How Sia Learnt Chinese By Saying No To Traditional Methods

Today's guest post comes from a writer whose story is both motivating and challenging. Sia Mohajer learnt more Chinese in 3 months than others learn in a year. Just like me, he's a teacher who says you shouldn't always listen to your teachers. I love how Sia has shared the most important language learning points: Independence and Autonomy! Enjoy this awesome guest post - Thank you, Sia!

sia mohajer

Kung Fu, Learning Mandarin and Not Listening To My Teachers

If you ask me where I’m from, I might give you a different answer every time. The truth is I don’t even like answering this question. My cultural and ethnic roots are so mixed up, I’d rather just avoid the question than give a mini-biography. I was born in Iran, during the height of the Iran-Iraq war, fled as a refugee where my single mother and I sought asylum in Germany, Sweden, France, California before finding our “home” in Canada. 

My house was a linguist’s classroom, at any point in the day you could find people arguing or talking politely in four different languages. Multicultural wasn’t something we thought about, it was just life. So when Jackie Chan came into my life at eleven years old, I was ready for him.  

Jackie Chan's movies were a Hollywood interpretation of Chinese culture. Through him, I discovered kung fu - a whole lot of it. My favorite. My love. My reason for existing as an eleven year old. I grew up on kung fu. 

My mom had been working at a computer company and one of her coworkers gave her some bootleg Jackie Chan VHS tapes. This was during Chan's prolific rise to fame; titles included “Rumble in the Bronx” and “Drunken Master”. I watched those videos probably fifteen times. Somewhere in all that martial arts awesomeness, through crowded-Asian streets and the hustle and bustle, something caught my imagination. I decided there and then that I’d “move to Asia one day”. 15 years later, here I am living in Asia; still somehow enchanted by the adventure of living fifty thousand miles from home despite the occasional turbulence of daily life.

But this story isn't about kung fu or Jackie Chan, but about learning Mandarin.

My Escape to Taiwan

My ambition to one day move to Asia did not include mastering Chinese. The thought had never come to mind. Perhaps, I had relegated it to the realm of impossibility. 

In the summer of 2008, two months after graduating from university in Canada, I moved to the hot-sweaty claustrophobic mess that is Taipei City in the summertime. I got a job at a cram school and embarked on the usual delights of exploring a new culture. I wasn't any good at learning Mandarin, mostly because I didn't care. Almost five months passed and I had only learned embarrassing essentials: "beer", "no spicy", "more beer", "you're pretty" and "I'm from Canada". Beyond that nothing, basically I was your typical ex-pat.

In April of that year, I decided to spend a generous 100 dollar birthday gift from my mother on 10 private Chinese classes. My teachers were terrible. One was an overly flirtatious middle-aged women who taught me absolutely nothing. The other was a wizened-looking older Chinese man with a long ponytail and an office filled with Buddhist ornaments. He insisted on lightly slapping my hand whenever I made a mistake. I, of course, obliged his request - half out of amusement and half out of bewilderment. Needless to say my Chinese learning efforts weren't very fruitful and I was ready to quit.

My Language Learning Paradigm Shift

Near the end of my tenth lesson where I had learned approximately 300 words, I overheard another student talking about a website - Chinesepod. I went home and checked it out. At that time, it was an independently run website that offered free signups for podcasts and Mandarin learning material. 

I signed up, and I was hooked.

I guess I've never been one for classroom learning. I was that student who would rather stare out the window than focus on the task at hand. Chinesepod opened my eyes. I realized that language learning wasn't restricted to a classroom, a teacher and weird light-hand slapping. I could learn where, when, and what I wanted. Most importantly, I was in charge of my own learning.

Chinesepod opened the door to a host of other online language learning programs: flashcard programs, writing apps, video websites and language exchange websites. Before I knew it, I had created an a highly diversified language learning schedule which I tailored to whatever I wanted to learn. If I had a problem explaining something I wanted, I'd look up that topic. If I just wanted to be lazy, I'd watch a Chinese movie.

If I had a language learning itch, I’d scratch it. It turned out that scratching those itches were the best things I could have possibly done. 

Why Working Better Beats Working More

When we approach a problem we generally follow the status quo.

Want to learn something? Study more.

Want more money? Work more.

What this approach lacks in precision, it makes up for in workload. Instead of just studying more and more, I used the most efficient multiple learning methods while avoiding methods that didn’t work. There’s science behind this. 

In 1896 Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, discovered a unique constant in economic calculations. Later known as the 80/20 principle or Pareto’s Principle, it stated that 80% of results come from 20% of the causes. The same holds true for language learning. Finding that 20% allowed me to learn much faster than others, who were forced into methods of language learning that were perhaps not suited to her interests or personality. My 20% were podcasts, writing down absolutely every word I encountered in the dirtiest-little notepad you have ever seen, and practicing with every person I met.

Finding your 20 % is a task you alone can accomplish, but I can guarantee you will start learning faster than you ever have. 

Once I found the method that worked for me, I was studying literally all day long in a virtual learning classroom. The results showed. I was fluent in a year. Even at the three month mark I was already using such complicated grammar and vocabulary that my roommate, a full time Chinese student enrolled in a prestigious intensive Mandarin course, couldn't understand me.

My roommate had bought into the hype of her school. She actually believed the promotional material that said “our course will teach you 5000 words in 10 weeks”. She studied everyday and went home to do the assigned character writing. She was told that students who emerge from the program will have superior Chinese as demonstrated by the institute's history. The problem was her Chinese was nowhere near superior. She lacked confidence, spoke too slowly, often confused words because she knew so many and was engaged in a constant battle not to forget her 15-plus stroke-order characters. Her issues were not a result of bad teaching or her being a poor student, but rather a consequence of classroom-based language learning in general.

What They Don’t Teach You in School

I’ve been a language learner and teacher for ten years and I can confidently assert that classroom-based language learning for adults should be a supplement to real-life learning. Your classroom setting should provide you with the tools and fundamentals to allow you to go out into the world, be curious, make mistakes and have fun. Otherwise, the routines, writing assignments and pressure to learn all the material will detract from your main purpose - to communicate effectively.

Effective communication is developed when you make mistakes that you can learn fromthrough effective mistake-making. The feedback loop of the classroom is an ineffectual one because it is an artificial environment. Artificial environments are great to start off with. All variables can be controlled and you can get exactly the results you want; however, these results often don’t apply in the real world. This isn’t a criticism of classroom learning in general, but as it applies to language learning in this context, I think that self-directed independent language learning in multiple contexts trumps classroom-based language acquisition. In other words: Go to class if you like, but never stay there full-time.

Getting all this done is not impossible. It’sIt’s just a matter of effective time management.  While my roommate was spending one hour continuously writing characters I could have reviewed flashcards, written down ten new words using Pinyin ( English transliteration of Chinese) and had a 45 minute skype conversation in Chinese. 

You Live in the Best Time to Learn Any Language

My new found Mandarin ability eventually found me a great job which I am still at today. I was able to explore new parts of the culture that I previously couldn't access or was simply too scared to. My virtual learning experience led to further professional education, where I completed several distance education qualifications.

My point is this - we live in the best time in human history to learn any language. You are no longer restricted to the classroom. Creating a virtual classroom where you decide what you want to learn and when you learn, infuses your language learning with meaning. 

I can only speak for myself when I say that mastering something that is seen as incredibly difficult is a life-changing experience. It might sound melodramatic, but learning a new language, not just Chinese, might be that spark you need to get yourself going. Your language learning doesn’t need to be defined by a course or a textbook. You can be in charge and create a world you want to study in.

In the end, staying curious is one of the best ways to stay motivated. 

I’d love to hear from anyone who has tried alternative methods of language learning and had success. Drop a comment below and let me know. I’ll respond to all the comments. 

If you're a Mandarin learner, you can also find me on