Creating ‘Safe Places’ for Practicing

In our early days in China when struggling to learn Chinese, we are continually confronted with situations which batter our self-confidence. We try to say something in Chinese, only to be met with a blank stare. A Chinese person says something to us and even after their third attempt (and our third “Sorry”), we still have no idea what they mean.

We therefore need people who are very patient with us. So spending time in our early days with empathetic Chinese friends is very important. Why? Because they unconsciously give us a sense of self-confidence which helps us perform better in the language. We sense progress, and hence feel good about ourselves, with the result that we feel even more confident using our Chinese.

The opposite is also true. When we lack self-confidence, we express ourselves poorly. We sense that we are regressing and this leads to feelings of unhappiness, inability and nervousness. This sense of a decreasing fluency in the language fuels our lack of self-confidence, leading in a downward spiral to further lack of self-confidence.

So, if self-confidence is so important, how can we increase it?

a) The Chinese people we Chat with

Some people, because of their empathetic nature or simply because they are good encouragers, instinctively give us a greater sense of self-confidence. One Chinese lady who used to cook and clean for foreigners had a natural ability to instil confidence in those who had only a little Chinese. She instinctively adjusted her Chinese to their level, doing it not in a condescending way but rather in a natural and friendly manner. Another man, Mr. Li, always enjoyed a friendly chat with foreigners, never failing to encourage them with a “Your Chinese is really improving fast”. We need to find people like these and spend lots of time with them, and ignore those who, because of their unfriendly disposition or stern looks, take away our self-confidence.

b) The Topics we Talk about

In our early days in China, we can only talk on a very limited range of topics. These include: introducing yourself, e.g. your name, nationality, where you live, why you have come to China, profession, present job, immediate family, telephone number, how long you have been in China; what you like about China; buying daily necessities; asking & giving directions and taking public transportation; time, days & dates; ordering a meal; sports & leisure activities; talking about your Chinese studies. So if we spend some time practicing the answers to these questions, we will probably be able to handle 80% of the topics that come up in everyday conversation. This will increase our self-confidence considerably.

c) The Places where we Practice

We also need to create safe & secure places for practicing Chinese where making mistakes won’t take away our self-confidence. Where is the most safe & secure place, furthest from that fear of public humiliation which stops us opening our mouths? – our own home! So although people are always encouraging us to get out and practice, why not instead bring Chinese people to your home? In fact why not hire people for talking practice? Find those who are warm, friendly and empathetic. Tell them what you already know so that they keep the conversation within the limited range of your vocabulary. Stress that they are not teachers, but talkers, and so no textbooks will be used. Also, because they know why they are there in your home, there is no need for polite ‘small talk’, but rather you and the talker can get straight down to the job of chatting on the topics you have chosen. And because they know why they are there – to get you talking – you are free to go over the same topic again and again until you have gained sufficient confidence to use Chinese outside on the street.

Certain people we meet quite naturally create ‘safe & secure’ places for us. Mrs. Wang ran a small family supermarket near the university where foreigners studied Chinese. Melanie, a language learner, met her when shopping. Mrs. Wang noticed how much Melanie was struggling with learning Chinese and wanted to help. So whenever Melanie went to her supermarket, Mrs. Wang would ignore the other customers, pull up a chair and chat with Melanie in a very gentle and non-threatening way. She was a major factor in Melanie’s success with the Chinese language because Mrs. Wang’s supermarket became a safe & secure place for Melanie to practice Chinese.

Try to discover or create these safe & secure places for yourself, and keep away from those potentially anxiety-producing places!

Also, if you are lacking in self-confidence, also read the article on “Anxiety in Language Learning”.

Creating ‘Safe Places’ for Practicing:  pdf file