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Lessons in Learning Chinese: Allan Ngo

Next in our series is Allan Ngo!  Allan has been a good friend of FluentU over the months, and we are happy to have the chance to feature him today.

A bit about Allan:

Allan Ngo helps busy people like him to learn Chinese on the side for fun and profit at his site Money in Mandarin. Download his free e-book entitled “10 Clever Chinese Idioms: Express Yourself Better and Be Absolutely Impressive” here!

After first downloading his e-book (highly recommended to fans of this blog), read on below to learn about Allan’s unique perspectives on learning Chinese.  Thanks Allan!

How long have you been studying Chinese? Could you describe your learning experience?

I have actually had about 13 years of Chinese studies, but believe it or not, I’m still quite far from being fluent. And what’s more baffling is the fact that I’m not the exception, but rather am simply the norm from where I come from.

Here is why…

The first 10 years of my Mandarin Chinese education was spent during my elementary and high school days at a Chinese school. And it was a total CHORE.  Afternoons of rote memorization and mind-numbing exercises without any real-life application did little to inspire me to study the language. Needless to say, after a decade’s worth of “education”, I graduated with a puny arsenal of Chinese vocabulary, zero confidence to actually use it, but did gain insane ability to memorize.

The last 3 years have been a completely different story.

Inspired by the rise of China’s economy and fueled by my own desire to know more about my ancestry, I was fortunate enough to be admitted to a  one-year intensive Chinese language scholarship program which included a semester at Shanghai’s Fudan University (复旦大学). It was during this one-year stint that my learning sky rocketed. The teaching Chinese as a second language methodology, coupled with a strong motivation allowed me to feel that I was indeed “getting” Mandarin for the first time. Moreover, I was actually ENJOYING it.

Right now, 2 years removed from formal schooling, I am focusing on self-study and experimenting on how to include Mandarin Chinese study in one’s busy lifestyle.

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

I’m not entirely sure I’m in a position to say what others do incorrectly since we all do have our own learning style. Instead, I’d like to share the biggest mistake I made that held me back a ton. I’m a terribly shy person. I express myself the best in the written word. Thus, I would spend my time reading and writing a lot in my own room and during class, improving my comprehension and character writing, but doing very little for confidence in engaging people in conversation. Talking to one another is probably how 80% of our communication takes place and I am missing a good chunk of that.

I would advise other Chinese learners to engage and make mistakes. People are normally very tolerant and even supportive of your efforts. It will be frustrating at times but it will never be as frustrating as spending so much time studying by yourself only to find yourself nervous and awkward even in the simplest of encounters.

Any favorite words or phrases? 

I am an absolute fan of Chinese idioms (成语). Here is one of my favorites.

顺其自然 (shùn qí zì rán), “Let nature take its course”. I discovered it when a friend gave this as an answer when asked if she already had a boyfriend. I thought to myself “this could be really handy.” It is generally used to address things of uncertainty, such as your plans for the future and yes… those dreaded relationship questions. It’s like giving an answer you don’t have – very cheeky.

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

It was May 2009, a typical day at work when suddenly my boss handed a mobile phone to me and asked me to help her locate the owner. Apparently, the owner left it at the taxi she was riding and wanted to return the phone to him. I was still puzzled why she chose me specifically to help her out with it but one look at the phone’s screen and I discovered why. It was all (gulp!) in Chinese!

At the time, my Mandarin Chinese totally sucked. In fact, I had applied to a Chinese language scholarship program a couple of months back. I hadn’t heard from them for over a month and was already losing hope of getting in when this incident came along. Despite the fact that I lack any sort of fluency in the language, I was (unfortunately) the “default” authority when it comes anything Chinese because well… I’m the only Chinese guy in the entire office.

I scrambled and sought the help of my younger brother who recently came home from his Mandarin studies in Beijing. I asked him the important words I should know like taxi (出租汽车), cellphone (手机), forgot (忘记) etc.

After several futile attempts to contact people from his contacts, he finally called his own phone and I (miraculously) was able to converse with him long enough for him to understand that his phone was safely with me and gave him the location of my office. Whew! That was such a rush!

The next day, just when I thought my phone ordeals were over, I got another call. And boy, was it another rush! Remember the program I was talking about? – I got in! And that’s not even the most amazing part. What’s staggering is the fact that that day just so happened to be my birthday!

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

Make learning automatic.

Have you experienced one day being super motivated to learn Mandarin that you could study non-stop? And the very next day totally forget all about it?

People are fickle. We need to establish a system around us to keep us in check and on track. Relying solely on your motivation is like putting your fate on the flip of a coin. It’s inconsistent, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

Here are some suggestions on what you can do to keep on track:

– Make your language learning website (i.e. FluentU) open up whenever you open your internet browser.


– Set-up an alarm to remind you to study at a fixed time on a regular (ideally daily) interval. I.e. 8pm daily.
– Turn the language setting of your computer to Mandarin. And turn those hours of Facebook into something productive.

 

Thanks Allan! If you too want to be interviewed as a featured Chinese learner, tweet to us @FluentU.

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