Why immersion is important for learning Chinese
It’s a fact that any language learner has probably heard hundreds of times. Immersion is the most efficient (and some would say the only) way to gain fluency in a target language, and Mandarin Chinese is no exception.
But what do we actually mean by Chinese language immersion? It’s not synonymous with living in China – indeed, there are many foreigners in China who are not immersed in a Mandarin-speaking environment at all.
I like to think of language immersion in relation to the term’s other usage – to immerse something in water. Imagine yourself standing on the edge of a diving board, looking down into the swimming pool below. The first time you make that step off the board and plummet downwards into the water is a terrifying moment, as suddenly you’ve lost all sense of control.
The next time you do it may feel just as terrifying – it takes time to overcome that fear. But the higher and the more daunting the dive, the further you’ll plunge into the depths of the pool.
Getting yourself completely immersed in a foreign language environment is just like that dive into the deep end. The first time you put yourself into an immersive environment is the most daunting of all, precisely because you’re taking a leap of faith into unknown territory.
It could be as small a step as deciding to take the public bus rather than a taxi, or as large as taking up a job in a Mandarin-speaking office. It would feel easier and safer to remain in your comfort zone, taking a weekly evening class, or making do with your rudimentary ‘survival’ phrases. But continuing to do so is the equivalent of only ever paddling around in the shallow end of the pool. You’re only experiencing true immersion and true China if you feel like you’ve relinquished that control.
Why immersion in China is so difficult
As the Chinese proverb goes, “物以类聚, 人以群分”. Many languages have an equivalent, the English being ’Birds of a feather flock together’. Wherever you are in the world, it’s the same story. It’s possible to physically live in a foreign city, but mentally never break out of your own self-created ‘expat-bubble’.
Faced with an unfamiliar and often alienating new environment, many expats will immediately seek to surround themselves with a protective layer of fellow foreigners. And unlike the locals, these fellow foreigners are most likely in the city without family or a secure network of friends too, so making connections is quick and easy.
Within this circle of new friends, expats can swap stories, share jokes, reminisce about home – it all feels very comfortable, and most expats never feel the need or desire to move beyond this way of living abroad. In China this is exacerbated by the fact that Westerners and locals tend to socialise in different ways – as a rule young Europeans and Americans prefer drinking in a bar on a Friday night, whilst their Chinese peers are more likely to be found in a restaurant or KTV with a small group of close friends.
So even those with the best of intentions to integrate into Chinese culture will find themselves bumping into other foreigners, and find common ground when they do so. A shared experience of being far away from friends and family back home, coupled with shared linguistic and/or cultural backgrounds, makes this almost inevitable.
In fact, for Western expats in China I’d say it was the cultural rather than the linguistic differences of their new home which cause the greatest barrier to successful immersion. It is lack of understanding and assimilation with the Chinese way of thinking that causes the greatest and longest-term impact, not the complicated character system or tricky tones.
For one thing, the language tends to be a challenge that newcomers have at least mentally prepared themselves for. A clear solution to overcoming the linguistic barrier is also pretty obvious – take some Chinese classes!
Understanding and adjusting to an entirely new culture is something quite different. Politeness strategies, humour and non-verbal communication are all aspects of daily life that work differently over here, which is something that foreigners often learn the hard way. But without learning to respect the culture, the student of Chinese can never hope to build a solid network of Chinese speaking friends and reach full fluency.
10 things to do to immerse yourself in Mandarin
Move to China – but choose your city carefully
It may sound obvious, but one of the easiest ways to fall into the trap of speaking English is to be around people to speak English. If you live in central Beijing or Shanghai you’re going to bump into these people a lot more often than if you live in any another Chinese city.
Of course one reason for this is that there are simply a larger number of foreigners in these Tier 1 cities, and a more well-established support network for English-speaking expats. But in these internationally-minded cities the Chinese friends, colleagues and service personnel you’ll come across in your daily life are more likely to understand and speak some English too.
It’s also worth remembering that you are aiming to learn the official language of China – Mandarin Chinese. Although it’s the language of politics, media and education here, it is in fact just one of hundreds of languages and dialects spoken across China.
Most young, well-educated Chinese people will be able to understand and speak Mandarin whichever city you live in, but among themselves they will speak their local dialect (or even a completely different language such as Cantonese or Shanghaihua).
For best results then, you’d be best off living in a city where the local dialect is Mandarin. There is really only one city in China which comes near to that description, and that is Chengde, around two hours north of Beijing. Once the summer playground of the Qing Dynasty emperors, Chengde has since been widely acknowledged as the birthplace of Mandarin.
Find some Chinese housemates
If for work or study reasons you have to live in Beijing or Shanghai, then choose your housemates carefully. Ideally, you’d live with only Mandarin speakers, who neither speak English nor have any desire to learn it. Bonus points if they are willing to hang out with you and chat in Mandarin.
However, this is actually pretty rare, as in the big cities many young people living in flat-shares either speak English or are trying to learn English, neither of which is going to help you on your journey to Chinese language immersion.
Moreover, in China flat-shares are seen as more of a financial rent-sharing agreement rather than as an opportunity to build personal relationships. However, that’s not to say it’s impossible. I myself had to move five times to find the perfect Mandarin-speaking flat-share with two friendly guys from Anhui, but the impact they had on my spoken Chinese was worth it in the end.
Another option would be to sublet a room from a local family. Mind you, to avoid finding yourself with a family that’s actually looking for an unpaid English tutor or au-pair, you’d do well to get an experienced Chinese home-stay provider to organize this for you.
Don’t be afraid to make the first move
There’s no use in being shy when you want to make Chinese friends in China. The truth is, many Chinese people have the preconception that all foreigners are like the ones we see in the Hollywood movies – self-assured, loud, even brash.
They will probably also assume that as a foreigner you don’t speak a word of Chinese, and they may feel too self-conscious to spark up a conversation with you in their half-forgotten English from school.
This means that Chinese housemates, colleagues and friends-of-friends will most likely wait for you to make the first move in terms of social interaction. If you’re stuck for how, then asking for help or advice is always a good ice-breaker (even if you already know the answer!).
Depending on your current level of Chinese, the question could be anything from asking where the nearest supermarket is, to advice on your mobile phone plan. They’ll most likely be more than happy to help, and once you’ve thanked them graciously, you can then move on to seal the friendship deal with ‘要不要一起去吃饭?’ (Shall we go get some food together?).
Join a local community group
One of the best ways to integrate yourself into any local community is to become an active member of a community group – whether that be a sports team, a musical ensemble, or something more niche. Try heading down to your local sports club and enquiring whether they have any sports clubs you can join, or calling the local university’s International Office to get contact information for their societies.
Even easier, head to the hub of Chinese social life – the park. Especially during early mornings and late evening there are sure to be groups of people getting together to do Tai Chi, dance, or while away the hours over a Mahjong board. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can join them!
There are hundreds of apps out there that can help you to learn Chinese, but there is such a thing as a counter-productive language app. For example, OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology can now provide us with an instant (if not always completely elegant) translation of printed Chinese text – and all your brain has to do to get that translation is manoeuvre your phone’s camera to capture the text.
That’s all very well for the average tourist wanting to find their way around Beijing, but if you want to actually learn Chinese, you can’t let technology do all the work for you. After all, you’re not going to learn a character by glancing at it through the viewfinder of your phone camera.
Take the popular Chinese-English dictionary app Pleco, for example. Rather than using its inbuilt OCR scanner, use your own eyes to analyse the character in front of you, and break it down into radicals, then strokes. You can then input the unknown character by drawing it with your finger on the screen (using the Handwriting Input feature).
Once you’ve found the right translation, remember to add it to your flashcards, either on the Pleco app, or on paper if you’re really old-school. Or even better than that, why not ask someone Chinese nearby to explain it to you?
Don’t forget your ‘virtual’ language environment
In this day and age it’s not enough to physically transport yourself to a Chinese speaking environment. We all seem to spend half our lives staring at a phone or computer screen, in the virtual world of social media and instant messaging conversations.
Don’t forget you also need to change your online environment to Chinese if you’re really going to immerse yourself in the language – that means your phone, tablet and computer. You can change the language of your favourite Western social media sites to Chinese (e.g.Facebook), or better still, you set up Chinese social media accounts to gain both linguistic and cultural insights into modern China (e.g. Weibo).
Do your Chinese homework in public
The next time you have some Chinese grammar exercises to do – either set by your teacher or self-afflicted – head to a busy noodle restaurant or cafe. You are bound to turn some heads once you bring out your Chinese textbooks and get to work, and most likely, a few curious patrons will peer over your shoulder and express their admiration.
Showing people around you that you are learning Chinese makes it more likely that they will approach you and speak in Chinese. Cue the questions about where you are from and how long you’ve been in China, and expect a few compliments too: ‘你中文说得真好啊!’
Make the most of your commuting time
In our day-to-day lives there are a lot of ‘in-between’ times, whether that be commuting to work on the subway, or waiting in a queue at the bank. Use this time wisely by downloading and listening to some Chinese music or Chinese-language podcasts. Many Chinese music phone apps such as QQ Music（QQ 音乐）and KuGou music (酷狗音乐) have a real-time scrolling lyrics feature, so you can read (or sing!) along and learn new vocabulary as you listen.
Get yourself a healthy addiction
Sometimes being a couch potato can be healthy. For your Chinese language progress, that is. Why not dedicate a lazy Sunday to watching back-to-back episodes of some popular Chinese soap operas. It’s best to try a few different ones out and see which one hooks you in first.
You may think that your Chinese language skills aren’t up to scratch for watching Chinese TV, but the best thing about soap operas is that the characters and locations stay mostly the same throughout the series, so they’re much easier to follow than one-off films.
Most have simple plot lines, moody background music, and plenty of melodramatic acting too, which also helps. If you really want to read subtitles as you watch, then try viki.com for Chinese dramas with English subtitles. Some good series to try are “Far Away Love” (远得要命的爱情) or “The Lover’s Lies” (爱人的谎言) if you’re into the romantic/family drama thing, or “The Imperial Doctress” (明代女医师), if you’re more of a period costume drama fan.
Journal about your progress (in Chinese!)
Finally, make sure you don’t forget how much progress you’re making with your language, and journal each day. You can use a journal to record new words you’ve learned, phrases you’ve heard, or observations you’ve made about how the local Chinese around you speak and interact with each other. You can even try writing about your day in Chinese, to practice writing longer compositions.
Andreas Laimböck is the Director of LTL Mandarin School and has lived in Beijing since 2001 when he first went there to study Chinese. Andreas is an HSK examiner, cultural and language immersion enthusiast and splits his time between the three LTL schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengde.
Bethan Williams is from the UK and holds a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages from Cambridge University. She is a student advisor at LTL Mandarin School Beijing and a language learning enthusiast.