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.