Lessons in Learning Chinese: Matt Hess

This week we’re featuring Matt Hess, a fellow colleague I taught along side with during our training program in Beijing before heading to Shenzhen together. One thing’s for sure, he’s really passionate about this language and culture, not to mention good at it!

In his own words:

I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington and am a 2011 graduate of Lewis and Clark College. I spent my third college year studying abroad in Beijing, before going on to get my degree in International Affairs and Chinese. I spent the year following graduation in Shenzhen, as a foreign teacher teaching English to a bunch of goofy high school kids. I am currently enjoying being back in the US, but already plotting my return to Asia this coming summer.

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

I began studying Chinese during my second year of college. At the start, I was intensively studying Japanese, but I thought Chinese language skills would be useful for any East Asia related research I might do for my international relations major. As that first year progressed, I gradually came to realize that Chinese would replace Japanese as my primary foreign language. That feeling solidified
when I opted to spend my entire third year studying abroad in Beijing, rather than Tokyo. Japan’s a great country and Japanese was a fascinating language to study, but China and Chinese was just whole new adventure. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.


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

No grand 想法, but when studying language, it is wrongheaded to think that you can truly learn a language with only in-class study. In-class experience is important and has its place, but a committed language learner has to make real effort to connect personally with the history, current events, pop culture and the people of the target language’s country/countries. In my experience, people who do that, especially while studying abroad, make crazy leaps and bounds in language proficiency.


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

While studying abroad at CET Beijing Language Intensive program, each class had to put together and perform a skit in front the rest of the program, every week. My class got super involved in a couple of our skits and had a blast in the process. We had a 24/7 Chinese-only pledge for the duration of the program. We all learned an enormous amount from all that Chinese-only collaboration.

Aside from that, I enjoy challenging myself by watching Chinese movies with Chinese subtitles. I always learn a ton of new language. Another great thing to do, if you’re non-Chinese and living in China, is to pick up a Chinese newspaper, (whether you can really read it or not), and sit down in a public place. Then, wait for some curious bystander to wander over and strike up a conversation. In my experience, it rarely takes very long and it’s great one-on-one speaking practice, whoever your conversation partner turns out to be!


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

Do not underestimate the importance of accurate pronunciation. Emphasize correct tones from the start because they are essential. It may be true that Chinese is difficult to learn largely because of the unfamiliar barrier of tones and written characters. But, I do not like to see people new to  or thinking about studying Chinese give up because they are overly intimidated. Characters and tones can be tough, but they are far from un-learnable, and, if you invest some time and effort, they can be a lot of fun!


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

One of my favorites is 塞翁失马, “sàiwēngshīmǎ”. I like it mostly because it has a straightforward and classic English translation, “blessing in disguise”. That was also the first and only time I’d encountered the pinyin “weng”, which is cool in a nerdy way.


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

The experience of waiting in line for 3 hours in the middle of Tiananmen Square, for the spending less than two minutes inside Chairman Mao’s mausoleum, was quite surreal. Some friends and I made the questionable choice to do this during the insanely busy period around Chinese New Year, but it was worth it for the conversation with people around us and great people watching. Not to mention that it was one of those rare, crisp blue sky, days in Beijing. If only there were more of them!


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

I had a big “aha” moment when I looked back on my language intensive program and realized I had gotten to know my Chinese roommate and teachers really well without a single word of English. That is something I had never really imagined doing growing up in a one-language family in the States.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

If I feel my interest in studying Chinese start to wane, I find and watch a quality Chinese movie. Which, in my book, means any of director Zhang Yimou’s older stuff, or anything involving the actor/director Jiang Wen.


Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

Pretty much anything with eggplant or green beans!


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

Carry a small notebook in a pocket for noting down new or unknown words and phrases. Keeping a running record of new words, and words you see or hear all the time but don’t know, has really helped me in the past, especially while living in China. It not only helped to remind me to look up unknown words, but also kept me observant and attentive to everyday surroundings. All of those incomprehensible street signs covered in crazy characters, restaurant menus, and random things you hear around town, really are learnable.


Thanks Matt for sharing those tips & stories. Wow, catching Beijing with a blue sky?! Talk about 千载难逢! Besides agreeing with his tip for having a solid foundation of tones and characters, I think that having that notepad is great. Speaking from experience, it really does burn new words into your memory faster when you learn them in the moment instead of from a dry textbook.

If you’re interested in being featured on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, please let us know.

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