Side effects of learning Mandarin

I have friends that are moving to Buenos Aires, and I told them that I’d blog about some of the patterns I’ve observed when people who are successful 2nd language learners of Mandarin start learning Spanish. Here’s what I see a lot of…

Worshipping at the Altar of Recall. In Chinese class, there is often a cold, discreet-item recall quiz, where the teacher gives you a Chinese word, and you provide the English equivalent, and your grade depends on it. No actual teaching or conversation is required. That’s why I see my friends with an attitude toward the teacher that’s like, “just shut up and give me the vocab list, so I can memorize it. Stop wasting my time with all this talking.”

What they don’t know is that Spanish class is designed to PRACTICE new words in conversation, to rely on linguistic “memory” rather than discrete-item recall, so that memorization is totally irrelevant. Of course, there are a great many ways that students find to torpedo this process, whether or not they have previously learned Mandarin, but I do see a pattern among successful Mandarin speakers; they prefer to memorize rather than practice. I remember seeing my friend going through a stack of flashcards with family relationship vocabulary, and wondering if the word “brother-in-law” was really the most pressing vocabulary emergency at the moment. Which leads me to the next tendency I’ve noticed….

Going Rogue on Curriculum A hallmark of successful Mandarin learners is that most of them have, at one point or another, realized that their teacher knows absolutely nothing about teaching. Consequently, they seize control of the direction and scope of their lessons. They go rogue. They pay attention to the aspects of the language they deem important; they disregard the priorities the teacher lays out. They miss what they think is worth missing, confident that they can make up the difference by force of will.

If you have a good grasp on how inflectional languages operate, it’s a-okay to go rogue in Spanish class. However, if the only languages in the world that you’ve every spoken are a bunch of languages where syntax is based on strict word-order… languages like English and Mandarin… then you’re on a sinking ship, where “going rogue” is counter productive. You can’t memorize or brute force your way to mastering the concept of inflection; you actually have to *cooperate,* cooperate and practice.

Probably the least critical pattern that I’ve seen among the few people I know who learned Mandarin first and then moved on to Spanish is transfer, some people call it interference. This is a class of learner “error” that people love to freak out about, but I find less than compelling. Basically, these learners will “transfer” Chinese structures into Spanish, so you’ll hear people say something like  ¿Este es qué significado? (gloss: “This is what meaning?” compare 《這是什麼意思?》) or something like A: ¿Tienes un momento? B: Tengo. (gloss: “Do you have a moment? I have.” Compare 《A: 你有空嗎?B:有》).

Yes, I am aware that “Tengo” is a grammatically correct way to possibly answer that question, but by far the more common way to answer it would be “Sí.” (“Yes”) This is the answer you would expect to hear from a native speaker of English who has never studied Chinese.

As I said above, I don’t care much about the so-called “transfer” error, I prefer to see it as a learner strategy. I’m only mentioning it because it’s a pattern I’ve seen; I’m sure it’s just a necessary stage for them to go through.

One last thing I’ve noticed is a disbelief in cognates. One of my friends was at a taco stand in LA, and asked the taco lady how to say “stomach” in Spanish. The lady responded “Estómago” and my friend clarified, “no, how do you say it in Spanish?” In other words, the cognate was so transparent that my friend did not even recognize that it wasn’t English. This, also, is just a stage that I expect people to go through pretty fast.

Of course, I’ve notice patterns among people who, like me, learned French (or some other European language) before starting Spanish. The side effect of learning French first was a tendency to fixate on learning irregulars and exceptions; this is totally a product of French teaching method. I still find myself worry way more about pedantic exceptions that Latinos themselves are not that worried about.

In general, most of us say that Spanish is easier to learn. I personally feel this is because the current generation of Spanish teachers learned to teach with Communicative method; many of them were taught with Communicative method. Also, Spanish learning materials are written to be interesting to Americans, rather than be interesting to the authors themselves. Finally, learning Spanish seems easier because Spanish speakers in general are very accepting of language learners, their accents, and their errors; gringo pronunciation is usually not a deal breaker.

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