Lessons in Learning Chinese: Matt Owen

Today we feature an old friend of ours here at FluentU.  Matt Owen came to China on a whim in 2006, and ended up studying Chinese at Tsinghua University for 3 semesters.  I can personally say I’ve never seen anybody have more fun learning Chinese than Matt, and this interview is definitely a fun read.

In his own words,

I worked as a “China guy” agent for a number of UK companies for the last couple of years, who have now become clients of mine at my new venture – My China Business Ltd. MCB is a route-to-market solutions provider, which means we help companies sell in China. Primarily, we are focusing on the data and information, cosmetics, dental and mother and baby care sectors.

My China Business also writes a weekly blog on China’s booming and complex e-commerce market, which takes a look at key growth trends and hot topics in the sector. We are also preparing our first white paper, looking at the link between online shopping and social media, which should be available for free download within the next couple of weeks.

Thanks Matt, enjoy everyone!

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

The best approach to take with learning Chinese is to be thorough from the very beginning. Any shortcuts you take now turn into massive blindspots in your knowledge a few semesters down the road. I know I sound like your Dad when I say it, but it really pays to build your foundations strong.

Also, the first thousand characters are the most important. Skip them at your peril! Take the time to make sure you have the simplest ‘s and ‘s embedded deep in your brain before “mu-ving” onto the tougher ‘s and ‘s.

For those further on in their Chinese studies, playing games is a great way to learn. My friend and I used to have character battles to see who knew the most 汉字 with a certain radical, like , , etc. like, , , .. (I remember the grass radical round taking forever!) Another great one is finding characters that are in pairs, like , , and , or triplets like , , or my personal favourite – good luck getting that into one of those tiny 汉字 squares!

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most?

As you probably guessed from the above section, I am a massive character nerd. I pretty much squirrelled myself away for hours and hours a day practising writing, tearing my hair out every time I didn’t know the character for an obscure grass or chemical I saw on the back of a shampoo bottle.

Like most foreigners, I was raised on the PKU and BLCU textbooks, but I tried to branch out into children’s books as soon as I could (not the ones with the pinyin, however, which kill your character recognition stone dead).

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

Again, most people fail to see the value in investing heavily in the basics of Chinese. The worst speakers/writers I have seen are ones that never bothered to get their tones right from the start, or who scrawl out lumpy and misshapen characters. Your handwriting in Chinese really says a lot about you – much more so than in any other language – you rarely see someone totally fluent in Chinese with poor handwriting, and vice versa.

Favorite Chinese words?

Too many to choose from! I love the phrase 老黄瓜刷绿漆, just because the image of a vain, self-conscious cucumber somehow painting itself is totally hilarious. You’ll find the phrases 山高皇帝远 and 睁一只眼闭一只眼 pretty helpful for the workplace as well. If you find yourself hopelessly groping around for an elusive verb, a simple  or will usually get the point across, while with the solid deployment of a 漂亮 or 精彩, you could easily bluff your way through any art gallery in Beijing.

Funny stories, surreal moments?

One of the funniest things I ever heard in Chinese was at the Seven Star Park near Guilin. All around the park there were signposts saying “Pandas this way!” and “See the Pandas, 50m”. A gaggle of tourists from Beijing excitedly followed the signs to the reserve, which looked suspiciously small. After a short while, an adorable Lesser Panda poked its head out from the bush, only to be greeted by an indignant round of tutting and sighing as the disinterested group slinked away. One little girl cried out, “妈妈,这个熊猫太小的!” – I hope she got her money back! It was hilarious.

Any memorable milestones?  Any “A-ha!” or eureka! moments?

Being able to read a newspaper was a massive encouragement (as well as a massive cliche). The eureka moments for me came when I not only knew the radicals but also could guess the sound of the characters as well. For example, characters with “” in them tend to have and “qing/jing” sound, like “”, “”, ””, “”, “”, “” etc. so they become a lot easier to remember and also look up if you don’t know them.

My biggest milestone was when I managed to interpret a meeting regarding product licensing, IP agreements, and distribution rights between two companies. The meeting lasted 3 hours and I felt like my brain was leaking out of my ears by the end of it. Still, it was a great feeling.

How do you manage to keep motivated when learning Chinese?

Its so hard not to be motivated when something so fascinating! My big motivation really stemmed from not knowing what something meant. It would drive me crazy when I didn’t know a certain word, or when I had to bluff my way through a conversation while not knowing any vocab around the topic.

You have studied Chinese in both the UK and China.  What was the biggest difference for you?

You absolutely have to study in China, and that’s that. You can get a good grasp of the basics at home, but in order to really remember anything in a meaningful way you have to get out there and really live it.

It is easy to feel put off by the Chinese approach to learning. I know some foreigners who had completed their masters degrees and were being made to write out the same character hundreds of times like a child. I guess you have to suck it up if you wanna learn and admit to yourself that you are undertaking a task that will take thousands of hours to even grasp the basics. So don’t hate your teachers for treating you like a child!

What is one thing our readers can do TODAY to improve their Chinese?

OK, if you want to improve your characters, buy a 汉字 grid pad, a pocket notebook (really pocket size – the smaller the better) and a nice pen. Test yourself constantly to make sure you don’t forget anything. Write down any characters you see outside and don’t just look them up on your iPhone as you will forget them instantly. When you get home, fill out your grid pad with new characters and off you go!

For speaking, the ABSOLUTE BEST THING you can do quickly is to get good at your verb endings, such as “下去”, “上来”, “起来“, “过去”, “下来” etc. For example, “拉上来” sounds a lot more convincing than just ““, and “活下去” is a great word for living. Listening to the different ways Chinese people put these together with other verbs can make an enormous difference to your speech. It will make you sound a lot more proficient and natural.


Thanks to Matt for a great interview!

If you want to have fun learning Chinese like Matt, head on over to FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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For more from Matt, you can follow him on Twitter @MattOwen_MCB, or on Facebook here.

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