The reason I can do all of the above things are because I was highly motivated to do so, mainly out of need. I need to eat, I need to take trains, and when my friends come to visit I need to book them into a hotel. I don’t usually take taxis (I prefer public transport) but when I do I need to tell the driver where to go.
However, as well as these basic skills I can also recognize the Chinese characters for the following words: General, soldier, horse, chariot, elephant, guard, and cannon.
Now, these aren’t words that I need much in my daily life. I don’t know many generals, I’ve never seen a horse or elephant walking around Guangzhou and I don’t think I will buy a canon anytime soon. However, these words are all common in one of my favorite games: Chinese chess.
I really really love Chinese chess. During my lunch breaks I would often ask students to play with me, teach me the strategy and how to say the words of the pieces. I was extremely motivated to learn these words, not from need this time, but from the joy the activity gave me. And it was effective, I can now recognize seven characters that I didn’t know before. When I walk along Macheng Lu in Liede I can clearly recognize the “horse” ideograph and feel quite proud of myself. Seven characters down, around one million to go. Well, it’s a start.
My reason for sharing this story is that in the time I’ve lived in China I’ve noticed that the people who are the most effective at learning are people with strong needs and motivations and a passion that complements English learning. Needs, motivation and passion drive us to work hard, and this makes us more likely to put in the necessary practice to improve.
A friend of mine is extremely driven to learn Chinese and is driven on by his love of writing Chinese calligraphy. Another friend, a student, has excellent English which rapidly developed when he started taking a latin dance class that many foreigners attend. He told me he needed to improve his English in order to take his dancing to the next level. Of course, the fact that he studied was the most important thing, but his love of dance led him to the classroom on days he felt tired.
Ask yourself, what are you passionate about? Is it food, photography, travel? How can you combine this passion with your desire to learn a new language? What can you do and what would you like to do? And what are you waiting for?
David Tait is from Lancaster in the UK and works for EF English Centers(www.ef.com.cn) as Moderator for Life Club and Career Advancement. His poetry collection "Self Portrait with the Happiness" (2014) was shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize and is currently shortlisted for the Poliari First Book Award in the UK. He's held a number of arts residences including working as House Poet at Manchester Royal Exchange and for London 2012 Olympics. In 2014 he was awarded an Eric Gregory Award for poets under the age of 30 for the UK Society of Authors. He is working on a new book of poems now about his time in China.