Mandarin Learning Challenge

In the spirit of openness and visible learning, here is my report on the Mandarin learning challenge I did for Understanding Learning in the Online Environment (#deuloe).

Submitted March 29, 2015.  Word count 1095.


Kolb and Kolb posit that “learning identity is strongly influenced by one’s important relationships” (2009, p 3). My identity as a language learner began forming when I was six years old. I remember visiting my paternal grandfather and spending hours leafing through his dictionaries; he spoke ten languages. While other kids played games, I pretended to sound out Italian, French or German words, and dreamed of speaking all of them one day. My first English textbook came from my grandfather. I strongly believe that his encouragement awoke my life-long fascination with language learning, which led me to become a language teacher.

When I realized that for the learning challenge I was tasked to choose a motor skill, I knew it could only be another language; I chose to learn Mandarin Chinese. One could argue that speaking two languages I was simply adding a third to my language repertoire, where I could draw on an established facility with language learning. However, since Mandarin belongs to an utterly unfamiliar language family for me – Sino Tibetan – I expected it to constitute a considerable, yet stimulating learning challenge. In this report, I will justify my choice as well as explore my approach and barriers to learning, where I will specifically look at motivation as the most significant driver of my learning process.

I chose to learn Mandarin for a number of reasons. Firstly, learning a foreign language constitutes the best professional development one can undertake. Gaining an ability to make analogies between languages aids in understanding learners’ needs. Secondly, I work for a settlement agency, so knowing the basics of a language spoken by a learner helps break down barriers and build trust. As a result, learners are frequently encouraged to tackle English with greater enthusiasm. Thirdly, by embarking on this challenge, I wanted to increase my understanding of why Mandarin speakers experience difficulty pronouncing the ‘ey’ diphthong in English, as in the word plain. Finally, since Mandarin has more speakers than any other language, I want to be one of them.

My reasons for embarking on this challenge illustrate that motivation is multidimensional and complicated (Ellis 2015). Deci and Ryan (cited in Ellis 2015) concluded that people are motivated both intrinsically and extrinsically. On the one hand, I activated choice motivation (Dörnyei cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013) by being intrinsically motivated out of life-long curiosity for languages. On the other hand, my choice was externally enabled by this ULOE assignment, as it gave me ‘a push’ to make it happen. Furthermore, by wanting to learn Mandarin for professional and belonging purposes, I exercised integrative motivation, which represents “language learning for personal growth and cultural enrichment through contact with” Mandarin speakers (Gardner and Lambert cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013, p 87).

For this learning challenge, just do it was my approach. Even though Bruning et al (1999) claimed that establishing specific, measurable and time-bound goals fuels intrinsic motivation, I decided against structuring my journey, as it disagreed with my beliefs about self-directed learning. I believe that self-directed learning is arborescent. Each branch is potential to learn something, and so are the leaves. Arborescence represents a multiple-path opportunity to learn.

I began my challenge by curating free online learning materials. Afterwards, I engaged in vicarious and enactive learning (Bandura cited in Bruning et al 2004). Krashen (1989) proposed Input Hypothesis by asserting that input is crucial and output simply happens. Image 1 illustrates my perfect output scores, which happened after repeated cycles of input-output, scaffolded by a teacher who listened to my recordings and provided feedback, an interaction referred to as Zone of Proximal Development by Vygotsky (cited in Ellis 2015). After all, language speaking is connected to the motor skills of the mouth and facial muscles; Scott claimed that to learn a new language one needs to “get one’s tongue around new sound combinations” (1994, p 90). To achieve this, one needs a considerable amount of practice; muscle memory does not happen by default as Krashen postulated.


Image 1. Pronunciation practice using the Waichinese app

Dörnyei’s (cited in Lightbown and Spada 2013) model of motivation also entails executive motivation, which is responsible for engagement in activities that fuel the maintenance of motivation. As a self-directed learner, I was able to modify my approach when my motivation was dissipating, or after non-study periods. To maintain my motivation, I switched between learning resources. I listened to podcasts, watched videos, practised handwriting, and recorded myself.

My engagement in a variety of activities was aimed at aiding motivation and fostering the retention of new vocabulary. The vocabulary that ‘stuck’ with me was one that related to my real-life, e.g. dog commands or the word bread (Image 2). Caine and Caine (1994) elaborated on the importance of the connection between learning and real-world, and referred to it as brain-based learning. Unfortunately, my strategies to maintain motivation and increase vocabulary did not guarantee barrier-free learning.


Image 2. Making bread

My belief in having high self-efficacy to learn Mandarin clashed with the reality of learning without a plan and outside of a Mandarin-speaking environment. Although the informal approach to learning was fun and diminished any anxiety related to striving for a goal, it presented a barrier in maintaining motivation for regular practice. In addition, learning Mandarin as a foreign language constituted a barrier as I had to make an effort to learn; Mandarin did not exist in my environment by default to support latent learning, one that happens involuntarily (Wikipedia). Another barrier which affected my motivation was slow retention. For example, practising pronunciation using the WaiChinese app was stimulating, but did not result in an increase of my language skills. Even though I spent time on scoring a match between my pronunciation pattern and the provided recordings (Image 1: upper pattern – model, bottom pattern – mine), I was unable to either retain any of the vocabulary, or to pronounce them out of context.

Language learning progress requires exposure to target language and regular practice. Due to my inconsistent engagement, I was only able to learn some basic vocabulary. Still, I managed to impress two learners by greeting them in Mandarin and give my dogs a mental exercise to understand ‘shake paw’ in four languages. All in all, the learning challenge was an enriching project, which helped me realize that I am a social learner. Opportunities that involved exposure and interactions with others, be it people or animals, were the most successful factors in my language progress. This discovery will help me select future learning pathways.


Bruning, R. H., Schraw G. J. and Ronning R. R. (1999). Cognitive psychology and instruction. Chapter 6; Beliefs about self. Upper Saddle River, N.J., Merrill.

Caine, R. N. and G. Caine (1994). Making connections: teaching and the human brain. Chapter 1; Making connections (3 – 12). Menlo Park, Calif., Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Ellis, R. (2015). Understanding Second Language Acquisition. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Kolb, A and Kolb, D. (2009) On Becoming a Learner: The Concept of Learning Identity. In Bamford-Rees et al. (eds) Essays on Adult Learning Inspired by the Life and Work of David O. Justice. Learning Never Ends. CAEL Forum and News 2009. P. 5-13.

Krashen, S. (1989). We Acquire Vocabulary and Spelling by Reading: Additional Evidence for the Input Hypothesis. The Modern Language Journal, 4, p. 440, JSTOR Journals, EBSCOhost, viewed 29 March 2015.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2013). How Language are Learned. Fourth Edition. Oxford, UK. Oxford University Press.

Scott, M. (1994). Reflections on Language Learning. Chapter 9: Metaphors and Language Awareness.

#DEULOE Learning Challenge: Mandarin Chinese

Understanding Learning in the Online Environment (ULOE) is my second course of the MSc in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. One of the tasks that compelled me to sign up for this course was a learning challenge. For the learning challenge I was tasked to choose a motor skill, one that I’ve never done before. I’ve chosen to learn Mandarin. Although 10 weeks might not be enough for me to make significant progress on this learning journey, I’m hoping to be productive, and most of all enjoy the process.

my 1st attempt to write Chinese characters

my 1st attempt to write Chinese characters

Why Chinese?

First of all, it’s for the purpose of completing the learning challenge assignment. Additionally, I cannot hide the fact that I love learning languages and I could do it all day long. I’ve picked Chinese because I’ve never tried learning a language from the Sino-Tibetan family. I’m expecting that the tonal and written systems will pose a major challenge for me. Luckily, I have a colleague who hails from Taiwan, and who promised to help me iron out difficulties. By taking on this challenge of learning some Chinese, I‘d also like to gain an understanding of why Chinese speakers seem to have difficulty pronouncing the ‘ey’ diphthong in English. Finally, Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and this alone is a good enough reason to study the language and its culture.


I’m not going to set a specific goal of learning 1000 words, or something like that. Goals are good to have, but at the same time they may pose obstacles and add pressure, which may hinder my progress. I used to set SMART goals for everything, but this time the day-to-day process of exploring Mandarin is going to be my focus. Nowadays there seems to be a spotlight on the product goals in education, and not enough on the process ones. Can a SMART goal guarantee its achievement? This is one of the topics I’ll be exploring alongside my Chinese journey.


For the past couple of weeks I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching and collecting self-study resources to learn Chinese. I’ll be participating in two MOOCs (Chinese for Beginners and Chinese Language and Culture), watching YouTube videos, e.g. Fiona Tan’s channel, and using FluentU, just to name a few.

My collections of resources are accessible on Pearltrees and Pinterest.

Voice Journal

Aside from this blog, I plan to keep a voice record of my learning :) I’m too shy to show my face on YouTube, so I’ve decided to start a podcasting channel on SoundCloud. Here we go…

How to learn any language in 6 months

While searching for self-directed language learning tips and resources, I came across Chris Lonsdale’s TED talk, in which he describes 5 principles and 7 actions of becoming fluent in a foreign language in under 6 months.

First he talks about two language learning myths:

  1. Talent – one doesn’t need talent to learn another language
  2. Immersion per se doesn’t work.  A drowning man cannot learn to swim.

The 5 Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition are:

  1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
  2. Use your language as a tool to communicate from Day 1.
  3. When you first understand the message, you will acquire the language unconsciously.
  4. Language is not about accumulating a lot of knowledge but is rather a type of physiological training.
  5. Psycho-physiological state matters – be happy, relaxed, and most importantly, be tolerant of ambiguity; don’t try to understand every word.

The 7 Actions are:

  1. Listen a lot –> brain soaking; it doesn’t matter if you understand or not. Listen to rhythms and patterns.
  2. Focus on getting the meaning first, before the words. Body language and facial expressions can help.
  3. Start mixing and get creative. Use what you’ve learned right away in daily life.
  4. Focus on the most commonly-used words; use the language you know to learn more. Start with your Toolbox – What is this? How do you say that?
  5. Get a language parent – someone who will work hard to understand what you mean, use positive reinforcement to provide feedback in words that you know.
  6. Copy the face – observe native speakers, their face and mouth; pay attention to how their face moves while they’re speaking
  7. “Direct connect”– find ways to connect words directly with images in your mind.

At the end he says, “These are things under your control as the learner. Do them all and you’re gonna be fluent in a second language in 6 months.” I like that he encourages learners to take the matter into their own hands and actively work on a new language, rather than wait for it to be delivered by a teacher. 80% of learning happens outside the classroom and this talk speaks to that.

That said, I am unsure of two things: language parents and no corrections.

When it comes to ‘language parents,’ I would rather see a different term used, e.g. language partners, peers or coaches; someone who will be on equal terms in that learning relationship, for the word ‘parent’ creates hierarchical distance, which may be discouraging for adult learners.

Speaking of correction, mistakes help us learn, but to learn from them we need to know about them. Since not every learner notices/is aware of their mistakes, I would ask them if and how they want to be corrected. My preference would lean towards delayed correction for free communicative practice and immediate correction for situations when we sit down to work on a specific language task. Avoiding correction may lead to fossilization of errors.