Updated: Feb 2
This guest post was written by Max Hobbs who has been learning Chinese for 3 years now. His level of Chinese, although by his own admission, is far from perfect, is enough to get him through most conversations that occur day-to-day. In this post, he explains how he got there.
Immersion - a term that is banded around like no mans business these days.
It almost feels like the term has lost its value somewhat. Genuine language Immersion isn’t just sitting on your phone using Duolingo for 30 minutes here and there. Genuine language immersion isn’t simply going to China but then contriving to spend all your time outside of class speaking English.
Immersion is a fine art that takes a lot of personal drive, and some steps that most people are not willing to take at first glance.
Whenever I tell beginner Chinese students to change their phone language to Chinese their eyes widen, their mouths open wide:
“WHAT! Why the **** would I change my phone language to Chinese, that’s insane!”
Well, my friend, these are the steps one must take.
A common request from new students goes something like this:
“I have x amount of months, I have x amount of money, I want to get fluent during this time.”
That’s all good and well but fluency doesn’t just come to you. In fact it’s the opposite, you have to go and get it, and once you do, hold it and never let it go! For this is a gift.
Defining the term fluency is a whole other debate but in this instance let’s just say fluency is defined by being “conversationally fluent”.
Now, there are a number of ways one can become “conversationally fluent”, but by far and away the best one I personally experienced was language immersion, proper language immersion.
This doesn’t just involve sitting in a class reading endless textbooks - oh no. That’s a small part of it.
Where you really see your language skills sky rocket are:
• Staying with a Host Family (who only speak Chinese)
• Going out for Dinner with them, or other friends (who only speak Chinese)
• Changing your phone language to Chinese
• Taking phone calls in Chinese
• Trying to speak to Taxi Drivers in only Chinese
TRUE STORY - I even bought my fiancé’s engagement ring using only Chinese! A nervous moment for more reasons than one!
ANOTHER TRUE STORY - I gave a friggin’ wedding speech in Chinese. Don’t believe me… check it out
These are the stories that will define your success as a language learner, but not only that. The ones you remember.
I’m No Language Learning Genius…
Normally when you tell a non-native speaker you can speak Chinese the first reaction is something like this:
“WOW, you speak Chinese. Chinese looks sooo hard, I could never do it. How the **** did you manage that?”
Now, cutting to the chase here, I am no genius. Chinese was the first language I studied properly.
I hated French and German classes at school and had that horrible English mentality that “someone will probably know English so it’s OK”. Ergh, makes me cringe just typing that out!
The fact of the matter is, when people ask about the stories you had learning a language, whether it be Chinese, Czech or Catalan… the stories very rarely go like this:
“Yea I remember that one time in the classroom when…”
But more like this
“Yea I remember when I gave a wedding speech in (insert language here) to 300+ people”
“Yea I remember when I was sweating my nuts off trying to buy my fiancé’s engagement ring and they didn’t speak any English”.
THESE are the stories that you tell… low and behold, they came from IMMERSIVE experiences and not classroom experiences.
Starting to see a pattern here?
Also, for the record, I’m not this super outgoing, confident person either. In fact, I grew up as shy as anything. Red in the face when a girl would sit next to me at school for crying out loud.
It doesn’t take this extroverted, confident persona to achieve these kinds of stories. It just takes a genuine desire to push yourself… the same with anything, whether it be learning a language, achieving your dream of representing your country at the Olympics or baking the best biscuits I your hometown… and everything in between.
It takes desire, determination and passion. A simple, yet powerful combination.
And now guess what. I’m not so shy, I care less about the superficial things, and I’m willing to take on any challenge.
Anyway back onto Immersion…
Where Can I Achieve True Immersion?
So all this begs the question, where is the best place you can go to experience Immersion.
Luckily for you, I have a tried and tested location and it’s called Chengde 承德.
First thing to know - this is NOT Chengdu 成都, the popular tourist destination and home of the Panda’s in China.
Chengde is a small (in Chinese terms) city about 3 hours drive north of Beijing in Hebei Province 河北省.
But what makes Chengde so special for achieving Immersion?
Here’s some quick pointers and then I’ll go into more detail:
• In Chengde, you will likely not see another foreigner at all
• In Chengde, you will likely not use English at all
• Chengde is the birthplace of standard Mandarin, no accent throughout China is more standard than that of Chengde
• In Chengde, there are barely any other foreign brands bar a few Starbucks and McDonalds dotted around
This is “real China” if that makes sense.
This is Mandarin 24/7, no escape, no hiding - you face up to it and you learn it. You’ve got no choice but to!
You can imagine just a couple of weeks here can have a hugely beneficial effect on your Mandarin and guess what - I did just that.
It’s worth noting that Chengde is probably not the place for complete beginners. In fact this would be more detrimental.
You need a basic grasp of Mandarin to get by here… but by basic, I mean simple conversations like introductions, taxi chat, basics for food etc.
If you have a basic levels, or higher, then, in my humble opinion, there is no better place to learn Chinese and achieve actual language immersion (a little different to those daily Duolingo sessions that are seemingly immersive)!
I picked up more in two weeks there, than my previous few months in Beijing.
This of course, was partly down to my attitude in Beijing. I was new, I was making friends, I was fresh and excited.
After getting a firm grip of the basics and further in Beijing through my colleagues and friends it was time to push further, enter Chengde.
When you get down to it, and want to make real progress. Immersion is the way to go.
This isn’t me telling you it’s the ONLY way to learn Chinese, of course everyone has their own methods.
But simply going by my experience, and the similar opinions of other people I know well, time spent in Chengde is time very well spent.
I’ve since been back again and I plan to make the trip whenever I head to Beijing, just because it’s a genuinely lovely city to be, incredible scenery, friendly locals and most important, I switch English out of my mind and turn on the Mandarin.
If a program like this is of interest to you - there is only one school in China that provides this kind of experience and they are called LTL Mandarin School.
You can find out more about their Immersion Program here