Mandarin Monday: ChineseHacks’ David Flynn doles out some learning insight

Wha?! Mandarin Monday on a Wednesday? What the hell is going on. Yeah, I screwed up and totally forgot. Hopefully a bit of mid-week mandarin is just as good though.

For the third installment in our weekly Mandarin Monday series that discusses Chinese learning we’ve hit up David Flynn. Dave is originally from the UK, he’s been living in Taiwan and learning Mandarin Chinese for the last five years. He founded and runs a blog dedicated to effectively learning Chinese; and co-founded, a handy learning tool for any student of Chinese.

Lost Laowai: What was the largest driving force in spurring you to overcome the challenges and actually learn Chinese?

Dave: The story of how I got started learning Chinese is a strange one, though I think it might be similar to other foreigners who find themselves in Taiwan before they actually decided to start learning Chinese. I came to Taiwan right after graduating from a computer science degree in the UK and at the time I couldn’t write a word of Chinese, and the only Chinese I could actually speak was a few words that I had managed to pick up from the first few lessons of Pimsleur (which didn’t turn out to be much use since it’s heavily oriented for mainland Chinese).

I came to Taiwan because I had met my girlfriend at the time in the UK, she was Taiwanese, and I planned to visit Taiwan for a few months after graduating. Well, two months in Taiwan went by quickly, and I found myself in need of another visa. I did one visa run to Hong Kong before looking for other ways that I might be able to stay in the country, and that’s when I decided to learn Chinese. Learning Chinese in Taiwan you can stay for 3 months, which is the length of one semester, and you can keep extending your visa for the duration of your studies.

I didn’t plan to study Chinese for almost 4 years, it just happened. After I started learning I realised that I actually found it really interesting, and it very quickly changed from being a way to a visa, to becoming one of my main reasons for staying here.

Lost Laowai: How has the Chinese learning landscape changed since you first started learning — what’s better/worse?

Dave: I study Chinese in Kaohsiung, a city in the south of Taiwan. Even though it’s the second largest city in Taiwan, the number of foreigners here is really low. Though, I like it this way. It allows me to immerse myself in my Chinese studies and, with the exception of a few friends who can’t speak Chinese, means I can restrict myself to only using Chinese to communicate.

For the first few years I didn’t really use online resources much, there weren’t that many as I remember. I had briefly used ChinesePod, but after starting classes I found myself using resources that came directly from the teachers and a huge amount of my time out of class was spent drilling characters in those special notebooks that Taiwanese children learn to write characters. It’s for this reason I didn’t pay much attention to what others were doing at the time or at what stage the online learning scene was. Though what I can say is that the amount of people learning Chinese has increased immensely. I was at Kaohsiung airport recently and after buying myself a souvenir Taiwan flag mug the woman commented that all of the foreigners today had spoken excellent Chinese and that soon someone in her position might not need to know English. An exaggeration, I’m sure, but still goes to show that learning Chinese is turning out to be more than a passing fad.

The number of online resources has really increased in the last few years, though. Even since I started ChineseHacks in early 2010, there has been numerous blogs popping up and even social network style Web sites focused solely on learning Chinese.

Lost Laowai: Do you believe a single method of learning works best, or would you recommend a multi-pronged attack?

Dave: I’d have to say multi-pronged, and simply for the reason that no one method is perfect, and not every method suits every person.

It’s difficult for beginners, though, because the last thing you want to do is overwhelm yourself, especially at the start. I’d say that people starting out should just pick a class or an online course for beginners and stick with it to the end. I just mean an introductory course that might cover a phonetic alphabet and then a few basic modules. This way you can get a good idea of what you’re dealing with and have at least a basic understanding of what Chinese is. Then start branching out in other areas and reading around the subject.

One thing to be careful not to do, is to spend a disproportionate amount of time learning one aspect of Chinese. Depending on your goal and where you are learning, one aspect might be more important and valuable than another. For instance, if you are in Taiwan or China, you need to focus on speech and conversation over writing.

Lost Laowai: What do you feel as being the most effective tool in learning Chinese?

Dave: For me it’s got to be books or magazines — something that I can look over, write on, and study anywhere. Though I know it depends on the person. I know some people who like to watch cartoons or movies over and over. I like movies as a way to passively study while relaxing, but for actually studying it’s got to be written material for me.

I always have a pencil in my hand when reading a book. I draw a line between the words so I can clearly see them (this is one drawback of reading Chinese, the words don’t have a space between them like in English). If I come across a language construct then I draw a box around each part of the construct. Then I’ll circle words I don’t know and when words come up a lot in the text I might write them in the margin to come back and review later.

Lost Laowai: Where do you think a new learner should start, and is that where you started?

Dave: First learning a phonetic alphabet is obviously the way to go, and most course are structured this way anyway. Though what I would say is don’t overly focus on the phonetic alphabet itself. From what I’ve heard, courses in the West focus on Pinyin and then the learners only read Pinyin for months before actually reading Chinese characters. In Taiwan we learnt the Zhuyin phonetic alphabet for a couple of weeks while at the same time being introduced to Chinese characters.

My point is that you should expose yourself to Chinese characters as early as possible and in the early stages make sure you at least look at the characters that you are learning the phonetics for.

As I mentioned above, you need to get a solid foundation laid for you to build on. But after you have learnt the basics and have a phonetic alphabet under your belt then I would start looking for learning materials that you are actually interested in. I always think that materials aimed at native speakers are the best, so don’t be afraid to start looking in places other than textbooks for interesting materials to learn.

Lost Laowai: What mistakes, if any, did you make when learning that you hope others can avoid?

Dave: I honestly feel that in the first year or so of Chinese I spent too much time drilling Chinese characters. Though this was through no fault, or choice, of my own. The course that I was enrolled in at the time focused heavily on writing characters, and each week we would have a writing test. Obviously this has value, and I know it’s what the children in Taiwan do, but when you’re an adult learning Chinese you don’t have as much time as a full time student and I really think that this time could have been better spent on other aspects of learning Chinese.

I also used to get quite frustrated at a shop or on the street in Taiwan when someone would refuse to speak Chinese to me. Refuse is a harsh word — it’s more that they wanted to practice English, or didn’t know that I could, or wanted, to speak Chinese. Though in retrospect I can see that it didn’t really matter that much, and compared to places like Hong Kong where you have no idea what language the other person can speak I think Taiwan is a great place to learn Chinese.

I also wish I had started blogging about Chinese earlier. Something that always held me back was that I would constantly think “I’ll just wait until my Chinese is a bit better, then I’ll…”. The problem is that the time never seems to come as you always think your ability could be better, or that other people are better than you so what’s the point. My advice now would be to just start. Writing about the learning process is a great way to solidify and organise your knowledge.

I would even say keep a diary or write a blog in Chinese, so you can use what you are learning while you are acually learning it.

Lost Laowai: What are some of your favourite resources (online or off) for learning Chinese?

Dave: I focus mostly on books, and during the first few years of learning Chinese I used to buy books aimed at children of around 10 to 12 years old. You’re probably imagining me reading a big picture book with huge Chinese characters, but I don’t mean those kinds of children’s books.

In Taiwan there is a biographical series aimed at young adults about famous people and the story of how they came to be who they are today. The only difference between them and an adult book is that the characters have Zhuyin next to them and overly complex words might be omitted out in favour of simpler equivalents. I remember reading the story of how Google was founded, and also a biography of Bill Gates, so next time you are at the book shop don’t rule out the children’s section as there really are some gems in there.

Online I rarely read Web sites that are targetted at learners. What I like to do is read Web sites and online content aimed at native speakers, and I use a selection of Firefox plugins that help me convert web pages into Traditional Chinese (since I learnt Chinese in Taiwan), read words that I don’t know using a pop-up dictionary, or annotate web pages with a glossary of keywords. With these tools* you can turn any Chinese content into learning material.

I really think that the sooner you start reading and studying content meant for native speakers the better. You’ll find that most textbooks won’t teach you so called ‘real-world’ Chinese and depending on your teacher you might be stuck learning more formal Chinese. I recently heard a Chinese teacher tell a student that they shouldn’t watch TV in Taiwan as there is a lot of slang and it would be bad for their studies. In my opinion, what is the use of of learning a language if you can’t use it like a native speaker? Imagine going to the UK and only learning the “Queen’s English”, you wouldn’t last 5 minutes in most cities.

* Tools I use to read Chinese online:

For more from Dave check out ChineseHacks, as well as his personal blog: Tech & Tea. You can also follow him on Twitter. And, of course, check back next week for more Mandarin Monday (I’ll even do my best to get it posted on Monday!).


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  2. Excellent Interview,

    Interesting to see that we (at least foreigners in Taiwan) more or less have the same stories, mistakes (I’ve extensively studied characters and very few the grammar or practical speaking)

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