Why Doctors, Lawyers and Engineers Can’t Learn Chinese

Who Can’t Learn Chinese?

Doctors, lawyers, and engineers can’t learn Chinese? Am I out of my mind for saying this? Nope, I’m just trying to get attention :). Of course doctors, lawyers and engineers can learn Chinese just like everyone else. BUT, in several years of teaching, I have noticed a pattern in my adult students worth talking about.

Language Learning is Different

Doctors, lawyers, and many other professionals are often good at school. That is how they became doctors and lawyers. Those professions require lots of schooling! The people who get through all that schooling, well, they tend to be pretty good at school.

And therein lies the problem. Learning a language is not like learning other things!

In math, science, history, etc., people take notes. They make flashcards. They study. These are all great things. But they are not what is takes to learn a language. Students need input for that. All the study skills in the world won’t help a student learn a language if they don’t get enough input.


How Students Get Frustrated

I have had a lot of adult students over the years who are used to being at the top of the class. They are often (you guessed it!) lawyers, doctors, engineers, or they are retired doctors, lawyers and engineers :). Many of these students are suddenly frustrated by Chinese class. They are not at the top of the class anymore!

It is also especially frustrating because the way to learn at the beginning stages, is really just to listen. That is it. That is it. That is all you have to do. As long, as your teacher is providing comprehensible input, you will learn the language. Looking for patterns is great and all. Many folks who are traditional good students tend to be quite good at that. With language, however, finding the patterns is actually not that useful in the beginning stages. They don’t know enough language yet to detect a pattern. They see a face when they are really just looking at burnt toast.

The Good News

This is the struggle and beauty of language learning. It is tough, because a lot of people who thought that they would have any easy time actually don’t. It is also really cool, because it levels the playing field. Many people who never though of themselves as particularly good students, can suddenly find themselves doing quite well! All people have the potential to learn a second or third language, even doctors and lawyers and such :).

Interested in adult language classes? Get in touch here.

More on how language learning actually works.

One Thing You Must Know About Language Learning

Or, Why You Took 3 Years of Spanish and Still Can’t Say a Word

Or maybe it was French or German or Chinese (get in touch if you want to fix that) or Japanese. Whatever the language was, most people you will run into at Target will say the same thing. That thing is “I took x number of years of language y and and still can’t say a word.” I will use my completely non-psychic abilities to explain exactly why. Why is language learning in American high schools so difficult?

cartoon of dragon holding sign that says "hola"
We are taking a break from our regularly scheduled programming about Chinese to talk about Spanish. Particularly, learning Spanish as part of an American high school education

It’s All About Time on Task

First thing we need to look is exactly how long you have really been “learning.” You’re probably measuring the wrong thing. X number of years of study is just not that useful a metric. In a typical high school, you get 4-5 hours a week of class. For elementary school students, a language class might be 45 minutes a week. One of my former students was in the military and he attended the Defense Language Institute. He told me all they did for 8+ hours a day or more was study Arabic. See how X number of years can actually be wildly different amounts of time?

graphic of main post office in Madrid and soft serve ice cream
Which image best describes your summers as a teenager? If you’re like most people, it is probably the one on the right.

We haven’t even gotten to summers. Were you terrorizing the streets of Madrid as a teenager or working in the Dairy Queen like I did? One of those scenarios implies Spanish immersion all the waking hours of the day. The other only includes immersion in the soft serve refrigerator (soft serve comes in bags! They are very unwieldy).

Let’s Do Some Math

Back to the typical high school experience… If you get one hour per day of language class (more likely less) for 180 school days a year, that is 540 hours TOTAL in exposure to Spanish (or language y). If you were worried about getting into college and took four years of Spanish, that is still only 720 hours.

These Days, Who Has the Time?

Let’s look at someone who has learned a language really well. That person is a typical five year old. Five year olds are terrible at many things. They are often bad at eating food that is not beige. They dress like Tinkerbell in rehab. They have done one thing really well, though: learning a language. It also helps that five year olds don’t have jobs.

A five year old has been alive for 1,825 days, at least. Plus add in a leap year or two. They have been hearing their native language (and maybe another one or two) for all their waking hours. So that is at least 14 x 1,825= 25,550 hours! Wow! That is loads of time!

One More Thing…

Compare your measly 540 high school hours with that hypothetical five year old! It is starting to make sense why you are still watching Gran Hotel with the subtitles. They keyword here is input. A young child gets a lot of it (those 25,000+ hours of hearing language). A high school student gets very little (less than 1,000 hours.)

There is more to the story, however. This is just the beginning of exploring why you still don’t speak Spanish. Now you know, those three whole years, were not that much time for learning a language after all. It is little wonder that you are not proficient in another language.

drawing of angry bull
Don’t be angry like this bull! Now you know why spending three years in high school Spanish really was not enough to learn the language

Check out more information on language learning in the FAQ

Much research on second language learning is available (for free!) from Stephen Krashen, phD via his website.

What Do We Need to Learn When We Learn How to Write?

What Do Students Need from a Writing Curriculum?

Learning how to write Chinese is intimidating to many students, especially if they start learning the language later on in life. Most students find the prospect of learning how to correctly write several thousand Chinese characters extremely daunting. Like language itself, writing is highly complex. Learning how to write in another language is not just a process of learning how to write words and then stringing them together on a page. In order to understand how to best learn how to write in Chinese, we should take a look at the different types of writing that we need to do.

Everyday Writing Purposes

What kind of writing do you do every day? Be honest. Texting, emails, maybe a grocery list, a to-do list? That is pretty much it, right? This type of writing is pretty straightforward. To do this kind of writing in Chinese requires knowledge of how to input Chinese in a phone or computer (i.e. pinyin). You could do this type of writing without even knowing how to form characters, especially if you use an app on your phone for things like lists.

Writing emails and texts doesn’t come with high standards for beauty and a clever turn of phrase. Writing emails for business has a little more pressure than writing emails to friends, but generally you don’t have to be Hemingway or Yu Hua to write a good one.

Writing and Register

Writing for work is more demanding than writing for everyday purposes. Writers need not only to know how to convey their meaning, but also the knowledge of how to do so in a way that it is appropriate for work. The technical word for this is register. In a nutshell, we use different registers for different types of communication. It is generally accepted that different registers coordinate with different levels of formality.

Like writing for work, writing for academic purposes also requires a different level of formality than writing a text to a friend. Academic writing is probably more formal than writing for business. Writing for art, that is writing something like a novel or a poem is probably the most demanding type of writing. Very few people are good at it in their first language, and even fewer can write beautifully in their second language. Vladimir Nobokov comes to mind as a great writer of English, although it was not his first language. He might be the exception that proves the rule.


What does this all mean for language instruction? Many language classes have writing for academic purposed as one of the goals and requirements. There is nothing wrong with wanting students to be able to write a good research paper in the target language. Most of the writing that people do however, is the simple stuff, like texts, emails and grocery lists.

This is good news for a proficiency-oriented curriculum. While I do think it is important for students to be able to properly handwrite characters, that skill is not necessary for 95% of the writing that most people do. Academic writing is pretty difficult, but it is just not something that the vast majority of language students will be expected to do. A better use of students’ time is focusing on the everyday types of writing they will actually need.

More on learning to write in Chinese:

Making sandpaper characters

Where to start if you Want to Learn How to Write Chinese


Chinese Summer Camp 2019

drawing of kids in canoe for summer camp
Join us for summer camp!

Chinese Immersion Summer Camp in San Antonio

Together with the International School of San Antonio, Lotus Chinese Learning is offering Mandarin Chinese immersion camps this year! These camps are a fun opportunity for new students to get started with Chinese classes or to keep up their language during the summer.  The camps are for students ages 3-10. Camp hours will be from 9-3:30, with aftercare available (dependent on sufficient registration). The camp will be conveniently located at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, near I-10 and 410.

Summer Camp Dates and Themes

June 17-21 (Afternoon ONLY): China STEM. Get immersed in Mandarin Chinese with China STEM! This class will introduce students to basic Mandarin through STEM-based activities. Students will learn colors, numbers, animals an shapes while learning about rockets, tangrams, ancient pottery and more. While learning a new language, students will also learn about Chinese culture, practice their math skills and participate in hands-on activities.

drawing of rocket
Did you know that rockets are a Chinese invention?

June 24-28: Dinosaur Adventure. Did you know that many of the world’s largest collections of dinosaur fossils are found in China? In dinosaur adventure, we will learn about dinosaurs, especially those found in China. We will make our own fossils, learn about how dinosaurs lived and have fun in the world of the dinosaurs!

cartoon flying dinosaur
Learn more about dinosaurs and why so many of them are found in China this summer!

July 15-19: Around the World in Five Days. Students will travel all over the world, visiting one continent for each day of camp. They will learn about the people and environments all in Chinese! We will make different crafts, learn about animals from all over the world and play games from diverse cultures.

children around the world drawing
Learn about the world through Chinese immersion

July 22-26: Chinese Arts from Pottery to Pop. Get ready for a hands on exploration of Chinese arts and crafts! Students will make a variety of Chinese art crafts, from sancai porcelain to contemporary paintings. They will also learn about Chinese art from its ancient roots to present day.


Camp tuition is $315 for full day and $185 for half day (snacks included)

Interested in learning more or signing up? email Mary@lotuschineselearning.com or use the contact page to get in touch!

You Don’t Need to Learn Grammar. Really.

Adult Learners Often Want to Learn Grammar

Kids don’t usually question what we are doing in class because they are having fun. Adult students, however, often panic in early Chinese classes because they think that they should be “studying grammar.” Understandably, most adult students (and high schoolers too) are used to opening up a textbook in a language class. The textbook lays out the grammar rules, and then lists vocabulary words. Chinese textbooks often have dialogues for the students to practice in each chapter. If you’re a language nerd like me, learning about grammar is interesting. For the vast majority of people, however, there really is no need to sit down and learn a bunch of grammar rules.

You Don’t Need to Know the Grammar to Speak a Language

If you are a native English speaker, when did you start learning the rules for English grammar? Late elementary school? Middle school? Maybe you learned the parts of speech in fifth grade. Maybe you learned how to diagram a sentence in middle school. You were probably quite fluent in English by the time you were five, but you didn’t start learning grammar as its own topic until half a decade later at least. So why do so many people think that they need this explicit kind of knowledge to learn a second language when they obviously did not need it for their first?

The Rules Don’t Hold Up Anyway

Rules are reassuring. Students, especially adults, don’t like feeling like they are “saying it wrong.” Unfortunately, grammar rules are not really rules. They don’t hold up under scrutiny. In this video, I talk about the difference between ser and estar in Spanish (both mean to be). The textbook would have you believe that we use ser for something permanent and estar for something that is temporary. Yet, we say things like “El es joven” and “El esta muerto.” Language is too complex to be boiled down to just a few rules.

If you don’t take my word for it, maybe you will listen to David Sedaris. In Me talk Pretty One Day he writes about his struggles to learn French. French includes a gender system for its nouns and of course the rule he learns does not really make sense:

I spent months searching for some secret code before I realized that common sense has nothing to do with it. Hysteria, psychosis, torture, depression: I was told that if something is unpleasant it’s probably feminine. This encouraged me, but the theory was blown by such masculine nouns as murder, toothache, and rollerblade. I have no problem learning the words themselves, it’s the sexes that trip me up and refuse to stick.

Grammar Rules Don’t Become Fluency

Early on in my adult classes, students often get tripped up by measure words. In Chinese, measure words are the little words between numbers and the nouns that they describe. In English, we say “three people.” In Chinese, however, we say “three (pieces) people.” Each noun has an associated measure word. We could summarize measure words by saying something like, “we use the measure word 张 for flat objects.” But when we are doing that, we are giving students the illusion that they can memorize this rule and then use measure words flawlessly. They really can’t. It just does not work that way.

We learn language through communicatively-embedded input, not through reading about rules in textbooks. While it is tempting to think that reading about grammar will turn into fluency, it just does not work that way. I know that my students want to see a list of all the measure words in Chinese next to rules for how to use them, for example. But reading that list and trying to memorize will not really help. They are better off just listening to the input and making sure that they understand the overall meaning.