How I used ADKAR® to help me learn Mandarin

Whilst at school I was given the opportunity to learn Mandarin to GCSE level. I had struggled with French for years, and despite having been offered Spanish and German, I felt that maybe a step away from European languages would be good for me. I didn't know anything about China, so what was there to lose?

Fast-forward through my A-levels and university study to more recent years when I joined CMC Partnership Global as a graduate entrant, progressing to my current position of client-side consultancy engagements where my focus is change and work as a change management professional. I am a Prosci® Certified Change Management Practitioner and decided to apply one of the key Prosci tools for managing change, the world-renowned ADKAR model, to analyse my own change journey as I got to grips with learning Chinese as a teenager and to reflect on whether this holds lessons for me for how I approach future changes. 

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So, back to school… From day one I thoroughly enjoyed the Chinese language and what it had to offer. My teacher brought it to life, talking of his time spent in China teaching English at a university. I found that structuring sentences in Mandarin was easier than French and the vocabulary was something I got used to pretty quickly.

In retrospect, and reviewing my choices through an ADKAR lens, I think that the barrier for mastering other languages I had tried was at desire. For Chinese, it was an exciting new topic and my desire to discover more was high, removing the sticking point, making the change and continued effort to learn easier.

I took a two-year break in my Mandarin studies during those A-levels, and picked the language up again whilst at university. Despite attending classes and even getting a Mandarin speaking partner, I didn't practice between lessons and felt quite despondent about the subject. I became a master procrastinator at missing out on my Mandarin practice, even using my university essays to avoid having to do the work!

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So, what had changed? Where had my desire gone? Two years previously I didn't have any barriers to learning the language but now I was taking extreme measures to avoid doing my practice. On reflection, the classes I attended while at university were unsuitable for my level of learning: I could not attend the beginners class as my GCSE had helped me develop a good grasp of the basics of the language and the classes would therefore be too slow, but I struggled with the complexity of the more advanced level classes; my classmates had both travelled to China and had a much better grasp of the language than I did.

My language partner had moved to the UK to study crickets (no, really, this is important research), and whilst his understanding of cricket mating habits were excellent, his English was only a little better than my Mandarin. I was by no means an English teacher and he was not a teacher of Mandarin. We both did our best to coach and mentor one another, however, a lack of reinforcement for me meant that, in combination with the difficult classes, my barrier point to the change – learning Chinese - was back at desire.

Back to today: university is behind me, I am building my career and I find myself gravitating back to the Chinese language. This time it feels like the right time; the learning feels natural, like when I was at school. I’ve pulled out my old textbooks and considered what would be the best way to refamiliarise myself with the language. I’ve researched online what the options are for support and learning aids.

I have found the greatest app and it has truly helped me revive my learning. It provides short topical lessons, with pronunciation and informative text on grammar. This allows me to fill gaps in the day, regularly learning and testing myself.  

My desire is high as I am driven to pick up my phone and continue to learn resulting in me improving my Mandarin knowledge and ability, however, I must not neglect my reinforcement. I have two plans to tackle this: finding other individuals who are at the same level of learning, to develop my conversation, and finding ways to access simple, but interesting written Mandarin. This is likely not to be easy, and I acknowledge that this journey will continue to challenge my desire!

So, the lesson I take away from this is even though I changed my behaviour, a change in circumstances led to me reverting, and only with gentle nudges to my desire was I able to ‘get back on my Mandarin horse’. This can be equally true in organisational change, sustaining the change in behaviour is just as important as behaviours changing in the first place.