Language Learning: The Idiot Stage

I have entered the idiot phase of my mandarin learning. I am no longer a total beginner. I actually understand some of what is being said around me, enough so that people now direct questions at me, and bother to talk to me. Occasionally, I am able to express basic opinions. Inevitably, and seemingly constantly, I struggle to understand. I incessantly ask for things to be repeated. I mispronounce simple words and phrases.

In short, I am the idiot at the table.

Sometimes it’s so frustrating. I realize ten seconds after I’ve said ‘Sorry, I didn’t understand what you said’, that in fact they were just asking me THAT SUPER BASIC THING THAT I LEARNED AGES AGO. I just didn’t realise it because they said it really fast, or with a different word order. Or because my brain is fried from straining to understand for what feels like hours even though it’s only been 20 minutes. Fuck! But it’s too late, they’ve given up on me now.

It’s like when you first learn to swim as a kid. If you’ve never been before, you go into the pool wearing swimming armbands. This is kind of fun. Low pressure. Then, one terrifying day, the armbands are taken away. You are left frantically flailing, arms and legs doggy-paddling under the water, and barely able to move half a meter. You need frequent rescuing. It sucks. In both swimming and language learning, the idiot stage is marked by occasional glimpses of what could be, and lots of failure.

I think this phase of language learning must be the hardest. It’s so tantalizing – and the failure frequency is so high. It’s good pain though. It reminds me of that old Muhammad Ali quote, when he was asked by a journalist: ‘How many sit-ups can you do?’ and he replied, ‘I don’t know, I only start counting when it starts hurting’.

Pain, fear, anxiety. These let you know you are pushing yourself, and that you’re getting better.

Here are some tools and tips we’ve highlighted recently to make the journey easier:

Good luck getting out of the idiot stage!