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3/10 Never one without two: the TOP secret to optimizing your learning environment in Chinese

Can you really learn a language wherever you are?

What type of person are you when it comes to time?

A time-chaser?

A time-saver?

A time-watcher?

Well if you ever take a look back at some of my Instagram posts @RuthZannis, you will quickly discover that I am not the type of person who likes to do one thing at a time. As far as it is possible to synchronise activities and effectively do several things simultaneously, I go for those options.

It saves time.

It saves energy.

It also saves money.

I also am the type of person who doesn't take no for an answer.

If someone tells me something is not possible then I will find a way to make it possible.

You say I can't, I say I can.

You say you can't, I say you can.


This is especially true when it comes to learning.

Does learning a language in the country of the target language always have to be the ultimate option?

When I decided to learn Chinese, I knew when it came to learning a second language that so many people held living in the country of your target language as the holy grail of language learning.

After all, what better way can you learn a language?

And initially my plan for learning Chinese was exactly that. Go back to China, find a job, learn the language.

What could be more optimal in learning?

But then my plans to go back to China fell through and I had never felt more devastated.

My feelings of devastation were short lived when I decided to turn things on their head and use the necessity to learn Chinese in France as an opportunity to shake things up in the learning world.

I started to look around me and noticed person after person who had lived in France for five, ten or even twenty years and yet were still incapable of speaking French.

I looked at the rare people I knew who were bilingual in English and yet had never set foot outside of France.

And I started to analyse and question what it was exactly which made learning abroad such an effective learning option, and what I would need to do to recreate the same environment without even leaving the country I was in.

I mean, just think about that idea for a minute.

Wouldn't that be amazing for all those of you out there who dream of mastering a second language but for whom studying abroad is absolutely not an option?!

A real alternative to studying a language abroad!

And so as I looked and analysed I came to some interesting conclusions.

The ONE thing which makes learning a languagebabroad an enviable option and why we don't have to play catch up anymore!

You see, every single person I had taught up until that point invariably told me that their main objective in learning English was to practice English.

The conclusion being, the more you practice, the more you progress.

And the logic being, if you live abroad you practice more and so you progress more.

But let's stop and rethink this for a moment.

And this may sound repetitive at first, but every single person I had taught up until that point had done nothing but practice during their language training, which many times they had followed for years!

And yet not one person was capable of holding more than a basic conversation with me in English.

So I thought about life abroad, as at the time I too was living in a foreign country. And technically even if I knew French from having studied it all through school, just being in the country with day-to-day general interactions, I still wasn't using a significant amount of French.

And this was after four years in the country!

(In fact, it was only when I decided to learn Chinese that my French really started to take off! Go figure!)

What was it then which was key in making people make progress when studying a language abroad?

And then one day I was riding the bus home. I was pretty tired and the bus was pretty full and I started thinking about the fact that living in the city was rather exhausting. And as I thought about it I was trying to put my finger on what it was that was so tiring.

Especially as I hadn't been doing anything particularly exhausting that day.

Then suddenly it hit me.

Here I was sitting on a bus. It was full. I was by myself. Yet everyone around me was talking.

And this was it.

Even if I wasn't paying attention to all the hustle and bustle and noise and conversations around me, my brain was still taking it all in and processing every word.

Which considering how much goes on in a big city, that was a lot of noise information to take in and process.

All on automatic.

And then something else hit me.

If my brain was constantly tuned in and processing everything around it, even on auto-pilot, then that was the exact reason one makes more progress learning a language in the country of ones target language.

You may not be actively practicing the language every single day, but the simple fact of being out and about, your brain is actively processing everything going on and everything it hears.

This means whether you are on a bus with people talking all around you, in a supermarket with all the overhead announcements, at a market with all the vendors shouting their wares, you are constantly surrounded by the language.

And regardless of whether you are paying attention to it, your brain is still taking it in and processing it.

Every single word.

Never one without two: the second ULTIMATE secret to understanding Chinese

And so as I described in 2/10: The four tones in Chinese - Discover the KEY secret to actually understanding Chinese, in surrounding myself with spoken Chinese every single day, and passively taking it in rather than constantly getting frustrated with myself for understanding absolutely nothing, not only was I opening my ears to accommodate the new frequency range I needed to hear and eventually understand the language, I was also recreating a language learning environment identical to what I would find if I was to study the language abroad!

So in fact, my original strategy to open my ears to hearing the Chinese language not only expanded my audio range to be able to clearly hear Chinese, it also became a way to recreate a language learning experience as if I had been able to learn Chinese in China or Taiwan.

There are many more aspects to this process which serve both in the early days of learning a second language and long-term advanced level learning, each of which will be the subject of future articles.

What is important to retain at this point is the absolute necessity at the very start of learning a second language to expose yourself to the language every single day.

And this you can do anytime, anywhere.

That choice is yours.

What is important is that it is a passive form of listening. The importance of passive listening versus active listening I will share with you in a future article, but note for now, the key purpose of this is to absorb the language because the more you absorb, especially passively listening, the more quickly your ears become accustomed to the sounds, the intonations, and eventually even the tones.

Another key factor, especially when looking at the psychology of learning, is any listening activity at an elementary level, if you try to actively listen, you will be lost and you will get discouraged and most likely you will give up.

By taking away that negative factor of stress, all you are doing is putting on Chinese to listen to in the background, wherever you may be. And by taking away pressure and expectations you will actually open the way to surprise yourself.

Because in expecting and setting yourself up to understand nothing, you will actually start to understand! Even odd words and you will start to get excited. You will grin, then smile, then even laugh.

Look at me! I even understood some Chinese! you will say to yourself. You may even tell others.

But what is sure, that this way you will catch that itching desire to keep listening because you know that little by little you are seeing progress. And you will only want to experience more.

All that is potentially negated when you start with the objective to actively listen and give up when you understand nothing more than a few words.

See the difference psychologically?

I will be writing much more about this in future articles, because like I said in 2/10: The four tones in Chinese - Discover the KEY secret to actually understanding Chinese listening is not a one-trick pony and should never been seen as such. There are many many layers of listening to discover and each will make you progress in learning Chinese, and any other language too, in ways you never dreamt possible.

If you have any questions, please add them to the comments and I will reply.

So let's talk practical.

Suggestions as to what you immerse yourself in?

Discover the BEST resources and strategies to keep listening in Chinese

The very easiest avenue to follow is to simply turn on the radio! Find shows which sound nice to the ear and vary between full chat shows to music stations. Variety is always important, because even if it is passive, you want something which at least sounds nice in the background.

This is the link to Radio Taiwan International however if you click on the link in English you will be redirected to English language radio!

Tunein is a great source for radio where you can access Chinese radio stations, Taiwanese radio stations, or if you just click on Chinese language then you can choose between Music or Talk and then choose what you might be interested in.

Without going into too much detail for now, I also strongly advice people to work from the very beginning with authentic listening material. Many I know would disagree, and in fact when researching for this article, I looked up what other language experts were suggesting as listening material and every single one included level appropriate material.

The reason I don't advocate for level appropriate material is because so many times I have witnessed learners mastering, let's say elementary level listening material, and being very excited that they 'understood' everything.

And so they should be.

They worked hard.

But then they go and plan a short holiday so they can go and practise in the country.

Also a great idea.

But they always would come back to me completely deflated.

Completely demoralised.

The wind taken out of their sails.

Because no sooner had they stepped off the plane and asked a native speaker for directions - something they learnt and understood in their elementary listening material - they suddenly understand nothing.

Not a word.

And this scenario is repeated time and again for them.

The fact is it takes time to build up your listening abilities when learning a second language. Not being understand a native speaker at that point in your learning journey is completely normal.

The issue, however, is that huge surge in excitement and motivation followed by that drastic feeling of loss and failure. That feeling of being at the top of a mountain only to turn around and realise you still have another huge one to climb.

Psychologically this can be on the brutal side, and so even if yes, metaphorically learning a language like Chinese can feel like climbing a huge mountain, we need to design our learning, and this case design our listening, so we have a constant surge of excitement and build up of small achievements rather than a cycle of buildup and setbacks.

But it is a large topic, so be sure to subscribe to my newsletter so you don't miss any future articles. I will be writing a lot more on the subject.

This being said, podcasts can be a good source of listening material.

Chinese Boost gives some good suggestions to start out with.

Alternatively you can check Chinese language podcasts on itunes China and itunes Taiwan. is also a great source for finding Chinese language podcasts also giving you a brief description in English of what each one might be about.

As I said above, variety is important. If you are listening and you feel it is starting or is about to start to grate on your ears, change what you are listening to and maybe even give yourself a short break.

Don't always force yourself or chances of abandonment and giving up are increased.

You need a break?

Take one.

And enjoy it.

The other thing I would recommend, particular when you are having some down time, on your phone, for example, is to watch some videos in Chinese on topics you are interested in.

You like painting, watch videos on painting.

You like cosplay, watch videos on cosplay events, or costume tutorials.

You like cooking, watch videos on cooking shows or quick cooking tutorials.

You like something else? Go watch that.

For this I mainly use Youtube, and from time to time I also use Youku, which is the Chinese equivalent to Youtube. Just be aware, unlike Youtube where ads only last about 5 seconds, ads on Youku can last up to two minutes in length and there is no getting out of it unless you want to pay for premium membership. The best is to just sit them through and take it as some extra practise.

Your question most likely is though, how do you search for videos in Chinese?

I would recommend installing Pleco, one of the best Chinese dictionaries you can get, and just looking up the topic you are interested to get the Chinese term for it. Then copy and paste it into Youtube or Youku and see what comes up. There will be hit and misses at first, but once you start finding videos on what you are interested in, many more will follow.

And don't forget, if you need to drag yourself away (yes, learning this way you will actually be dragging yourself away) you can always save the videos to a folder so you don't have to look for them again later, or just add them to Watch Later.

Got any questions or suggestions?

Let me know in the comments.

Like it? Then please share.

Listening and giving yourself the very BEST foundation for your future language learning

It was only around the six-month mark where I felt my ears fully open to the language, so we are not talking overnight results. We are talking constant regular indications of progress in your Chinese which you will progressively experience and witness over those six months.

This will set you the very best foundation for all your future learning.

Because as I said in the previous article, how can you describe what you have never seen?

How can you repeat something you cannot actually hear?

By immersing and opening your ears to the Chinese language, you will be able to hear everything, and in consequence be able to repeat everything.

And very quickly you will notice, especially from six months onwards, that you will more quickly be picking up and remembering new words from what you have heard rather than what you have read in a book or seen on an app.

When learning a second language, it is far far easier to repeat and use something you have heard, rather than something you have tried to memorize from a textbook.

It is intuitive, it is proactive and it is designed around the way we innately learn.

And it is only at this point that I recommend one comes back to the question of the four tones in Chinese.

Once you have laid this strong foundation in Chinese, it is at this point that you will be ready to take on the four tones.

And while it may still not be perfect, you will no longer be swimming in the great sea of the unknown. You will no longer be feeling ready to run out of the class never to come back. You will be ready to take them on because you have that wonderful foundation to now build them on, and that whole level of understanding and familiarity which you simply didn't have before.

It is also at this point, and only at this point that I would start introducing the pinyin.

What? Only now?

Six months of no pinyin???

What in the world could I be thinking?

Stay tuned.


All will be revealed very soon.

Got any great resources you use for listening to Chinese?

Share in the comments below!


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