Lessons in Learning Chinese: Hamish Young

Next up in our Lessons in Learning Chinese series is Hamish Young.  As an experienced Chinese translator, we thank him for sharing his unique insights with us!  In his own words-

I was tricked into coming to China in 2005 and have been desperately learning Chinese ever since.  After teaching for a few years and learning Chinese on the side, I took up translating initially as a way of improving and consolidating my Chinese skills, but soon found it more enjoyable than teaching.  Eventually I headed back to New Zealand and got myself a qualification, and I now work full time as a freelance Chinese translator, specializing in scientific fields.

Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese?

I find that I’m a bit too lazy and a bit too impatient to actually learn things, so I just do them instead, and eventually after doing them badly for a long time I start to do them quite well.  My spoken Chinese has been ‘learned’ by speaking Chinese with Chinese people, and my written Chinese has been ‘learned’ by reading Chinese texts, first for fun, and then for money when I took up translation.  Learning a language is like learning a musical instrument, you just need to practice over and over again until it’s second nature.

When I started learning Chinese, I had a philosophy of ‘write it down’, and over a few years I filled up eight notebooks of Chinese vocabulary, but in hindsight I think I might have wasted my time.  Once you have learned vocabulary, the best and easiest way to retain it is to read, and provided you read fairly widely and regularly, then I consider there is no need to write anything down.  It is always difficult to retain rare vocabulary, as you don’t encounter it often enough to keep it in mind.

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

Memorizing rare vocabulary that you may only encounter once a year is a serious mistake.  When you read, do not look up the dictionary every time you find a new word, this is the worst thing you can do and is extremely counter-productive to language acquisition.  Only refer to a dictionary when you have encountered the same word a number of times, you still haven’t worked out the meaning from the context, and not knowing the meaning is impeding your understanding of the text.

Specifically for learning oral Chinese, learning the tones is a big issue.  A few people pay little or no attention to tones, and as a result they hardly ever get understood.  But much more often conscientious learners pay too much attention to the tones and overpronounce them horribly, and what you get is someone singing the language instead of speaking it.  In fact Chinese tones are just like intonation in English sentences, and you need to focus more on how the sentence as a whole sounds, rather than the tones of all the individual characters.

Handwriting Chinese characters is another big thing that I suggest people think very carefully about before spending much time on it.  Because in today’s world very few people handwrite Chinese very often.  Even in China itself, handwriting outside the classroom is almost restricted now to filling in forms and making quick notes.  I worked hard at handwriting Chinese and there was a time when I could probably have written 2000 characters, even the hard ones like 尴尬 (gāngà- awkward).  Now if you asked me to handwrite 尴尬 I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea where to start, and that is despite the fact that I read and write these same characters all the time.  Now I can handwrite less than 500, purely because I have never had the opportunity to apply this skill and I can no longer be bothered to maintain it artificially by practicing handwriting.  Though I think all students should study the basics of handwriting and the foundations of different radicals, for almost everybody it is enough to be able to read and input pinyin.

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

I’m a big fan of Chinese proverbs and also Chinese swearwords, many of which are as commonly used and as time honored as some of the well known English ones.  It’s very satisfying to be able to drop an appropriate proverb into your Chinese conversation, and most of them have very interesting origins in Chinese history or legend.  对牛弹琴 (duìniútánqín- playing the violin for a cow, signifying what you’re saying or doing is going right over someone’s head) is a great one, and very useful for teachers when talking about difficult students.  Another good one is 不知道他葫芦里卖的是什么药? (I don’t know what medicine he’s got inside his hulu), which is a nice way of insinuating someone is a few sandwiches short of a picnic or up to something dodgy.

For the longest time I thought that nobody swore in China, and then I found out I had been hanging around too many primary school teachers and I just didn’t know the right words!  Now I know they swear all the time, particularly bus drivers, and there are very creative ways of using the curse words that we don’t have in English.

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

Too many to tell.  One of the problems in speaking a language you don’t know very well is that you can’t always say “pardon?”  Or “excuse me, I didn’t understand, can you repeat that’.  After you do that more than a couple of times in a conversation, the other person gets impatient and your conversation ends, or even worse, it switches to Chinglish.  So the language learner is forced to constantly bluff their way through, saying ‘yes, yes’ even though you have no or very little idea what the other person is saying, and guessing when you don’t fully understand.

One time, after being in China for over a year, for some reason I still hadn’t learnt the common word 美女 (měinǚ- pretty girl).  I was having a great conversation with my hairdresser, we got to talking about women, and he popped me this question: 新西兰有美女吗? (Are there hot girls in New Zealand?)  Not knowing this word, I heard the question as “新西兰有没有女的? (Are there women in New Zealand?)  I thought this was a bit of strange question, but you get a lot of strange questions in small town China, and the hairdresser was holding a razor at the time, so I took it seriously and answered “当然有, 哪儿都有女的” (Of course, there are women everywhere).  The result was we had a good laugh and I learned a very useful new word.

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

A big milestone in my Chinese learning career was learning to read a menu.  When I first went to restaurants in China, I had to point to order, which was risky and often ended up in sadness.  After a while I learned how to say my favourite dishes, so I just repeated those, which was great but I always ate the same thing.  Finally I learnt how to read menus, and that opened up a new culinary world for me and made eating out a much nicer experience.  Not only was I able to avoid any dishes with the characters for ‘intestine’ or ‘silkworm’, but I was able to order the specials of the day, and avoid the English menu or picture menu in the big restaurants, which tend to be all the overpriced dishes.  After mastering this skill, I became the main dish orderer for foreign teacher restaurant excursions.

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

Go to China and/or get yourself a Chinese boy/girl friend are the obvious answers, because that will maximize your motivation and opportunity.  I don’t have any other special tips – there are no shortcuts to learning a language, it’s all practice (only 10,000 hours to become an expert!).  Practice that most closely approximates your actual intended use is far better than abstract practice like drills or exercises, but no practice is going to be very useful if you don’t enjoy it and can’t stick to it for long periods.  Good luck and have fun :)


Thanks very much to Hamish for sharing his stories, tips, and Kiwi wit!

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