Scott H Young

I Was Wrong About China: A First Two Weeks in China (and Chinese)


A little less than two weeks ago, Vat and I arrived in Kunming, China with the goal of not speaking any English. Now that we’re in I wanted to write about life in China and first impressions on learning Chinese.

I wanted to be as thorough as possible documenting the progress in learning Chinese, so for those who are only mildly interested, I’ve divided the article into six parts, which you can skip through:

  1. Why I Was Wrong About China
  2. Life in China
  3. First Impressions on Learning Chinese
  4. My Goals for Chinese
  5. Studying Chinese
  6. Immersion in Chinese

EDIT: When I originally wrote this article, I hadn’t been informed about the Kunming terrorist attack last night. I originally thought about changing my article’s tone to reflect the recent news, but then decided against it. While graphic and tragic incidents like these are horrible, and my sympathies go to the victim’s friends and family, they are, nonetheless rare.

To my, primarily Western, audience, it would seem absurd to form an opinion of Boston (or, more broadly, the US) solely based on their recent tragedy. Similarly, I believe the first impressions I wrote here should stand and that forming an opinion of China or Kunming based on one vivid incident is equally misguided.

That being said, those personally affected by this tragedy have my deepest condolences.

Life in China (or Why You Shouldn’t Listen to Stereotypes)

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I have to admit, living in mainland China worried me a little prior to arrival. Of all the countries we planned to visit, it was the place with, by far, the most warnings. Negative stereotypes from friends who had visited here abounded: people aren’t friendly, they dislike Westerners, watch out for scams, the culture is closed, and, my favorite, the conjunction of that people both speak too much and too little English.

I try not to take too much stock in tourist advice, mainly because experiences are so idiosyncratic it is hard to make fair generalizations even after decades of experience. However, the sheer abundance of negative feedback (often from Chinese themselves) did make me wonder whether China would be an uncomfortable grind trying to start in complete immersion.

After arriving, I’m happy to say, I’ve never been to a place which so reversed my expectations. My expectations about China were so thoroughly flipped, that I’m almost embarrassed that I had paid heed to them in the first place.

Culturally, I’ve not found Chinese people to be unfriendly at all. If anything, the novelty of seeing a white and brown guy trying to speak Chinese amuses many people. People have generally been both patient and helpful with us while we moved in.

If people dislike Westerners here, it hasn’t manifested itself in any obvious way yet. In contrast, I’ve met both Europeans and South Americans tell me to my face that they dislike anglophones. If less obvious racism is actually worse in China, I’d guess the reason is that we’re far easier to physically distinguish from the native population.

The only thing approaching a scam we experienced was sharply overpaying for our cab ride from the airport (we only later realized how cheap they actually are). However, to put that in perspective, our cab ride to the airport in Toronto we took the day before cost 3x as much. My sense is that even if cons are prevalent in China, they still only affect a minority of travellers. Being cautious about muggings, pickpockets, scams and tourist traps is probably wise, but it’s worth remembering that they are still rare.

It’s still too early to judge the relative openness of the culture, but from the few people we’ve met, they’ve been eager to offer introducing us to help make friends. I can’t say the same about Brazil, even though it has a famously open culture. This isn’t to make a statement that China is more open than Brazil, merely that there’s a high variance to experiences, so making predictions based on the average is foolish.

As for speaking English, I can say that, for Kunming at least, the vast majority of people have almost zero English ability. If I had been worried that people would just switch to English for me, any worry quickly evaporated on arrival.

As for livability, China is actually quite modern and comfortable. The only amenity our apartment lacks is indoor heating (Spain also lacked this, a problem in countries which are generally warm all the time). Everything is cheap, convenient, and despite the warnings, not particularly low-quality.

In short, basically every stereotype I had about China was either flatly wrong or at least not nearly as severe as it had been described to me.

This isn’t to say visiting China will be a wonderful experience for everyone. Nor is it to say my two weeks of brief exposure constitute a definitive opinion. My first impressions may be wrong. My only point is that travel is idiosyncratic and that we tend to put a lot of weight on secondhand experiences of other people when no other good information is available, even if secondhand experiences are poor predictors of your personal experience.

Culture and Life in China

So what is China actually like? Again, if you’ve learned anything from my previous warning, you’ll take these first impressions with a grain of salt.

First item that stands out is food. I’ve come to the impression that the Chinese eat everything. Although pork, beef, fish and chicken are staples, you can also buy live frogs at the supermarket and chicken feet are a delicacy. Here in Kunming, insects are even an option at some restaurants.

food in China

While some might take the odd menu options as off-putting, I think they add to China’s appeal. After all, nobody is forcing you to eat bee larvea. You can easily get a bowl of chicken soup or some mixed vegetables with rice. But, the diversity means someone with an adventurous palate can really enjoy China.

Development is another huge factor. China has grown so rapidly, so recently, that many things are very modern, despite being quite cheap. This is in contrast to Europe where hundred-year old buildings have charm but are often incredibly poorly designed. Our building, rented more cheaply than in Spain, has video intercom, widescreen television, good internet (for sites not blocked) and a spacious private courtyard.

While this rapid development also has detractions (smog, traffic, density) at least in Kunming I haven’t found any of those to be noticeably worse than in Canada. Because the Chinese are willing to build high-rise residential buildings, I’d say density is even better than in most European cities. Paris is nice, but the 6-storey building limit means every possible square inch is filled up. Nothing is very tall, but you can’t see around a corner leaving a more claustrophobic feel.

My level of Chinese isn’t good enough to get a real sense for the political atmosphere in China, but it seems to be about as present as it is in the States. The truth is, political life just isn’t important to most people as long as their lives are advancing materially (EDIT: I realize the irony in writing this the day after a, likely politically motivated, terrorist attack but once again I assert such actions are still rare, and the generalization still holds). This, I’d argue, is true in both America and China. This isn’t to argue that political liberalism isn’t important, or that people shouldn’t care, merely that political apathy during prosperous times seems to be a common human trait. As my political views are somewhat libertarian, I don’t want to be an apologist for China, but I do think Americans receive a distorted view of the country when daily life is framed in terms of its political ideology.

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In short, China was a country I had hesitations about having an extended stay in, and now I’m disappointed I won’t be staying longer.

First Impressions on Learning Chinese

How is learning Chinese compared to Spanish and Portuguese? Harder, but manageably so. That may be a fairly bland statement in the online extremes of Chinese being easy to learning Chinese being the one of the hardest possible things, but I feel it’s a fairly accurate one.

We couldn’t do zero English from the first moment of arrival. We had some miscommunication with our landlord, so we ended up having to speak in English to get settled into our apartment. I’ve also broken the no-English rule on a few other pressing situations, but otherwise I’ve been able to uphold it.

Vat has broken the no-English rule considerably more than I have. A big part of that is Vat’s 25-hours of prior practice time meant he was still lacking core phrases upon arrival. Things like “how do you say ___?” and “how much is it?” needed to be learned (or relearned). Despite that, after every slip, Vat’s quick to get up and try again.

The fact that most people don’t speak English has made our job of immersion much easier. We’ve definitely had some interesting conversations trying to describe basic things. Vat once spent nearly 15 minutes trying to ask someone if they could add chicken to the meal he had ordered. (I admire his ambition in trying to order off-menu items the first week in China)

The hardest part about Chinese is the writing. Living in China is a glimpse at what being illiterate must feel like. Ordering from menus that don’t have pictures is a near impossibility (yes, even with Pleco’s OCR). Ditto reading packages or signs. While my Chinese character recognition is around 500 characters (enough for simple text messages and emails) the vocabulary in menus and packages is advanced, so I likely won’t reach a level where this problem will go away even after three months.

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Pronouncing Chinese isn’t too bad. It’s harder than Spanish, given the large array of new phonemes and tones. But most people generally understand us if we speak slowly. I still have a lot of work to do on improving my pronunciation, but it’s not the most pressing problem.

Understanding Chinese people speak is quite difficult. Some of this seems to be the Kunminghua people speak here, leading to an accent that is fairly strong when they speak Mandarin. But most of the difficulty I’d chalk up to a lack of vocabulary. The vocabulary necessary to understand someone is much greater than to communicate the same desires. This is particularly true in Chinese which has fewer markers to separate words and words have no resemblance to English, making it nearly impossible to “guess” the meaning of unknown words.

These descriptions may sound defeatist, but I trust you they’re not. Chinese is hard, but so was Spanish. All of the problems we had with Chinese we also had with Spanish (and to a lesser extent Portuguese). In fact, I’d guess my ability to understand Chinese after two weeks is considerably better than I could understand French, despite having invested a similar amount of time prior to learning.

Overall I feel Chinese is deeply logical and consistent. There’s more to learn, but the additional learning burden is also an access point to deeper cultural richness. Different etymologies, grammar and expressions may be more work, but they are also offer insight into a culture that has mostly grown independently from my own.

So my impressions of Chinese are an acknowledgement of the difficulty, but certainly not an admission that it is impossibly difficult. Given my current rate of progress, I believe my original goal of wanting to be able to hold one-on-one conversations without difficulty is an achievable goal.

How I’m Learning Chinese

My last post was commenting on how I planned to learn Chinese. Two weeks in, I’m still spending a lot of time experimenting. It will probably be near the mid-to-end part of the challenge where I’ve stabilized my routine. That’s fine. Most experiments still teach you a lot, even if you eventually find they’re not the most efficient method.

I’m going to divide the discussion of my learning methods into two parts:

  1. Study
  2. Immersion

Whenever I discuss concepts like these, people come with their own associations to the words. Indeed, I may have used the words differently in different contexts. Therefore I want to be clear about what I mean by each of them so that there isn’t confusion.

By study, I mean deliberate efforts to learn Chinese that are not really using Chinese. This means memorizing vocabulary, doing grammar drills, pronunciation drills, listening to podcasts about Chinese (as opposed to in Chinese), comprehension drills and working with a tutor to deliberately learn a linguistic fact (i.e. not conversing).

By immersion, I mean using the Chinese in real contexts. This means having conversations with tutors, conversations with Vat, speaking to Chinese people, sending and reading messages, deciphering menus and signs, watching television and movies and any of the myriad of smaller exposures in daily life.

Both are important, but study is perhaps more important with Chinese than it was in Spain. In Spain and Brazil, our learning method was 90% immersion, 10% study (perhaps even less). This meant I learned everything through context, trying to interact with people or interact with media.

In China, my goal is to have at least 50% of my time in immersion. As we progress, I hope to increase that to 60%-70%, but that also depends on how able we are to make friends.

Immersion doesn’t become less important in Chinese, rather, studying becomes more valuable. I found everything more than some grammar study to be somewhat unnecessary in Spanish. Why memorize vocabulary when you can learn most of what you need to know by interacting in context?

Study is a little more valuable in Chinese simply because you start off at a lower point. Memorizing vocabulary is a little more useful because there’s so much basic vocabulary you lack at the start. Drilling pronunciation is more useful because there are more new phonemes and tones are quite difficult to master.

That being said, this is a marginal shift, not a revolution. Learning Chinese compared to Spanish isn’t a wholly different endeavour. Yes, it’s more work in a few key areas, and some of those areas benefit from deliberate practice. But, the notion that immersion or active engagement with the language is good advice for Spanish but bad for Chinese strikes me as absurd.

John Pasden, linguist at SinoSplice.com and head of a Chinese learning consultancy, offered me some private advice on my learning methods. While most of his thoughts were in line with my previous thinking, it was useful hearing his stress on the immersion side of learning. I think many Chinese learners, caught up in the difficulty of tones or the array of unknown vocabulary, can use that as an excuse to avoid regularly using the language. I’m trying to avoid falling into that trap myself by trying to make sure the immersion half stays constant or grows during my time in China.

Before I look into how my studying and immersion time are devoted, I need to reflect on my specific goals for Chinese, since these define my activities. If your immediate goals are different, therefore, then my plan probably won’t be ideal.

Goals for Chinese

I have two main goals for my Chinese during these three months. The first, and biggest, is being able to hold a one-on-one conversation without significant difficulty for either party.

Defining significant difficulty is hard, and I refuse to do it. Saying I’ve only succeeded if I understood every word or never needed to use a dictionary is too strong—I don’t have that in Spanish, and I feel almost none of my Spanish conversations are remotely difficult. However, my current level of conversational Chinese isn’t nearly smooth enough to meet this standard. I get lost for words. I have to make lengthy look-ups of a dictionary because I’m missing vocabulary and also the ability to describe the missing vocabulary. So my goal is a subjective one, but subjective goals are okay too.

I consider the one-on-one conversation to be the benchmark of intermediate language learning success because it greatly expands what you can do. Before this level, nearly everything is a struggle. After this level, there are still many advanced hurdles to summit (following group conversations, watching television and movies effortlessly, comedy, etc.) but you can still draw enormous personal value from your language level.

My secondary goal is to have the best pronunciation possible in three months. This is also a subjective goal. Tones and accent reduction isn’t something you just learn once. It will be almost impossible for me to have a near-native accent after only three months, even if I made it my exclusive priority (i.e. I just parroted preformed sentences).

Instead, my goal is to have good tone and phoneme understanding with decent pronunciation. By pronunciation understanding, I mean that when I correctly remember the tones and speak slowly, I can get it right almost every time. That is, a Mandarin speaker shouldn’t have difficulty guessing a word if I’m being deliberate about it.

That being said, understanding is different than practice. I have a good understanding of gender agreement in Spanish, but I still mix it up in rapid speech. When I ask Spanish speakers to correct me, gender agreement problems are the most common mistake I make. I expect, even with strong tone understanding, I’ll still mix it up when speaking quickly, but that having this understanding allows me to self-correct my errors more frequently and pronounce things properly when I know there might be confusion. Beyond that, perfection is just years of practice.

My reasoning for wanting to work on pronunciation are threefold. First, pronunciation is essential to being perceived as speaking the language well, particularly over short conversations. I’d like to be able to strike up a conversation in Mandarin in Canada, and if my pronunciation is bad, the person is almost undoubtedly going to respond in English (because they perceive me, correctly or incorrectly, to be a weak speaker).

Second, pronunciation is a very interesting study in the process of learning languages. In European languages, I mostly fell into the pronunciation. I had an accent, but usually there were only one or two phonemes that gave me difficulty. Studying pronunciation in Chinese, a phonemically difficult language, should give me a wealth of tools for accent reduction in my other languages.

Finally, vanity. I know I’ll be producing a video at the end of this project where the most obvious aspect of my level of fluency will be my pronunciation. I’d hate for all my work to hold a conversation in Chinese be dismissed because my tones sounded funny.

How I’m Building Conversation and Pronunciation Through Study

My current studying approach lines up surprisingly nicely with my original plans. (Although this is only at my current, elementary level. Things will necessarily change as I progress).

My daily studying is divided into:

  • 90-120 minutes for MCC and HSK vocab list (Mastering Chinese Characters, an Anki deck, which, despite its name, is actually quite good for listening comprehension, vocabulary building and grammar patterns, not just characters)
  • 30-60 minutes pronunciation drills. (Right now, I’m focused mostly on tone pairs, although I do sentence-level practice during my Anki decks.)
  • 30-60 minutes listening drills. (Take dialog-only ChinesePod podcasts and try to transcribe them. Good for building vocabulary but also recognizing listening mistakes. I hope to move onto more difficult content as my vocabulary grows)
  • 30 minutes writing exercise (mostly to practice grammar)
  • 2 hours of tutoring (I’m including tutoring in both study and immersion, since it is a mix)

In total, it works out to be around six hours on a good day. I’m not perfect, and not every day I get to everything. Today and yesterday, for example, I fell ill with a bad cold so my output has been less.

My tasks are currently focused on two instrumental goals which I believe are holding back my Chinese level: vocabulary and pronunciation.

Building Vocabulary

Early on in the first week, I did some listening drills since I found it quite hard to understand Chinese. I was hoping that I might get a hint as to whether I was mishearing particular tones and phonemes so that I could make an adjustment.

After graphing my mistakes, I failed to see any obvious patterns. Indeed, if I listened to the recordings more than once, I almost never mixed up the phonemes. I did mix the tones up more frequently, but rarely in any consistent way.

However, this exercise was useful since I noticed something, seemingly obvious, but that I had missed: my ability to note tones and phonemes was near perfect for words I understood. Indeed, around half my mistakes were from over-interpretation, believing I heard a familiar word when it was actually an unfamiliar one.

The solution here is obvious: more vocabulary. From a computer science perspective, my matching algorithm was weak not because it was biased, but because I had a lack of data.

Building vocabulary isn’t an easy task. It involves a lot of work, some memorization, lots of exposure and a decent amount of making connections and contexts to secure the information.

My MCC deck was already quite good for vocabulary building, since it had whole sentences. Compared to when I first started processing the deck, I’ve started repeating the whole sentences and decomposing them to identify words and grammatical patterns. That’s helped me learn countless words, including many that I wasn’t explicitly trying to study.

I like MCC, but I also like diversification of input sources. Each source has its own biases, so having a couple decent quality input sources beats having only one.

The way I wanted to pursue vocabulary was by frequency. So I decided to add two types of drills which would also help me build vocabulary during my studying sessions. Both of these were roughly sorted by frequency so that, along with MCC, I’d have three different sources giving me high-frequency vocabulary and hopefully avoiding biases of any particular source.

The first was the HSK vocabulary list. HSK is Chinese’s equivalent to the European CEFR exams. Each of its six levels comes with a vocabulary list of representative vocabulary one should know at each level. Therefore, it represents a good source of high frequency vocabulary.

I got this list of tone-sorted HSK vocab here. My first step was to filter out all the words I recognized. (Note: recognized isn’t the same as remembered. I only wanted to study words I’d never heard of, not words I’d heard of but didn’t get correctly in a test because presumably those words were already embedded in my other studying methods). I did this by putting Google Translate’s meaning in the adjacent column and adding a mark next to each word that I had never seen before. I did this for all of HSK’s levels 1-4, since they represent fairly high-frequency words.

Once I had finished, I noted roughly 450 words I didn’t recognize. Unfortunately, relying on Google translate to is a lousy way to learn vocabulary. It’s often wrong, and when it isn’t wrong, it often misleads the meaning of the word by a lack of context. To learn these words, I wanted to pair them with example sentences.

I made a quick and dirty Python script that automatically stripped example sentences, pinyin and English translations from an online dictionary and parsed it together into an Anki deck. Now I had a way of learning all the vocabulary I was missing from HSK’s 1-4 vocab lists, with example sentences for context.

The second way to expand vocabulary by frequency was going through ChinesePod’s dialog-only files. ChinesePod is great for passive study (I put their full podcasts on my iPod for use while walking around or at the gym), but it’s rather slow if you just want to build vocabulary. Using their dialog-only files, I’d first listen, try to transcribe and then explore the dialog to fill any missing vocabulary.

I like this method for two reasons. One, it introduces vocabulary through the audio channel first. It’s easy to study written lists of vocabulary, but actually picking those words in fluent audio is a slightly different task. Second, by listening to the dialog and only then going through the meaning, I’m doing active, rather than passive exposure. Learning is done best through self-testing, not passive review.

These three methods give me three, fairly direct ways of adding vocabulary. This, of course, isn’t an isolated method. All of this gets pushed back into     immersion, which is essential and can’t be ignored. My biggest weakness with my pre-China study was a lack of immersive practice, not a lack of vocabulary building.

Improving Pronunciation

Beyond vocabulary, my second push is for better pronunciation. I do this by trying to do an hour of drills every day (again, along with immersive practice). I don’t do them every day, but I hope that after three months I’ll be able to log at least 50 hours of deliberate practice on this front, along with hundreds of hours of passive practice.

My main activity right now is doing tone pair drills. I’m fairly good at doing individual tones, but most people can do individual tones with very little instruction. The hard part is being able to say tones in rapid succession, and to do that you need to practice switching tones. This is really where tonal languages differ from English, and where most practice is needed.

I’ve heard some people dislike tone pairs, opting for full-sentence practice. I agree, getting sentence rhythm is more important than simply matching pairs of tones. After all, a given sentence has many tones and not all of them are stressed equally (or at all) in natural speech. If you only practice tone pairs, you’ll have a misleading view of how Mandarin sentences sound.

That being said, I subscribe to the deliberate practice view on this problem. The way to get better at a skill is to break it down into its atomic components, master those and then slowly build up to a more complex representation. The time to give up tone pairs is when you’re doing them nearly perfectly.

Tone pairs, I believe, also help build tonal understanding. That’s the ability to perform something deliberately and carefully, even if you aren’t as strong in practice. Knowing what a 3-2 sounds like, in its ideal form, means that even if it is sometimes downplayed in unstressed parts of speech, I know which mistakes I’ve made when I’ve made them.

Right now I’m still only getting 70-80% on tone pair drills done at a speaking pace and my ability is even lower for unknown words. I think another 10-15 hours of practice should be enough to have that near 95-98%, which means that I can more easily recognize and fix my mistakes in actual speech.

The problem with actual speaking situations is that the brain’s working memory is incredibly limited. You can only hold a few things in your mind at a given time, so you can only focus on one or two things that require deliberate effort.

For Spanish, I was constantly juggling the grammatical rules. For every sentence I had to make sure that verbs were conjugated for tense, aspect, mood and person, and that nouns and adjectives agreed in gender and number. Eventually these patterns become automatic, but even a slight distraction (say searching for a vocabulary word) would disrupt my ability to maintain one of the other rules.

For Chinese, I’m constantly juggling pronunciation rules. Grammatical rules mostly come in the form of word order and word choice, so while I’m still learning these, they are simpler than in Spanish. Instead, I’m constantly thinking about which tones a word has, making sure my ch/sh/zh sounds don’t blur with my q/x/j sounds, or trying to maintain a distinction between -eng/-ang or -in/-ing. Adding to this the difficulty of correctly parsing word order or finding a difficult to remember vocabulary word means my pronunciation suffers in practice.

Pronunciation drills alleviate this problem somewhat because your default pronunciation becomes the correct pronunciation. When confused by vocabulary, you can think about pronunciation less because your default way of speaking is closer to correct.

I’m also hoping to invest a bit of tutoring time each class in getting feedback on my pronunciation drills, however, at the moment my first goal of conversational fluency dominates. Getting 15-20 minutes of feedback each week should probably be more than enough to occupy 4-5 hours of subsequent drills.

Other Deliberate Study

Other pieces of deliberate study include listening to ChinesePod (mostly as a passive activity, since the pace is quite reasonable) and doing occasional written exercises. I don’t want to overdo writing, since it is the furthest removed from my immediate goals. However, writing is a good way to drill grammar, since tones and vocabulary aren’t a problem (you can always look a word up). Chinese readers can see my first two entries I did on iTalki’s notebook, which many have already corrected. My hope is to write 2-3 per week, so that I can get grammatical feedback on more complex thoughts.

How I’m Learning Conversation and Pronunciation Through Immersion

I like to write about studying techniques since they are easily analyzable. However, studying isn’t as important as immersion in language learning. Many people seem to think this doesn’t apply to Asian languages. That somehow to bulk of vocabulary, weird grammar or pronunciation rules make them exceptions. I disagree.

Instead, I feel the importance of immersion is somewhat larger with Asian languages. European languages, owing to their similar structure to English and often similar vocabulary, an uninformed guess about the meaning of a sentence or how to express an idea is often accurate. Asian languages require more feedback, since your intuitions are more likely incorrect.

Secondly, because immersion is harder in Asian languages, I think that means the pressure to use immersion should be higher. It’s very easy to sit on your couch and do Anki drills, praising yourself for the extra vocabulary you’ve “memorized”. However, if you can’t hold a real conversation or understand a real dialog, what’s the point? There’s plenty of ways you can escape some of the worst biases that studying leads to, but it’s almost impossible to escape all of them. The only way to get real feedback is to be in real situations.

Now, by immersion I simply mean using the language. True immersion may only be possible in the target country. However, having conversations with Skype, or through meet-ups, watching native-language television shows, music, podcasts and movies are options available to anyone, anywhere.

My studying approach is quite detailed, but I’m pushing myself to spend at least half of my time interacting as I am studying. I’m doing this, even though I can’t understand basically any television or movie. Despite the fact that most conversations with native speakers are tremendously difficult. Even though extended conversations with native speakers who can’t help me out with missing vocabulary are often impossible.

Studying is hard work, but it’s easy to do. You just have to sit at your desk and put in the hours. Immersion isn’t hard work, but it’s hard to do. You have to go outside your comfort zone, get embarrassed, sit through meaningless noise and deal with situations that have zero positive feedback.

I’m using several methods to push immersion at a beginner level of Chinese, and I’m also trying to transition to some harder methods that I hope will become more feasible as my level improves.

Conversations with Tutors

The backbone of my immersion is holding conversations with my tutors. This is more important than listening practice, since listening immersion doesn’t give me pronunciation feedback and tends to focus on slightly different vocabulary. This is also more important than conversing with Vat, since both coming from English, we tend to make similar mistakes or at least fail to notice mistakes in each others’ speech.

My first week of conversations with tutors was a predictable grind. I refused to speak in English, but my expressive ability was quite low so I found it hard to have meaningful dialog. My Skype tutors would quickly revert to the typical Chinese pedagogical style of dictation and drills, since I didn’t have the linguistic ability to push the lesson in a conversational direction.

After two weeks, I’m now at the point where I can keep the lessons conversational and actually have meaningful conversations about everyday things. With the help of Google translate to fill in some missing words, I’ve had conversations about Chinese teas, travel, movies, climate and cultural differences.

I’m still a ways away from truly deep conversations I’d consider essential to my success in China. Talking about art, learning, life philosophy, books, religion or other deeper topics are something I can do comfortably in Portuguese, French and Spanish, but are still beyond me in Chinese.

However, by holding regular one-on-one conversations (2 hours per day) with native speakers, I guarantee that I’m getting feedback and can see progress on my main goal of holding one-on-one conversations.

Conversations with Vat

The gap between our speaking ability was largest in Chinese, where I had put in four times as much preparation as Vat. Additionally, I’m putting in heavy hours to learn Chinese as well as possible. Vat is also investing a lot of time learning Chinese, but since he’s also preparing the video, he’s spending quite a bit of time filming and trying to capture life in China.

Despite this gap, speaking with Vat is still a great opportunity to practice. Speaking with native can help with some issues, but speaking with non-natives or beginners can also be helpful, because you can speak more slowly, they are more patient and you can have a dialog about what you’re learning. Vat and I have tried to record semi-daily conversations, as we did in Spain and Brazil, which you can listen to here. Note: it’s taking us a bit longer to get these uploaded, since we can’t access SoundCloud from here in China, however we’ll be uploading them as soon as possible.

Interacting with Locals

Another essential tool any new language is being able to have basic interactions with local people. Things like ordering food, getting directions, asking for particular items, making reservations, etc. While I think many language learning guides mistakenly overemphasize this part of language learning at the beginning stages, it’s still an invaluable way to practice.

I’ve tried to make it a habit to ask a question or probe a little in my everyday interactions with people. This is particularly hard for me because it’s something I don’t do in Canada. I prefer to browse than to ask someone for help, and this feeling is magnified when I’m concerned they won’t understand my request.

However, in the interests of language learning, I’ve decided to push myself in this regard. This is a great way to build practical vocabulary and can give you a chance to test your speaking ability with complete strangers (who haven’t adapted to your accent yet).

Watching Television and Movies

A third source of immersion is watching television and movies. I’m still at a point where I can’t understand most of the dialog. However, I do pick up words and phrases. More importantly, you get used to a rhythm of speech which filters into your own conversation.

I don’t put much priority on this part of language learning, at my current level, for two reasons. First, the level of real dialog is considerably above my current understanding. While foreseeably, grinding through watching natural dialog for years could create fluency, its hardly the most efficient stage at the beginning. The amount of learned words and phrases is dwarfed by those that you miss entirely.

Second, television and movie dialog tends to be somewhat removed from real speech. This means you learn words, but not necessarily those that are most useful to you. I remember watching some dubbed Star Trek episodes in Spanish and I learned the words tripulación (crew) and alférez (ensign), I can say with certainty I’ve never used these words in a single conversation.

Watching television and movies is probably a better step at an intermediate level, when you want a low-effort way to start picking up lots of lower-frequency words.

Humility and the Lengthy Journey Ahead

Someone once said that learning Chinese was a lesson in humility. While I admit to the difficulties, I still believe I’ll reach my goals in three months.

What I am realizing, however, is how much more Chinese there is to learn. Going from holding one-on-one conversations comfortably to true fluency is a huge task that requires years of exposure. While I feel the same is true with my Spanish, where there is still a lot to learn, China’s vastly different origins means there is still enormous cultural richness I won’t be able to touch in just three months.

I don’t see this as a detraction of Chinese, but as a positive. It means that, even after this trip to China, I’ll have plenty of reason to go back, improve and explore.

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58 Responses to “I Was Wrong About China: A First Two Weeks in China (and Chinese)”

  1. Alberto says:

    Very interesting and complete article. However China is more opened to the world it is still unknown to many people. I am planning to travel next summer. Your information will be very usefull ;)

  2. Ying Miao says:

    Hallo, Scott,

    I just came back from China yesterday and bought your book in the airport and finisched it on the plant. Great Job! Thanks for sharing that. I have read your MIT story before and I am glad that I can read your book in Chinese finally.

    It is great that you begin the Chinese-Learning project. As a Chinese in Germany I know how ignorant the Western feel about China. I wish your Blogs will let more people get the real picture of China.

    Learning 10 Languages is one of my lift-time-goals. It is on-going and I hope I can reach it before 40s. Your new project encourage me :).

    Finally wish you have fun in Kunming and keep make great projects like these!

    Greetings from Oettingen
    Ying

  3. levi says:

    cool, I’m a chinese from yunnan, and admire you and your book “learn more, study less”, thank you for share your learning idea

  4. Actual says:

    Really good article, it made me want to go to China :)

  5. mona peters says:

    i’m very impressed with your efforts and your prolific observations. if you have learned those other languages then you will master chinese as well and have no doubt about it. it’s just naturally overwhelming at first. i’m in my second year of college course and am amazed at what i have learned and never thought i could.

  6. 诗人 says:

    斯科特你好,
    我是几天偶然在网上看到了你在一年之内学完了MIT的33门课程,很佩服你的学习能力,同时我也希望能够从你的经历中学到不少东西。我感到疑惑的是,你的那一套方法真的适合所有的人吗?还是仅仅在应付考试上比较有作用?
    我看了你的这篇帖子,我想要纠正的是,中国是一个正在发展中的国家,很多价值观都在逐步的完善之中,肯定有某些地方是落后的,但是这是一个具有很大潜力的文明古国,我想告诉你,学习中文将是一次奇妙的旅行,也会是一次艰难的经历,毕竟我们从小到大学了十多年的汉语,到现在也还没能掌握其精髓何在,祝你能迅速掌握汉语吧!

  7. […] with both Chinese and Spanish is limited: I spent three months in Spain and am entering my third month in China. However, I would say both have been a success. There’s still a lot to learn, but I feel I can […]

  8. ning says:

    a Chinese here. Reading your blog and watching videos for a while, I’ve seen my improvements now, I’ll work harder. Thanks your fair opinion about China, also thanks a lot for your useful and easily understand but need practice skills or tips for students. 祝安好

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