Lessons in Learning Chinese: Benjamin Dickman

In the 10th (!) post of our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, we are thrilled to speak with Benjamin Dickman.  In his own words:

I’m originally from Brookline, Mass., and currently living in New York City.  After majoring in math at Amherst College , I spent the following academic year in Nanjing, China, learning about the Chinese high school math education system.  I returned to my host institution of Nanjing Normal University (南京师范大学) the following year on a Chinese government grant to study Mandarin, and spent my free time becoming semi-fluent in the Nanjing dialect.  An avid Boggle player, I’m now a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow at Columbia University pursuing my PhD in Mathematics Education.


How long have you been studying Chinese?  In what context?  For what purpose?I knew I’d be taking a lot of math courses in college, so I thought it would be nice to mix things up with some language study.  I’d already learned enough Spanish to know I wanted to try a new language, and Chinese seemed like it would offer a fun challenge.

I started studying Chinese as a freshman at Amherst College (Fall 2004).  I took eight semesters of Mandarin, graduated, and then spent the better part of the next two years living in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province.  My first ten month stint abroad was supported by a Fulbright Grant, and I spent my time researching how math teachers are trained in China.  To do this, I based myself at 南京师范大学, where I took two semesters of Math Education courses with (native Chinese) graduate students and one semester of undergrad pure math (“Abstract Algebra” or 抽象代数).  I was also able to sit in on several math classes at a local high school, and to distribute surveys to professors and students about their opinions of the Chinese math education system.  After my grant period concluded, I returned to 南师大 to study another semester of Mandarin.

Now that I’m back stateside and in a Math Education graduate program, I find it striking how similar the processes of learning a language and learning mathematics are with one another.

Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese?  Do you have any grand 想法s about it all?

Here is a chronological outline of my basic philosophy on learning Chinese:

-Master pronunciation/tones/pinyin first.
-Next, learn basic grammar structures and how characters are written (stroke order, radicals, etc.).
-Read whenever/whatever you can; memorize a whole lotta words.
-Move to China and pick up conversational/colloquial Chinese there.

An additional “想法” I have is that learning a dialect (in addition to learning Mandarin, not instead of) can be an extremely valuable experience for numerous reasons – two of which I will state below.  One, I find the words and expressions to be much richer than those of standardized Mandarin.  Two, learning a language is very much about communicating with others.  If you spend time in China, you’ll find many of those around you are speaking predominantly in dialect and not in Mandarin; knowing (some of) their local 方言 (fāngyán – dialect) will improve understandability and oftentimes get them to open up to you more than they otherwise would have.

What mistakes do you see other language learners make?  What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?

I have the sense that pronunciation and tones are elided over (pun intended) in too many Chinese language programs.  Master pinyin! It’s not as difficult as it looks upon first glance!  Don’t aim to “sound pretty good for a foreigner.”  Your goal, even if it seems unattainable, should be to sound like a native speaker.

Funny stories from your experience? Embarrassing language mistakes, misunderstandings, or surreal moments?

Part of mastering a language, in my opinion, is being able to generate new words/phrases that are meaningful.  Sometimes this works out well: I made frequent use of 好好休息,天天睡觉 (my modified version of Mao’s 好好学习,天天向上) to great effect.  Other times, making up one’s own word can go awry.  I can think of a particular instance in which I had just awoken and was trying to remember a verb for “to wake up (someone).”  A good choice would have been 叫醒 or 叫起床; I opted for the latter, but omitted the middle character.  The person I was speaking to kindly corrected me and told me what I’d just said.

Any memorable milestones? Any, “Aha!”, or eureka moments?

In between my two post-college stints of living in China, I spent some time back in the US as I applied for graduate school.  For whatever serendipitous reasons, I was approached by a high school Mandarin teacher who needed a long-term (~one month) substitute.  I took over her classes (first-, third-, and fifth-year Chinese) for the duration of her absence.  This experience was memorable partially because it demonstrated how far I’d come (from knowing no Chinese whatsoever to teaching it! for money!) but even more so because of how fun it was to see the students get excited about learning the language.

Do you have one last tip for something that our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese? 

First, learn about tone sandhis.  In particular, know how to pronounce the characters 一 and 不 depending on the words around them; and know how to pronounce a string of third tone characters (simple example: the pinyin for 我很好 is wo3 hen3 hao3, but the pronunciation is wo2 hen2 hao3.) Second, if you use Google News (or other similar sites), you can “personalize” it by adding news topics that are especially interesting to you.  If you enter a topic in Chinese, then the results will be in Chinese.  So, add something you really want to read about (for me:南京话) and set news.google.com as your homepage.  It’s a lot easier to get yourself to read in Chinese if the subject is something you actively want to know about.


Thanks very much to Benjamin for sharing his stories and insights!

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