Learning, Fast and Slow

Whether you’re a fast learner or a slow learner, you have to do what’s right for you if you want to become fluent in Mandarin. slow & steady is just as effective.

The pressure is certainly mounting at my Mandarin school these days! Since my classmates have been back from their long, relaxing and—may I venture a guess—somewhat boring Chinese New Year holidays, they are all just bursting with enthusiasm and ambitious plans about our communal studies. “Let’s double the number of classes every week!”; “Let’s take the exam in June already!”; “Let’s skip the small talk!”; “More homework, please!” … Meanwhile, I’ve been trudging on with my studies at my usual snail pace and I don’t really see the point in rushing. I wouldn’t want to disappoint my classmates however so I’m doing my best to join in the group effort. I comply with the new rules and try to keep my mouth shut in class so that we can squeeze in some more vocabulary and grammar rather than idle conversation in the precious schooling hours. And I carry my ever-heavier load of books around without too much complaining.

Yet deep down I feel I’m not completely comfortable succumbing to the cramming-before-an-exam kind of study strategy. I truly believe that when it comes to language acquisition (and any other type of long-term accomplishment really), slow and steady is the way to do it. Letting a couple of new words or expressions sink in and properly nest themselves somewhere in my brain every day, is enough to bring me a ton of joy and satisfaction.

Learning Mandarin is a life-long project for me and the only way to keep persevering at it is if I’m enjoying myself while doing it.

There is this one special Chinese expression that I’ve truly taken to my heart. It’s the cheerful “Man zou!” that used to mystify me during my early days in the Middle Kingdom. I’m sure you’ve heard it too after leaving a shop, restaurant or café. It took me some time to realize that although the literal translation is “Slowly walk!” it implies something rather different; more like “Take care.” I’ve learned since that there are many similar expressions. For example, “Man chi!” or “Man yong!” which literally translate to “Slowly eat!” or “Slowly use.” These are used as the equivalent of “Bon appetite!” or more generally “Enjoy!”

Another favorite and even more enigmatic expression is “Man man lai!” literally “Slowly, slowly come!” meaning “Take your time!” or “Take it easy!” I’ve heard it being used in many different situations: while drinking the potent local baijiu (in this case, this really is sound advice to take it easy), or when taking your first tentative steps on your new rollerblades, or just stretching at an impossible angle during yoga class…

Eventually I’ve come to realize that you could probably use “man,” or “slowly,” followed by almost any verb whenever you wish to gently suggest to someone to take it easy and make sure they do enjoy whatever they are about to embark upon. Isn’t it fascinating to discover such a special linguistic homage to the concept of slowness?

And so nowadays, whenever the stress level in the classroom starts overwhelming me, I just think to myself, “Man man xue!” or“Slowly, slowly learn!” reminding myself that learning Mandarin is a life-long project for me and that the only way to keep persevering at it is if I’m enjoying myself while doing it. I might stop to admire the beauty and elegant logic of a new character, complicated though it is to write all these strokes in the right order. Just the other day I found myself rejoicing at finally comprehending the subtle way of forming different aspects of past tense by just changing the place of “le” in a sentence. And I have a new favorite game: trying to spot at least one Chinese character I’d just learned in the morning, somewhere in the surrounding colorful world of Dongguan that same afternoon. Every time I manage to do it I almost shout out “Bingo!” before remembering it’s just a private game.

All this while trying hard to ignore the fact that the looming HSK test is ahead of us…