Lessons in Learning Chinese: Phil Beckwith

This week on our Lessons in Learning Chinese series we are happy to feature Phil Beckwith.  Without further adieu,

“My name is Philip Beckwith. My hobby used to be music, performing it and listening to it, etc., but that all changed when I went to China. All things China became my hobby after that. I lived in Shanghai for 6 years, went to a bunch of places including Tibet, learned Mandarin at Shanghai Jiao Tong University for 1.5 years, took 1 year of classes at East China University of Science and Technology, married a Chinese woman, went back to my hometown with my wife and toddler daughter, and now… I teach Chinese at a high school and a Saturday Chinese language school.”

Thanks Phil, enjoy everyone!

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

I’ve been studying for seven years. It all started because I had a great Shanghainese teacher at my university who got me interested in China, but what kept me going is the challenge. Everyone said it was one of the hardest languages to learn, which I thought was crazy because Spanish was hard for me as it didn’t interest me in any profound way.

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

Mix it up. Make sure you have a core way of learning Chinese, but seek other sources to keep it interesting. For example, find Chinese language newspapers or books and try to read them. I learned a lot about European history in Chinese. They might be hard to find outside of China, but in China they have tons of abridged versions of classic stories that have both Chinese and English. These are great for intermediate learners as the wording and length are not terribly prohibitive.

What aspects of studying Chinese do you enjoy the most? 

I like ’em all as long as they don’t seem too academic. Textbooks seem almost inherently boring. They have their uses, but I’m glad I’m beyond them now. I can say specifically that I do enjoy being with my wife and her Chinese friends and being able to understand what they are talking about when they speak Mandarin. Social aspects is something I can point to definitively.

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

I think the greatest mistake anyone can make is not talking because one is afraid of making mistakes. Most of us native English speakers make tons of mistakes when speaking English, so we shouldn’t be ashamed to make mistakes in other people’s languages.

Any favorite words or phrases?

谢谢你的鼓励 ( thank you for your encouragement). It is a good way to respond humbly to praise without using the overused 哪里哪里.

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

I do remember a young guy falling off of his bike in front of me. I wanted to say, “Are you okay?” I never thought about how to say it, so I said, “你好吗?” which of course just means “hi.”

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

My milestones can’t be traced to single instances that I remember clearly, but I can say this:

I do remember in the beginning it took me awhile to actually hear words I knew when I listeded to people speak. Chinese people sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher to me–wah wah wah wah. Then I remember that feeling of realizing that I was hearing words I knew, even if I it wasn’t enough to know what the speaker was talking about. As small of a victory as this seems, it meant a lot in the early days as I was really questioning if I could learn this language or not.

Another thing was when I realized that I was absentmindedly listening to others, not even trying to understand, but what they were talking about was almost as clear to me as if they were speaking English. The first few moments that happened, I couldn’t believe it. Up until then I had to strain my ears and listen to the audio from my lessons repeatedly to understand. Now it was just happening. Such a good feeling, and a relief.

How do you keep yourself motivated while studying Chinese?

I guess it comes naturally to me. I consider it a hobby (that thankfully also pays money). Who needs to be motivated to do hobbies? But I can say that to me no matter how much I study, I am aware of my limitations. I hate those limitations. I want to get rid of them. So basically, one of my biggest motivators is to take this challenge that I have given myself and take it as far as I can. It’s an endless struggle because there will always be something to learn, but at the same time, there will always be new victories. That’s what I like about Chinese.

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

Emulate the Chinese who want to learn English. Get some Chinese material, stand up and read aloud. Better yet, while listening or watching instructional lessons, speak along with the audio. Even better yet, go out and speak it. Be fearless, because there is no shame in making mistakes while learning. Something about getting the mouth moving makes us learn way faster. But too often I have seen other students just study a textbook, as if learning a language was simply sucking in facts. So in a nutshell, get those lips moving.


Thanks for the great stories and tips Phil!

Allow me to add just one more tip for learning Chinese. Use FluentU, it’s a great resource!


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

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

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