chinese learner interview series jeff lau

Lessons in Learning Chinese: Jeff Lau

This week we feature Jeff Lau on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series. He’s got a lot of motivation and a great philosophy when it comes to learning this language. Check it out in his own words: 

I’m Jeff. I’m a British born Chinese living and working in London. I’m a designer, developer and a passionate learner. I’ve been learning Mandarin for over 4 months now and I’m addicted to faster and more efficient learning. I have a website and you can check out my twitter!

How long have you been studying Chinese?  In what context?  For what purpose?

I started studying Chinese about 4 months ago as a “false beginner.” Previously, I did go to Chinese school for once every Saturday for about 3 years, but none of it ever really sank in and by the time I started again, I had pretty much forgotten everything except pinyin. The original reason I started learning Chinese was because of my Chinese ethnicity. It’s always been a sore spot for me when I talk to other Chinese people and their faces drop when I tell them I can’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese. However, I’ve been going pretty solidly for the last 4 months, and it’s definitely because I just enjoy learning it.

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

Something I have adopted from Benny from Fluent in 3 Months was speak from day 1, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, just keep practising your 口语. After I worked my vocabulary up to several hundred words in a month or so and started doing a lot of Skype conversations with strangers.

I’ve realised that your language level can largely be broken down into two groups: knowledge and fluency. Knowledge is what you ‘know’, which includes both grammar and vocabulary in all aspects of reading, writing and conversation. Fluency is how much of this knowledge you have practised enough that you can recall it at a native speed. So for instance, if I know how to say 你叫什么名字 and 我叫Jeff, but you can’t understand ‘what’s your name’ fast enough to reply ‘I am called…’ naturally like a native would – you’re not fluent in that particularly vocab or grammar. Your knowledge should always be ahead of your fluency (but not too far), as you always need to be practising fluency in something you don’t know or can improve on, not what you already know. Motivation is not something that just appears, it’s something you work hard for and try to find the right methods to keep yourself motivated.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?  (this can be specific study resources, methods, activities, social aspects, etc.)

Just using the language socially has been the most fulfilling thing for me. I’m a very social person so when I was in Shanghai I was enjoying making new friends even with my intermediate Chinese such as talking with the taxi driver on the way to my cousin’s house.

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

Lots of people are very scared to make mistakes. You need to use the language to get better at it; Khatzumoto puts it very eloquently on his website “you don’t learn a language, you get used to it”.

Also get your tones spot on from the beginning (or at least as close as you can). I spend a lot of time listening to natives say things and repeating it out loud to practise my pronunciation and tones. If I don’t think I’ve said it right, I’ll repeat the recording and say it again. I think a lot of people are too lazy to correct their pronunciation and blame it on their first language being a latin language – that’s all rubbish.

Any favorite words or phrases? (there are loads which don’t have equivalents in English)

不能半途而废 – Can’t give up halfway. 

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

I was at a karaoke bar in Shanghai with a bunch of my friend’s friends and one guy had a problem with people from England, or just maybe foreigners in general. He was trying to force me to drink increasing amounts of alcohol. A lot of it I didn’t understand as the guy was quite drunk and my Mandarin definitely wasn’t at a high enough level, so at one point I just got irritated and said cursed at him. Everybody in the karaoke room, including his friends burst out laughing. Although I thought he took it as a joke, he actually ended up really mad. My friend taught me a better phrase to use in this situation: 不要瞎说好不好?- Stop talking rubbish, okay?

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

About a month after I started learning Mandarin, I didn’t think I was making great progress so I began trying to talk to people on Skype. It went okay and I’d have maybe a 5 minute conversation about what I do and what they do before having to look up vocabulary. Then one day I just suddenly had a 45 minute conversation of which 99% was in Chinese with a Taiwanese girl. This really pushed me to believe that anything was possible.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

At the beginning it was pure willpower that one day I’d have a decent conversation with someone. Now I can converse on a fundamental level, each and every encounter with someone that speaks Chinese is something that pushes me forward every day. Something I aim to do everyday is have at least a conversation with one person in Chinese (and many days I do many more than that!).

Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

湖南烧烤 – Hands down Hunanese barbecue (the ones on the street stalls) is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted in China.

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

If you are thinking about whether you’re ready to talk to others in Chinese, you’re already ready, as you’ll never be fully prepared, you just need to be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. Now. Don’t hesistate.

Thanks Jeff for all those tips and sharing your story! I totally agree that with how you can never be “fully prepared” for a conversation and that language learners should just go for it.

To get near Jeff’s level of Chinese, you’ll need quite some work, but FluentU can make that work a bit easier and more fun.

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