Have you ever gone on YouTube and watched an American chatting to people in many different languages? Have you seen him shopping at the markets and eating ethnic food? If so, it was probably Arieh — aka Xiaoma — from New York City.
Xiaoma is well known for the sheer volume of languages he learns. He's made a life out of learning the basics and then getting out and about communicating with people from all the different cultures that make up the population of greater New York.
But unquestionably, he’s most fluent in Chinese — especially Mandarin. And learning that language sent him on a path that most of us can only dream of.
So the real questions for us are, how did Arieh Smith learn to speak Chinese fluently at just 21 years old? How does he apply those skills now? And what lessons does his story have for you today?
Let's dive into the passion and purpose that drives Arieh's language learning journey.
By the way, if you want to learn a new language fast, including Chinese, my top recommendation is StoryLearning®, a fun and effective method that gets you fluent thanks to stories, not rules. Find out more and claim your free 7-day trial of the course of your choice.
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Xiaoma's Early Lessons
Like many Americans or Brits like Lucy Bella Simkins, Arieh grew up speaking English. Although he was vaguely interested in languages, he never considered learning one until he hit 18 and fell in love with Chinese culture.
So, in 2008, he took the conventional route, a bit like Steve Kaufmann, and enrolled in a Chinese language course at college. And he had the typical results you'd expect from studying vocabulary and grammar in a one-year, traditional course.
In other words, he knew a bit of Chinese, but not enough to have a decent conversation.
Xiaoma Goes To China
After that year, Arieh got a chance to study in China for several months in the intensive “Princeton in Beijing” language programme.
During that time, Arieh and his fellow students had individual tutorial sessions, attended lectures, became part of the Chinese campus and — crucially — spoke only Mandarin Chinese for the entire time.
That immersion and intensity helped, and Arieh had a basic conversational level in Chinese by the end. But when everyone else in the programme went home, Arieh stayed in Beijing alone, and that's when his Chinese language level soared.
So, what did Arieh do that year that made such a difference to his fluency?
Xiaoma's Language Learning Strategies For Fluent Chinese
Let's take an in-depth look at the 9 strategies Xiaoma used to get fluent fast.
1. Adopt A Can-Do Mindset
How many of us delay learning a language because we think it's too hard?
Or download language learning apps that we use for a month? Or even sign up for classes only to give up because it feels like we'll never get fluent?
One of Arieh's keys to success is his language learning mindset. Really, he says, it's not that hard!
To get to the level where you can have a really fluent conversation in Chinese isn't really as hard as a lot of people would think. If you spend a year really focusing on conversations, learning vocabulary and preferably living in a Chinese-speaking part of the world, you can get to a pretty solid level.Xiaoma
Or, to put it another way, convince yourself that you can absolutely learn Chinese — or any language — then give yourself every opportunity to succeed.
2. Immerse Yourself In The Language
How much time do you spend with the language you're learning? And of that, how much time are you spending on actually speaking?
Arieh has a straightforward practice:
Spend your time speaking with as many people as possible.Xiaoma
3. Don't Try To Memorise Everything
Do you learn a language by memorising vocabulary or by immersing yourself in the language and learning the vocab naturally?
That's one of the big debates in language learning today. I come down on the side of immersion – that's why the StoryLearning method is all about immersion via reading.
Arieh says that at first, he spent way too much time on Anki and other apps, trying to memorise all the vocabulary he could. But, nowadays, he wouldn't dream of using such a blanket approach.
Looking back on his language learning then and now, he says:
The whole business of memorising is oversold. I feel like talking and reading is natural space repetition. The way babies learn languages is not by memorising vocab lists. It's by learning to talk.Xiaoma
4. Learn Deliberately — The Hallmark Of An Effective Language Learner
Memorisation is still one strategy in Arieh's toolkit. However, during his Beijing year, Arieh developed a strategic approach that still serves him well today.
Let's break down his strategy:
Choose A Situation
Think of everyday situations that you're likely to come across often. These could be shopping at the market, meeting in a bar, asking someone for directions, chatting about the weather, or dining in a restaurant.
Each situation has a relatively finite set of phrases that are likely to come up, especially when speaking to strangers.
5. Create A List Of Useful Phrases And Sentences
To make his list, Arieh asks these questions:
- Where am I going?
- What do I need to know?
- Who will I meet?
- What situations are likely to come up?
- What do I need to be able to say to cope in those situations?
He writes all the answers in English to create a targeted group of phrases and sentences that would be useful in that situation.
Translate The List
Arieh knew that to converse successfully, he needed to know what the words sounded like. So, he asked a Chinese friend to record himself saying each phrase on the list.
Then Arieh memorised the list by frequently listening to each phrase and repeating it with the exact intonations to bank it in his long-term memory.
I've also used this strategy of creating intentional vocabulary lists to boost my communication skills.
6. Practise Speaking To Other People
However, it's not enough just to learn a list. You have to put your learning into action, too.
So, once Arieh had memorised his sentences, he practised them in an authentic setting, with real people.
First, he talked to stallholders and bystanders in the markets using his “market phrases” list. Then, because it's easy to eat out in China, he went to restaurants and spoke to the waiters and cooks with his “restaurant” sentences.
And, crucially, Arieh didn't stress when he made a mistake because he understood that people don't care if your language skills aren't perfect.
Native speakers are usually so delighted to see you attempting their language that they'll forgive any blunders and help you out when you're searching for a word.
So don't let the fear villain stop you from communicating!
7. Decide On Your Priorities
Do you need to know everything about a new language to become fluent?
Not necessarily. When you're starting out, it's helpful to prioritise the aspects that will serve you best.
I tried to separate what was and wasn't important to me,” says Arieh. “So pretty early on I decided that there was no way I was ever going to be able to write Chinese well. I am not a calligraphy guy.Xiaoma
In other words, Arieh knew that learning Chinese characters would be a big task. So big that it would distract him from his primary aim of being fluent in conversational Chinese. So he made the conscious decision not to learn them.
8. Make New Goals
Once he could have a decent conversation, Arieh created a new goal and learned to read and write Chinese characters.
But even at this point, he knew when to stop, deciding that it would take too much effort to learn them well enough to read a whole book in Chinese. Instead, he worked on shorter texts like newspaper articles or singing Chinese songs.
So, the lesson here is to set your goals but don't beat yourself up if there are words or grammar you still don't know. You'll get there if that's a priority. Otherwise, let it go for now. You can always set a new goal to return to when you're ready.
9. Know Your Passion And Purpose
Most successful language learners have a powerful reason for wanting to speak another language.
Perhaps it's work-related? They want to communicate with clients more effectively. Or there might be more opportunities in the company for bilingual employees.
Maybe you've got a friend, partner or family member from another culture, so you want to speak in their language too.
Or, it might just be that you've got this irrational passion for languages that's taken you by storm. Whatever other reasons they give, you'll often find this passion at the root of most polyglots' language obsessions. Take Matt vs Japan for instance.
So, learning a new language because it looks cool in YouTube videos probably isn't a strong enough reason to keep you going through the tough times.
However, learning Chinese to talk with your Chinese grandparents is a powerful motivation to help you succeed.
Xiaoma: Lessons For Your Language Learning Journey
So, what can we take away from Arieh's story?
Be Deliberate In Your Language Learning
Are you just a passenger in the process, letting the teacher or textbook decide what you learn next? Or are you making your own decisions and controlling your learning?
Successful Learning Isn't Just About What You Do But Also What You Don't Do
Sometimes you need to prioritise speaking over reading — or vice versa — depending on your end goal.
Seek Frequent Opportunities To Use The Language — & Don't Fret Over Mistakes
Yes, it's hard to put yourself out there, but practising what you've learned is the only way to get fluent. So, if conversational fluency is your aim, find situations where you can converse.
Have A Powerful Purpose To Gets You Through The Tough Times
Arieh is passionate about reaching out to people in their native languages because he sees language as a bridge to understanding other cultures.
To that end, he's studied the basics in everything from Tamil to Haitian and Vietnamese to Urdu, using the same methods described in this article.
Check out Arieh's language learning method in action on his YouTube channel, Xiaomanyc.