Guest Post by Daniel Lal
Theoretically, it’s possible. Languages have structures and systems, and the sooner those structures and systems are understood and used, the sooner a person can become fluent in that language. Most languages have an order to their grammar. Mandarin, for example, has subject-verb-object as its simplest sentence structure. If you can come up with ten subjects, ten verbs, and ten objects all in Mandarin, you can say 1,000 sentences in Mandarin. Even if you don’t reach the goal of speaking Mandarin in one month, you will still be well on your way to a learning Mandarin at a very fast pace.
Some of the most heartfelt words that are said are those we don’t even realize are coming out of our mouths. We say short words between thoughts in English, such as “um,” “like,” and “you know.” The same is true in other languages, like Mandarin. Words like nage (那个), name (那么), and zhege (这个) fall into that category. If you train your brain to use those words between your thoughts when speaking Chinese, you’ll keep yourself thinking in Chinese while you figure out how to express your thoughts.
As a teacher of English as a foreign language, when my students don’t know an English word, I have them use other English words they already know to describe what they want to say. This accomplishes two things: reinforcing words and meanings that they already understand, and creating anticipation for encoding a new word. When my students point at an animal in their books and say “what’s this?”, I make them explain to me what they are pointing at.
“It’s big, it’s gray, it has big ears, it has two long teeth… I don’t know what else.”
“In English, that’s called ‘an elephant.’”
Forcing yourself to use a language is easiest when you are surrounded by it and have no choice but to use it. Simple methods, such as sticky notes labeling items in a room, keeping you thinking in the second language more than you would otherwise. Make a list of topics that describe you, then make lists of words related to each of those topics, and translate them. Engage native speakers in conversation and tell them about yourself. When they mention something about themselves that you don’t understand, try to figure out the topic, make a list of those topic-related words, and then go back to them and have a conversation about that topic. Forcing yourself to use the foreign language will make you think it, say it, and hear yourself say it, further impressing upon your memory its meaning and use.
Foreign language schools are best for beginners. A one-on-one teacher can give personal attention to pronunciation challenges and grammar details and can help you learn the language in the way that is most effective for you. Small classes provide similar attention to each student but have the support of other students who are learning as well. University foreign language classes may be helpful once a language as been well established, but the very large class sizes will make your personal challenges disappear into a fog of people, leaving you with more questions than answers and lacking confidence in speaking. If you want to study Chinese in China, Keats offers these one-on-one and small group classes, helping you become proficient faster than you would at a university.
The idea of learning a language in one month can seem a bit absurd, but it is entirely possible. Setting a similar goal of learning as much as possible in that first month can also lay a solid foundation or future learning. One month isn’t really long enough to establish bad language habits, and it is a great time to learn grammar structures that will give you reason to build your vocabulary. The more you use it, the more it will stick. A great start to learning Mandarin is only a month away.