Lessons from Chinese Lessons

Matt | Decision Making,Learning Chinese | Monday, May 11th, 2009

Having lived in China for almost four years I have had a lot of amazing experiences and have made a lot mistakes.  You’d think that I have also learned a lot from each of these mistakes.  Unfortunately I don’t always.  But one area that really sticks in my mind has to do with learning Chinese because that was a personal goal for me in going to China.

Learning Chinese has taught me a lot.  I have made and continue to make mistakes when it comes to learning Chinese such as,

  1. Language exchange is not a good way for me to learn a language, but it is a great way to practice fluency and to learn how people really use it. (usually we’d end up speaking mostly English because it was easier and I was afraid of making mistakes)
  2. You need to speak the language to learn the language (sorry for all us shy people out there who are afraid of making mistakes)
  3. Getting a Chinese girlfriend who can speak English does NOT guarantee your Chinese will improve (see #2)

But the main lesson I took from studying Chinese was

If you want to do anything start NOW.  Today.  This instant!

When I first started learning Chinese I didn’t really know where to start so I kept putting it off.  I waited and wasted months and months.  For awhile I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back for a second or third year and I kept thinking, “What’s the point of learning it if I’m going to leave in a few months?”  But looking back this is something I regret because I ended up staying almost four years and I think I could have made more progress if I only had kept starting. Enjoy every second you can and keep working towards your goals.

Another friend of mine is a retired teacher from Canada.  She and her husband have been living in China for about seven years.  Every year they struggle with deciding if they’ll return to China after the summer break.  Every Fall when they return they always think about studying Chinese, but talk themselves out of it saying this will probably be their last year.  Seven years later all they can say is a few words with broken tones to order their favourite Chinese dishes.  Now I’m sure if they had realized at the start they’d be in China for this long they’d have committed to learning the language.  But it’s funny how time flows like water in a river never to be seen again.

So when I returned to Canada I had a few goals to get set up and doing the things I wanted to be doing.  I didn’t wait to get an apartment in the area I really wanted to be in.  I found a great place near a beautiful park so I can run in the mornings before work.  I got a job in place I (think) I want to work.  But at least I’m working and this will help me achieve my financial goals.  This weekend I went out and bought all the furniture I need.  This week I’m going to sign up for a Toastmasters club here in Toronto as this is something I really enjoy.   And I’m going to find a hockey team or a skating skills program as that is what I want to work on this summer.

Enjoy all the time you have.  Do whatever you think you want to do now.  If you’re thinking of what’s the point of signing up for a three month course when you might leave in three months, sign up!  At least you’ll have learned three months more than you would otherwise. If that is your goal, keep starting.

Don’t waste the time you have.   We don’t know how much time we get.  All we know is what we can do with the minutes we have in front of our faces.

Learning Chinese – Update

Matt | Learning Chinese | Monday, September 15th, 2008

Recently, I wrote a post about learning Chinese and “Putting in the Hours” and how I had made the most progress, when I had put in the most hours (at my peak 20 hours of class time per week).  Lately, I was “studying” by myself and not making progress or actually regressing.

Luckily for me, one reader took the time to add some comments to help me and anyone else who is interested in learning Chinese. Here are his comments.

“Put in the hours” is certainly the right attitude, if a somewhat crude measurement. You’ve got to balance hours with effort and good use of opportunities. From what you’ve written here, you’re biggest mistake was trying to ignore tones. Tones you have to drill hard right from the early stages; then as you progress you learn by osmosis how to fudge them. The rest, you’re spot on, bearing in mind that learning is largely a personal process (I’m assuming that the techniques you’ve settled on are what work for your personality and learning style. Some things I do different, but what I do different works for me). I would add only two things to what you have written here:

1: In my experience, and conversations with other learners of Chinese have backed this up, learning Chinese is an ‘advance-plateau; advance-plateau’ process, meaning you’ll get periods of good study and huge progress, then you’ll plateau for a while, then you’ll get another period of good study and huge progress, then plateau for a while. Nothing wrong with that, just learn to run with it. The plateaux are periods of consolidation and give your brain a bit of R’n’R and preparation for the next period of advance. (note: This is not an excuse to go backwards)

2: Opportunity: Use it. Make it. I’m sure from the attitude I’ve picked up from this post that you do this already, but get out there into some small, very ordinary neighbourhood near your place and get talking to the locals. Find restaurants and stores and market stalls where the people are friendly and chat with them. Take an interest in your local community, be open to being a part of it all. Textbook learning gives you a good base, real world fumbling consolidates and expands that base.

Great post, and I’ll be checking back to see how much progress you’ve made. Now I need to get off my arse and do all that study I promised myself I’d do over the summer…..

I agree with his comments on how to learn Chinese well.  My measurement, using total hours spent studying per month, and then putting a subjective comment on my level was definitely crude. I wanted to capture in a simple way that most of my progress was made when I put in the most effort/time in studying Chinese.

His comments on learning Chinese tones is very important. My tones are awful.  Looking back I wish I had focused on learning them initially.   Instead, what I did was try to ignore them.  I would do things like try to speak quickly to cover up the fact that I was mono-tone.  For those of you who don’t know, Chinese is a tonal language , so different tones equal different characters/ words. Mandarin has 4 tones: 1) high flat note, like you’re singing; 2) rising, like you’re asking a question, 3) dip, down then up, like when you’d say “really?” in a long drawn out way; 4) dropping tone, like when you use an exclamation mark; Damn! Actually, there is also a no tone sound.  So in total, there are 5 sounds.  Each tone, results in a different character = different meaning.  Sometimes the differences could be huge.


Shi1 /Shi/ = Poetry

Shi2 /Shir/ = number 10

Shi3 /Shii/ = shit

Shi4 /shih/ = to be

Lately, I’ve been focusing on tones.  My tonal studies has been greatly helped by using the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system for learning Mandarin that was invented before Pinyin.  Personally, I prefer the Gwoyeu Romatzyh system because each different tone is spelled slightly differently.  This makes it easier for me to remember that the words actually are different.  In my mind this is similar to in English the difference between: there, their and they’re.  While they sound identical, they’re spelled differently, so there is a difference between their meanings.

Getting back to the reader’s comments, I agree with him that start by learning the tones from the beginning of your Mandarin study is important. It’s like trying to learn English without learning the alphabet.

I also strongly agree with the comment about learning a language is an “advance-plateau, advance-plateau” process. I like how he takes it easy about enjoying the learning process and not pressing too hard.  Personally, I think to keep working, through the advance and the plateaus is useful too.

The last comment is the big one in my opinion: opportunity.  I have had an amazing opportunity to use Chinese everyday as I live in Beijing and have done so for the past 3 years.  Taking advantage of this opportunity is another story.  This is probably my biggest opportunity to improve.  Personally, I think you have to use a language – by speaking, listening, reading and writing – in order to learn it.  I believe that speaking is the most important part.  But for us shy people who don’t like to make mistakes, it’s tough.  But to learn the language it must be done.  Speak and yea shall receive.

As for my progress since my last post, while it isn’t fantastic it still has been an improvement.

Goal: study 5 hours per week

Actuals weeks:

  1. 5 hours
  2. 3 hours
  3. 3 hours
  4. 3 hours

What I noticed, was that even being short of my goal, simply having some routine to study Chinese has improved by focus on the language and my enjoyment.  So I will continue with my goal of 5 hours per week, planning to have a better second month.

Thank you again for your comments.  I really enjoyed learning how you study and I will continue to use them to improve my Chinese studying.

Zai Jian (Goodbye)


Learning Chinese – Put in the hours

Matt | Learning Chinese | Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I’ve been living in China now almost 3 years and I think my Chinese level is quite average. Around my second year, my language skills were getting pretty good, but then they dropped off. Learning a language is difficult. Learning Chinese is even more difficult as it is known as one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

Looking back at my progress and regress in learning a language and I think I’ve made some (one?) good moves and a lot of mistakes.

Matt’s mistakes in learning Chinese:

  • Waited too long to start
  • Started with a tutor, instead of at school (for me I need the basics and structure of school)
  • When used the book (although a good one), I focused on the grammar and vocabulary, but not listening and the CD
  • Tried to ignore Chinese tones (different tone = different word: “ma” = mom; “mah” = trouble)
  • Didn’t start in a school soon enough
  • Didn’t use a tutor when my grammar, vocab and fluency were at a decent level
  • Didn’t use the language often outside the classroom
  • Was afraid of making mistakes

Good things I did in learning Chinese:

  • Started, signed up, got my butt in front of a teacher, book and in a classroom:
  • Listened to friends for advice eventually from people who have done what I wanted to do: learn Chinese (My friend Michelle, told me to start in a classroom, I ignored her advice only to follow it one year later!)
  • Used good resources a) got a tutor that I liked and who was qualified: a Chinese teacher finishing her masters degree.
  • Used good resources b): Conversational Chinese 301
  • Put in the hours

Recently, I read a great book called, The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin, and it introduced me to the two approaches to learning: the entity theory (you learned it because you are a smart kid, or you didn’t because you are slow!) and the incremental theory (you learned it because you set goals, studied hard, put in the time or you didn’t learn it, or you forgot it because you haven’t studied Chinese in over a year!).

From these approaches I realized that when I was learning Chinese, and most things in my life, I’ve chosen the entity theory. So when I was in the classroom learning Chinese, I’d be kicking myself for not knowing some words because I really should have learned by now. Or I wouldn’t try because I didn’t want to make a mistake with the grammar that I really should know. Fortunately, most of my good teachers would force me to try and answer.

Now, I’m realizing that the reason that I made progress with Chinese was mainly because…

I put in the hours. (About 945 so far)

The reason my Chinese is dropping off is because…

I’ve stopped putting in the hours!

That is it. It’s not that I’m smart, dumb, green or blue. It’s that I put in the hours.

Surprise, surprise my greatest progress came when I was studying the most (4 hours per day at a University for 4 months) and my greatest regress, lately, has come when I’ve decided to study on my own (or not study) about 1-3 hours per week.

So here are my takeaways and next steps to follow up using the incremental theory approach.

  1. I’ll set positive goals for learning Chinese
  2. I’m going to put in the hours – at least 5 hours per week. (I’m expecting this to be a low goal and to beat it).
  3. I will structure my studies like life – intense study, then rest, then intense study, then rest.

I’ll check back in one month later to see if this habit has stuck.

Zai Jian.

Analects of Confucius – Chapter 11

Matt | Analects of Confucius,Chinese Culture,Learning Chinese | Monday, July 14th, 2008

Here is the 11th Chapter in Confucius’s famous book, written by his disciples, called The Analects of Confucius. It is written in little posts, lessons, stories, with each chapter holding about 30. A lot I didn’t understand or didn’t care for, so I’ve included only the ones that I enjoyed, understood, or thought interesting to share. Like Confucius said, “It’s better to read one book a hundred times, than a hundred books one time.” So, I keep finding myself reviewing this book. Oh well, I guess that means I still have a lot to learn.

4/ Confucius said, “Yan Hui always entirely accepts whatever I say. He has never disagreed with me, and this is of no help at all.”

Like someone else said (Emerson?) If two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

20/ Zi Zhang asked how to become a good man. Confucius said, “A good man neither has to follow in other people’s tracks, nor has to be accomplished in learning or virtue.”

I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed… sorry, thought I’d jump into song there. Don’t follow others. This reminds me off a famous quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another great philosopher/teacher, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.

22/ Zi Lu aksed, “Should one person respond immediately to a call?” Confucius said, “How can you respond immediately to a call with your father and elder brothers alive?”

Ran You asked the same question, “Should one respond immediately to a call?” Confucius said, “Yes, one should.”
Gongxi Hua was deeply perplexed, saying, I am puzzled. May I know why you gave two different answers to the same question?”

Confucius said, “Ran You usually hangs back, so I urge him on; Zhong You advances bravely and sometimes audaciously , so I hold him back.

As a teacher you often have to adjust your style based on each student’s individual needs. Some need to be urged on and others need to be held back. Often in teaching, I find encouraging a student’s self-confidence is vital.

Weekly Roundup: Love China; Learn Chinese

Matt | Blogroll,Learning Chinese | Saturday, May 3rd, 2008

I’ve been a little down these days, possibly due to the pollution, more likely due to me being quite homesick. So, I was happy to have discovered a site that has a great positive spin on things in China as well as an interesting way to learn Chinese (or any language) quickly.

Found in China: Ten things I love about China. Here the author has put together a great list of amazing things you can find in China. It’s no wonder why most of my friends who have come to China and then returned home, desperately miss China and usually come back. This is a good list. I often forget how fortunate I am to have been living in China these past few years and how many amazing experiences I’ve had along the way. Thanks for the positive reminder.

TheFourHourWorkweek.com is a great site with some unique thoughts on productivity and life. Here is a thought provoking post on how to learn any language including mandarin: how to learn, but not master, any language in one hour. I have been struggling with learning tones of Mandarin and even still use my fingers now to draw the correct tone as I speak. I like how Tim recommends using an older system called Gwoyeu Romatzyh (GW) method. This method was co-created by an amazing Chinese author Lin Yu Tang, whose works especially The Importance of Living are absolute masterpieces. Even though I’ve been learning Pinyin for the past three years and believe my pronunciation is pretty good, I’m now attempting to use the GW method to improve my tones.

Learning Chinese – go to school

Matt | Learning Chinese | Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

The best advice I can give someone who wants to learn Chinese, is something a friend of mine, Michelle, told me was to…

…Go to a school.

I’ve been learning Chinese for two years now and I can say that I have made a lot of mistakes along the way and there is still a ways to go. But, I think I have learned Chinese in every way possible,

  • private tutor
  • in class/ in a school – part time
  • in class/in a school – full time
  • self study

…and I wish I had done a few things differently.

I started off studying with a private tutor for 6 months, then finally made it to a school (private and then intensive at a university) and now I’m doing self study.

In my opinion, if you want to make a lot of progress in learning Chinese, I think you should JOIN A SCHOOL.

The advantage of joining a school is that you have a structured learning environment especially to learn the basics: initials/finals (Chinese alphabet), some basic structures, an introduction to pinyin (the romanization of Chinese characters) and the correct pronunciation. But I think the biggest advantage is that you have a structured learning environment at least for the first 6 months. This will help you make progress quickly with the language.

Studying through a private tutor can be great and also can be awful, usually depending on the tutor. In my case, I had a great tutor, but I wouldn’t do the homework or exercises that I said I would (I was a bad student). I told myself that I’d study on my own 1 hour everyday. Then we’d have a 2 hour lesson once a week. So, my plan was to study about 10 hours per week. But this quickly turned into only my 2 hour lesson once a week. The result was sloooow progress. But I made a good friend. So, for me starting off in a structured school environment like three times a week, would have resulted in a lot more progress. I believe that a tutor is great to have a conversation with later on in your study progress.

Also, I strongly believe in something I found on a great site called PicktheBrain and that is you need to listen a lot to improve your language skills. So along with studying in a school environment, I highly recommend you buy the CD or cassette and listen for an hour a day as well. I believe we naturally learn through listening and speaking. By listening more you’ll pick up on the tones and flow of the language.

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