Lessons in Learning Chinese: Kevin Lewis

Today we are proud to feature Kevin Lewis.  As Principal of Mandarin World in Shanghai, we are thrilled to get his tips and advice for learning Chinese.  In his own words,

I am originally from Adelaide Australia, and I’ve been living on and off in China since 1998. I’ve spent many years teaching English to university students around China, and then moved into managing programs between Australian and Chinese universities. I have gotten into the Chinese language education field just recently as principal of a newly opened school, Mandarin World in Shanghai. I’ve called Shanghai home now for some 7 years, and have pretty much settled down here.

Thanks Kevin! Enjoy everyone.

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

I studied Chinese at university in Adelaide starting back in 1996. I was studying for a Bachelors of International Studies at the time and my International Politics teacher suggested that I should learn Chinese. I actually failed first year of Chinese! I didn’t give up and in the second year I came to China to learn Chinese as a foreign student. Unfortunately I wasn’t a very good student, I found my classes rather boring, and instead enjoyed spending my time roaming the streets and making lots of friends. I remember back in ’98 in Xi’an going to an English corner and being surrounded by what seemed like hundreds of students who wanted to practice English!

Since studying wasn’t working I moved on to teach English, and taught myself Chinese through text books and practicing with locals. During my 12 or so years in China I have mostly stuck to the DIY approach to learning Chinese, occasionally trying language exchange and paid tutoring. I’ve now reached quite a decent level of Chinese, and mainly focus on improving my literacy to a level where I can read a novel or newspaper without too much pain or leafing through dictionaries.

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

“If you are going to do something right, you have to do it yourself!” I’m a big fan of self study. With the right motivation (living in China should be enough for most people), then you can do it yourself. There are plenty of people willing to chat with a laowai to practice with, and there is a never ending supply of reading material.  As your own teacher, you never need to worry about what specifically to prepare for class. You can teach yourself exactly what you want to learn and exactly how you want to learn.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?  

I am very much a social person, and I love the ability to talk to everybody around me. As a principal of a school for learning Chinese, I have started to enjoy the company of people also learning Chinese. I really enjoy helping people who are starting this journey, and respect those who have made considerable accomplishments already. In recent years I’m amazed by the explosion in study resources both on and offline, and I enjoy comparing notes with other learners of Chinese about what resources or methods they find most useful.

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

Like an Olympic athlete, if you want to be good, you need to do the work. You cannot learn the language quickly or without a lot of effort.  As I mentioned above, I failed my first year of Chinese at university! You simply need to put in the hours.

 Any favorite words or phrases?

(la)! I love at the end of sentences, I love it so much I’ve adopted it into my English. I do have to be carefully however when I talk to non-speakers of Chinese, as I get funny looks. “” (en- yup) is also up there. I spend a lot of time talking to people online so I like to through in a few “la”s and “en”s here. For favorite phrases that would be about it ! that’s it.

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

I remember watching Chinese TV after being in China for about six months and starting to think, “Hey I heard what he said, I heard every word!” Not that I knew what he was saying, but I could clearly distinguish each separate word, a great step! Now I just needed to learn what all those sounds meant…

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

In the beginning when I started working in China, I only knew one other English speaker in the whole city, and I didn’t intend to restrict myself to a social circle of just one, so that was motivation enough. Now I’ve got to the level where I can communicate with ease I have found my motivation flagging. Yet in my new position as the principal of a Chinese school, I’ve again found my motivation to study. After all I have to be a good role-model for my students right?

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

Go out today and speak Chinese to somebody! If you can’t find somebody to speak with, get online and find a language partner. There are millions of Chinese wanting to learn English and I am sure they’d love to help you in return. If that doesn’t work, did I mention this school in Shanghai


Thanks Kevin!

I’d just add that using FluentU is another great way for improving your Chinese game.

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

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