Lessons in Learning Chinese: Yangyang Cheng

Today we are thrilled to talk with Chinese teacher Yangyang Cheng, founder of Yoyo Chinese, and host of one of the most popular Chinese teaching Youtube channels (with over 4 million views!)

If you like learning Chinese with interesting videos, check out her channel, as well as FluentU!

Before YoYoChinese, she taught at Pepperdine, was host of popular Chinese TV show “Hello! Hollywood”, and was a private tutor to students including Fortune 500 CEOs and Hollywood celebrities.  With a background spanning business, education, entertainment, and entrepreneurial ventures, we are excited to speak with Yangyang about her views on language teaching and advice for learners.  Without further adieu…

 How and why did you get into teaching Chinese as a career? How did you come to start Yoyo Chinese?

I actually started my career as a financial auditor. I was working at Ernst and Young for a couple of years in both Hong Kong and the U.S., but I soon started feeling my entrepreneurial spirit taking over. I began doing everything small-business related; from running an online store selling T-shirts to organizing book tours and PR campaigns for a New York Times bestselling author. In the meantime, I was exploring Hollywood by acting and modeling, which ended up becoming very important for what eventually became my main business– producing Chinese learning videos.

Slowly, while I was doing all those things, I started a personal blog writing articles focusing on bringing new ideas and concepts from the U.S. to the Chinese audience. The website started getting popular by word of mouth alone. With more requests from readers asking me to teach more English and American culture, I started using video as source materials. The videos became viral and my audience loved them. Even though my English videos were becoming increasingly popular, I always felt that was not my true niche. There are many great English teachers in China but there are not nearly as many great Chinese teachers in the West. If I have an undying passion and a proven gift for teaching and language, then I thought to myself, why not teach my mother tongue, Chinese, instead? I felt that this was truly my calling.

My Chinese teaching career in the U.S. started with me producing my first Chinese teaching video “Learn Chinese with Yangyang” in 2007. The video is 9 minutes long, with me explaining simple phrases like “hello”, “how are you”, “I am so and so” and “thank you”. I also explained in my own way what Chinese tones are. The video was very well received and I used it as my feature video to promote and market my Chinese tutoring business. This is where I began my career as a Chinese teacher.

Afterwards, I was hired by Pepperdine University to teach their MBA students Chinese. I applied fun games I had learned from improv acting classes I had taken before and incorporated lots of physical acting to my classroom. My students absolutely loved it. My experience showed me how effective it was to be creative and apply the fun to language learning. Along with teaching at Pepperdine University, I also taught quite a few private students, from high school students to Hollywood celebrities. One of the most common pieces of feedback I received from my private students was that I can explain the Chinese language so well and clearly that they feel they truly get it. Also, they feel Chinese suddenly becomes easy and fun to learn instead of intimidating and boring when they learn it with me.

After a few years of hands-on teaching and experiences with video production, I believed it was time to combine all my experiences into one. After a year and half of preparation, I finally started YoyoChinese.com, a video-based Chinese learning site hosted by me. The site is a continuation of my Chinese teaching career. Now whoever wants to learn Chinese with me can do it easily and at a tiny fraction of the cost they would’ve paid for private lessons.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a Chinese teacher?

I think the biggest challenges for me as a teacher is that there are very limited Chinese learning resources available that are designed from an English speaker’s point of view. For the existing resources, even some most popular text books included, the explanations of the Chinese language concepts, such as tones and grammar are usually very dry and confusing. This is also one of the major reasons why I started designing my own curriculum and producing instructional videos.

In my office, you can find Chinese-learning products of all types for all ages, from all over the world. I study each one intently to learn what works and what doesn’t and how I can apply it to my students. Applying this, along with my constant study of the human learning process, I hope to overcome these challenges through solutions of my own!

What characteristics do your most successful students share?  What makes a great student of Chinese?

I think the characteristic my most successful students share is persistence. They are brave and not afraid of making mistakes. Even if they can speak only one Chinese word, they will make sure this word is used everywhere. That’s how I learned English as well.

I remember when I first started learning English, one of the first few sentences I learned was “how much is it”. When I was taken to an international book fair in Beijing after I learned that sentence, I was making sure I would use that question in any occasion possible. Lots of booths hosts thought I knew English well and started speaking it to me only to find out that was the only sentence I could speak and understand. The point of the story is that you need to use what you learn, even if you’re unsure of how to use it. The more mistakes you make the better.

Additionally, I think a very important characteristic of a great student of Chinese is that they should have an open mind towards the Chinese culture. As you immerse deeper into a culture, your understanding of the language will deepen, too.

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

I think one of the biggest mistakes is that students spend lots of time learning Chinese characters at the beginning. What’s worse is when they are trying to learn the Chinese characters that form the spoken sentences they learn.

The Chinese language is all about building blocks. For spoken Chinese, you want to start with word components, and grow into words, phrases and then sentences. For written Chinese, you want to start with strokes, then radicals and then characters. Unfortunately, these two processes are not synchronized. What’s easiest to say is not necessarily the easiest to write. If we combine “learning how to speak” with “learning how to write” into one process, you will be forced to learn several very difficult characters at the very beginning that will put you off immediately. I’ve seen many students drop off Chinese classes at school simply because their teachers put too strong an emphasis on learning Chinese characters too early. I suggest my students start learning the basics of Chinese characters only after they have built a foundation for spoken Chinese.

I’ve seen Chinese teachers require their students to write characters many times so that students can memorize them. The direct outcome of such teaching philosophy is that students spend a large amount of time doing something that is not necessary for communication and is easily forgotten. This just reinforces their original thought of Chinese being the most difficult language. It really doesn’t have to be this way.

You mentioned you were a TV show host before. Has your teaching style benefited from your entertainment background? 

The two absolutely are beneficial to each other. For example, being a Chinese teacher has cultivated me to be more patient, more articulate and I’ve become a better listener because of it. On the other hand, being an entertainment reporter has helped me become more spontaneous, more creative and more fun, so I am better connected with my students. Also, the entertainment career has helped my current business tremendously. For example, being a reporter has given me a chance to learn all the nuts and bolts of producing a great entertainment show including script writing, on-camera acting, shooting and editing. With what I learned, I’m able to constantly apply the entertainment elements to my teaching videos to make them more fun and entertaining to watch while being informative at the same time. I am very grateful for all my experiences.

What is your favorite aspect of Chinese to teach?

My favorite aspect of Chinese to teach is Chinese grammar. The word “grammar” itself probably already sounds very dry and puts off lots of people, but for some reason students find my explanations of grammar clear, simple and even entertaining.

Grammar is actually extremely important in the language learning. A good understanding of the grammar of the target language is like having a strong and clear building structure. It provides a framework upon which you can build vocabulary and make your learning process easy and effective.

To achieve this, it requires a Chinese instructor not only to be fluent in and have a thorough understanding of both English and Chinese, but also the instructor needs to care deeply about their students so that everything, including pronunciation, word formation, grammar and even culture is carefully broken down into bite-sized information and clearly explained from the students’ perspective. That’s exactly the kind of instruction I’m trying to provide for my students. When it comes to grammar teaching, I’d like to explain it like I’m telling a story.

What is the best part of your job?

Having a conversation in Mandarin with one of my students!

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

Many students have trouble remembering tones. I want to introduce this technique to help Chinese learners memorize tones of a sentence- think of tones as melody. I once taught Eliza Coupe, the actress from “Scrubs” and “Happy Endings”, preparing her for a role that requires her to deliver Chinese lines perfectly as if she’s been living in China for many years. I only had two weeks to help her achieve that goal. I used the technique of treating tones as if they were tunes and instead of memorizing each tone individually, I helped her memorize the Chinese sentence as if she was singing.

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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