If you’re learning Mandarin Chinese, these 3 quotes should catch your attention:
“There are ways to make studying Chinese not only easy, but fun too.”
“Learn Chinese characters like Will Smith would.”
“The best new online resource for learning Mandarin Chinese.”
These are some of the insights in this in-depth interview with John Fotheringham, author of the new guide to learning Chinese: Master Mandarin. The areas we cover in the interview include:
- John’s own story of learning Mandarin Chinese, which took him from the US, to Japan, and then on to Taiwan and Mainland China
- Chinese is often thought to be a very hard language to learn. But is it?
- Tones are a foreign concept for many new learners of Chinese. What are tones and how hard are they to learn?Learning Chinese seems like such a huge task. How can you deal with feeling overwhelmed by everything you still have to learn?
- Do you need to go to China to learn Chinese?
- How different is Mandarin from Mainland China to Mandarin from Taiwan? If you learn Mandarin in Taiwan would you find it easy to converse in the Mainland? How much should a Chinese learner concentrate on “chengyu” (4-part idioms) as part of their study? Are these used frequently in everyday conversations, and are there any strategies for remembering these idioms?
- John’s top 3 resources for learning Mandarin Chinese
- The “Master Mandarin” guide – what is it, and how can it help?
Here are the three parts that make up the interview. If you prefer to read instead of watch, there’s a full transcript of our conversation right below.
Olly: Okay, so I’m really, really excited to be talking to John Fotheringham today. John, you are a writer, a blogger, an author, entrepreneur, traveler–
John: Crazy person.
Olly: Yeah, all-around crazy guy. I mean, you’ve done just–Thirty seconds on your website has shown me you’ve done a lot of things. So, why don’t you kick off and just tell us a little bit about you and your background.
John: Sure. Well, I studied linguistics in university, which I didn’t actually stumble upon ’til my third year in. I’d been studying industrial design, of all things, and then I took a linguistics 101 class and a Japanese 101 class and got hooked, and decided to basically start over my third year in, which luckily my parents and people I care about were supportive of. And that completely changed my life. Changed the trajectory. And then after I graduated from university, I went to Japan for two years. I taught English the first year. And then for the second year, I worked for the local government doing translation and interpretation. And then, after that, had a chance to go to Bangladesh, of all places, and I spent six months there. And then, after that, I ended up in first China and then over to Taiwan. And that’s where I did most of my Mandarin learning.
Olly: Ok, cool, so we’re going to focus on Mandarin today and we’re gonna get into some depth about that. And, the conversation is going to be essentially how to go about learning Mandarin. From my perspective, Chinese is–I mean, I know a little bit of Cantonese, but Chinese has always had this sort of aura of being a really foreign, really different, difficult language to learn. And, my experience tells me now that those kinds of tales about languages are rarely true.
Olly: So, hopefully we’re going to dive into it and clear up some misconceptions and people some idea of how it might go about it.
John: Happy to help.
Olly: So, let’s talk about your Mandarin story, then. How–give people an idea of how you started with Mandarin and how you found it as an overall process.
John: Sure. My primary focus in school was Japanese, but as part of my linguistics studies, I did have to pick a second foreign language and so I did dabble in Mandarin in university. I think I did one quarter of actual Mandarin classes. Most of it was more of a linguistics study of the language, which, ironically, I don’t think helps very much. You hear a lot of people online saying, “if you don’t study the formal components of a language, if you don’t study in a classroom, if you don’t have a teacher, then you’ll forever be speaking, you know, a pidgen form or a broken form of the language. My experience, having been in academia, but also an independent language learner, the independent side is actually, I think, much more rewarding and much more effective for actually learning how to acquire and be able to use a language. Now, if later on–
Olly: And, what would you get from that time in the university, then? Is there anything that you took from it?
John: A lot of it was what not to do. And that was also true of my Japanese studies. I think there were a lot of stark examples of how traditional language education fails. I mean, when you spend all your time studying for a test, when you try to cram things in your head through rote memory, you may remember it the next day for the test, but then two days–“pooof”, it’s gone. Whereas the strategies I’ve been learning since then have really taught me that it’s more about be more intelligent about how we use our adult brains to learn languages. We’re not children. You know, there are some similarities between first and second language acquisition–I think adults are actually a lot better or, at least, faster–maybe use that word–at language learning if we do it the right way. And, what is the right way? Well, there’s many we’ll get to in this interview, I’m sure.
Olly: Yeah. So you had a little primer in Chinese-
Olly: –and then you kind of went off the radar for a few years and ended up in China.
John: Well, yeah. So, I focus on Japanese for a couple of years, but then yeah, when I finally got to China, I mean, I had very little to go on. I was basically starting from some scratch in terms of speaking.
John: I did have the advantage that I could already read most of, at least, the majority of the characters that crossed our work in Japanese and Mandarin. I could already read, know the meaning of, and write–pronunciation, of course, is fairly different. So, it really was basically starting from scratch in terms of being able to understand and speak.
Olly: So, you turned up in China and you started studying, like, straight away?
John: Correct. On my own. So, that was, you know, other than Japanese, which I had much more academic background in, with Mandarin, it was much more starting from scratch. That was really my first, what I call, self-guided immersion experiment.
John: Where it was me–granted, I was in a Mandarin-speaking country, which is obviously a huge advantage. One of the things I talk a lot in my blog and in my guides is that that’s not necessary. It’s advantageous, of course, but it’s not necessary. You could create a Mandarin environment no matter where you live using Skype and YouTube and podcasts and other things.
Olly: Yeah, okay, so listen: let’s dive right in now and tackle this question of Chinese being hard to learn. Is it or isn’t it? Which is it?
John: Ah, yes.
Olly: Yes, it’s hard to learn.
John: Yes, both. Yes, it’s not. And, yes, it is.
Olly: Okay, right.
John: You know, I hate the word “difficult” when it’s applied to languages, coz I–First of all, I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think Mandarin’s going to be hard, it will be. And I think there’s really no point in that, you know. I don’t want to gloss over the challenging aspects of the language, or any language for that matter. There are going to be parts that are challenging comparatively.
Olly: So, in what ways is it easier or more difficult than another language?
John: So, let’s get compare with English. You know, that’s both of our native languages, so… Grammatically, it’s quite simple, and I use the word simple carefully here. Part of what makes Mandarin easy is also, later on, what makes it a little more difficult. The grammar patterns are very simple. There aren’t verb conjugations, for example. You know, instead of saying, “I drank coffee yesterday,” you would say, “I drink coffee yesterday.” So, the tense, the – all that -is done with adverbs of time, not with actual changes to the verb. So, from the get-go, that’s actually a huge advantage, I think. There’s much less to learn from out of the gate to be able to communicate. But, down the road, when you get into more complex constructions, it can get a little bit trickier because a lot of it is based on context instead of actual, you know, overt grammar patterns that, if you know those patterns, then you know it’s what they’re saying, if that makes any sense.
Olly: It does.
John: Okay, so in the beginning, it’s an advantage. In the long run, it can be a little bit of a challenge.
Olly: Ok, cool. So listen: talk a little bit about tones, then. Tones of the Chinese, because it’s something that people who haven’t learned a tonal language find a little bit scary and confusing.
Olly: How difficult or easy are the tones to acquire?
John: Again, I think it has to do with your attitudes towards them. If you think they’re gonna be hard, they will be. But I think a lot of it has to do with how you go about it. And, the way that tones are usually taught in school or in traditional textbooks is you learn the tone of each and every character, each and every syllable in the language. And, as you’re speaking, you try to remember, “oh, is this first tone or second tone?” You spend a lot of time in your head trying to think how something should be pronounced. And, I did that in the beginning and it hardly ever works. You’re simply not understood. You know, people will sort of–you see their eyes squint a little bit and see the gears turning, trying really hard to think about what you’re saying. Whereas later on, I figured out a much more effective approach is just record a small snippet, you know, whether it’s a word, or phrase, or a complete sentence, and then imitate the complete phrase as closely as you can, not trying to think, “is this third tone? Is this fourth tone?” You’ll get that later. Eventually, you’ll figure out, okay–
Olly: And is that because the tones you might learn on an individual word change when it comes to a full sentence?
John: Exactly. There’s actually two points to that. One is: yes, in practice, there are a lot of tone exceptions and I talk about them a little bit in my guide, but trying to memorize all those rules, I think–you know, take a quick peek at ’em just so you have, you know, a basic understanding of them. But, you’re not gonna be able, in practice, in speak, in an actual speech to be able to use them on command. There’s just too many exceptions and rules. Third tone, for example: if there’s two third tones in a row, the second one… I’m sorry, the first one changes to a second tone, called “tone sandhi”. First tone, for example, for the word “yī” (“one”), sometimes it changes to second tone or fourth tone depending on what comes after it. There’s all these little exceptions.
Olly: Yeah, coz, you see, when I hear these little rules, like you just explained, this is when my eyes start to gloss over.
John: Right, exactly. So, that’s why I don’t like to intimidate learners by focusing on all those things. I don’t want to say “ignore them” but if you focus on learning those word in context, you’ll be able to pronounce them correctly. So, how can I say it? Instead of trying to say, “Okay, I need to learn the word ‘one’ is first tone in this case, and second one in that case”–no, no. Just, this word: don’t think of it as even two characters like “yī” (一, “one”) and “gè” (個・个, “thing”). Just think of yīgè (一個) as a word. Instead of “one” and “thing”, it’s one word, “one thing”.
Olly: Sure. And this is also not the same as advising not to learn tones at all because I’ve seen people–you see that advise cropping up from time to time.
John: Correct, correct.
Olly: How do you go about that?
John: “Just ignore tones.” Well, and I think people–I don’t think I explained it necessarily that well but people may misinterpret what I’m saying as saying, “ignore the tones.” And that’s absolutely not the case. You need to get your tones as accurate as possible to be understood and understand people. But, the way to get there is through imitation, not through thinking in your head what the tone is of each and every character.
Olly: Okay. So, it’s like having an awareness of it, but then dealing with it in a bigger picture sense.
John: Exactly. So, I was saying there the two things. There are many tone exceptions that there’s no way your conscious brain is going to keep up with. But your ears can. So, that’s one. And the second point is that when you are trying to apply your conscious knowledge in speech, you’re going to speak too slow and chances are, you’re going to misspeak. Whereas your imitation will always be much more accurate.
Olly: Ok, great. So, the other big part to Chinese, obviously, for someone who hasn’t come across a language with a Chinese root before is the whole issue of writing.
Olly: And I’ve got my own thoughts about writing, but let’s deal with the question first about whether or not you need, as a beginning learner of Chinese, about whether or not you need to write Chinese characters or not.
John: Sure. This is a very common question, but it’s an important one. And, to be honest, I think there are compelling arguments on both sides, whether to start characters from day one or to hold off a bit. I, personally, I think it’s better to start them earlier on. I think you’re going to need them eventually if you want to have any chance of being a fully fluent/literate speaker and reader in the language. So why wait?
Olly: Let’s start with outlining those two arguments, then. What are the two possible approaches? One, learning the writing. And one, not. What would be the arguments on both sides?
John: Okay. So, the argument of learning characters whether from day one or eventually is that you open yourself up to a much wider pool of authentic content. Yes, you can find materials written in Pinyin, but usually they’re extremely boring, they’re extremely stilted.
Olly: The English – the Romanisation?
John: Yeah. So, the standard Romanisation of Mandarin is called Hànyǔ Pīnyīn (漢語拼音・汉语拼音). And there are actually five or six different phonetic systems that have been used in the past are still used in various places.
Olly: Yeah, it’s the same in Cantonese.
John: Yeah, but that’s–it’s a bit of a mess. But the standard one in mainland China and also now in Taiwan, more recently, is the Hànyǔ Pīnyīn, which just uses English letters to write Mandarin words. The advantage of that is from day one, since you already know how to read and write English letters, you can start understanding how Mandarin is pronounced and have a way to write it down–have your tutor write it down for you. But, again, you’re just limited to anything and only written in Pinyin. Whereas if you had learned the characters, then ANY material, any, what we call, “authentic content” that was created for Chinese-speaking children, or blogs, or news stories, or manga (Mànhuà, 漫画) all those things become then in your wheelhouse; things you can use to learn. Even if they are a little bit beyond your level, you can at least look at the title, for example. “Oh, I know that’s the character for this–
John: –that’s the character for that.”
Olly: So there’s the theory, but then I guess the main thing that comes to my mind having been through that process in Japanese, for example–I mean, Japanese is a bit different because then you’ve got two other scripts that are used in the language itself–I guess the big question is that if you–I mean, it makes perfect sense that if you learn the characters, if you learn to read and write Chinese, then it opens up a whole world of written language to you. But the question is: what happens before you get to that point if it takes you, say, two years to build up a decent amount of Chinese characters, what about the argument that that time could be better used by just using the Romanisation and just hammering vocabulary and getting as much as you can done that way?
Olly: It’s kind of a trade off, isn’t it, between time–
John: It’s to an extent. And that is the other compelling argument. I agree that anything you do is going to take time and energy and learning characters will require commitment. I will say, if you go about it in an adult-friendly way–my favorite is what’s called “imaginative memory”. That was a method that was popularized by James Heisig in his Remembering the Kanji series, which he later made a version for Mandarin, as well. Using that strategy, you can actually learn at least the reading and writing–I want to be clear here–the reading and writing of all the most common three-thousand characters and probably–let’s be a little bit liberal–let’s say, five months.
Olly: Three-thousand characters in five months?
John: That’s the reading and writing of them. Now, learning the pronunciations-
Olly: …and that’s how much time? How much study time would that be?
John: I would say if you commit an hour a day–thirty minutes to an hour a day–
John: –that that should be doable. You can do it in less time if you’re super-motivated and have a lot more time to put to the task–
Olly: We’ll put a link to that–
John: Two year to five years…
Olly: We’ll put a link to that in the notes, as well, so people can find that if they want to.
John: So that’s just a little caveat to that. I don’t think it’s a matter of “wasting” two or three years trying to learn characters that you could’ve learned to speak. I think because if you do it in the right way, it doesn’t actually take that much time. For me, I think you might as well start learning them along side learning vocabulary and grammar and all those other things.
John: But yes, it is a choice. And if your goal–it all comes down to your goals. If your primary focus is “I want to go to mainland China or Taiwan and I just want to speak with people. That’s it.” If that’s your primary goal, then yeah, maybe you can hold off on characters for a while.
Olly: So, in a way, it does come back to goal, doesn’t it? If you’re kind of learning for a short trip, you’ve got one set of things that you need. Whereas if you were in it for the long-term. You know, if you’ve married a Chinese girl and you’re moving to China–
John: Yeah. But even I think the short-term/long-term dichotomy isn’t necessarily a good fit for that either because, for example, if I were to go Taiwan or China right now, if I had never been, one of my primary goals would be to eat. They have such good food and a lot of menus, and especially in Taiwan and in parts of China, they have no Pinyin on the menu. There might be pictures, sure, on some restaurants, but a lot of times it’s just a menu and it’s all Chinese characters.
Olly: Okay. So, the place you did the whole thing of “do I need to learn to read and write?” It’s not as simple a question as that. It needs to be…
John: It’s more nuanced.
John: Like all things.
Olly: I’ve got a question from Lucas, who says–well, I imagine he’s sort of beginning–he says, “I’m trying to learn Chinese but writing beats me. So, I just want to learn how to speak. And then, when I’ve got a good speaking level, I can try writing.”
John: Yeah, fair enough.
Olly: What would you say to him?
John: I say fair enough again and back to what we just discussed. But, he already has his goals in place. I’m not going to argue with his goals and try to convince him otherwise. Let’s stick with where he wants to be. So, he needs then just to spend as much time every single day as possible listening and speaking. Listening and speaking. And, a lot of people fall into the trap–especially in this new, media-based way of language learning, where they just listen-listen-listen-listen. Which is great–it’s a lot better than just reading ‘coz that’s what’s people used to do. You know, they’d spend five or ten years just reading a language. Then they’d go to that country and couldn’t even order a cup of coffee. You know, we all know that common downfall. Even if you are using more modern methods and technologies, you still gotta make sure you’re actually speaking and applying what you’ve learned.
Olly: So, I guess also you’re touching on the fact that, let’s say, if it’s the case for Lucas that maybe he’s tried the writing thing and for whatever reason he’s finding it really hard. I mean, this is another important point, isn’t it, that you’ve got to play to your strengths. So, if something’s really irritating you and really bugging you, I mean, it’s crazy to carry on with it.
Olly: Or in the short term, you’ve got the energy–
Olly: –to do a certain thing, then play to that strength.
John: Or, crazy to carry on using the same method or material.
Olly: Well, yeah.
John: And that’s something I’ve learned the hard way. You know, I’ll buy a book or a material or even download a podcast or something, and I’ll think, “oh, I should do this. I know this is good for me.” And I’ll force myself through it and eventually realize, “you know what? This is boring. I don’t like the host of this podcast. His voice annoys me.” Or, “I don’t like the way she sounds,” or, “I don’t like the way this book is written.” And I’ve learned just to put things aside, delete them, and move on coz there’s such a wide pool of stuff. There’s no excuse to do something that’s boring or uninteresting to you.
Olly: Yeah. I can really relate to that. But, what I think is also interesting is also just putting something aside for a couple of months. It can be enough that you can come back to it with a completely different viewpoint with the work that you’ve done since.
John: Right. Yeah, maybe it was too difficult; that’s a lot of times the case, I think, is materials are bit too beyond your current level, and it just requires you to look up too many words, really, to get the flow of it, for example.
Olly: Yeah, so–A very common question for learning any language, even something that’s relatively simple for native English speakers, like French or Spanish–you’re starting out. You’re overwhelmed by the size of the task. You’re just beginning. Maybe you’ve got a couple of books, but it just seems just a huge task ahead and progress is difficult to quantify; difficult to feel a sense of progress… I know that learning something, like Chinese, it’s likely that people are gonna find a very similar emotion coming up. So, what would you say to someone who is starting out with Chinese and but just feels that it’s a huge task and they’re feeling a little bit overwhelmed?
John: Sure. I think part of it is a question of psychology. And I think part of it’s just a practical question of how you’re studying. So, on the psychology side of things, it’s really important that you focus–you hyper-focus down, you ratchet-down to just a few things at a time. Now, whether that’s three Chinese characters or maybe it’s one verb, you know, or one idiom, or one phrase–and you focus all your energy on just that one thing at a time. Ignore everything else. This actually was really well codified–it was a Will Smith quote. He was in an interview with Charlie Rose–
Olly: He’s got some great quotes, Will Smith.
John: GREAT quotes. And he was recounting the story from his childhood when his dad told him and his brother, one day, “okay, I need you guys. You need to build a brick wall. Right here. An entire brick wall.” And, you know, they were like, “Oh my! Dad, that’s going to take forever!” It’s too big of a task. And, he’s like, “just do it. Pick up one brick and you lay that brick as perfectly as you can. And all you think about is that one brick. That’s it. Lay that brick perfectly. And then you pick up another. And you lay that brick. That’s all you see is that one brick. And, you lay that as perfectly as you can.”
Olly: So, apply–
John: And, before you know it–yep, sorry.
Olly: Apply that metaphor to language, to learning Chinese, then.
John: Yeah, so with Chinese characters: Another perfect example. That’s one of the most, I think, most intimidating elements of the language, as we’ve discussed to a lot of new learners–or even old hats. Don’t think, “oh, I have to learn three-thousand Chinese characters. It’s gonna take a lifetime.” No. Right now, I need learn this one. That’s it. This character.
Olly: And focus on learning it properly.
John: Yeah. Just nail it. I think part of that even is, in the early days, when you were really motivated, you’re probably going to bite off a bit much. You’re gonna think, “Oh, I’m gonna learn fifty Chinese characters a day.” Yeah, good luck with that. Pretty soon, you’re going to be forgetting a lot more than you remember. But if you pick, let’s say, ten or twenty–depending on how you go about it. Even five. Or, even one.
Olly: Well, yeah, that’s what it takes to make it happen. Then, one is a great start.
John: Ratchet it down. Ratchet it down to one. And then that dovetails into the other component, which is the practical nuts-and-bits part of actually how you learn each day. And how you measure your learning. If you do ratchet it down to one character, and you count, “okay, I learned five characters,” that’s a number. That’s Peter Drucker’s “what’s measured gets managed.” That’s it. You know exactly how much you did. Whereas if you’re just kind of throwing all the stuff at you all the time, it’s really hard to really measure your progress or gauge what you’ve done.
Olly: Okay. So, taking on–carrying on this “overwhelm” thing for a minute. If we’re–let’s think about speaking ‘cuz that’s what people want to do, above all, is to be able to speak. I remember feeling this quite recently with Cantonese where I’d be talking to someone, and there’s so much I don’t know and so much I can’t say. Well, what’s the next step and how do you move forward from that point?
John: I think part of it is not being quite so hard on oneself and realize you already know quite a bit. And you’ve come a certain gap. You’ve come a certain distance. I mean, you do know the word for “XYZ” already. And, remind yourself, “this morning, I didn’t know the word for this. Now, I do.” Celebrate your small wins and don’t be quite so hard on oneself.
Olly: So, this is the psychology aspect.
John: Again. Yeah, I mean, it’s hard to talk about without sounding wishy-washy and “woo-hoo,” but I do think psychology is a big chunk of learning languages. Or learning anything for that matter. It’s how you frame it and how you think about it on a daily basis. But, you still have to do the work. You can’t think your way into acting a new way. You can act your way into thinking a new way, right?
Olly: This is what. It’s really interesting that thing about not being too hard on yourself because there’s always more to focus on; there’s always more to learn, isn’t there?
Olly: Celebrating those small successes. And, even if it’s just one word a day and realizing that you’ve made that progress–I mean, you’ve got to take that just as much as the other.
John: Exactly. Another thing that is really effective both, I think, for long-term measurement of progress and also for keeping yourself motivated and realizing that, “oh, I actually am getting better,” is recording yourself. Record yourself speaking, whether it’s a Skype session you do with a tutor, or an audio journal, or even just–it’s not quite as powerful–but even if you just want to read something out that you’ve written. It won’t be as natural. It won’t be an assessment of your fluency, but it will be an assessment of your reading ability. Yeah, an audio journal or a Skype session: record yourself at least once a month. And then when you are feeling bad, you know, halfway through the month, you can go back and you can listen to the one from last month, or a couple months.
Olly: Ah, track your progress.
John: “Yeah, oh wow! Actually, I sounded like rubbish back then but I’m a lot better now” Yeah, I used to not know how to pronounce all the “retroflexes”. Now, I can. That’s, I think, a really powerful tool.
Olly: Yeah, because I’ve been recording some progress videos on my blog about my Cantonese journey. And every month–I’ve tried to do it every month recording–and it’s just me talking a little about, as much, as best I can. And, it’s a little bit of a chore to do it because it’s not the case that every month you get proportionally better, you know. It’s up and down.
Olly: After six months, when I look back at the first one I did, I mean, it’s just a world apart.
Olly: And this psychology thing, I noticed this when I read your Master Japanese guide. And then, similarly, in your Master Mandarin, which is the sequel, that so much of the book, you dedicate to the psychology and the way of thinking about the approach and the language. And, I think, when I was looking at that, I thought, “you’re really on to something here,” because the reason that most people are going to give up is not because they haven’t managed to learn this particular grammar point. It’s because there’s something going on in here. Or, in here.
John: Yah, in the long run, I think that the differentiator is how you think about the language, how you think about your ability to learn the language. I think, like, with polyglots, for example. Which, I don’t consider myself one. I mean, I have been involved in some projects with other polyglots but I only speak three languages at this point. So, that doesn’t quite count. But, if you look at a lot of the polyglots out there, I think what really makes the difference for them is the confidence they have. It’s the confidence they have, that no matter what the language, they can learn it. They know that they can do it. And even though, it’ll be different challenges in each language group, especially, they know they can do it. They have the confidence. And I think that makes the difference.
Olly: Okay, so just to summarize what we’ve just spoke about, the “overwhelm” thing, it’s about breaking it down into the small bits.
John: Small chunks.
Olly: Small, steady progress.
Olly: And also looking back. Not just looking forward at what you haven’t done yet, but looking back over what you’ve achieved, and trying to celebrate that. And recognize what you’ve done.
John: And, I want to add this one little thing, which is you do want to look at what you don’t know obviously, and I think that for, depending on your personality type, that, too, may motivate you. A lot of people, they get frustrated, “Oh, didn’t know what that word was in that situation.” And that frustration actually can also be a powerful motivator, depending on your personality type.
Olly: Ok, so that frustration can either be either the thing that makes you give or the thing that spurs you on to–
John: Yeah, it depends on whether you are a Type-A type, or you know. Or, you’re another kind.
Olly: Yeah, I know which type I am, but let’s not go there. So, listen: let’s move on to the next point, which is another big question that comes up all the time: If I want to learn Chinese, do I need to go to China? What say you?
John: What say I? Well, I’m biased in that I did go to learn. I mean, most of my learning was in Taiwan and I think there are a lot of obvious advantages to that. But, I think people already know what those are, for the most part. Maybe we can circle back if it’s not obvious, but…
Olly: Those being that you’ve got the opportunities to speak to people and you’ve got the input. You’ve got the opportunity to see things and read things on a daily basis.
John: Twenty-four seven. But, there’s two things I want to add to that. One is: It’s still not a guarantee. You can very easily insulate yourself in a little ex-pat bubble and spend most of every day hearing, speaking, reading and writing English, even though you’re in China or Taiwan. So, that’s one drawback or potential drawback to that. Two–
Olly: Sorry to break in there, but in many ways, that’s the default, isn’t it?
Olly: Because I think most people that go and live in somewhere that’s very different, like China, are not automatically going to go out with lots of confidence and integrate into the local society. They’re going to be at home and they’re going to find ex-pat friends and all that stuff.
John: Sure. It’s more comfortable.
Olly: So, it’s not that just it’s a risk. It’s probably likely for most people.
John: That’s a good point and I’m glad you said that ‘coz that is the default, I think, for the vast majority of people. And there’s nothing wrong with having some foreign friends to, you know,—’coz you’re going to have frustration, you’re gonna have culture shock, and you need somebody to vent to and get stuff off your chest. But you really have to be careful not to let that be the majority of your time. Or, five, ten, twenty years will go by and you’ll think, “Oh, I really don’t speak Chinese.” You know, there’s a lot of people like that. Especially, I think, especially, I think, even more so in Japan.
Olly: Japan is quite shocking, actually, seem to get by on hardly anything.
Olly: Their favorite brand of beer–
Olly: Their home station.
John: Yeah, or they get a Japanese significant other who speaks English and they do the heavy lifting for them.
Olly: So, similar thing in China?
John: Definitely a similar situation. I think it’s gonna be more so than Japan. But more of the foreigners I met in China and Taiwan at least made an effort, it seemed. They still spent most of their time in a foreigner bubble, but at least, I think, made a little bit more effort. Anyway, back to the point is it’s not a guarantee that you will learn because you live in the country. And then, on the flip-side of that, it’s not impossible to learn a language in your home country. And I think that’s a highly under-appreciated advantage of all this new, cool technology we’ve got. I mean, right now, you and I are speaking via Skype, halfway around the world to each other, and you very well could be a Mandarin speaker. You know, right now, it’s 9:24 in the morning here.
Olly: Wish I was. That would be great.
John: [Laughter] Wouldn’t it? Yeah, so it’s really just, I think, an excuse now, to say, “No, I can’t learn because I don’t live in China, I don’t live in Taiwan. I don’t have enough money to go abroad.” I think that’s an excuse; not a reality.
John: And that’s what, I’d say, about half of my site and my guide and everything I focus on is providing specific recommendations of tools and resources that people can use. So, no matter where you live, you can actually flood yourself everyday with listening input, reading input, and then chances to both speak and write the language with native speakers.
Olly: Okay, so do you think that it’s the case that every advantage or every benefit that you can get from living in China, you can replicate where you are?
John: Not every one. I think you can get–you can make the best of wherever you live, I’ll put it that way.
Olly: But you can replicate it enough?
John: Enough that you can learn quite a bit. I still think it’s obviously an advantage to go abroad. And that’s less for the linguistic advantages; that’s more for the cultural advantages. I mean, why are you learning the language in the first place. You know, what’s the whole point of it? It’s probably to experience that culture, it’s to communicate with its people, it’s to learn its history, to watch its movies, and, you know… And yes, there are chances to do that anywhere in the world, probably, but I think the full benefit, and the full richness of speaking a language I think is fully realized when you do go abroad.
Olly: Yeah, and I guess for most people, it’s perfectly possible to take small–even if it’s a short vacation to the country. You don’t have to go and live there. You can visit.
Olly: Which is perfectly fine.
John: I think it’s, in a lot of ways, it’s ideal, because I think when you live in a place for a long time, as I lived in Taiwan, all said and done, I think four-and-a-half, almost five years, you start to take a lot of it for granted, I think. Whereas if you’re just visiting specifically to enjoy it, I think you can get a lot more out of it in some ways.
Olly: Indeed. And, like I said, it’s probably worth sort of breaking down the process, as well, isn’t it, because if you are at the beginning stages of learning a language, then–if you were a complete beginner and living in China, most likely you’re going to have to do an awful lot of work and start speaking with natives on the ground a lot of time and it might take you–easily take you a year or two or more before you can actually start, you know, chatting to people casually. And that ground work that you have to do at the beginning, I’ve found myself–I don’t know what you think about it–but I think a lot of that ground work, learning the initial vocabulary, getting used to the sound of the language, is something that–in a way, you could argue is better done back home because you don’t have the stress of, “I wish I could talk to that guy on the street corner but I just can’t.” By learning at home, you’ve got–it’s stress-free. You can take your time.
John: Exactly. No, that’s a very good point and I’ve come across that myself and a couple others discover that same benefit. Yeah, that was my experience in Japanese, for example. Granted, when I got to Japan, it was still broken Japanese, but I was fairly familiar with it, you know, a lot of vocabulary and basic sounds and everything of the language. So, I could hit the ground running. And I could get a lot more immediate benefit from communicating, which then was this positive feedback loop that made me want to learn even more and more and more. Whereas with Mandarin, I had a lot less to go on and yeah, it was a lot more stressful. And a lot more frustrating…
Olly: So, did you have a period at the beginning of your time in China where you were kind of holed-up, doing some intensive studying? How did you manage it?
John: No, I still had to eat, I had to take taxis, and get to work and all those things, so I didn’t really have a choice to use Mandarin on a daily basis. At least, I didn’t give myself the option.
John: But, I agree. Had I had the chance to really get familiar with the language before going abroad, I think it would have been less stressful. But, the counterpoint to all that is that stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can force you to learn a lot faster. So, I think if speed is your primary goal, then even with zero ground work and zero understanding, it’s probably faster to go abroad from day one. Or, just jump in with two feet. A lot less comfortable–
Olly: Yeah, in an ideal world, if you can choose your own–
John: Yeah. If you can, this is how I’m going to learn this language, but few of us have that option, of course. We get thrown into various adventures.
Olly: So, I guess the point really is, just as we were speaking about before–there are certain advantages and disadvantages to each particular context or method. But in no case is it an excuse not to get started or not to start doing a lot of work.
John: Exactly. Yeah, and that’s often I think what holds people back. We’ve already talked about the myth of Chinese being “difficult”. That holds people back. The myth of “I don’t live in Taiwan or China, so I can’t learn.” That’s bogus. “I don’t have enough money. I can’t take classes”. Well, that’s also bogus now. So many chances online to learn for free or, at least, very cheaply.
Olly: And I guess a lot of those resources you cover in your various guides.
John: As many as I can. And I constantly update it, certain resources–the links get broken or they take ’em down–so, I go through periodically and update it and add more in. And I should mention anyone who does buy the guide gets free updates for life. So, any time a new update is available, you can just go and get a download for free.
Olly: Yeah, ‘cuz I think this is something–I haven’t used the Internet a great deal. I didn’t used to use the internet a great deal for learning but part of the reason I didn’t found it difficult to find–you’ve got to filter through so much junk before you actually get to the right thing.
Olly: So, having a resource, having it on a plate for you: “Here are twenty different places you can go for quality information.” It’s a real goldmine and that’s why I really appreciate it from your Master Japanese.
John: Yeah, and that’s really what I think the real value is there. It’s time. I mean, yes, you could go and find all this stuff on your own. You certainly can. And, if you’re a starving student, for example, and you have time but no money, then, yeah, maybe it makes more sense for you to do that.
Olly: If you’re really good at organizing the Bookmarks bar on your web browser.
John: Yeah, exactly. But, if you’re strapped for time, as most of us are, it makes more sense to spend your time actually learning the language, not wasting all this time trying to find material to learn the language.
Olly: So, listen: I’ve got a question I wanna ask relating to going to China from Rick, and he wants to know how different the Mandarin is in mainland China from Taiwanese Mandarin, which is something I have heard–they are different, but I have no idea really. And he goes on, “If I were to learn Mandarin in Taiwan, would I find it easy to converse in the Mainland? The accents sound very different to me, almost like Cantonese and Mandarin.”
John: Okay. Excellent question. To the first point, they are distinct. I mean, you can hear a little bit of a difference. A lot of it depends on where in China and where in Taiwan you’re talking about. That’s a bit like comparing apples and oranges. Outside of northern China, a lot of places in China don’t speak Mandarin very well. It’s something that, in recent years, they’ve started to learn it, but in my experience, I had no problem being understood in, like, Shànghǎi (上海), for example. But as I travel south, down to like Xiàmén (廈門・厦门), people had a lot different accent. I actually had a harder time understanding people in southern China than I did in Taiwan a lot of times.
Olly: Is that because it gets closer to Cantonese?
John: Probably. That would make sense.
Olly: It’s just such a huge country, isn’t it?
John: Huge. And the word “Chinese” really is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not one language–I wouldn’t even call them dialects. They are distinct languages that, for political reasons, have been put under one umbrella term of “Chinese”.
Olly: But, it’s quite common. I’ve heard of a lot of people that go to Taiwan. It seems to be more–this just might be a misunderstanding from my part–but it seems to be slightly more Westernized or slightly more outward-looking part of China from all the other areas. So–
John: Culturally, yes. I think so. And that’s changing in recent years. I think as China has started to open up more, that it’s changing. But culturally, yes, I think Taiwan is much more–we gotta be careful about the words we use…
Olly: I think we’ve explained it perfectly well.
John: No, I think if you’re a Westerner wanting to learn Mandarin, personally I think Taiwan is a much more comfortable, enriching place to do it.
Olly: So, let’s just go down on that a little bit in terms of the dialect. So, as Rick said, if I were to learn Mandarin in Taiwan, would I find it easy to converse in the mainland? Let’s say if you went to Shanghai or Beijing or–
John: Well, that was my experience. I did most of my Mandarin learning in Taiwan. But, I did a lot of business in Mainland China. So, I had no problem communicating. I mean, really, the only challenge would probably be if you were going to Beijing. If you’re going to go to Beijing, because they have all those “Běijīng huà-er!” (北京話兒, “Beijing dialect”)—all that arr-arr stuff going on that they add a lot to the end of words. You know, that’s going to be very different. But again, that’s going to be the case even if you’re studying in Shànghǎi or other parts of China. If you go to Beijing, you’re still going to have to learn that difference.
Olly: Can you say that again, that little bit?
John: “Běijīng huà-er!”
John: Which is—that’s “Běijīng huà-er”, but they add an “r” sound on the end of a lot of things.
Olly: Okay. I’ve heard some people talking with that accent.
John: It’s very pirate-like. So, I don’t think so. If you learn in Táiběi (台北, “Taipei”). I mentioned earlier–maybe I didn’t get into it. So, in Taiwan, people in northern Taiwan, where Táiběi is located, they speak “standard” Mandarin. And there’s slight pronunciation differences between there and mainland China, but they’re very mild. As you go South, though, more people are going to speak Taiwanese, which is actually a distinct language related to the language of Fújiàn (福建) China, which is where most of the people emigrated from to Taiwan. So, that is an issue to consider. If you are going to learn Mandarin, probably it would make sense to do it in Táiběi or northern [Taiwan].
Olly: So, again, it’s one of these things: advantages, disadvantages, but no reason not to go, not to do it.
John: Yeah, and I think the quality of life, I think, in Taiwan far outweighs any linguistic disadvantages.
Olly: Yeah, and this is a big deal, isn’t it, ‘coz if anyone is actually gonna go there to learn. I mean, just as you can find different aspects of language learning difficult, you gotta consider the place where you’re living, as well. If you’re living in a place where you’re miserable, the end effect is that you are going to give up learning the language. Yeah, it’s a really big consideration. Probably shouldn’t keep going back to Japan, but Japan’s a prime example. Comparing people that live in Tokyo, Osaka, or one of the big cities to someone that gets posted out in the countryside somewhere, which is what happened to you.
Olly: I mean, again: disadvantages, advantages on both sides. It depends on what kind of person you are. But they can have a massive effect on your language learning, depending on your personality type.
John: No, I think–Yeah, if you get… Not that you usually get to choose, per se. There are a lot of advantages to being in a rural area for language learning ‘cuz that’s all you’ve got to do…
Olly: If you can hack it.
John: Yeah, if you can hack it. If you can do it. It’s not easy. There’ll be definite trials from a social point of view, but yah, form a purely linguistic perspective, I think definitely it’s an advantage.
Olly: And one more slightly focused question from Terry is: “How much should a Chinese learner concentrate on chéngyǔ (成語, “idioms”) as part of their study? Are they used frequently in everyday conversations and are there any strategies for remembering these? We were talking a little about this in the pre-chat–how was my pronunciation, by the way? “chéngyǔ”?
John: It’s close. Chéngyǔ.
Olly: And this is idioms.
John: “Idioms”, correct. Yeah, so it’s a very good question. So they do use idioms a lot in daily conversation, I find. Especially, older people. They’ll use them a lot more then young people. You know, there are many different sub-types of idiom in Mandarin. There’s the four-character idioms which are very common. But then there are others various lengths. It would behoove you to try to learn the most common ones. Pick like the top fifty idioms and try to learn them.
Olly: And how would you try to find the top fifty idioms?
John: There are lists. I mean, you just go online–
John: Yeah, Google “Top fifty Chinese idioms”. And then hopefully find one that has the Chinese relations. Or, have a tutor–if you have a Mandarin tutor search on Chinese sites for you. Which, just real quick tangent: That I think is one of the biggest advantages–an under-appreciated advantage of a tutor–is that they can find resources for you. They can search much, much faster in all-Chinese websites that you can’t. So, I think that’s something that would be worth their time, worth paying someone to help you do. But anyway, how to learn them: I think it’s like anything else. Learn them in context. Don’t just learn them by themself in isolation. Not only will it be harder to remember them, but it’s also hard to use them later on. And, do try to use them as much as you can. You know, just passively studying them, you might recognize them on paper but when you hear the same thing, you probably won’t recognize it.
Olly: So, learning these does give you an insight in Chinese that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
John: Yeah. They’re almost little poems. They’re cultural nuggets that do encapsulate a lot of Chinese thinking. You look at English idioms, for example. A lot of idioms, at least in America, for example, are based on baseball. Maybe idioms isn’t the right word, but our phrases, and–
Olly: That’s an interesting example, though, isn’t it? Because if you pulled out some baseball idioms, right now, I would be completely lost. And yet, I’m a native English speaker.
John: But you’re not a native American. Well, not a native speaker of American English.
Olly: So, I guess that goes to show that, okay, idioms; it would be great to understand all these baseball idioms, but, “do I need them?” No. “Is it going to affect my life?” or my ability to talk in any way if I don’t learn them? No.
John: That’s a good point. Yeah. If you look at how they’re used in socio-linguistics, they’re shortcuts. They’re shorthand. Instead of me explaining to some big idea or concept, I can use a little tiny idiom, and that encapsulates a whole preconceived idea that I don’t then have to waste time telling you, you know? So, I think, yeah: they’re not mandatory for daily conversation, but they can save you time. In my experience, there’s two things that really impress native speakers in Mandarin. One is that you can actually read and write Chinese characters–they’re really impressed with that. And, two is if you know idioms. If you throw out the perfect idiom at the right time. People, their eyes will light up.
Olly: Yeah, yeah.
John: And that, you don’t want to go to your head. Don’t let it fill your ego. But it feels good. And that’s going to give you extra motivation to learn more and keep going.
Olly: Yeah, absolutely. Okay, John, I’m gonna put you a little bit on the spot now.
Olly: I want you to tell me, for someone that’s learning Chinese from the start, what would be the top three resources that you recommend they could get their hands on?
John: Ooo. There’s so many good ones. Okay, so one of them is actually fairly new. I’ve talked to the developer lately. They’re actually working on expanding the service. It is fluentu.com.
Olly: I’ve seen this website, yeah.
John: At fluentu.com. And so far, they have the best video-based resource that I’ve found anywhere. You know, there are others out there. You know, there’s always YouTube, for example. But what they do really well is integrating interactive subtitle menus. So, as your watching a video, each character lights up. You can click on them, interact with them, save them to your word list. They’ve got videos on almost every topic you can think of; different levels, from beginner to advanced, so that’s a really, really good resource. And I wish I had that when I started.
Olly: Oh, tell me about it. And the great thing about video is that it’s just so engaging and makes you want to come back and watch it. Yeah, I wish I had video resources like that for, when I learned languages before.
John: And the problem, traditionally with video is, usually you have the Chinese video and then you have English subtitles, which is okay. It’s better than nothing. But then, you’re just reading English and then maybe picking up a little of what you hear. So, that’s not very helpful, I think.
Olly: Which I think is the disadvantage of watching movies and dramas a lot of the time.
John: Right. And occasionally, if you’re living in the country, you can find the video in Chinese with Chinese subtitles. Okay, better. But, they’re not interactive. You have to keep pausing the video, look up videos you want to review later. Whereas with this tool, they’re right there, just click on ’em. And, I can’t–there’s a part I want to share which I don’t think allowed to talk about right now ‘cuz I’ve been in talks with the developer, but there’s cool things coming soon.
Olly: Cool things in the pipe. We’ll stick a link to that under the notes. Okay, number two.
John: Number two. I mentioned earlier in the video, which is Remembering–well, for Japanese, it’s called Remembering the Kanji. There’s a series for Mandarin called “Remembering the Hanzi”. And, it’s two books. The first one covers the first fifteen-hundred characters, and the second book covers the next fifteen-hundred. So, all said in done, you’ll have mastered the reading–sorry, the meaning and the writing of the most common three-thousand characters.
Olly: In five months?
John: Give or take. I mean, you could do it–See, I actually didn’t–I used the Japanese one, which actually only had twenty–I’d say this is before they released about a hundred extra characters a few years ago to the standard set. So, when I did that, it was two-thousand forty-two characters. So, after that, I ended up having to learn another thousand, give or take, in Mandarin. So, I can’t promise how long it’s going to take because I didn’t actually do it from scratch.
Olly: That’s an awesome challenge for people. If they’re feeling like they can give the Chinese writing a real shot, then…
John: And, even if it takes longer. It might take 2 years. It doesn’t really matter. I mean, but the key is: choose a method that is not based on rote learning. You’ve gotta have it based on some kind of “imaginative memory”, creative association, some kind of mnemonic, something else that you can use to tie stuff together and help you remember.
Olly: And this system works by creating pictorial links, images.
John: It–So, what it does is it breaks down all the characters down into chunks. It’s not necessarily the actual radicals. Sometimes, he chooses little chunks that are repeated in many, many different characters. A combination of one or two radicals. It makes sense to use that chunk because it’s used so many times. And then it gives that chunk a meaning. It gives it a keyword meaning. Then, each new character that you combine multiple chunks together, you then have one key word that is core meaning of that character. And, all you have to do then is create some crazy vivid story in your head that combines the different chunks. And so instead of trying to remember all the thousands of little strokes, you’re remembering a story. And you remember the story, then you remember the chunk, and then you can write it all out. And, it’s magic. It’s just amazing how much easier it is to do it that way.
Olly: Yeah, I used it a little bit for Japanese and I can vouch for everything you just said. Okay, so we’ve got two so far. What’s the last one?
John: Okay. Oh, tough one. There’s so many. I’m gonna go with Lang-8. L-A-N-G dash eight dot com. So, Lang-8 is a crowd-sourced writing site where you can go on there, submit a piece of writing you’ve done–so, maybe you write a daily journal in Chinese as you’re learning. And, native speakers will actually correct it for free. The catch is, or the exchange is, that you then correct things in your native language. So, if you’re a native speaking of English, you’re gonna correct other people’s submissions in English to provide feedback. And that’s how they keep it free. It’s a phenomenal site.
Olly: You don’t have to that, do you, but it’s good karma.
John: It’s recommended. It is good karma. This kind of service won’t survive unless people kick in, do their part.
Olly: Yeah, and I’ve used Lang-8 for Japanese and Cantonese. And one of the great things about that site is that there’s a fantastic community of people who gather there and help everyone out. I imagine there’s a big contingent of Chinese speakers there, as well.
John: So, that’s my short list. I could go on. There’s hundreds of–
Olly: I think we could go on for the rest of the evening.
John: I’ll just add–I’ll add 3.5–
Olly: 3.5. Okay, controversial.
John: Which is, okay, okay, RhinoSpike. I was going to put Lang-8 and Rhino Spike in the same umbrella ‘cuz it’s crowd-sourced. Yeah, so RhinoSpike is sort of the other side of it. It’s getting stuff that is written recorded into audio. So, if you have a piece of text that you really like, or maybe it’s something you’ve written, or your tutor has written, or something that’s only in a book, and you want to practice listening to it, you submit that on RhinoSpike, and a native speaker actually records it spoken aloud. And that’s also, I think, a very powerful tool. I cheated, but I think it was worth it.
Olly: I think it was definitely worth it. Those two in combination–a magic combination, for sure. John, it’s been an absolute pleasure. We’ve covered so many things… I think, when the day comes that I start learning Mandarin, I’m gonna come back here and look in some depth everything you’ve said. I hope some people have got some value from this. Before we go, you’ve written an amazing guide to learning Mandarin. Tell people what it is and where they should go to check it out.
John: Sure. It’s called “Master Mandarin: The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Chinese the Fun Way,” which is quite a mouthful. Basically, it is a collection of resources. So, we just listed three of my favorites. 3.5, rather. But I list, literally, hundreds and hundreds of resources, online resources, podcasts, all the kinds of things that I think the beginner learner needs to get as much input as possible, but I also focus a lot how to practice output online and using free or, at least, affordable tools. As I mentioned earlier, I mentioned earlier, I talk a lot about the psychology of learning and how to wrap your head around this huge undertaking and breaking it into smaller chunks, how to make good goals, how to stay motivated day-in and day-out. It’s really–it’s everything that I have learned over the last decade both learning and teaching languages. And, more importantly, it’s exactly what I wish I had when I started. Because even though I studied linguistics in school, even though I studied languages a little bit in school, I don’t think I was really prepared for what it really took until I actually got my hands dirty and made a lot of mistakes, you know. A lot of missteps. And this book is a way to help people avoid some of those pitfalls.
Olly: And one of the most helpful things is having that list of stuff available to go to rather than spending all that time searching for yourself and spending time on stuff that is just no good or doesn’t work. I mean, one of the things that I wanted to just add to this is, which I really love, is the quality of guide. It just blew me away. I need to talk to you about how you made something that looks so gorgeous on the page, but it’s really, incredibly well done. And where should people go if they want to check it out?
John: Yeah, so just go to LanguageMastery.com. It’s my blog. And, at the top of the page, you’ll see there’s a link that says “Language Guides”. And you can check out–I have both my Master Japanese guide there and also my Master Mandarin guide. And, eventually my plan is to do one for English, as well–people that want to learn English. The problem is I need to translate that guide into…
Olly: All the languages of the world.
John: World languages, yeah, so that’s gonna be quite a push-up. Yah, so I’m intentionally putting that off until I have more time and funds, so…
Olly: Well, can’t wait for that to come out, either. Okay man, well listen: it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thanks very much and until next time.
John: Cheers, man. Talk to you soon. Take care.
If you enjoyed this interview, don’t forget to check out Master Mandarin, The Beginner’s Step-by-Step Guide to Learning Chinese the Fun Way.
Resources mentioned in the interview:
Remembering the Kanji, by James W. Heisig (book for learning Japanese kanji)
Remembering Simplified/Traditional Hanzi, by James W. Heisig & Timothy W. Richardson (book for learning Chinese hanzi)
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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