Mandarin Monday: Popup Chinese’s Brendan O’Kane lays down some learning know-how

Our Mandarin Monday interview for this week is none other than well-known blogger, podcast host and translator, Brendan O’Kane.

One of the original founders of Paper Republic, Brendan is a host of the Mandarin Chinese language learning podcast Popup Chinese, and teaches a course in Chinese-English literary translation at IES Abroad Beijing.

He also (and far too infrequently!) blogs at (English) and 在北京找不着北 (Chinese). He lives in Beijing with his wife and two cats.

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

Brendan: I’d been sort-of interested in Chinese from a fairly young age — partly because of a general interest in languages, and partly, I guess, because of a family friend who had studied Chinese in university, spent a couple of years teaching in Beijing in the early 80s, and always brought me Chinese-themed presents. And then I turned seven and decided I wanted to be an archaeologist instead, or something, and the interest faded into the background. It reemerged when I was 15 and my parents gave me a copy of Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation (I wouldn’t say “translation,” though I would’ve then) of the Tao Te Ching, and I decided that I’d like to read it in the original.

So I signed up for night classes at the local community college and studied Chinese more or less halfassedly for a couple of years, and then had the chance to spend the summer after high school in a program run by Stanford and Beida. Actually being on the ground in China made the language come alive for me, and if I hadn’t been hooked before, I certainly was afterwards. When I went back to the States, I got drawn in deeper by Chinese literature, and once I started studying Classical Chinese (which is, I maintain, where a lot of the good stuff is), I was pretty much done for.

Instead of going to my second year of college, I took a job teaching English up in Harbin for a year. It was not really the best year of my life — though it was great for my Chinese — and I actually might’ve quit if I hadn’t been accepted as a foreign student at Beida. I moved down to Beijing, fell in love with the city all over again, and the rest is history.

That’s more of a history of my interest in the language than a description of how I motivated myself to learn, I guess, but the driving force all along has just been interest. Chinese is now a much more common subject of study than it was when I was starting out (which was not all that long ago!), and I’m curious to see how that will change things for people. When I began learning Chinese in 1999, it was still kind of the exclusive province of the sad monomaniac; now, it’s a class you can take in high school. (And in elementary school in some cases, though I suspect that the classes are about as useful as all other elementary school language classes in the US.)

I’ve told people, half-jokingly, that learning Chinese as a foreign language is easy — all it takes is about five years of obsessive focus. At the very least, it takes a strong interest — and I encountered Chinese at a time in my life when I had the interest and the drive to follow up on it.

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

Brendan: You can find Chinese-as-a-foreign-language textbooks from the 1800s on Google Books, if you look. A lot of them are great reads — Chinese for Imperialists (Chapter 3: “I said ‘hot water,’ you impudent boy”), Chinese for Missionaries (Chapter 7: “Your beliefs are superstitious nonsense and your grandparents are in hell”), etc. — and if you look at them, you’ll notice that the methods used to teach Chinese really didn’t change much between 1880 and 2000: artificial dialogues, vocabulary lists to be learned by rote, and minimal explanation of grammar. In general, I think Chinese textbooks — then and now — reflect the unspoken (perhaps unrealized) assumption that most students won’t make it past the first semester, so nothing ever gets explained in any kind of adequate way until like the third or fourth year, if people are lucky. Heaven forbid that anyone ever try to save students a bit of time by explaining at the outset that “adjectives” in Chinese are really stative verbs, or that 是 doesn’t mean “to be,” or anything else that would tell them how Chinese is different from English. Sometimes you’ll even hear people come out with ridiculous statements about Chinese not having grammar — while expressing disappointment about their students’ poorly formed Chinese sentences.

This is gradually changing, as Chinese pedagogy is slowly becoming grounded in something other than native speakers’ naive and unexamined assumptions about how their own language works. The general state of things still isn’t great, but it’s getting better, and there seems no longer to be the assumption that anyone studying Chinese is going to commit to it for the next decade or two. There are now even people studying Chinese and other things! It’s not just for prospective sinologists anymore — which is a pretty healthy thing, I think. Over the last few decades, and especially in this past one, there’s been a realization that not everybody studying Chinese is going to want to read Warring States-era philosophy (or that they’ll just read the damn 论语 in translation the same way Chinese people do), and so teaching materials have moved increasingly in the direction of presenting the language with a focus on communication. They’re still not great, of course, but if you put, say, Integrated Chinese next to the old Practical Chinese Reader, you’ll see a huge difference. (Though I do have a massive soft spot for the old PCR. Friends of Gubo and Palanka, represent!)

And then there are Chinese-learning podcasts like Popup Chinese (where I’m one of the hosts, full disclosure!) and ChinesePod (where I know and like a lot of the people). I don’t actually agree with the claims that Chinese-learning podcasts can or should or ever will be able to replace a good classroom environment, but I am kind of an old fart in some respects, and this may be one of them. Taken as supplementary materials, though, they’re great stuff — something that I really wish I’d had when I was starting out. With Popup Chinese, since we’re often addressing a more advanced audience, I try to take the chance to spend a little more time on the mechanics of things — how a certain pattern or sentence structure may work, or some finer points of intonation — just because that’s the sort of thing I always wanted to know more about when I was studying. (And I try to do it without getting boring, which is always tricky.)

The Internet, and particularly Web 2.0 sites like Youku and Weibo, disintermediates between students of Chinese and the Chinese language as it’s actually used. It lets you dip your toes into a stream that’s flowing, instead of the algae-covered kiddy pool that we used to be stuck with.

The internet has been an absolute godsend for language learners everywhere. Back when I was starting out — which really wasn’t very long ago — if you wanted to watch Chinese TV, you’d have to go to a store in Chinatown and buy a bootleg VCD of the CCTV Chinese New Year Gala to watch at home six months after the fact. If you wanted to read something in Chinese, you’d have to go to the public library and root around through their selection of Chinese books, most of which were Qiong Yao novels or something similarly barf-worthy. The bigger your local Chinatown, the better your selection, of course, but I distinctly recall it sucking even when I went on trips to Manhattan’s Chinatown in 2001. Then again, it’s probably also that I didn’t know what to look for then. And don’t get me started on newspapers. You might have been looking for an idea of what was new and cool in China, but you’d end up getting time-delayed snapshots of lowest-common-denominator, squeaky-clean popular quote-unquote culture — not so different, come to think of it, from what you got in your textbooks.

Even leaving aside — which would be a mistake — the Chinese-learning podcasts out there, there’s such a wealth of content on blogs and Weibo and Renren and Youku nowadays. Say you want to follow the news. Instead of bothering with newspaper coverage (which is written in a dull-as-ditchwater “professional” register that hasn’t changed much in decades), you can scan Weibo for posts about a given topic to get a sense of what people are thinking. When (and I do mean when) you find some new Weibo meme that proves impervious to your dictionaries, you can turn to Baidu Zhidao, where someone will assuredly have asked about it. The Internet, and particularly Web 2.0 sites like Youku and Weibo, disintermediates between students of Chinese and the Chinese language as it’s actually used. It lets you dip your toes into a stream that’s flowing, instead of the algae-covered kiddy pool that we used to be stuck with.

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

Brendan: People learn in different ways, and have different areas of interest. The foundational stuff — tones, Pinyin, characters — is going to be the same for pretty much everybody (though more on that later), but once people get to a more or less self-sufficient level, they’re going to want to spend more time on the things that interest them — classical Chinese, spoken Chinese, business Chinese, or whatever. The key thing is to recognize that there are two aspects to language ability — input and output — and that being able to deal well with input doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to produce acceptable output. It’s important to address the output side of things as soon and as often as you possibly can.

For anyone really interested in interaction, you’re going to want to step outside and actually talk to people. This goes for internet nerds too — chatting on QQ only gets you so far.

There are some things you can do at home — character practice, flashcards if you’re into that sort of thing (I’m not), reading and writing practice. But as you can see, they’re mostly very artificial things: for anyone really interested in interaction, you’re going to want to step outside and actually talk to people. This goes for internet nerds too — chatting on QQ only gets you so far. And as John Pasden said in his answers, the thought of structuring my entire study of Chinese around any series of textbooks just makes me want to stick my thumbs into my eyes. Once people have gotten to a level of Chinese where they only need to break out the dictionary once or twice per sentence, it’s time to step outside and get lost in the biomass. That’s easier to do if you’re actually in China, but as I said above, the Internet has made things a lot easier for people stuck elsewhere.

I’d strongly recommend that people pay more attention to Chinese literature and composition. Right now, I’m not aware of any program that pays much in the way of attention to second-language students’ Chinese composition skills (beyond maybe teaching them how to write a resume), which is a real shame. I used to write a blog in Chinese, and I found that it helped me straighten out my understanding of how certain things worked stylistically in written Chinese.

I’ve been lucky. I absorb information through the eyes pretty well, so my learning style worked well with the methods of teaching that were around when I started, which were mostly text-based. That happened to overlap with my main interest, which was (and still mostly is) Chinese literature. At the same time, I’ve been living in China since 2002, so I haven’t been able to follow my natural instincts and just crawl up into books: spoken Chinese is still a part of my everyday life. My spoken Chinese is by far the weakest aspect of my Chinese ability, but because of my environment it hasn’t been able to atrophy too badly.

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

Brendan: Tool? Dictionary. Go out and get a good one — a good paper one, if you can. Electronic dictionaries are awesome (and I use Wenlin and Pleco all the time, as well as pirated custom Chinese-Chinese dictionaries for the OS X, but the sheer inconvenience of looking something up in a paper dictionary will make you more likely to remember it. Paper dictionaries aren’t the way to go for work, or for anything where time is really of the essence, but if you’re studying at home, there is still nothing better, in my experience. A pocket dictionary will get you through a conversation or a road trip; the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary will get you through a novel; the 汉语大词典 will get you through just about anything written before 1911 (but probably not all that much written afterwards). Once you’re able to, or maybe even a little before you’re able to, switch to a Chinese-Chinese dictionary for a more accurate picture of the language on its own terms.

Record yourself speaking Chinese. I spent a year back in the US to finish up my college degree, and in order to keep my spoken Chinese from going entirely down the toilet, I started making myself record a one- or two-minute audio diary every night. It was painful — think about how uncomfortable you feel when you hear your own voice in English, and now add in mangled tones and stuttering — but it did a lot for my accent and the overall naturalness of my speech.

If you want to learn how to write characters by hand (something that people are increasingly ignoring these days; I sympathize, but think it’s probably a fool’s economy), get a few 字帖 — the character-tracing workbooks that students here use. They’re a completely mindless way of getting characters into muscle memory; you can even use them when you’re watching TV or something.

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

Brendan: The Johns (Pasden and Biesnecker — yes, I cheated by peeking) mention tones and Pinyin, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong with those. I’ve come increasingly to believe that it may actually be a mistake to start learning characters too early on: they subtly reinforce the popular but wrong notion that Chinese is “made of characters,” and by pulling learners’ attention towards the syllables that they represent, they might lead to unnatural pronunciation focusing on syllables rather than words. Then again, maybe not: Pinyin-only instruction is still kind of a new thing, and it’s too early to say whether or not it’ll help learners speak more naturally at the outset.

I think there’s probably something to be said for encountering other ways of romanizing Chinese early on. Not long after I started studying, I found a couple of old Yale textbooks in a second-hand shop. In the Yale romanization, the sound that Pinyin romanizes as “x-” is “sy-” — a less elegant, but slightly more accurate way of representing the sound. (Pro tip: make an ordinary “sh” sound, then put the tip of your tongue behind your bottom teeth.) The Yale textbook also had a good description of how to make the “ü” sound that so often gives native English speakers trouble. (Pro tip: make like you’re going to whistle.)

I often see people online arguing about the relative merits of simplified and traditional characters for learners. The arguments are crap on both sides: simplified characters are probably slightly less inhumane, but otherwise there aren’t that many differences between the two, despite how it may seem at first.

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

Brendan: The dirty little secret of Chinese language learning (and instruction!) is that nobody learns the tones right the first time around, unless they’re really unusually gifted. A lot of that is just because tones are weird for those of us who come from languages that don’t use lexical tone; part of it, too, is that existing teaching materials don’t really do a very good job of teaching tones as they’re used in actual speech. (John Pasden’s tone pair drills should be required reference material for anyone writing a Mandarin textbook.)

Oh, man, this is going to sound really discouraging, but: there are some mistakes, like getting the tones wrong the first time, that I think everybody is going to have to make for themselves as part of their study, and then fix for themselves later. The good news is that once you’ve gotten to the point where you can see that you’re doing something wrong, it’s a lot easier to figure out how to do it right.

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

Brendan: After I’d been studying Chinese for about three years, my parents got me Wenlin for Christmas and I started using it to read real-world Chinese texts on my own. It’s no longer the only game in town for Chinese students, but it’s still probably the tool I use most often when I’m working.

Pleco offers the same ABC dictionary (among others) and a whole bunch more goodies (OCR through your camera phone? So this is what the 21st century’s going to be like!) in mobile form. Nciku is a very useful resource for technical terms and English-Chinese (which Wenlin is nearly useless for); Adso is good for helping to make sense of particularly torturous sentences; International Scientific’s online interface to the 说文解字 and to scans of seal, bronze, and oracle forms of characters is hours of fun; Baidu Zhidao, which I mentioned above, is great for any kind of new coinage, meme, or line of film dialogue.

For more from Brendan, check out, and follow him on Twitter. Also, check back next week for more Mandarin Monday.


    • Oops, busted!

      In my defense, I was already like a month and a half late on getting Ryan the answers. Redoing that list (and I really would’ve just been giving the same list in a different order) probably would’ve put me over the two-month mark.

      • If it gives you more time to update your blog, you are already forgiven ! And what happened to ?

        Signed: a frustrated fan of yours.

      • These days, I seem to be doing most of my blogging on other people’s sites. Every now and then I’ll think to myself that I really *should* be doing more writing for myself, but so far the urge hasn’t been strong enough to make me actually follow up on it. Who knows, though; maybe one of these years…

        As for…er. Well. There’s a perfectly good explanation for tha– QUICK, LOOK BEHIND YOU! (*runs away*)

  1. “The dirty little secret of Chinese language learning (and instruction!) is that nobody learns the tones right the first time around, unless they’re really unusually gifted”

    Yeah, this is so true.. When I first started learning, my (egotistical) first goal was to speak fast enough and ‘natural’ enough that people would kinda ‘get off my back’ and stop treating me like a tourist. I always wanted to be treated like everyone else (ahem, skin color notwithstanding). Eventually I did get to a point where I was making the exact same jokes I’d make in English, and very casual about Chinese, and as a result, I stopped getting treated as a tourist.

    Then the tones thing came back. Why? I’d spent so much time trying to sound like a native (talk fast), that I totally mailed in the tones. I would CONSTANTLY get “Did you mean this? Or this?” “Oh, it’s this place, right?” It started to get on my nerves… , ‘Jesus, why do Chinese suck at their own language? Why the triple check every time I want to hit the airport… It’s the airport! Not that complicated!’

    Well it turns out, those native speakers are way better than I am at tones. And that’s why they were checking. I noticed if you stop trying to hard to talk fast (you jive-talking 中国通-wannabe, you), and emphasize the tones, the ‘double checking’ goes away!



    PS. PopupChinese is great. And everyone sign up and check out Sinica podcast too!

  2. Great answers, Brendan! (And entertaining too!)

    Thanks for the shout-outs.

    I’m curious about this part, though:

    “In the Yale romanization, the sound that Pinyin romanizes as “x-” is “sy-” — a less elegant, but slightly more accurate way of representing the sound.”

    Why do you feel it’s more accurate? I feel that using both “s” and “sh” are misleading, but “x” feels more foreign, and thus reinforces the idea that it’s a NEW sound.

    • D’oh. Yes, that was a dumb thing to write: I meant to write that it was more accurate than the various approximations of the sound that you see in other romanizations (“shy-,” “sh-,” etc. — though I’ve got a soft spot for Wade-Giles’ “hs-“), but, I dunno, brain fart.

      A better way of putting it, I guess, is that as romanization systems intended for foreign speakers go, Yale has some real advantages over Hanyu Pinyin, because it gives a mostly good-enough representation of the sound that people who don’t know Chinese will have a fighting chance at pronouncing it correctly. (“Deng Syao-ping,” say.) Pinyin’s a great system, but it wasn’t designed for foreign learners.

      The “x-“s and “q-“s of Pinyin are a nice reminder to the beginning student that they’re not in Kansas anymore — now it’s incumbent upon those of us who are teaching the language to make sure that people get an accurate idea of what sounds they stand for. I’ve met a really surprising number of third- and fourth-year students of Chinese who can’t distinguish between “xu” and “shu,” and that suggests to me that something’s not being done right here.

      • I think “foreign speakers” should read as “English speakers”, don’t forget the other 3000 or more languages in the world. If we follow that logic, there should be 3000 romanisation systems to please the native speakers of all these languages.

        EFEO for French is a great example of that. It uses the natural and evident “ch” for pinyin “sh”, while intelligently adding a “t” to represent what pinyin and Yale write as “ch”. The ü that English speaker despise is a simple and normal “u”, while the pinyin “u” is a “ou”.

        Brendan nitpicking is becoming my favorite sport!

      • I’ll counter your nitpick with the defensive nitpick that the majority of those 3,000 languages aren’t regularly written, and that if we’re talking about “romanization” rather than “transcription,” we’ll have to discard even more of the languages. But yes — I was talking about the advantages of Yale for native speakers of English (and US English, at that) who have no prior knowledge of Chinese. And of course there’s the old joke that you can tell a sinologist is getting senile when he starts working on his own romanization system…

        I’ve never actually seen EFEO used in the wild, but then again I don’t read French or use French archives. It looks like a pretty elegantly constructed system, but I suspect that in the real world, it probably suffered from the same problem as Wade-Giles: the only people who could reliably remember where to put the significant apostrophes were Sinologists who didn’t really need them in the first place. (Excessive cleverness has been a problem for many systems, most terminally Y.R. Chao’s Gwoyeu Romatzyh, and most wonderfully his 通字方案.)

  3. Great set of interviews Ryan, good job. After 5 years here I am only just beginning to get the taste for focusing on the language, able to speak “everyday” Chinese reasonably fluently, but that is just not good enough. And then there are the tones. I did start with pinyin and tones but as John also noted, not for long enough, just recorded myself reading… not a pleasant experience, but, like it always is when I do it, invaluable.

    I’d always enjoyed dipping into Paper Republic, and Sinosplice is one I recommend to everyone, great to get these voices together to help give us all a kick up the arse, some reminders and some pointers in the right direction.

    Cheers guys.

  4. Pingback: Highs and Lows | YakYakYaKailah's Blog

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