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A letter to a student

I have been teaching Chinese for years. Recently I meet a brilliant young man, who has merely studied with me in a couple of weeks as a beginner, but has already showed incredible progress. He prepares before a lesson and does review. He grasps any chance to listen and to speak Chinese. He makes Chinese friends online to learn Chinese language as well as culture from them. I believe the strategy that I passed on to him works.

When we met last week, he mentioned that he tried to watch a show on CCTVI but encountered huge difficulties. His question was why he could basically understand teachers and friends, but failed to understand a TV show. Also, he wanted to know what vocabulary level he has to reach in order to understand and use the language in real life. I wrote an email to response him, but when I had a second look of the email, it looks like a piece of empty philosophy. I decided that I would write something else to him, but keep it in my blog for it may have the merit as a general thought in learning a language.

“You have already rapidly gained many words, usages, and sentence structures in a short time period; however, to fully comprehend Chinese, words, sentences, and even the language itself are not good enough. Language is not an isolated existing thing; it’s related to many other social phenomena. To understand a language, you have to simultaneously acquire a wide range of knowledge of the particular society and the people who are speaking the language. This fact makes learning a language harder, but on the other hand, you eventually harvest more than your initial expectation of learning a language.

As an eastern language, Chinese shares little similarity with western languages. Moreover, the cultural elements within the language can be very peculiar for foreigners. It requests time to get used to.

However, this issue could be interpreted from an opposite angle. You showed me unusual excellence in the beginning stage, which challenging my theory of for how long one can master Chinese. I really cannot give a solid answer for your question now. The determining factors of the success are all on your hands. How effectively you study, how much efforts you put in, how you actively seek possible assistance, and so on. I expect you make a miracle and look forwards hearing your triumph in the future. ”