This week on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, we’re featuring Michael Knight! He’s giving tips as more of a beginner and has been making great leaps in improving his Chinese. Check it out in his own words:
I’m a mild-mannered computer programmer from Sydney, Australia who likes playing video games, basketball and writing about myself. I have a blog about my Chinese-learning adventures but it is (like my vocabulary) pretty sparse right now.
How long have you been studying Chinese? In what context? For what purpose?
I’d never been exposed to Chinese (or any Asian) culture in my early childhood, so it wasn’t on my radar for a long time. One day a substitute teacher showed up in class at school — a beautiful Chinese woman who I was completely enamoured with. Unfortunately she left as quickly as she arrived, but I guess she left an impression on 12-year-old me! My interest in Chinese culture and language grew slowly from then.
Around a year ago I found that I had a number of native Chinese friends who were willing to help me learn Mandarin, so I started self-studying with their help. Admittedly my progress was super-slow, although I enjoyed it a lot. In the last few months I’ve started professional lessons with a tutor, which has helped me pick up the pace!
I really feel quite spoiled having English as my native language. I could happily get by in life without learning another, but this strikes me as unfair. It’s only right for me to learn a second language. Since Chinese is my passion, it’s the obvious choice!
Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese? Do you have any grand 想法s about it all?
Absolutely not! Although I will say this: since I don’t have anything forcing or rewarding me for persisting, I have to be careful with anything that sucks the fun out of it. I like to explore lots of different learning methods and resources and switch between them depending on what seems like the most fun at the time.
I really respect those ‘hardcore’ learners that are super disciplined and are always looking to optimise their learning, but that’s just not me (says the guy who can hardly string a sentence together). I’ve actually found reading this “Chinese Learner Interview Series” to be quite enlightening and inspiring. Perhaps mine will be one for the “what not to do” pile.
What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most? (this can be specific study resources, methods, activities, social aspects, etc.)
I love anything with humour in it, which is unfortunate for me because most textbooks have about as much humour as I have skill. I’m a big fan of the ‘Chinese with Mike’ video series (no relation), which balances practical learning and humour pretty well. I also love being able to pick up on random little bits of Chinese that gets dropped into western movies (e.g. in ‘The Campaign’ when the American bad guys are toasting their apparent success at selling their state to China with a “干杯!”).
A fair bit of my learning comes from my Anki SRS flashcards, which is basically like a memory game on my smartphone. Watching the Chinese dubs of Disney movies is also pretty fun. Skritter has me convinced that I’m a professional calligrapher.
Ultimately nothing really beats actually talking to a Chinese person in Chinese though! Especially one willing to correct you.
What mistakes do you see other language learners make? What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?
I haven’t really had enough experience with other language learners to give good answers here. However, according to the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State, Chinese is one of the hardest languages for a native English speaker to learn. You can’t jump into this half-heartedly.
The language has to be a passion — one that will last through at least 2,200 hours of study, apparently. If you just want to learn a second language and Chinese isn’t your passion, do yourself a favour and learn something easy and practical, like Latin or Esperanto.
Any favorite words or phrases? (there are loads which don’t have equivalents in English)
I love the word “马上” (“immediately”). Can’t get much faster than horseback! Still on the animal theme, “马马虎虎” (“so-so”) is delightfully non-sensical to me. Actually, learning Chinese has made me more aware of some of the strange sayings we have in English (e.g. “horsing around”).
Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, surreal moments, etc.
I’ve never been to China but I was recently in Japan on a holiday. We were staying with some new Japanese friends that barely spoke English and my girlfriend told them I was learning Chinese. They kept asking me all these questions about it and, before I knew it, I was teaching Chinese (a language I can barely communicate in) to people I could barely communicate with. The world is a strange place.
Any memorable milestones? Any “Aha!” or eureka moments?
Walking past a Chinese sign above a restaurant I’d walked past a thousand times before, and then suddenly realising I could read it! Sichuan hot pot!!
How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?
Having a tutor that will get mad at you for not doing your homework is pretty good motivation. As I mentioned before, keeping variety in the methods and resources helps a lot. For me, less focus on acquisition speed and more focus on fun is the key. I am not a model student.
Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?
I really love Peking-style shredded beef. I’m not sure if it’s one of those ‘westernised dishes’ or the real deal. I don’t want to know.
Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?
Try teaching a bit of it to someone else. If it doesn’t improve your Chinese, you will at least look awesome.
Thanks for some of those tips and stories Mike. It’s funny since I’ve had a similar “aha” moment (one of many) where I realized I was able to start reading the Chinese signs in Chinatown. It’s a wonderful and rewarding feeling whenever a learner experiences that moment.
If you’re interested in being featured on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, please let us know.
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