Lessons in Learning Chinese: Natasha Lutes

There are countless fascinating Chinese language learners out there, and we are honored to feature interviews with many of them here. Next up in our series is Natasha Lutes.  In her own words,

I’m 25, married to a Taiwanese man and living in Taiwan. I’ve been here for three years now, though I originally came here to study Chinese! I work as a freelance Japanese translator, and I’m from the UK/Australia originally. I do a bit of music in my free time, so I suppose I can plug my Youtube channel. I’ve been singing semi-professionally for almost a year now, and I’m happy to say that I’ve improved a lot in that time!

Thanks Natasha.  Enjoy everyone!

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

After a couple years of uninspired Chinese in high school, I continued studying Chinese at university in Australia, but it was laughably easy – I was taking senior courses in my first year and sailing through them (and my Chinese was really terrible). I worked for a Taiwanese-run company for a year, during which both my listening and speaking improved greatly (environment counts for a LOT!) A few years later I moved to Taiwan to study Chinese, but the course for foreigners was a little too easy so I switched my degree to Chinese Literature, and studied with the locals for two years. I enjoyed the material greatly but the Taiwanese education system leaves a lot to be desired (your attendance rate is more important than your marks, for a start!) and I ended up dropping out after my second year- I didn’t see the point in continuing just for the grades.

So really, a lot of my ‘study’ was just barging through and trying to pick it up – when I took the class in Taiwan for foreign learners I found that I had real gaps in my basic knowledge, but they were easily filled in given the right opportunities. I learned more in my six months in Taiwan than I did in my 6 years in Australia, and I learnt more in my first two months of Chinese Literature with Taiwanese classmates, roommates and teachers than I did in my six months at the language center. Environment, opportunity and necessity is really very important.

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

I do think that something very detrimental to the study of Chinese (and other Asian languages) is the way it’s approached as a very difficult subject – they tend to spend a very long time teaching you practically nothing in the West.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy the banter of Chinese conversations. A lot of small talk boils down to polite banter, and it’s fun! I really enjoy learning the stories behind certain phrases or chengyu as well – almost every phrase has some historical tale behind it. I also like etymology- the study of the characters and their evolution.

Also I learnt a lot from song lyrics. I think it’s important for learners to get hold of material that interests them, and for me, this was music. News reports and the like have always been terminally boring to me, but lyrics are something I’ve been happy to sit and pore over since I was around 14.

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

First thing you should never do when learning any language – let somebody make you think it’s difficult! Especially for something like Chinese – at least 1.3 billion people speak it with varying degrees of success, so you can, too! If you find something hard it’s simply because you haven’t learnt it yet, not because it’s difficult – and people learn different things at different speeds, so if it’s taking you a bit longer it’s not because you’re stupid!

Attitude is the most important thing when learning a language. Language learning is very humbling. You need to accept that everything you know about talking is wrong. With Asian languages, very few rules from your native language can be applied. Too many times I see a learner trying to say something as they would in English and just coming up with garbled Chinese – it’s hard to accept that what sounds strange to your ears (either accent-wise, grammar-wise or vocab-wise) is actually what you should be saying.

Listen to what people say and copy it. Think of how little children learn their own language – they’re copycats. The people around you know how to use their language, so copy, copy, copy. Yes, it will sound bizarre to you for a long time – but learning a language is learning another culture and another way of thinking. Unfortunately, you can’t learn another language well and preserve your original identity – it’s just impossible. I’m a completely different person when I speak English to who I am when I speak Chinese and to who I am when I speak Japanese – I find things funny in Chinese or Japanese that I’d facepalm at in English and vice-versa. What sounds clever and witty in English often sounds quite inane in Chinese, and what sounds clever in Chinese sounds like garbled mumbo-jumbo in English. Different language, different thought pattern.

Any favorite words or phrases? 

I quite like a few Taiwanese phrases – 阿知? (read: a2 zai1) meaning something like ‘how am I supposed to know?’ is probably my favourite. It just sounds so cheery!

大家開心就好! (though this might be because an old acquaintance of mine got this in response when he asked a girl if she had a boyfriend..)

Oddly enough, I always smile whenever I see that phrase 來匆匆,去沖沖 in toilets here… maybe I’m just strange, but I like the rhyming stuff.

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

Oh God. A friend of mine would say 他媽的!all the time, so I assumed it was something akin to ‘oh no’ and I used it constantly. To everyone – teachers, children, classmates, friends. Eventually an older friend asked me if I realised I was saying the equivalent of the f-word every five minutes, which wasn’t a fun conversation.

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

I could not for the life of me hear the difference between second and third tones for the longest time. Around 4 years ago I was sitting on the MRT in Taipei to Beitou (北投) and realised that it was a third tone followed by a second tone – I heard the station name said so many times that I could memorise it, and after that whenever I got stuck I always fell back on ‘How do you say Beitou? OK, well Bei sounded like that and this is a third tone too so… aha! You say it this way!’

It was the handiest little trick, and the turning point in my Chinese study. After that, my listening improved greatly.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

I try to stay away from formal study, because I think there’s no quicker way to kill a love of learning! Textbooks and workbooks are important for basic stuff, but the best way to motivate yourself is to make yourself need it – if you have a choice, get local roommates, try to hang out with locals who can’t speak English (whether through a dance class, a yoga class, tai chi practice…) and just surround yourself with it. I’m one of those people who hates not knowing when something’s going on (and also hates being quiet) so the fear of being left uninformed was a huge motivator – I want to know what all the signs say, just in case!

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

Listen! When you say something incorrectly, 90% of the time somebody will parrot back the correct version at you to make sure that’s what you meant. Lots of people just seem to let this go in one ear and out the other with a ‘yeah, that’s what I said!’ but actually listen to what they say. They’re giving you an excellent opportunity to learn some spoken grammar that’s not in your textbook, and the colloquial stuff is where all the native speakers start from.


Thanks very much to Natasha for sharing her stories and tips!

All of you willing to learn Chinese and get closer to her level, be sure to try out FluentU.

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