10 Takeaways from Vladmir Skultety on learning Mandarin

The Slovak PolyglotFor those of you who don’t know yet, Vladimir Skultety is an accomplished polyglot who speaks more than 19 languages!!

Check out his video below.

That was absolutely mind-blowing.

To learn more about him and his language learning journey, I came across David Mansaray’s interview with him for the Polyglot Project.

The interview focuses largely on how he learned his Mandarin Chinese (it seems he is a Slovak – Chinese interpreter as well), and given that I’ve been focusing on Mandarin as of late, I wanted to share 10 key takeaways from this interview.

So here they are! My comments are in green.

1) Language learning is mimicry.
–> Language learning as mimicry…hmm. I don’t think I’ve consciously tried to mimic or imitate speakers of the target language, but Vlad recommends imitating native speakers as one strategy to sound more native-like. One thing I liked was that he recommended finding someone who is similar to you as a person. In other words, find somebody who is as close to yourself as possible, but who is a native speaker of the target language. That way, you would just need to emulate the way that person speaks, that person’s mannerisms, down to what the person says and how that person says it, and voilà! You have your alter ego in the target language.

2) What remains at last is what lasts
–> Don’t write things down. Instead, at the end of the day, write down what you remember from memory. This was Vlad’s advice. I’m willing to try this one because I feel that the words and expressions that get repeated enough, are the ones that will remain in our heads. Case in point: in spite of writing out as much of the words and expressions I hear while practicing conversation and entering them into Anki, they just wouldn’t stick. Rather than focusing on writing things out, which, for a language like Mandarin, is often needlessly time-consuming and exacting, perhaps it’s better to let the language enter your brain FIRST (more on this from Vlad below).

3) There’s no better place to learn Mandarin than China or Taiwan
–> This is a no-brainer. While it may be true that some are able to achieve very high levels of proficiency while living outside the country in which it is mainly spoken, for the most of us, it’s a pretty lofty goal while we’re sitting in our home countries. If you count the number of times you’ll simply be exposed to the language from all directions, there’s no better way to learn the target language than living in a Mandarin-immersive environment.

4) Using the right word in right contexts
–> Vlad recounted a time when he said something with the right pronunciation and with the right grammatical structure, and yet people gave him a blank stare. He later learned that people normally wouldn’t use the particular word that he used in the same context that he used it in. In other words, despite what the thesaurus and dictionaries might tell you, some words may appear to mean similar things, but not in the same context! As a personal example, I used the word 满意 in my Chinese conversation practice to mean “satisfied”. But my instructor pointed out that that word is used more in written contexts. 

5) Less is more
Mandarin words (or rather, syllables) are very short, which enables Mandarin speakers to say a lot more within a given duration than English. That’s why –  so the argument goes – you need to hone in on those sounds and listen hard because a mouthful in English isn’t quite the same as a mouthful in Mandarin. Mandarin is a syllable-timed language, as opposed to English, which is stress-timed. All this means that while English syllables can have varying durations, for Mandarin, syllable duration is the same. For more info, check this and this

6) Speak first, read and write later
–> I wish somebody would’ve given me this tip earlier on in my Mandarin learning process. Not that I dislike characters. Far from it. I love unraveling the hidden, underlying meanings in the characters. It feels like you’re venturing into an old mystic world of meaning, and it’s a decidedly different interpretation of the world; that is, different from the Western view of things. I also like to cross-reference Chinese characters with Korean, looking up simplified characters, then looking them up in the traditional version to see what they look like. At any rate, Vlad recommends that learners learn to speak first, then read and write later because learning to read and write Chinese characters is a painstaking process and, in his words, an “unnecessary burden” in the initial stages. I agree with this approach. If your goal is to learn to speak as fast as you can, leave the characters til later on. In fact, I even think this learning approach could be applied to other languages that do not have a Latin-based alphabet. I think I might try consciously not learning to read and write in the initial stages the next time I learn a language with a non-Latin alphabet.

7) Doing dictation drills for listening practice
–> Vlad suggested a useful (albeit probably boring IMO) listening exercise whereby you would listen to a piece of audio (e.g. news segment) and write down words you don’t know on a Word file. Look up the words, then listen again. Keep repeating this process until you know most or all of the words. I think this exercise is beneficial because it helps you to systematically learn the finite number of words that you need to know to understand contextually. Steve Kaufmann’s LingQ helps to make this process less torturous. 

8) Getting away with bad pronunciation
–> The argument goes that one can “get away with bad pronunciation” in European languages. But, this is not so in Mandarin. Vlad gave the two sentences below as an example.

我要睡觉 (wo3 yao4 shui4 jiao4) – I want to sleep.
我要水饺 (wo3 yao4 shui3 jiao3) – I want water dumplings.

The only difference in the above two sentences is in the two tones at the end of the sentence!

While European languages probably have their fair share of embarrassing pronunciation mistakes words similar enough to cause confusion, nowhere nearly as close as Mandarin, I’m afraid.

9) Importance of reading
–> David Mansaray raised a question. For European languages, you can rely on the text to deduce the way the words are pronounced. Is it not the case for Mandarin? Well, Vlad says yes, the characters do have sound “elements”, which don’t serve as a perfect representation, but a hint. The simplest pictographics in Chinese are almost clear enough to make out their original, intended meaning, but life is far more complex than those elements that can be drawn or figuratively represented in the form of pictorials. For those more complex elements, ideographs brought together simpler constituents to represent novel, more complex concepts. More info can be found here.

Interestingly enough, Vlad mentions that over time, you become so comfortable with the target language that you end up not reading every single word. Think about it. When you read a text in English (or your native language), do you really read every single word? No, the context provides cues and clues so that you can fly across some words without having to read every single one to understand. In the same way, eventually you become so familiar with Chinese that you can effectively predict what word should follow after a certain character. As for me personally, I definitely am not at this level yet, but I look forward to the day when this becomes a reality.

10) Hang out at a local Chinatown
–> This was a new idea I don’t know why I haven’t been putting into practice. There are plenty of Chinese people all over the world, and Chinatowns can be found virtually anywhere. This is one plan I can act upon right away. If you can’t up and move to somewhere like China or Taiwan to live in a Chinese-immersion environment, the second best choice is to hang out at your local Chinatown and befriend Chinese people. Point taken.

That’s it folks. Those are the 10 takeaways. Hope they’re helpful for those of you who are learning Mandarin 🙂

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