In his own words, Ben has -
studied Chinese for almost 4 years now, almost all while living in China. A few months after graduating college in the U.S., I moved to a city called Huludao in Liaoning Province to teach English at a local college. After muddling through that semester, I upgraded to Beijing and enrolled in Tsinghua’s Chinese language program for a semester while continuing teaching English on the side for pocket money. In the Summer of 2010, I began working at a leading Chinese internet company doing marketing and business development.
Ben is now back in the U.S. where he’s a Marketing and Communications Manager for InitialView, an independent 3rd party interviewing service for Chinese students applying to American colleges. He’s also still a student of the language himself and graciously offered up some great advice for us fellow learners. Enjoy!
How would you sum up the approach you’ve taken to learning Chinese?
Not exactly breaking news, but it’s critically important to be in China for at least some portion of your journey to learn Chinese. What you quickly come to realize when living in China is how your quality of life is directly correlated to the rigor of your study. Nothing beats the heady satisfaction of learning a new character or word, then the next day seeing it on a road sign, restaurant menu, or bus advertisement. A little light bulb goes off in your head and you think “aha! I know that!”. Its a mini-blast of serotonin. You start walking with a bit more skip to your step. When you start having enough of those mini victories on a daily basis, Chinese suddenly seems “learnable”, and just fuels an insatiable appetite to keep going. You only get that experience in China.
It’s also important to stress how social you need to be when learning this language in China. Getting out there “in the wild” and chatting with the characters you encounter in your daily life can be fantastic, and in the end is essential in making real strides. From the barber cutting your hair, to the 老板 at your local baozi restaurant, to the taxi driver taking you to dinner, the vast majority of Chinese people are willing to chat you up. With some peculiar caveats, most Chinese are generally friendly and gregarious with foreigners, and you are losing an essential part of the experience and probably hindering your progress if you aren’t yukking it up daily.
What tips would you give people on how to learn Chinese effectively?
With Chinese, you need a full frontal attack if you expect to make real, satisfying progress. On a daily basis, you need to immerse yourself in text, practice speaking with a native speaker, listen to podcasts or watch tv, all while keeping track of all the new vocabulary you encounter. I think in general, just keeping mental notes of all the times in your daily life when you are at a loss for what to say, then go home that night and look it up or ask a friend. Next time you are in the same situation, you’ll be ready.
It’s also important not to get cocky, to recognize and respect the enormity of the task you are humbly undertaking. It’s not just the tens of thousands of new characters practically daring you to learn them; it’s that embodied in the logical structures and background stories which form Chinese characters and vocabulary, you come to realize how Chinese history, culture, and national identity are intimately intertwined with the language. This all slowly dawns on you after a few months of study (usually just after you accept there really is no alphabet and tones actually matter). In my experience, if you can clear these initial mental hurdles, and take time to marvel in the seemingly Sisyphean task of memorizing thousands of characters before you can read any simple newspaper headlines, you aren’t likely to turn back. I clearly remember about a year into my study thinking that if a man approached me tomorrow with a pill that, if swallowed, would immediately grant me native level fluency, I would confidently and comfortably turn him down. This is my task, one which requires chipping away at every single day, and one which I am head over heels crazy in love with. Yeah, I’m a geek.
Do you see other language learners making mistakes you think they should avoid?
Its really common to experience bouts of “progression depression” where it seems like you are going weeks or months without making any noticeable improvements. When I find myself getting down about how frustrating it can be, I like to pick up a simple children’s book or one of my old elementary textbooks, and just read something nice and easy. It can be comforting to see old material you remember struggling with, is visceral proof that you have made progress, and keeps the Chinese wheels spinning in your head. My advice would be to have your “go-to” material you can always fall back to.
Any favorite words?
Any word with a combination of the third and second tone. I love getting deep down into the depths of the third, and using the second to climb back up and end the word on an optimistic high note (感觉 is a particular favorite). I always loved the simple utility of “有事儿” (I heard that a lot as an excuse by students who missed class). Some words when said aloud are just too perfect (猫 for cat, 钉 for nail, 爽 for cool). And finally, I always loved joking around with friends trying to come up with the most “Chinese sounding” sentence. The best I could do was “我很自信的骑我的紫色的自行车从重庆到长城” (I very confidently rode my purple bike from Chongqing to the Great Wall).
Any funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, etc.
Too many. One which jumps to mind is going out with a colleague to a dinner party, and very emphatically reminding her “这次别忘记你的香蕉“ (This time don’t forget your banana!). Banana (香蕉 xiāng jiāo) and camera (相机 xiāng jī) are devilishly similar sounding. I’ve also had a very confused waiter at a hot pot restaurant bring me a straw (吸管 xī guǎn) when I was asking for watermelon (西瓜 xī guā) to help cool my friend’s burning hot mouth.
How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?
I’ve never found myself not looking forward to studying Chinese, the problem is now that I live in America, finding time to set aside in my day to read a news article, listen to a Chinese podcast, or even talk to myself can be difficult. The great (and very eccentric) British scientist and Sinologist Joseph Needham once wrote studying Chinese is like “going for a swim on a hot day, for it got you entirely out of the prison of alphabetical words, and into the glittering crystalline world of ideographic characters.” I don’t necessarily consider the English language a prison, but I do find intellectual bliss submerging myself in Chinese. I love the “zone” I find myself in when I am hunched over at my desk deciphering some written bloc of Chinese, and its always been more of a time management issue rather than motivation.
Learning Chinese becomes an obsession satiated only by the knowledge that you can get there from here. Whether it is reading one newspaper article a day, methodically crafting flash cards, casual conversation with your language partner, dutifully attending classes, watching television or listening to podcasts (or more likely some combination of all of the above), everyone finds their own groove. There are periodic moments of self-satisfied reflection when you turn your head and see the footprints you have left behind, but it only takes those two irritating characters you don’t recognize on that newspaper headline, or the 7 seconds where you utterly lose the CCTV broadcaster to snap you back to reality, and remind you how much further you still have. 加油!
Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?
Buy a one-way plane ticket to China.
If that is out of the question, you NEED to find a way to have fun with it. Yes, learning Chinese involves a lot of pure rote memorization, but you’ll never be great at something you don’t love doing. If you are struggling with your studies, put the books down and find a way to have fun. Maybe it’s watching a Chinese comedy on Youku (can be an acquired taste), create a flashcard game (I used to have an elaborate flashcard-drinking game with classmates), open a Weibo account, find a language partner on Skype, or even just call up the local Chinese restaurant to say hi. There are so many ways to have a blast while learning Chinese that there is no excuse not to have tons of fun.
For more info from Ben, you can follow him Twitter at @bhsangree.