I’ve been interested in Chinese martial arts and philosophy since at least 2000, but I only started learning Chinese in 2007. Since then, I’ve lived two years in Taiwan, where I learnt much about life, Chinese and language learning. After returning to Sweden in 2010, I have completed my teacher’s education (English and Chinese). I’ve also launched a website, Hacking Chinese, where I write about how to learn Chinese. I’m running the site because I think most people only tell you what to learn (words, idioms, grammar), without telling you how to learn. My goal is to provide learners with guidance, inspiration and help to learn Chinese more efficiently. Apart from learning Chinese, I also like several sports (gymnastics, diving, unicycling, volleyball), as well as some other odd hobbies (Rubik’s cube, role-playing, creative writing).
How would you sum up the approach you’ve taken to learning Chinese? Do you have a certain philosophy about how you learn?
When I started learning Chinese, I had only a vague notion of how to learn foreign languages. Sure, I had learnt English and French before, but that was quite different because it was mostly a part of compulsory education. My approach to learning Chinese has shifted continuously and I keep changing how I learn (and how I think other people should learn). Still, there are some things that remain constant that might be called a philosophy. For instance, I’m constantly analysing my own progress, identifying problems and trying to find efficient solutions. I keep trying new ideas (my own and others’), evaluating their usefulness and developing them further. I don’t know if this active attitude, always trying optimise the learning process could be viewed as a philosophy or not. I don’t have a method as such, because I believe very firmly in change and flexibility.
What are your favourite tools and resources for learning Chinese?
Here’s what I deem essential.
- Spaced repetition software and a smart phone (I use Anki)
- Sources of audio of different levels and types (I use RTI)
- Sources of text of different levels and types (find something on your level)
- Recording software (I use Audacity)
- Dictionaries (I mainly use these 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
- Some grammar reference book
I think the most important thing is adopting the attitude I describe above, i.e. being able to critically analyse your own learning and find out what you need to improve.
Apart from this, I think a healthy attitude towards failure and competition is also essential. If we hope to learn a foreign language, we need to embrace failure and realise that it’s an essential part of language learning. Similarly, I think that we shouldn’t compare ourselves with others too much, but that we should compare ourselves with ourselves. If we meet students who are superior to us, we should regard them as teachers and a valuable resource, let them be sources of inspiration rather than competitors. If we meet students who haven’t yet reach our level, we should help them, not only to be nice, but also because teaching is an excellent way of learning.
Do you see other language learners making mistakes you think they should avoid?
I’ll pick three mistakes I’ve seen a lot. First, don’t wait until you’ve reached a decent level before starting to communicate with real people. Make language learning real as quickly as possible by talking with Chinese people (online or otherwise). Waiting until some future day when your language level is “good enough” won’t help you learn the language at all, even if it might make you feel safe for the moment.
Second, embrace failure. Exposing your weaknesses is hard, but you need to learn how to do that if you want to learn a language. This also means that once people spot your weakness and corrects you, you need to adopt an attitude which encourages them to do it again. Smile a lot, be grateful. Avoid being grumpy and argumentative at all costs. Understand what the want to say and make them completely sure you love being corrected.
Third, take responsibility for your own learning. If you think that your textbook, teacher or online guru will teach you everything you need to know, you’re wrong. You need to realise that it’s you who are learning the language and that it’s you who need to take responsibility for it. Therefore, be active, look for alternatives, read what other people have said online, think for yourself and be critical. No-one can do this for you, even if some people might claim that they can (even I do that occasionally).
Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes or misunderstandings?
I once described myself as 牛郎 to my girlfriend without being aware of the double meaning of the word. It can refer both to the boy in the classic love story of 牛郎織女, and to a male prostitute. At the time, I was only aware of the former meaning, which lead to one of the most outrageously hilarious situations I’ve experienced in my life.
Another example is related to the similarity of the characters 找 (“find, look for”) and 我 (“I, me”). I was complaining to a friend online that I had lost something important and she said “那你再找找” (“then keep looking for it”). For some reason (perhaps wishful thinking), I read this as “那麼你再找我” (as in “then come over to my place”). She was quite surprised to find me outside her door half an hour later, and there was quite some confusion before we could find out what the problem was.
Any memorable milestones? Any, “Aha!”, or eureka moments?
I have a few personal milestones I find quite important. The first was after staying in Taiwan for six months and realising that I could actually use Chinese to communicate with real people and achieve real-world results. I was travelling with my parents and had to deal with ticket booking, hotels, restaurants, museums and some translations of guided tours. I also had to do a lot of explaining about who we were and what Sweden was like. Actually being able to do this (albeit not very well) was a great motivational boost.
The second was roughly one year later when I realised that I could speak Chinese without even thinking about using Chinese. I sometimes found it hard to recall whether I had used Chinese or English to respond to a particular question. Chinese had then become a natural part of my way of thinking, even if vocabulary was still quite limited.
The third one wasn’t really a eureka moment as such, but after returning to Sweden, I feel that I’ve passed an important milestone in that I can now read and listen to Chinese meant for adult native speakers, something that felt completely impossible while in Taiwan. I also passed the advanced TOCFL (the Taiwanese version of HSK), which isn’t something to boast about really, but which still allowed me to apply for a master’s degree in Chinese, starting this autumn.
How do you keep yourself motivated while studying languages/Chinese?
The answer to this question is twofold. First, I think instrumental motivation is essential, which is when we want to learn Chinese so that we can accomplish something else, such as communicating with someone we care about, conduct business and studies or read books we’re interested in.
Second, this must be paired with a genuine interest in something related to the language itself. It might be that we want to read books that are originally written in Chinese, want to chat with Chinese people or listen to music we find enjoyable. Personally, I have an almost insatiable desire to know more about the language itself. I like the characters, the sounds and the culture behind them. Personally, I study Chinese mostly because I like studying Chinese, although I have a number of powerful instrumental reasons as well.
For people who are at or are approaching an advanced level, I suggest benchmarking to increase motivation. This means that you spend some time assessing your current level, then compare this benchmark with a similar assessment in the future. This is good because progress is slow and you might not notice that you improve, whereas in fact you do improve everyday. This kind of benchmarking typically shows that you do improve, even if you don’t feel like you are.
Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?
Stop reading about learning Chinese and actually learn some Chinese. If you have a to do list, take the first item on that list and do it now. If you don’t have such a list, create one. Here are some things you could put on it:
- Find an internet radio station and set it to autostart on your computer (example: RTI)
- Register at Lang-8 and vow to write daily (natives will correct your language)
- Learn the lyrics to a Chinese song you like (example: 逆風的薔薇, 一無所有 or 十年)
- Convert one of your hobbies to Chinese (example: sports, computer games, etc.)
- Start using SRS if you haven’t already; if you have, set a timebox and get things done
- Start a private video diary for benchmarking and speaking practise; record the first entry now
- Put a grammar reference book or something similar in your bathroom
- Write characters that gives you headaches in your shower for daily review