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Learning a Language Socially (An Example)

Following on from the last post, where I spoke about some of the benefits of multilingualism and how people in tribal societies attain it, I thought it would be relevant to give an example of how I once experienced how different learning a language from a book and socially are.

I moved to Shanghai in 2012. I had originally intended to move there by myself, but during the period I was saving/earning money for my re-location, three of my close friends decided to join me. At the time, I thought this was great. However, from one point of view -that of learning Mandarin- I soon realised it was detrimental.

I had been naive to think that I would still be able to achieve my goal of quickly learning Chinese and simultaneously spending my working hours teaching English and my free time with my English-speaking friends in one of the most international cities in China (in fact, I had been naive in my goal of quickly learning Chinese either way!). After over half a year of painstakingly slow progress from occasionally studying a beginner’s textbook, I hired a tutor. This certainly sped up the process of learning. However, it wasn’t until one week in particular that the importance of learning socially became clear to me.

Two haircuts

On the Monday, I ended the struggle of my beginner’s lesson promising to study hard before the next one on Friday. That afternoon, in preparation for a date the following evening, I had a haircut, which in China often takes much longer than in England because it involves hair washing, head and arm massaging, and the placing of a warm towel on the customer’s face. Added to this was the fact that I was in an area with hardly any foreigners and few people knowing English, so protocol was protracted as the staff and I tried to communicate. This distracted me from the fact (which I had subconsciously picked up on) that I hadn’t clearly described how I wanted my hair cut. When I returned home, I stood face-to-face with that now conscious fear: I looked like a lunatic.

I immediately headed back out to another hairdressers (they were all unisex), and in broken Chinese tried to explain my bizarre hairstyle (though I think it explained itself). They sat me down and began the exact same process of hair washing and scalp massaging that I had just had in the previous place, and before long I was once again surrounded by curious staff and being bombarded with questions. This time, one of the barbers there also insisted we exchange numbers as he wanted to hang out with me and my fellow foreign friends. Late that night, I walked home weary from (but pleased with my) corrected haircut and the hours of Chinese practice I had just had.

Two dates

When I arrived at my Tuesday date, I was surprised to find that the girl I was meeting couldn’t speak English. Evidently, the loud music and her politeness had masked this fact when I met her the week before. We had been texting each other in Chinese since then, but I had assumed this was for fun! So the evening was spent speaking in Mandarin. At the end of the date, we shared a taxi for a short while and said goodbye. It was only when the taxi arrived at my destination did I realise she had left her phone on its seat. After calling a few (non-English speaking) people from her phone, I managed to get in contact with her, and the next evening we met again so that I could give it back. This meant Wednesday evening was also spent in Chinese conversation for me.

On the Thursday, I received a call from the barber, who wanted to join me and my friends playing pool. Neither of my friends could speak any Chinese at this point, and so I took over the role of keeping our guest entertained by speaking with him whilst my friends played pool. I can still remember him correcting my pronunciation of ‘Beijing’ (I was using the wrong tones), and the realisation I had about how much easier pronunciation in Mandarin was when it was picked up through imitation, rather than reading and remembering the pinyin and tonal symbols in textbooks.

Lesson learned

On the Friday, I remember my lesson beginning with my tutor asking me to explain in Mandarin how my week had been. Within a minute she interrupted to gasp, “Wow! You’ve really been studying hard this week!” Actually, I told her, I hadn’t studied at all…


This experience gave me a new insight into how important regularly practicing a language for making progress. Not only had I dramatically increased my fluency and vocabulary in just four evenings (relative to what it was before), I had also for the first time experienced a series of social interactions entirely in Chinese – which taught me more about the culture than any textbook could have.

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