By: Moriah Lenhart-Wees
Structured language education in a classroom setting can be key to building a strong language foundation. In a classroom you learn grammar and begin to understand how a language is supposed to work. But in real life language doesn’t always follow the rules, so getting out of classroom and chatting with native speakers in other contexts is absolutely vital for becoming fluent in a second (or third or fourth) language.
When I first actually started using all the Spanish I had acquired through years of high school and college classes, my native speaking friend from Mexico described my Spanish as “adorably robotic.” Those exact words. While the adorable part wasn’t so bad, I definitely wasn’t super keen on being associated with anything other than my living, breathing human self and right then and there I committed to speaking (and more importantly, listening) more with people from different Spanish-speaking regions to learn the most authentic, up-to-date, “real world” Spanish—not just the textbook version.
I know what you’re thinking… why is she talking about Spanish on a Confucius Institute blog about learning Chinese? Excellent question. I’ll explain. Chinese is the second world language I’m studying and as the Program Specialist at the University of Idaho Confucius Institute in Boise, I wanted our students to have a chance to speak “real world” Chinese outside of the classroom. We created a bi-weekly Chinese Conversation Corner (汉语角 for those of you in the know) as a way for our students and other community members to experience language exchange with native Chinese speakers. At Chinese Conversation Corner, students can apply what they gleaned in the classroom to a conversation in the “real world” where native speakers don’t always follow standard pronunciation rules, often say words whose slang definition is entirely different from the dictionary one that your 老师 taught you, and don’t talk at the comfortable speed of your textbook’s audio CD.
These Chinese Conversation Corners allow Chinese learners to have a little slice of immersion that otherwise might be unavailable, except for buying oneself a plane ticket to China. I hope that many of our UICI students continue to take advantage of such a fun, casual way to pick up a language. The benefits of hearing how native speakers communicate in your target language are immense. From my past experience, the pace of language learning is certainly accelerated by having a chance to just talk freely (no sentence diagrams! No fill in the blanks!), make mistakes and get corrected by someone who has used the language all their lives. The language learning—not to mention the organic cultural exchange—is some of the most fun a person can have.
If you are learning Mandarin (or any other language for that matter) I highly recommend you seek out— or start—a conversation language learning group. Meeting a variety of people with different language backgrounds will expose you to vernacular you wouldn’t ever get out of a straightforward textbook and as a bonus, you’ll have some hilarious language realizations along the way!
To see the Chinese Conversation Corner schedule in Boise, visit our website: