Lessons in Learning Chinese: Kellen Parker

For the first in our Lessons in Learning Chinese series we had a conversation with Kellen Parker of Sinoglot.

Kellen is a published linguist with a background in linguistics and philosophy. He spent time wrestling with languages like Albanian and Arabic before coming to China and re-focusing his efforts on Mandarin, as well as more than one Chinese dialect. He’s the founder, author and designer of Annals of Wu, a website which explores the Wu language as it’s used in and around the Shanghai area. He’s also a co-founder of Sinoglot, an organization created to explore the many forms language takes in China, and a frequent author at the Sinoglot blog.

Be sure to check out Kellen’s website, as well as FluentU!

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

You can try FluentU for free for 2 weeks. Click here to check out the website or download the iOS app or Android app.

FluentU Ad

What is your personal philosophy or approach to learning Chinese?

People think learning a language is about their brain. It’s not. It’s more like a sport. It’s about muscle memory, but in your mouth. Approach it like any other physical activity: Go out there and do it a million times until the motions become second nature. Don’t read about learning to speak Chinese. Just go speak Chinese

What are your favorite Chinese learning tools and resources?

Pleco and Qingwen are good mobile dictionaries both with nice features that come in handy from time to time. These days my main resource is just having a bunch of people to talk to, even if they’re not always native speakers themselves.

How do feel technology, the internet, connectedness, etc. have affected your language learning?

Smartphone dictionaries, especially ones with OCR, are amazing. I’ve never stopped being impressed with them, and they keep getting better. It feels so much like the future that I’m no longer disappointed about not having a jetpack.To me personally the biggest things is being able to immediately get the word I need in the middle of a conversation.

The other way they’ve helped is by letting me travel more. Cruising Tudou or Youku for videos of real people speaking to other real people is always nice. BBC’s Mandarin podcasts were great until they cut them off last April. That sort of thing. It’s all stuff I wouldn’t have access to if it weren’t for the internet. For me this sort of thing is especially valuable since I’m living in Seoul at the moment. So while I’m living right in the middle of a 华侨 neighborhood, there’s just not that much published Mandarin material around.

What are your top tips as far as learning Chinese effectively and becoming fluent go?

Well, like I said before – go out and use the language. Beyond that, if you are living in a place that doesn’t provide an immediate immersion environment, then go construct one. Find places to take classes. Find people to talk to who will put up with you. Watch movies, but do it for the sake of pushing yourself, not just seeing what Jackie Chan breaks next. There are a million ways to put yourself into the right environment without actually moving to a Mandarin-speaking country.

Are there some common mistakes that you think people should avoid?

Recently I’ve heard a few learners swapping 会 and 能. This isn’t major but it stuck out for me for some reason. I think it’s representative of a larger problem that’s pretty common. Some single words in Mandarin become two words in English – like 学 or 让. Mandarin speakers learning English need to know the difference between “study” and “learn”. English speakers learning Mandarin need to look out for the same situation. Some things that might be ambiguous in English are not in Mandarin. Similarly, don’t try to force a difference from your language into Mandarin if it’s not there.

Any memorable milestones? Any “Aha!” or “I’m actually talking about this in Chinese!” moments?

I remember the first time I was good enough to argue about being overcharged at a bar. I paid for two bottles before starting a tab, then when settling the tab the two bottles appeared again. It was only 6 yuan but I was so pleased with myself for being able to argue the point that my friends had to persuade me to let it go.

Realizing I could explain Scientology in Mandarin was another one.

Rice or noodles?

Noodles. Specifically 刀削面 in some dive restaurant with an endless supply of 辣油 and 香菜. Though I do make some mean hand-pulled noodles at home as well.

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

Sure. Here are two useful idioms for the next time someone wants you to pay for two extra beers. Both are widely used among native speakers.

• 一毛不拔 to mean stingy

• 息事宁人 to compromise or smooth things over to avoid a bigger problem

As in “你看!一毛不拔的土匪,他还要欺骗我。算了。为了息事宁人给他这个六块。”

Finally, tell us a bit about your upcoming project, Phonemica.

My days are consumed by a project Steve and I have been working on called Phonemica. It should be in public beta in April. The basic idea is that it’s a social-network styled story telling site. It’s an archive of stories told by native speakers in their local dialect of Mandarin, with each story given a full transcription. Users contribute audio, correct transcriptions, discuss alternative translations, leave comments, earn achievements and so on. Think meets built on a hybridization of Facebook and foursquare.

Kellen contributes at the Sinoglot blog where you can find all kinds of Chinese language-related insights, as well co-founding the upcoming Phonemica project. You can also follow both Sinoglot and Phonemica on Twitter for more updates.

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe