My parents came to China last Summer for the first time. They really enjoyed it. We went to all the big tourist spots in Beijing and Shanghai. At one point, my mum turned to me and asked ‘Can I learn Chinese? Do you think I could?’. The answer is an emphatic ‘yes!’. Anyone can do it. People often offer up excuses like age, money, or education-but it’s all nonsense. The only thing that matters is your attitude.
Age doesn’t matter
They say old dogs can’t learn new tricks. They are wrong. The benefits of previous life experience, and the fact that they actually want to learn, makes older people excellent students. Not only that, but learning keeps your mind young!
During my first year as a teacher I taught adults English in Western China. I had students from a whole range of different age groups and backgrounds. Generally, most people fell into one of four life stages:
- College students who, though bright, were often overwhelmed with other academic concerns. Or too busy flirting to really concentrate.
- Young professionals who were usually running around trying to either make or afford babies. For them, class time was a rare escape from worrying about their mortgage payments. But they often struggled to study outside of class time.
- Senior professionals. This group often had the most money but the least time.
- Retirees who had the luxury of showing up to the school as much or as little as they wanted. Many would come in just for their daily bit of gossip, and then once they were there they’d think ‘hey, I may as well do some study while I’m at it’.
Notice, every life stage has it’s advantages and disadvantages.
College age kids are whippet smart, but they lack self-assurance. They don’t really know why they’re studying, or if they really want to be studying. Senior professionals lack time, but they have the confidence that comes from being at their professional peak. As we’ll see later, confidence has a big part to play language learning. Young professionals have lots of energy, but not a minute to spare. They’re too busy getting on with their lives. Retirees might have less energy, but they have more time and experience.
The answer to the question: ‘Can I learn Chinese?’ is always ‘yes’. I’ve seen people from every age group succeed, and I’ve seen people from every age group fail. Age is simply not a factor. We, each of us, have our own challenges and advantages. The key is to leverage your advantages, and minimize your disadvantages.
Money doesn’t matter
“I can’t afford classes, books, or materials!” I hear you wail. Fine. There’s an entire universe of free resources online. Actually, there’s too many resources. The choices can be overwhelming.
Oftentimes, when you buy learning resources you’re not actually paying for the material. The material is free. It’s all out there on the internet. What you’re paying for is the organization of material. You’re paying for someone else to do all the research and decide what is the best order in which to learn things.
How to learn Chinese for free(the quick and dirty version):
- Download the ‘Anki‘ flashcard app on your phone or PC.
- Browse the thousands of free user-generated flashcard decks on their website. Pick one you like, and practice every day.
- Bonus Get a free Chinese tutor! Check out iTalki and find someone looking to do a language exchange. You teach them some English, they teach you some Chinese.
Pro tip: To get the best out of a language exchange you need to plan your own lessons. Most people are better answering questions than teaching a language from scratch.
‘But I can’t afford an internet connection!’ Really? How are you reading this?
If things are that bad, go to your local public library. You should at the very least be able to find a Pimsleur language course and a grammar book. I started my Chinese journey this way. I was flat broke and, now that I think of it, didn’t have an internet connection.
Education doesn’t matter
There are illiterate farmers all over South East Asia and Africa who speak multiple languages. If they can do it, with no resources at all, you can too. Humans are meant to learn languages, we’re designed to. It’s what separates us from the animals.
In the Anglophone, English-speaking, world we are often tricked into thinking it’s normal to only speak one language. It’s not. The overwhelming majority of the world is at least bilingual.
Just look at Europe; in the extreme West of Europe, the Celtic fringe, a significant minority of people speak Irish, Scot’s Gallic, or Welsh as well as English. Moving into central Europe you’ll meet: Belgiums who speak French, Dutch, German, and Flemish; Swiss who speak French, German, and Italian; Dutch and German people with fluent, almost native sounding, English. In the North you’ll meet Scandanavians with Californian accents(and hair from the ’80s). In the East it’s not uncommon to find Czechs and Croats who speak English and Russian as well as their own native tongues.
When we travel we take it as a given that people in low-education service jobs will be bilingual. Bar tenders, hotel staff, taxi drivers! They didn’t all go to Harvard.
They’re simply intelligent people who wanted to learn a new language, so they did it. Many of them started picking up a few words on the job, and before you know it they’re doing business in a second or even third language.
‘Can I learn Chinese?’- Yes, absolutely, 100%….if you do the work. You can’t do anything you don’t want to do. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people miss that part. Attitude is the only thing that matters.
Attitude is what allows you to overcome your individual hurdles. Everyone faces different challenges.
I’ve had classmates who speak four or five different languages, but struggled with Chinese and wanted to quit. Why? Because it wasn’t as easy as the other languages they’d learnt. It wasn’t overwhelmingly hard, but it was harder than they expected. And that was enough to make them want to quit! Even accomplished linguists face challenges, moments of doubt, and the fear of failure. It’s normal.
The only thing that separates the people who succeed from the people that don’t is their attitude. Do you really want to do this?
Chinese is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. No question. It’s an absolute nightmare. But you can do it. You just need to show up every day and do the work.
Grim determination is all fair and good, but you won’t get very far on will power alone. You have to approach learning with a positive attitude. You’ll get more from your language partners and teachers, because nobody likes a miserable student. But you’ll also get more from yourself. It will be easier to sit down and get to work if you’ve got a positive attitude towards it.
Here’s a trick for when you feel overwhelmed; commit to just one minute a day. That’s it. Sit down, do one minute. More if you feel like it, but you’re only bound to that one minute of concentration. Do that every day until you start looking forward to studying again. Trust me, it won’t take long.
The key to learning Chinese, or doing anything difficult, is controlling your attitude. When times are tough, find ways to lighten the load or incentives to push on through.
Learning languages is one of the few things human beings are simply designed to do. Age, money, and education level are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is your ability to control your attitude, show up, and do the work.
Don’t fear failure, fear quitting. Failure is part of learning, and there’s no problem you face that someone else hasn’t also faced-and overcome.