Katie Blackburn has been living in Taiwan for more than 10 years, teaching English and Chinese. She’s fluent in Mandarin Chinese and now learns Taiwanese Hokkien with Glossika. In this interview, Katie tells us about her journey to the Chinese-speaking world and the language-learning insights she found along the way.

Why am I just like every other person in my neighbourhood?

I grew up in the suburbs of the US. It looked like a very typical American Hollywood movie — single family homes with large lawns and people driving cars everywhere. Pretty much everybody was monolingual in English, so I was always fascinated when somebody wasn't. I had a couple of friends who went to German school on Saturdays and I was so jealous of them. I thought, why don't I speak German or French or some other language? Why am I just like every other person in my neighbourhood?

We had Spanish classes at school but more than once each school year, we’d end up with a new   Spanish teacher. We learned Spanish for six years before anybody even introduced the concept of a verb to us or how to conjugate one. I was so fed up with that. One day I went to the library with a goal to learn French, Italian and German at the same time. My mom said that this wasn’t how language learning worked, but I was defiant and managed to learn a few random phrases in all of these languages. My early language learning was very sporadic and I never actually got to a point where I could use the languages to communicate. I didn’t actually know what I was doing or what it actually takes to “know a language”.

Everything changed in my senior year when I had the chance to take Chinese. I blame propaganda for my interest in Chinese because they said it would help us get a great job in the future. “If you know Chinese, you could work for the government or an international company! Your job prospects will be endless!” And I definitely bought into that.

Building Confidence in Spoken Chinese

On the first day of our Chinese class, the power in the classroom was out. Our teacher told us (in Chinese) that we were going upstairs to room 232. He used his fingers to tell us the number and pointed upstairs. From the very first day, he got us thinking about how to use language to communicate. We used only pinyin in the first month, the romanized way to “spell” Chinese characters. Our homework was to learn a simple dialogue and then come to class prepared to use it. After we were solid with how the language was used in spoken Chinese, we were very slowly introduced to those characters, one or two characters a day. After a year of learning, I remember telling my teacher that if he dropped me into the Chinese-speaking world, I could definitely survive. In college, I continued to study Chinese. However, both of my college professors were very focused on grammar. I felt like the more I went to these Chinese classes, the less Chinese I remembered and the less Chinese I could use.

In my third year of college, I went to Beijing to do a language-intensive program. Going to China was the best and the worst thing I could have done for both my confidence and also my growing up to become a competent human being.

I remember when I was in high school, I spent a summer in Germany as an exchange student. Any time I needed English, there was English. Nobody was like, oh, who's that foreigner? That was just a fun experience — a trip to Europe. Everything about going to China was the total opposite of that. Between being an obvious outsider and then needing to figure out how to navigate the language, I didn't have a choice but to force myself into a certain level of confidence.

You’re either going to figure out how to ask for directions or you're just going to be lost somewhere in the middle of Beijing.

There were four hours a day of Chinese class, and we were expected to memorize between 50 and 200 vocabulary words before coming to class every day, with quizzes making sure we had learned them at the start of each morning. Before long, I found myself with a kind of weird situation: there was this gap in between the very basic things I learned in school, like “is this beef?”, “do you want rice or noodles?”, “where are you going?” and the the much more complex things we were learning in Beijing, stuff like economic policy and politics. We were focused on complex sentence structures and the advanced language that you might need if you found yourself involved  in international politics, but I couldn’t carry on a conversation about daily life. I’d also end up using really complex sentence structures to try to solve simple problems. When my card to go through the subway gate didn’t work, I basically said the Chinese equivalent of “there is no possibility of me passing through this gate”, rather than “my card doesn’t work” to the attendant. The program really got us accustomed to using incredibly “advanced” Chinese, but it meant I often sounded like a scholar and not a normal human being.

I’d been taught that you're supposed to get better at Chinese by reading through a text where you don't understand 70 percent of the words on the page and also by memorizing a bunch of words out of context. That assumption held me back from wanting to do more studying later on — it was way too much work to try and learn that way. I just wanted to be able to use Chinese!

The following summer I signed up for a program through the same school, but this time we went to very rural China. I think that summer helped fill in a little bit of that “everyday life language” I was missing. How do you take a train? How do you talk about the train getting delayed? How do you talk about the flooding that is causing those trains to be delayed? And all of that sort of more in-depth daily conversation stuff.

There still was a massive psychological block that I had to get over. I think I eventually realized that it's actually kind of fun to be in a situation where you can barely communicate. As you start to realize you can learn to say and do these things, it becomes a lot more of an adventure and a lot less of this terrifying thing that makes you just want to curl up in a ball.

For example, across from the Beijing Zoo there is this well-known place to haggle for goods. It's a place with many stores that mostly sell knockoff products. And I got really good at haggling! Oftentimes, the more I would talk to the person trying to sell me things, the more they would bring their price down, with no effort on my part. It was addicting to go and talk to these people because every single person would be asking the same “get to know you” type questions. It was great speaking practice and a great chance to get out and interact with the world outside.

Reimagining Language Learning: My Lessons from Montessori

After a few years, I ended up on a tiny island called Kinmen for a year, teaching English in a public elementary school. Then I went back to the US to get my teaching license… before returning to Kinmen to be a more formal  teacher at a junior high school there.

The English education system was built in a way to prepare students to pass tests. It required them to memorize insanely long lists of vocabulary words and grammar points. They would know all the individual words but they didn't know how they fit together to form a meaningful sentence. I couldn't convince anybody that you could teach English as a language to communicate, rather than focusing on grammar and the correct spelling of every word. That experience was very disheartening because I was spending three hours a week with all these students, but their progress was not moving towards being able to use English to communicate.

That got me curious about what other educational approaches might be out there, and I ended up getting trained in Montessori elementary education. Montessori provides a full curriculum to zero through 12 year olds in a non-traditional way. Montessori isn't actually meant to be a way to teach language… but everything about that system really facilitates second language learning. Everything is a passage from “concrete” to “abstract”.  The math materials are physical representations of numbers, squares, cubes, etc., which allow learners to quickly see, concretely, what they are counting or calculating. It’s really easy to grasp “ten thousand” or “seven cubed” when there is a physical representation of those concepts for a learner to hold in their hands and connect to the language, rather than going straight to abstract arabic numerals and telling them to just remember. For language specifically, in grammar, we use something called “grammar symbols”. We start with the noun. We talk about how everything has a name and invite children to find some things in the environment that have names – pencils, books, waterbottles, windows, tables, their friends… eventually they realize that everything has a name. We then show them a small black pyramid. Pyramids are some of the oldest things humans built and gave a name to that are still around today. Nouns are even older. The pyramid is black because it’s the color of coal, which is deep in the earth, and also very, very old, just like nouns. When representing a noun on a 2D surface, we use a black triangle. The symbol and the story draw attention to the rather fascinating reality of the noun, rather than “noun” just being a word you need to know to learn grammar. Verbs are introduced with action. We invite children to “jump”, “dance”, “sing”, etc. and understand that verbs (usually) show some kind of movement. A red ball is then used to show that movement. To draw attention to where the movement is in a written sentence, a red circle is placed or drawn over that word. There are symbols for all the parts of speech, which allow children to visualize and concretely grasp the concepts. Montessori takes all that dull boring grammar stuff and makes it engaging.

Training got me thinking about how language should be taught. The Montessori system can facilitate bilingual education, and I wrote my masters thesis about it. It's amazing how little research is out there about how to effectively run a bilingual school in general. People will say that the school hired highly qualified teachers and then they made the kids bilingual. The thing is, you can't just throw a Chinese-speaking teacher and an English-speaking teacher in the classroom. It's not like you turn a crank and then everybody speaks both languages fluently. You really need to intentionally support and guide the students’ development.

My research was a great way for me to think about my own language learning and all the things I had been doing that had been hindering my ability to further learn a language. My vendetta against how I was taught over the years boils down to being misguided in what you supposedly need to know as a beginner versus what you really need to know. In reality, you need to know how to say things, and you learn to do that just by hearing people say things and understanding what they’re saying. It’s simple as that. We use language to communicate, not to dissect things as if we were PhDs in linguistics. Some people know a ton of things about grammar and they can perfectly describe how everything works, but their actual ability to use their target language to communicate isn’t great. What sets humans apart from other animals is that we have language. It exists as a tool for communication, and I guess that's why the brain is wired to grasp language. And we just need to help it do that — to give it opportunities to do that.

My experience learning Taiwanese Hokkien

I've been living in Taiwan for the last decade, and I just started learning Taiwanese Hokkien, which is one of the languages spoken here in Taiwan. It’s mostly spoken by elderly people; people 65–70 years old, roughly speaking. Here in Taiwan seems to be seen as “the language that grandparents speak”. And I've been using Glossika to learn it. I would listen to the sentence in Taiwanese and literally just babble trying to repeat the sounds. My native Taiwanese friend was sitting across the room from me and she was skeptical at first. She said if this is how you think you're going to learn Taiwanese, then go for it. But, you know what? After doing that every day for 20 minutes, I was able to just start saying things. Taiwanese was originally just this random jumble of noises I couldn't sort out. My brain thought it understood what sounds it was hearing, but my mouth was producing totally different sounds or just gave up halfway through. Eventually, though, from hearing a Taiwanese sentence enough times, I became able to put that sentence together and say those words. The brain just does amazing things. It can sort out language all on its own, if it has enough input that it understands the meaning of.

When I first started doing the Gossika Taiwanese course, I thought it was never going to work. I'm never going to learn this language. None of those sounds made any sense. And probably three weeks into the course, when I would go out, all of a sudden, the Taiwanese that I was hearing that was formerly background noise was becoming more and more clear. It felt I’d turned the radio dial, I guess, and suddenly found a slightly less fuzzy version of the language. I was so impressed with myself, but that’s what consistency and effective learning methods can do.

I think Taiwanese was the best language for me to use to try Glossika because I could start from zero. That is something that is different about Glossika. At its core, most language learning apps are teaching you random phrases… and, well, Glossika is teaching you random phrases… but, somehow, if you do Glossika — which is literally just repeating sounds of another language, then translated, over and over again — eventually, you’ll start saying things. One day the language just falls out of your mouth.

Three things I find crucial for effective language learning

  • You need input that you can understand
    You need so much more input than is normally taught. People talk about comprehensible input and they talk about the i+1 approach, but they don't really define what +1 means. You need to understand everything. One of the papers that I looked at showed that if you take out 20 percent of the words in an English text and replace it with nonsense, even a native speaker can't follow the story anymore. (Try it yourself!) When you're trying to learn a language it's so important that you understand what you're reading and listening to. You need to find resources for total beginners and focus on listening and repeating, imitating the sounds of the language. Don't be afraid to just stick with the beginner and intermediate resources until you feel confident and capable of communicating.
  • You need a lot of listening practice early on
    Often at school, you’re told to read the new words off the page, and you've maybe heard that word once or twice before. So, it's daunting! You're going to pronounce it wrong because you don't have a good idea of what the word is supposed to sound like. As such, you really need to hear a lot of sounds in your target language. Chorusing and shadowing practice can help with that too: you need to imitate a lot. With Chinese, I say don't get caught up in the tones and characters when you’re first starting out. Instead, find resources for total beginners and just listen and repeat. Once you get a clear idea of Chinese’s sounds, then start focusing on how the sounds are represented with pinyin, then focus on the tones, and then start working on characters after that. It’s a sequence, and you only get frustrated and feel like “Chinese really is impossible”  if you skip steps or do them in a different order.
  • You need to start speaking before you feel confident speaking
    You need to be given the space to just totally screw up what you're saying. You need to say nonsense that doesn't even sound like what you intended to say. Once you've heard the language enough, got enough stuff in your ears and out your mouth, eventually your brain becomes able to just sort out those sounds and say them correctly. I think that's something that we forget. As babies, we babble and make sounds until eventually people are like… oh, did you say mommy, did you say daddy? And we get encouraged to just go and babble and make these sounds. When we learn a second language, though, the opposite happens! We think that the first time we say a word out loud, it has to be perfect; like a native speaker. Well, it just doesn’t work like that. You get good at speaking by speaking a lot — by speaking a lot before you’re good at speaking.
At the end of the day, it's so important that you're hearing your target language, that you understand what you’re hearing, and you give yourself some space to play around with it and make a lot of mistakes.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.