language learner interview series ben charlton

Lessons in Learning Chinese: Ben Charlton

This week on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, we feature Ben Charlton! On top of living in China, he’s been studying Chinese for a while and offers with some great tips when it comes to this great but hard language.

In his own words:

I am a current Teach for China (TFC) fellow teaching oral English in rural Yunnan, China. To give you an idea of what “rural” really means, farmers frequently heard their flocks of goats and cattle down the road and the closest medical care is over two hours away over a paved/gravel/dirt road.I went to UNC Chapel Hill and majored in International Relations with my concentration in – where else? – Asia. After graduating I worked for a year before joining TFC in Yunnan. With over 400 students from seventh to ninth grade, it’s quite the challenge. While I teach most of my class in English, I communicate daily with other fellows and local teachers in Chinese.

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

I began studying Chinese my sophomore year at UNC, so I have been at it for four and a half years now. Honestly, since graduating, I haven’t really found a good way to continue my studies so my Chinese skills have somewhat deteriorated.

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

The main thing is learn what is fun. Sure, studying for the HSK is great and necessary if you want to work in China, but above all, if you are not enjoying what you are studying, it will be a lot easier to give up.

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

I enjoy the idea that I’m learning something that not many other people are. That’s the main reason I started studying Chinese, and now that I’ve kept at it for a while, I still think it’s awesome. One of the best experiences in speaking Chinese is going on home visits to meet students’ parents. Learning just a little bit more about them (and seeing their room!) makes the hard work worth it.

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

The biggest one is not practicing enough. I had a teacher at UNC who said that we were to leave our pride at the door. Students should take that to heart.

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

Favorite Chinese phrase: 都可以. A friend from a study abroad program introduced me to it as the 都可以 lifestyle. There really isn’t an English equivalent, and Chinese people don’t seem to get it, but when exploring new places and meeting new people, the 都可以 mindset is a great one to have.

As far as actual Chinese phrases are concerned, I really like 先苦后甜. It sums up Chinese study pretty well, and for that matter anything worth doing.

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

The funniest mistake I made happened pretty recently, actually. Each spring, the seventh grade students at the middle school where I teach get the “birds and the bees” talk. As a male teacher, I was charged with speaking a bit on puberty. As I was telling the students that as their bodies changed, they would have more and more hair in new places. I chalked up some students’ snickering to the topic in general, but eventually I realized I had been saying 猫 instead of 毛!

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

The first time that I haggled for a souvenir was definitely a eureka moment. I wanted to buy a tea set, but the price was set extravagantly high. However, I was able to convince the seller to drop the price quite considerably after convincing her that the wood was poor quality and of the shoddy paint job on the porcelain. So, not only was I able to communicate effectively but save a bit of money as well!

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

Living in rural China it is quite easy – I use it every day! I imagine that when I return to the United States, it will be much harder. I plan on continuing to watch Chinese television – hopefully some of the shows I am hooked on will continue when I am back in the US. Also, I’ve invested so much time in learning Chinese that it would be a shame to waste it with laziness. Who knows, maybe I’ll even be able to use it as part of my career!

Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

I would have to go with Beijing Duck. As famous as it is, it definitely deserves the acclaim.

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

Read out loud with a language partner! You can correct each other’s tones, your character knowledge base improves, and you get to read a story instead of just memorizing characters.

Bonus points if you find a native Chinese speaker who wants to read from an English book.

 Thanks Ben for the tips. I agree with practicing & forgetting your pride – it’s the only way to get better!

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