead them to the counter and say, “May I please have 3 Gong Bao Ji Ding宫保鸡丁 (Sichuan Kung Pao Chicken).” And you know what, I felt very proud of that moment.

I would pick up a Chinese textbook for some time, then I would pick apart a few Chinese text messages some friend sent me, another day I would watch a Chinese movie. I also spent so much time finding “the right method.” Then, I felt discouraged and downcast, and I went back to watching some South Park, zombie movies and foreign films. Nothing wrong with any of those three, but a pang of guilt did strike my heart at the thought that being a language teacher my learning process appeared as one huge mess. The only 2 methods I have never tried are private classes and college courses. Nowadays I dare say in my opinion those two are some of the best language learning methods. For the first 2 years in China, I felt more inclined to be self-taught. I was stubborn about finding my own path. Looking back, there were days that truly overwhelmed me to the point of almost packing my bags and going back to my home country. But through this very same method of failing-and-trying-failing-and-trying I discovered my own path. And this is the method that I wish to share with anyone who is currently pursuing to learn a new language.

What are your 3 favorite books in the world? Has anyone ever asked you this question? As for me, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” by Shunryu Suzuki is one of the top 3 books I’ve ever read in my life. This book had helped me approach learning a new language with a Zen mind. And what is a Zen Mind you might be wondering? Well, that is exactly what this book describes. As I mentioned above learning Chinese hasn’t been an easy task. I’ve had to start and restart about 100 times. But what I got from “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” is that is okay to have that mindset. Setup a learning plan, start learning the new target language. If it works, then that’s great, Keep going. If it doesn’t work, it is okay to quit and adopt a different approach. Sometimes one may want to start a new learning plan just for the sake of novelty. It is important to keep the up the spirit. Making a new learning plan will also bring fresh perspectives. Though this cycle of starting and restarting, one builds a foundational mindset to never give up. Learning a new language is all-encompassing in the sense that you can pick up the same language in different places and with different methods. You can translate the food menu at a restaurant with your phone. You can ask a coworker how to say such and such in Chinese. You can meet a new friend, and tell them that your level of Chinese is not very good, but you would like to improve. After month and month of starting and restarting you will get the sense that language is cumulative. Once you reap some of the rewards for all those times you have spent starting and restarting, you will no longer have the mindset to give up. Quite the contrary, you will see every challenge that comes your way as an opportunity to learn Chinese. This attitude towards learning makes one feel invincible. I can never stop learning Chinese.

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