Lessons in Learning Chinese: Matt Johnson

In the 15th post in our Lessons in Learning Chinese series, today we feature Matt Johnson. Matt has had a few exciting years in China, and is now in Beijing working as a tech-journalist. He brings his signature optimism and good natured wit to this interview. Definitely a great read!

He is, in his own words,

Basically an enthusiast for languages, cultures, politics and technology. I graduated a bit early in 2011 from Bucknell University and I’ve been lost in China for going on 2 years now. Currently I work with the Great Wall Club, a company that annually runs Asia’s largest mobile Internet conference and will soon host its first conference in Silicon Valley this October. I write for the company’s blog MobiSights, covering news related to mobile Internet in China and Asia. I also recently started my own blog here.

Thanks Matt! Enjoy everybody.

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

I’ve been studying Chinese essentially for a year and a half with brief moments of interruption. I moved here after graduation back in February 2011 with the intention of staying only a year, yet typically you’ll find many people that say this and end up staying much longer. For about 6 months I studied on my own learning the basics of character writing, pronunciation, and simple sentence structure with a combination of materials. Since then I have been taking speaking 口语 (kǒu yǔ) classes in the evenings.

Originally the purpose of my learning was simple curiosity. I have always enjoyed learning languages, and coming to China was a bit of an adventure that I wanted to risk. Though I had no formal study before, I managed to learn enough in the first 6 months to be able to read, speak and understand basic conversations. All it takes is a healthy sense of purpose mixed with the right amount of stress. When it comes to languages, you have to be willing to feel uncomfortable for a while.

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

There is no better substitute for personal zeal when it comes to learning Chinese. Though I could not justify going to classes for the first 6 months due to the remoteness of my community, I always had an understanding that the language would be beneficial not only for my immediate life circumstances but also for the future. You want to be able to tell your story the way it is supposed to be told. You want to tell people that you lived in China for several years and had to go through many struggles to learn the language and communicate with the people of remote towns and borderlands, not that you sought comfort in American television and Facebook.

I think another particular motivation is having a sense of respect for other people. Why should English be the limit? Sometimes, and I mean this seriously, you can’t effectively learn much more about your own language. There are of course vocabulary and the occasional grammar points to be noted, but your mind won’t expand linguistically if you stay in the same framework. Language keeps you on your toes, constantly challenging you to take another step. Every conversation motivates you to learn another word or two, when the embarrassment of a missing word lodges itself in your mind. It keeps you grounded, and its always a healthy project in life.

Too many people brush off Mandarin as something unnecessary to their life in China, as many Chinese already know or want to learn English. But if there are 1.3 billion people speaking the language or some form of it, you should at least give that some thought. It’s self-defeating to say it is too difficult because the fact is that a billion people have already managed to learn it, and all you have to do is talk to one of them.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?

I like to train my understanding of Chinese by watching television programs with a dictionary in front of me. Most Chinese television programs have subtitles, which makes it easier to catch some of the words. Sometimes you can find an American movie being shown in Chinese, as the story is occasionally easier to follow. I’ve also begun reading as much as possible.

When I have time, I arrange to meet with Chinese friends who do not speak so much English either at a cafe or bar of some sort to do an exchange. This is probably the best way to learn because you get many more visual cues and mental reinforcement from personal interactions. Always bring a dictionary or a phone with you.

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

I would say that there is a threshold in Chinese study that you eventually reach where your language study has diminishing returns until you begin to actually study words and characters effectively. The written word was the final development of human language for a reason. That is why I recommend it from the beginning.

You cannot study Chinese effectively without 汉字 (hàn zì). Nothing will begin to improve with spoken ability unless you tediously begin to read and write. Think back to when you were learning English as a child. Only once you began to read and write did you truly start to gain a grasp of grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure. The spoken word can only do so much. You will begin to find that some words you will hear so many times but never truly grasp until you see them written in a book and learn how they are used in a sentence. Once you can read a sentence to yourself slowly, you will begin to commit the words to memory and they will suddenly come out in a conversation spontaneously.

Any favorite words or phrases?

I’ve tried to think of a few clever ones, but all I’m coming up with at the moment is 无所谓 (wú suǒ wèi), which literally means “not what it’s called,” but it is used in the context of “not caring” or “being indifferent” about something. Another odd phrase that nobody ever uses in the English context is 厉害 (lì hài), which means “intense” or “ferocious,” but it is used often to signify that someone admires your abilities. 你很厉害 (nǐ hěn lì hài) is a common phrase used when Chinese praise your language ability.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

You have to be genuinely interested in other people, hands down. If you maintain a bad opinion about China or if you tell yourself you can’t get along with Chinese people, then it will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Make an effort to see the positive side of someone that perhaps thinks differently than you, and go out and make Chinese friends. It is the best motivator when there is someone you seriously want to talk to, but you don’t how to say something to them. It builds emotional memory into the language learning, making it much easier to recall the moment and the words.

Absolute, hands down, favorite Chinese dish?

麻辣香锅 (má là xiāng guō)I typically enjoy spicy, salty, oily guilty-pleasure Chinese food. Anything that combines herbs, meat, veggies, and oil in one dish catches my attention when I’m looking at a menu.

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

Find a language exchange partner as soon as possible. Make sure it is someone you’re compatible with and do not stop studying. Learning a language is somewhat like a gym regiment or like practicing music. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes second-hand and reinforces itself. Hard work is its own reward as they say.


Thanks for a great interview Matt! Reading these interviews genuinely inspire me to study more, and we hope they encourage you too. You can get started with FluentU, which lets you learn Chinese naturally through videos with interactive subtitles.

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