Lessons in Learning Chinese: Jeff Goldenhersh

This week at FluentU, we’re featuring Jeff Goldenhersh on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series. With his experience learning Mandarin and living in China, Jeff gives us great tips and more!

In his own words:

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis in 2011 with a major in political science, a minor in business, and two years of Mandarin, I moved to China for the year to teach English. In the fall, I’ll be starting law school.

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

My Chinese 学历 (educational background) is pretty fragmented, but I’d say that, altogether, I’ve been studying Chinese for a little over three years. In high school I listened to the first 10-ish lessons of Pimsleur’s Mandarin Chinese to prepare for a 3-week trip to Beijing; but my Chinese training
didn’t being in earnest until my sophomore year in college. Then, once in China, I burned through quite a lot of private tutors. In addition, during my Spring Festival holiday, I attended CET’s intensive January Term Mandarin program (a fantastic intensive program to which I credit a substantial portion of my fluency).

I’ve always found China fascinating and, as a martial artist whose style developed in China, I’d always been enchanted by China’s incredible history and culture. This interest is perhaps what first caused me to start learning Mandarin. After a little intellectual maturation, however, I realized that there were other, equally powerful, reasons to continue my Mandarin education. The meteoric rise of China as an economic and political power is forefront among those motivations. Since the start of college, I knew I wanted to go to law school (or perhaps pursue a J.D./MBA). In my opinion, the fusion of these two interests (Chinese and the law/business) will create incredible opportunity in the future.

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

I feel that I’m a little unique among the intermediate-advanced Chinese learners insofar as I really believe that formal Chinese classes (with good instructors) are always extremely helpful. Personally, if I don’t have a teacher, I have trouble covering new material at an appropriate pace and some of the time, I don’t even learn it correctly.

In my opinion, it’s very important to strike a balance between formal instruction and casual practice and usage.

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

Skritter is a phenomenal resource for helping you memorize characters.

Reading is incredibly important. Whenever I run into people that say, “I just want to be able to speak and listen”, I try to encourage them to take a more holistic approach to Chinese learning. Once you reach an intermediate-advanced level, you can start struggling through newspaper articles and other Chinese literature that will teach you both new words within a certain context and teach you how to use words you already know in different contexts. People that neglect reading/writing are really going to struggle getting their Chinese past elementary level.

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

I see two common problems with a lot of Chinese learners that are both easily remedied with some hard work: the neglecting of literacy (reading and writing), and an under-development of the fundamentals of pronunciation.

Pronunciation will be the primary factor by which Chinese people gauge your language ability. It’s a little odd to think of it this way, but this has just been my personal experience. Take this example (which I’ve seen play out in daily life countless times): there are two people. One has good pronunciation, a vocabulary of 1000 words, and some grammar mistakes. The other has poor pronunciation, a vocabulary of 2000 words, and no grammar mistakes. The vast majority of the time, Chinese people will point out the former person’s Chinese ability when asked whose is better. I don’t know why—that just seems to be how it is.

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

I love 成语 (the four-character cultural sayings). They’re so cool.

My favorite saying is definitely “刻舟求剑” because, when translated literally, it makes absolutely zero sense. The direct English translation would be: “carve the ship to search for the sword.” However, as with a lot of chengyu, there is a story behind it that forces it to take on an entirely unstated meaning. This chengyu means that a person is acting based on old information; basically, that they are acting without regard for the fact that the circumstances have changed.

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

While living in China I had a girlfriend with whom I spoke to only in Chinese. Before she was my girlfriend, she wanted to make sure that we’d be 100% exclusive. I told her that she would be, “我的一个女朋友”. Unfortunately for me, this translates to “one of my girlfriends.” My intended meaning was, “my one girlfriend.”  Yup. That was painful. It took some work to undo that one. It turns out I probably should have used the word “唯一” (sole/unique).

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

Chinese learning is a slow and arduous journey. I don’t think I’ve had a “eureka!” moment yet.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

I keep thinking that all this work will pay off when I’m able to communicate more seamlessly with the ~1.4 consumers in the world that allegedly speak Mandarin.

Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

Definitely any kind of eggplant. No one does it like the Chinese do it. Specifically, I’d say my favorite is a spicy green bean and eggplant dish made by a restaurant in Shenzhen named 天天老北方.

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

Read more!

Thanks Jeff for all your tips. I especially like your favorite phrase, one of my favorite practical chengyu!

You can learn other practical phrases over on FluentU.

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