Five Unexpected Ways to Learn Mandarin (or any language)

It’s been a while since my last post about language learning, however, now that I’m back in the UK, I’ve had to get a little creative and stretch a little further to get in that all-essential Chinese practise.

While these little life-hacks won’t get you fluent any time soon, it really pays to try to encounter Mandarin, or any language, in as many real-life situations as possible. Do I remember a word after six classes spent analysing a poem? No. Do I remember how to say ‘scissors’ after getting stuck in a winter jacket in Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú)? Yes.

So, whether you’re on a little quest to improve your language skills or feel like you’ve entered through the fiery gates of Mordor into a language rut, here’s my five unexpected places and ways to learn (even just a teeny bit) of your target language:

1. Hashtags

A little trick I learned a while ago was to Google Image a word to check it meant what I thought it meant. This tip followed me to Instagram, and later to Weibo. Think about the hashtags you might use day to day: #coffee #morning #work – they all have an equivalent in your target language.

Next time you post, see if you can add some second-language hashtags, and check them – does it mean what you think it means? What do other people post under this hashtag? What other hashtags do they use? Even better, you might find some new online accounts to follow.

A personality test went viral on social media last year with various ways to describe yourself

2. The classroom (sort of)

This one goes out to all the ESL teachers. Hands up, how many of you have learned the latest slang from your students?

Despite the fact that your job is primarily to teach English, hearing your students talk in their native language is almost unavoidable. But rather than descending into a Basil Fawlty-like state over keeping the classroom strictly English only, it might be worth turning it into an exercise.

For example, if you hear a student speaking in their first language, be friendly and ask them for a translation or offer to teach the class the English equivalent. It takes less than a minute and has three benefits: 1) If it was rude, the student will be discouraged from disruptive behaviour. 2) If it wasn’t rude, everyone benefits from practising English and learning a new phrase that they can use among friends, and 3) Your student will gain the self-confidence that they have also taught you something.

3. English Learning blogs

Bear with me on this. I was once scrolling through Weibo and came across a page dedicated to posting daily IELTS content to help Chinese students prepare for their English-language proficiency test. The bonus? Phrases and complicated terminology are translated into both English and Mandarin. I am now the proud follower of several TOEFL and IELTS accounts despite being a native speaker of English.

This is a really convenient method to save photos and PDFs that have Mandarin translations of regular English phrases. However if you don’t want to feel like a selfish Smaug hoarding English learning resources, it might also be a good idea to offer help, corrections or additional information for other followers who might not yet be fluent.

4. That crisp packet in your hand

Food is one of my favourite things. The fact that it is nearly always on or near my person means that I can turn it into a handy language learning device. In fact, I think I’ve already written an article on food shopping and language learning.

It might be worth noting that this only works for me if I’ve bought food packaged in China, but in the past I’ve even photographed packets of food, makeup or toiletries to translate later (yes, my Image Gallery’s a blast).

One of my ‘language lessons’

Take shampoo for example. It might seem like a minor part of our every day lives, but think of all the words associated with shampoo marketing – fragrant, luxurious, silky, smooth, lather, rinse – the list goes on. These adjectives and verbs aren’t used solely in shampoo isolation. So next time you’re a little bored in the supermarket queue, take a look at what’s in front of you.

5. Instruction manuals

This is a little similar to Tip Number 4, but surprise! Instruction manuals can be helpful for learning instructional language.

After having some wifi installed in my apartment in China, the installation man left with a cheery tip of his hat before I realised that pressing that button reset the entire system requiring a re-configuration. It made my head hurt even in English. So after wiping my mascara-tears on my dressing gown sleeve, I set to work unfolding the manual and translating the instructions – and I did it.

Now, I can read similar wifi and computer related terminology without breaking into a cold sweat, and the same goes for medicine, flat-pack tables and instant noodles. If you’re out of the country, you can also keep manuals and booklets to study later as real-life materials.

Keep in mind that Ikea’s nifty picture-only manuals simply won’t do in this case.

So there you have it, five free ways to be proactive with your language learning hiding in plain sight. In the meantime, I’ll be figuring out just what else we can do to really get the most out of our language learning.

Do you have any other unusual ways to learn a language? Agree with my tips? Simply can’t wait to tell me how wrong I am? Don’t hesitate to get in touch in the comments below.

Good luck!


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