To me, language is really beautiful.  I think language is what makes us human.  Without language, we would not be able to share our thoughts with others.  Without language we could have no thoughts, only instincts.  Learning a second, third, fourth, or 25th language not only enriches you through exposure to different ways of thinking, but it also helps you understand your own language more succinctly and completely.  The better you can use language (your native language or any other,) the more complete and whole your thoughts can be developed.  With that development comes a deeper, richer, more enlightened life.


When I was in Beijing, it was normal for people to arrive and ask “what is the best way to learn Chinese?”  Perhaps because I learned my Chinese in classrooms and in my interactions with Chinese friends (as opposed to intense military training courses or religious missionary service), most of these people were referred to me.  In the future, I’m simply going to point people to my blog when they ask how I learned Chinese, or what I recommend they do to learn the language.  As I build my blog, I hope that it can be a useful tool for anyone who visits China.  I want to pack this blog with as much information as possible to help people get along well in visits to China.  In this entry, I’ll focus on the basics of language acquisition.


Laying a good foundation for learning another language

I think there are really three things that lay the foundation for successful language acquisition: attitude, expectations, and  approach.

1) Attitude:  The right attitude will rescue you time and time again throughout the language acquisition process.  There will be times when you feel REALLY stupid.  You have to decide to find the humor in the situation and agree that it’s okay to make a fool of yourself.  Decide now that it is worth the humiliation to be able to eventually master Chinese (or whatever language you are focusing on).  One thing to keep in mind, is that all the extra attention you receive because you made a silly mistake in front of others will make it far easier to remember this mistake and avoid it in the future.

I think most of the time people freeze up and stunt their own growth it is usually because of one word: insecurity.  Learning a language is no different.  I’ll talk about insecurity in greater detail in a future post, but if you feel like you can never win, or that everyone else seems to be having an easier time figuring things out than you, those are good clues that you might be insecure (in your second language).

*Decide to be willing to be put in vulnerable positions in life and laugh at yourself

*Open yourself up to the possibility that you can be successful, imagine how you will feel when you are beyond your current stage.

*Reward yourself for small successes and breakthroughs in bravery.  When you do something that is outside of your comfort zone, stop afterwards to reflect on how you successfully faced your fears and came out okay.  Focus on how good it feels when you look back and can see the growth in yourself.


2) Expectations:  A necessary aspect of the right attitude is to adjust your expectations.  Adjust your impression of mistakes.  I make lots of mistakes!  Your Chinese teacher probably makes loads of mistakes.  In fact, you probably constantly make mistakes when you speak English!  If you ever want to be fluent in Chinese, you will first have to make tens of thousands of mistakes.

The key is to come into your language experience expecting to make mistakes, and decide ahead of time that mistakes are normal, healthy, funny, and wonderful.  Decide to be okay with that.

If you expect to have fun, expect to make mistakes, and expect to succeed, you will.  You will succeed and you will have a riot all along the way.


3) Approach: first, it is important to realize what language acquisition is not.

*learning a language is not memorizing a list of vocabulary words

*not working out grammar like you would a math equation

*not passing quizzes and tests in school

*not perfection

I believe it is often counterproductive to try to learn a language through vocabulary lists.  Especially if you are learning your second language, (as apposed to having already learned a second language) because it might be difficult to keep in mind that many words in English have several different meanings.  One of the fun bonuses of learning a second and third language is you begin to be more aware of the multiple meanings of a single word.  There are thousands of examples of words that, if you change the context involved, you also change the meaning.  Usually each different meaning has a different translation in a foreign language.  Also, remember that the words in the foreign language often also have multiple meanings and can only be accurately interpreted in context.  More often than not, only one of those meanings is going to correspond accurately with its English counterpart.  Basing language acquisition on a list of comparable vocabulary lists leads to using “strength” when you mean “courage” or “cold” when you mean “angry.”  The list of possible mistakes is endless.  So if you are going to memorize something, do not memorize lists of words, at least memorize phrases that are in context and express an entire thought.


Language is communicating thoughts, understanding someone else who shares their thoughts, giving and taking directions, etc.

I will share other posts about more specific things that you can do to learn a new language or reinforce a language that you worry is slipping away from you.  For now, decide that you love your target language, and begin studying the people and culture that use the target language.  Use what you know as much as possible.  You don’t have to speak to native speakers to be able to use your language skills. is a fun website that allows you to meet native speakers from any language around the world, and you should be able to find dozens of other ways to keep up on your target language, if you are committed to it.


I will need to fill in the gaps with a lot of the advice on this post with more complete posts in the future, but really the focus here is that for you to truly succeed in learning a foreign language, your mindset needs to be aligned with success.

2 Responses to 3 Essential Foundations for Learning Chinese (or any foreign language)

  1. Rod Osborne says:

    Steve, great article. If there is anyone that can talk about learning a language FAST, it is you. Thanks for the advice. I’m still working on my Chinese and still loving it. Congratulations on your marriage and your new book. Can’t wait to read it. Rod

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the endorsement Rod! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and you can expect more soon! Chinese is such a fun language, once you start learning, it kind of grabs you and doesn’t let go!
      The book should be available in about three months, just waiting for the last few endorsements to come back!

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