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Lessons in Learning Chinese: Greg Bell

Today we feature Greg Bell.  Originally from New Jersey, he went to college in Michigan, then proceeded half way around the world to  Taiwan, where he is now studying for his Master’s degree in history.  He discusses his adventures studying Chinese (and Japanese!) on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @Zhongruige.

Thanks Greg, enjoy everyone!

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

I’ve been studying Chinese since 2005, but my interest would really have to be traced back to my Japanese studies. In high school, I decided to try Japanese class. 3 years of Spanish and then Japanese, why not? The teacher was particularly adamant about learning Kanji first, and teaching us to not fear the characters, as it were.

After headed off to university in 2004, I noticed my roommate was working on this crazy sounding, impossible to decipher language FULL of these characters that, apparently, was called Chinese. I thought, you know, this would be a lot of fun to learn! If anything, it was the characters are actually what drew me in to begin with. Since then, I’ve been learning Chinese at university, a language center in Taiwan, and now on my own while in graduate school. Everybody’s reason for studying a language is different; mine is pure interest, so my primary motivator is just wanting to learn more about the language and unlock the long history and development of China’s unique writing system.

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

“Serious fun”. Just that one should follow their interests and see how far it takes them! You know what you do and don’t like, and try and follow that throughout your studies, no matter how much it may feel like you’re not “actually studying”. I guess that is kind of a core philosophy: studying doesn’t have to feel like studying. Just because you don’t open a textbook or do 500 SRS reps doesn’t mean you’re not studying. In fact, what is more important is that your interact with the language in some way. You listen to a song. You watch a video. You read a book/manga/magazine. You read news online. You play a video game. You flip through a textbook for pleasure. Either way, as long as you’re finding time to interact with Chinese–that’s all you need.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?

Putting it simply: reading and writing Chinese characters and reading classical texts and poetry. For me, there’s no greater fun, no greater joy, to learning Chinese than this. Chinese characters carry so much history and meaning within them. It’s a lot of fun finding out where they’ve come from, how their use has changed (or has not changed at all!) over thousands of years. Perhaps the most fun, is by being able to read modern Chinese it has opened up thousands of years of literary history that can be read. To me, that is truly the joy of studying Chinese.

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

I think sometimes learners will get a bit too reliant on textbooks and materials, and find it hard to branch out into areas that seem less like studying and more like play. I think there’s a certain barrier that has to be broken down between the two. Also, Chinese doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t, depending on how passionate you are) end with class. I think classes are a great way to set a foundation, but it’s what you can find outside of class that will push your Chinese.

The other thing, which is kind of related to this, is many learners give themselves far too much pressure. Tones! Strokes! 30 bajillion characters! Oracle bone transcriptions! Eh, you know, take it as it comes, and don’t look at “everything” just look at what you want. Want to learn enough to read a newspaper? Go for it. Want to be able to read that ridiculously sized Dream of the Red Chamber? Why not! Just follow your passions. You know what you want to learn, don’t get intimidated trying to learn everything. That is one downside of textbooks, they make it seem like you need to learn bits of everything, when really, your Chinese can be as specialized as your English. Perhaps you’re more literary, or you’re a deconstructionist historian. Everyone has different desires and fields of interest. Follow yours. Don’t feel like you need to “learn Everything” (with a capital E!). You’ll drive yourself crazy.

Any favorite words or phrases?

Favorite phrase would have to be: 書中自有顏如玉 (shū zhōng zì yǒu yán rú yù), so it’s like there’s a beauty in a book. Great way to describe someone that loves to read and can’t take their head out of it! Another, more for fun, is referring to someone as 豬八戒 (zhū bā jiè) from Journey to the West. A fun nickname to use with friends.

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

I once learned that 「」 was another way to say 「」(before realizing it was classical), so I went around saying 「我的朋友曰…」, assuming it could be swapped in and out for 「」 like「」. People found it mostly adorable, but I’ll bet there was a small number that thought I was a pompous little kid from Jersey who thought he knew Chinese more than anyone else and, by golly, he was going to speak the “Emperor’s” English (er Chinese). Anyway, these stories being later told in Chinese to friends in Taiwan has always been a constant source of humor.

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

About three months ago I was reading a book for my thesis. Prior to this, it was always very intimidating to pick up a hefty Chinese book or article and work my way through it. It felt very tiring, you know? It was always like, “wow 300 pages on colonial education policy. Awesome”. I’d be interested in English, of course, but in Chinese it was just a behemoth that I wasn’t particularly motivated to tackle. I’d pick it up, get about hallfway through, then end up tiring and putting it back down pretty quickly. At any rate, one day I suddenly found myself able to read through the material without feeling any desire to stop or look anything up. It just “clicked” and things have been going much easier since then.

Not really sure how to describe it other than, perhaps, with all my input it had finally become a subconscious output of ability. Of course I still have a lot of work to do, but it was incredibly motivating. These kinds of moments should be savored; sometimes they happen when you read an article, sometimes when you are just passively looking at a sign. Suddenly you realize “I can read all that”. It’s amazing. Truly the best motivator one can have.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

Sit back, relax, and drink some tea. If there’s time, go climb a mountain.

 

Thanks Greg, some great advice!  I too live for the the “I can read all that!” moments- I wrote about them in my interview a few months ago here. Don’t forget to check out Greg’s blog here.

And if you want some Chinese lessons, be sure to check out FluentU.

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

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