How Learning Mandarin Chinese Changed My Life


“Speaking other languages has opened doors to many new experiences and friendships around the world.” Meet Jeremy Scott Foster, travel photographer, blogger, and professional adventurer. Find out why he thinks learning a new language is probably one of the best things a person can do!

Jeremy in China

“It wasn’t until I was sitting in the back of a taxi in Yunnan, China that I realized how much I’ve taken my privileges of being a native English speaker for granted. Thanks to popular culture and westernization (for better or worse), most of the world speaks English.

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But sitting in the backseat of that taxi, driving around in circles, I came face to face with the reality of my privilege. In a country where I couldn’t even communicate, I was forced to take a harsh look at the world I had, until that point, so comfortably occupied.

Why immersion works for me

Learning languages isn’t easy, but it will change the way you see the world. In my high school Spanish classes, my teacher refused to speak English to us in the classroom. It was that attitude, and his unwillingness to speak to us in our native tongue, that forced me to become a conversational speaker.

Though it was difficult at the time, I realize now, years later, what his endgame was: immersion. The best and fastest way to learn a new language fluently.

That’s why Rosetta Stone is such an invaluable language learning tool: their unique software mimics real-world immersion by only allowing you to see, hear and speak the language from the get-go. And that’s what helped me to learn Mandarin as quickly as I did—complete immersion.

Sitting in that taxi, using flamboyant hand-gestures to communicate, I realized what an opportunity I had in front of me. I was living in China, fully immersed in the language. Mandarin had never been on my to-do list, but if there were ever a time to learn, this was it.

Allowing myself to make mistakes

Learning Mandarin was daunting—I won’t sugarcoat it. It was a step out of my comfort zone, and it took a lot of work. I spent hours poring over pinyin, in class with my private tutors, using Rosetta Stone, and then implementing everything I had learned while out in the wild, on my own.

I mispronounced everything. I mixed up vocabulary and tones. I spewed incomplete or disorganized sentences and, ultimately, confused a lot of Chinese shopkeepers, taxi drivers and servers.

But that’s the brilliance of Rosetta Stone—the software helps push you to feel more confident in your speech so you can interact with locals without the fear of making a mistake. And the mistakes I did make served as extracurricular lessons.

It was only through my mistakes that I learned. Through the confusion of others, and our determination to figure out what on earth I was actually trying to say, that I picked up on the nuances of the language.

It took a willingness to make mistakes in front of others. A certain type of vulnerability that loudly made it clear just how little I knew about the world I was living in. But that vulnerability opened doors and paved the way for some of my richest experiences to date.

Because when you are vulnerable with the people around you, they are vulnerable with you. And that’s how real connections are made.

Gradually, my language learning journey in China improved. I began to ask and respond to questions correctly and I learned how to haggle like a local. Before I knew it, I was cracking jokes with new Chinese friends and making lifelong connections with people I never even dreamed I’d be able to connect with.

I could travel to rural parts of the country without the fear of getting stranded or lost because I had finally unlocked their language, and in doing so, I unlocked their culture and, in turn, a whole new world.

After immersing myself in Mandarin for a year, I learned a few lessons along the way:

  • Engage your survival instinct: When you have a choice to speak English, it’s easy to just speak English. But when you’re forced to speak another language to survive (or desperately negotiate that souvenir that your buddy doesn’t know he needs), your innate survival skills will kick in to help you pick up a language faster. That’s why immersion—whether it’s in real life during your trip or with Rosetta Stone before your—is the best way to learn a foreign language.
  • Believe that native speakers are on your side: People are usually more than willing to help than you might think. No-one laughed or ridiculed me when I made mistakes. In fact, they were impressed and even humbled that I had taken the time to learn their language—a language that is not known to be easy!
  • Speak with confidence: With confidence, your language skills will sharpen. Throw your uncertainty out the window—it will get you nowhere. As you become more comfortable making mistakes, people will become more comfortable helping you.
  • Make mistakes: You have to start somewhere, so just start speaking. You’ll probably say the wrong words, misuse conjunctions and format sentences and questions totally backwards. But you won’t know how to fix it until you say it to someone and they correct you.
  • Say it loud and proud: Be confident when you’re speaking in another language. A wealth of studies suggest that people are more receptive to confident-sounding speakers—even if what they’re speaking isn’t exactly true. The same logic can be applied to languages: Even if what you’re saying isn’t accurately said, people may listen to you more if you genuinely try with confidence in your voice.
  • Make learning the language a need instead of a want: You may need to learn it to communicate with a partner, navigate a new country or work a new job, which will help you learn the language faster than just wanting to learn it out of sheer curiosity.
  • Make small changes to help yourself practice: When you’re not engaging with native speakers find other ways of learning, such as changing the language of your phone; cooking your meals with recipes in the language you’re learning; reading and listening to the language in the news, books, the radio, movies and podcasts; and writing out your daily to-do lists in the language. Make sure you’re absorbing the language in some way every day.
  • Write it down: Journal in the language that you’re learning to help you practice without fears of judgement. Plus, writing and rereading the language can help you memorize it.

Starting early and taking your studies seriously by fully immersing yourself with Rosetta Stone can improve your language skills exponentially. It won’t only help you when you, too, find yourself stranded in the middle of rural China one day (hey, never say never), but it’ll also turn you into a more engaged traveler instead of a cultural bystander.

After all, traveling is more fulfilling when you’re a participant and not a mere witness.”

Learn more about Jeremy

His adventure travel blog, travelFREAK, has taken him to 35+ countries on six continents—he’s hiked glaciers in New Zealand, partied until sunrise on the beaches of Montenegro, taught English in China, conquered the highest bungee jump in the world, traversed Europe by train, and climbed inside the great Pyramids of Giza.

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About the Author Rosetta Stone Team

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