West Nanjing Road in ShanghaiGuys will go to great lengths when attempting to impress a girl (or guy). Typical efforts may include flowers, the home-cooked dinner, gratuitous displays of chivalry. When I started dating my wife I decided to learn Mandarin Chinese. I seem to have trouble being satisfied until I have found the most difficult way to accomplish a goal.

I just passed a milestone, of sorts. Though I had studied Chinese in fits and spurts since 2006, it was a little more than six months ago that I set concrete learning goals and scheduled a dedicated block of time for daily practice. Looking back, it is now clear that constant exposure is such an important element of language study and was what my earlier attempts lacked. One does not so much learn a language as absorb it. Much like the study of music, successful execution of an action is merely the starting point. Repetition leading to consistent performance is the hallmark of progress.

I do not need to speak Mandarin (not yet, anyway). My wife Min, other than the occasional glitch, which is usually very cute, speaks fluent English. Language, however, is embedded with so much more information and context than the immediate message. Not taking advantage of this would be an immense loss of opportunity for learning. As I dive deeper into my study I have become more aware of how language both influences culture and is a product of it. Often I run into a challenge of East versus West brain. Chinese language patterns often emphasize awareness of the other party’s perspective, whereas English is more speaker-centric. In some cases, my West brain just would not know how to construct an East sentence pattern, which is why it is important to avoid translating from one’s native language to the one being learned. How often do we “think” in another culture?

Meeting podcast host Jenny Zhu at Chinesepod studios in ShanghaiThe service I use, Chinesepod.com, does a great job incorporating both the mechanical and contextual element of language in its daily podcasts and learning materials, but perhaps its most remarkable characteristic is the business model it represents. I can access an entire library of audio and text-based learning materials, and even engage in one-on-one tutoring with a trained teacher, with only the use of a computer and broadband internet connection. Chinesepod has eliminated the need for brick-and-mortar classrooms with associated travel, printed learning materials and physical audio media. This is referred to as dematerialization in the parlance of sustainability professionals, something that will increasingly become part of our product and service choices as companies innovate in the face of physical resource constraints.

For me, the best thing about learning something like a new language is that it is self-reinforcing. The more functional I become, the greater my desire to learn more. I look forward to more opportunities to engage in deeper conversation with my Chinese speaking friends as I learn, but am mindful to not be impatient as I gradually work my way to that point. For now, it is reward enough to know when Chinatown denizens are making amusing comments that they do not think I can understand.