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)


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.


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.


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.


  • Liu Boyang

    Thank you for the condolences.

  • Jianglin H.

    Welcome to China. Hope you could find out more wonderful places. I still think the better choice is to go to north China.
    Anyway, carry on.

  • fred


  • Lauren

    Thanks for this, Scott. I found the part about how we see China through a mostly political lens to be the most interesting. It’s true. Thankfully, as someone who has family and friends who are particularly into anime and Asian culture at large, I’ve been able to see past this, though I can stand to learn much more about the true China.

  • Matthew

    Enjoyed reading this. I recently lived in Taiwan for about 18 months teaching English. My efforts to learn Chinese were on and off, but I found there were often some misleading things in my studies. I’d find something in one of my books and the locals would tell me, “no, we don’t say that” or one person would tell me something and another would say, “that’s not how you say it.” It sounds like you have a sound structure to avoid these issues, but be wary of it, especially when traveling to different regions as dialects change(as I’m sure doesn’t surprise you). Also, make sure your tutors hassle you on pronunciation as a lot of words can with very different meanings can sound quite similar(I’m sure you’ve noticed this as well). If your tutor is not tough on you then you might think you have something right and go out saying ridiculous stuff in public.

    Keep working hard, and stay safe. I look forward to the next update.

  • Allen Xu

    Awesome boy, wish you all right in kunming. The terror attack’s horrifying there.

    Speaking of your Chinese learning, all goes well it seems, but i have a question coming up in my mind. If decent pronunciation is one of your goals in learning Chinese, why chose Kuming where many minority ethics make up most of its popularity. That being said, many of the local Kuming people can’t speak good Mandarin themselves and they have pretty strong accent when speaking Mandarin.

    Take care bro. If you have plan to visit neighboring cities of Kuming during these three months, I’m in chengdu and I’ll be very happy to meet you up.

  • sharon ko

    Dear scott,

    Have you tried out different insects in Kunming?If not, you should definitely try it!A small jingpo minority restaurant in the southern part of Kunming provides all sorts of insects like fried grasshopers, fried crickets.

    Insects are actually very healthy. Beef contains 18% protein whereas a grasshopper meat is nearly 60% protein. Eating insects also can cut out 90% of the fat beef eaters ingest.

    Have fun trying out different kinds of insects !


  • Yudi Ilhamsyah

    Cool story Scott. As someone who has also started learning Chinese a month ago, your story is a clear inspiration. Please keep updating the progress. Cheers

  • Prabhakaran

    Very inspiring.

    I am going to learn French and I plan to reach A1 level within a month. That is an easy goal, but i do have other commitments and I am going to study it myself.

  • Zihao Zheng

    Hi, Scott, I’m a native Chinese in Guangzhou for more than 20 years. The lack of indoor heating is that Kunming is in southern China, where we don’t have this, you can get heating by air conditioner with heating function.

    However if you travel to Beijing or Xi’an 西安(the center of China in ancient time), there definitely would indoor heating service.

    I’m sorry for the recent terrorist attack in Kunming, as reported more than 190 people were injured and nearly 30 common people were killed.

  • W

    hi Scott, do you think you will learn Traditional Chinese characters?

  • Hein Hundal

    I really enjoyed reading about your experiences while slowly waking up this Sunday morning. I particularly enjoyed reading about your pronunciation and your interactions with the people in Kunming (your landlord, restaurants, ….). I have wanted to learn Mandarin because I have really enjoyed interacting with my Chinese colleagues and students, but I find the pronunciation difficult—especially the four tones. Your posts are encouraging me to try again.

    Cheers, Hein

  • Ada

    I am glad to know about your experience in China; if you have some problems of the study of Chinese, maybe you could send me a e-mail and as a Chinese, I can help you.

  • Dino

    Greeting from China. You have the excellent way to learning new language. Welcome to china again.

  • muzi

    thanks Scott for documenting your process and sharing it with us. goodluck

  • Jack

    From someone who has dabbled in learning languages (not Chinese)–you make some very salient points. Great stuff. Feel free to email if you wish to discuss anything. It may be tacky to bring up Tibet–but I’m very interested to know your take on that as well as your take away on conversations with local people on that subjuct. I have a strong “Free Tibet” bias. Also along those lines–how do the locals digest government propaganda? Also, perhaps my view of the government propaganda is skewed (weird analogies which translate to English awkwardly) because it ain’t spin–just how all Chinese sounds when translated into English?

  • Gary

    It’a long and cool exploration Scott!I think you change your secondary goal is very wise. And for learning vocabulary, I don’t know whether you see Chinese character as vocabulary,if not, then I will suggest you more to study commonly used characters. They can help you understand the knew vocabulary and conversation much more easily.

  • Sidney

    I share the same views especially the part on preconceived stereotypes before I went to China, and how much I see China after I’ve spent 4 months in Hangzhou. I realized much of China, politically, socially and culturally have been distortedly reported in the mainstream (esp Western media). A lot of the foreigners I met during my trip have tried have to remain in China as long as they can, especially those from Europe and Americas. But I was told the immigration officials have made it harder for foreigners to obtain a work permit unless you work as an English teacher, even then it’s not a ‘proper’ visa. After my trip, I look forward to my trip to China again and if opportunities arise, I wouldn’t mind spending a few years living and working in China.

  • mqyuyi

    Dear Scott
    Welcome to China!
    To be a Chinese College student,I have paid close attention to your articles of this blog since two years ago(to begin with 2012),on my study ,it realy have had a progress because your teaching,and leading.just now I read this article from A to Izzard,Have to say that it’s really a surprise for me when I see the title to know about your coming to China.
    I don’t have too much thoughts about how to learn Chinese (include Chinese characters and Pronunciation ),but,there is one point I want to share with you which you have mentioned in the article—“Interacting with Locals”,you said that “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.

    what I want to say is that there are Many kinds of native languages,though I’m a Chinese people ,but except Mandarin and my native language.others sometimes I hear like hear other county’s languages.so I prefer you to learn Mandarin other than natives,because Mandarin is more popular and useful.
    last,hope you acomplish your goal,and have a good time here.

    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.

  • Price

    Great passage! Love your writing. Very inspiring and motivating!

  • Zhuhao

    Hi, I’m a Chinese currently studying how to teach Chinese as a second language(although I’m aware that this is actually not your “second language” per se). I’m quite excited to see you so industriously committed into learning this language. So I’d like to weigh in some advice. Hope you’ll find them useful:)
    1. A series of books named 《汉语教程》are strongly recommended. They are written originally for learners like you, but they are so good that it even become one of the textbooks used in training Chinese tutors who teach non-native speakers. The books features clear and bilingual(English and Chinese)grammar lessons, writing practices and scientifically arranged texts that concord with findings in cognitive science. I’m pitching the book because it’s just great.
    2. Be careful with some pronunciation you hear from a Chinese who speaks with accent. Sometimes the accent is so subtle that only a native ear can tell, but nevertheless will be odd to native speakers, especially when it’s happening on a non-native speaker, the difference could be amplified due to the deliberate effort devoted to this.

  • MHK


    Great article! As a Chinese national, I want to thank you for the caution that you have exercised with respect to your experience in China as well as to the unfortunate incident in Kunming. I myself am working towards becoming a quadri-lingual by adding German to Mandarin Chinese, English, and Japanese that I already speak with different levels of proficiency. Meanwhile, I am also in the process of working my Japanese from intermediate to advanced level.

    It took me four years of high school in an English-speaking country to master English to high proficiency. But even so my comfort in English is largely in the more structured environments of academic and professional usage; I still fare poorly in using slangs in private social situations. You can say that I had my immersion in English through academic learning, but not so much in social situations. I therefore see a huge potential in you achieving conversational proficiency with three months of immersive experience in China.

    That said, I guess both of us and most cross-language-family language learners may have to yield to the lesson of humility. I realized this when I learning Japanese. Last year, partly inspired by your MIT Challenge, I set the goal of learning 3 years worth of US college level Japanese within one year, and the learning of third-year materials would require two months of immersive experience in Japan. This project goes on during a full academic year when I still have lots of proof-based math to learn. Five months into the project now, however, I can already see myself finishing the fourth year, if not more, at the end of the year. The degree of similarity between Japanese and Mandarin Chinese is just staggering and indeed I now know no few Mandarin speakers able to finish four years equivalent of college level Japanese under one year (Mid-Advanced Level characterized by the ACTFL guidelines in the US). This is just so much easier compared to my learning experience with English.

    Not only do Chinese and Japanese share many written characters, but the way we express thoughts are so similar that we can achieve instant mutual recognition. I’m not referring to grammar here as the grammatical structures of the two languages are indeed different; what I am referring to is the way we crack jokes and the way we make exclamations. As an example, in the online anime/Jap-drama communities, popular catch phrases in anime and Jap-drama originated in Japan can become wildly popular in China; meanwhile, witty, humorous comments made on episodes of anime and Jap-Drama originated in China can also find their way into Japan. Considering that many modern Chinese words like economy (经济), constitution (宪法), and democracy (民主) are allegedly “imported” from Japan at the turn of the 19th and 20th century, the modern-day sharing of catch phrases may not seem too surprising. Admittedly, the similarity between the Chinese Hanzi and the Japanese Kanji plays a role here, but pitting the Sino-Japanese pop culture convergence to the difficulty I’ve been having in understanding the humor in English jokes (or interpreting literature beyond what is literal), I am suspecting that the thinking system constructed in the mother tongue does not give anyone an easy time to cross from one language family to the other. I guess my soon-to-begin learning of German will give me further insight in this regard.

    So I wish you good luck in your learning of Chinese and other languages. I may also go into Spanish/Portuguese and Korean after I finish German so that I’ll have 2 or 3 languages on both the Germanic/Latin side and the East Asian side. I guess Arabic is the last of the three largest linguistic patterns in the world besides European and East Asian; going into a third language family though is imaginably tough.

  • tuochuan

    Hope you are fine in Kunming. The police will take good care of the terrorists and will protect you and us.

  • Yang

    Cool, glad to hear you learning Chinese.
    I believe nowadays about different culture, every one has bias recourse they experience things differently.

    You HAVE TO TRY THEIR LOCAL XIAOCHI in Kunming, but just beware of the chemicals that Chinese genius put in your food. (digouyou)

    About Tibet issue that Jack said, every one has strong bias since no bias is also a bias.
    What I want to say is that western use the Tibet for their own purpose and interest, this is my bias.
    If Tibet become a independent because CP invaded it, then US should free Texas, New Mexico since they invade also.

  • HoH

    Hi Scott,

    I am a native Chinese and I’ve been your reader for more than 6 years. Really glad to see this post! I also visited Kunming before, when I was 17. I wish you did not miss the mushroom soup they have. Absolutely yummy!!

    Kunming is famous in China as “All four seasons are like spring四季如春”. So I don’t think you need as much indoor heating as you’ve had in Canada. 🙂 The recent terrorist attack there is terrible. I just cannot imagine that because most major cities in China were so safe…Maybe that was why they picked up the train station: the least organized but most crowded spot in the city.

    Anyway, I am glad you like China and you are doing well with Chinese. As a native speaker, I have to say I don’t know how hard it could be or should be. But I believe learning Chinese will continue to be a wonderful journey for you. Hope you won’t end it after you’ve reached your 3-month goal.

  • Lena

    Hey Scott,

    I liked this myth busting post about China and the Chinese language. I am studying Japanese at the moment so your language learning strategies are pretty eye opening for me as well. Though unfortunately my immediate goal is to be able to read/write Japanese, thus I’m doing Heisigs RTK (800 characters to go…) first and everything (well, pretty much everything) else after.
    Thank you for this inspiring post.

  • Frank Gutierrez

    My goodness you’re thorough. It’s exciting to hear your story about learning Mandarin and exploring the Chinese culture. I definitely miss China. Of equal interest is your level of discipline to make all this happen. I’m also curious if your diet and exercise routine has changed much during your stay. Luckily your city has decent air quality. It can be very bad in some areas of China. Eager to hear more.


  • Yuping Fan

    From your article, we can see that “Learn More, Study Less” can be done for sure!

    你去过翠湖公园吗? 每年冬天有很多红嘴鸥的地方?

  • Steve

    Great post. As someone who studied Mandarin formally, you immersion is clearly the best way.

    Good luck.

  • xiao yu


    The picture you took in restaurant made me smile 🙂

    This restaurant brand has multiple shops everywhere. It is from Fujian Province and cheap. The style is different from Kunming local taste.

    You can try some Kunming style food. Something named “过桥米线” in chinese is famous Kunming food. Hope you enjoy it also.

    And take care.

    XIAO Yu

  • Jean Lai

    If u travel through many cities,especially the southern, u will see the Kunminghua is a piece of cake!中国方言博大精深哈哈哈哈!
    Which city will you go next?Taipei?
    Welcome to Wuhan!!I’m here waiting for you ~
    Btw,you can sign up for weibo or even QQ ,as you can’t twitter or Facebook here.

  • Jean Lai

    哈哈哈哈哈哈 xiao yu 说的对!!

  • Scott Young


    I don’t really know enough about the political situation to have an opinion.


    Yes–I’m learning vocabulary in conjunction with characters. Perhaps I’ll write more about this in a later post.


    I agree, although I was already suspicious of Western reporting (we claim to have a free media, but sometimes for-profit media simply means reinforcing the xenophobic biases of the populace). My worries were mostly reinforced by people who had actually travelled here.


  • Ran Chen

    When you feel more comfortable with Chinese, try to understand the following:

  • CY


  • Liu Si-li

    Nice article! Most Chinese people (include me) start to learn English from elementary school, but after more than 10 years learning, their English ability is still very terrible. I hope your 3 months schedule will encourage us to learn English more effective.

  • euphylia

    the most surprised thing for me today adout this website:I don’t need to across the GFW to enter this website and there are so many Chinese reading your blog.

    As a Chinese,I think China is a complex country and China is quite different in every aspect considering Geographical and age so while people in kunming eat insects,many other Chinese don’t eat them.

    As for Chinese learning,maybe many westerners think Chinese is diffcult to learn,but I think oral Chinese is easy to learn but written Chinese is relatively more difficult and Chinese have many idiom.


  • Hana

    I’m learning Mandarin and Korean at the moment. I found that they both share lots of words so it was easy for me to remember. I recommend learning the 3 east Asian languages as they have things in common including the culture.

    About the pronunciation, I don’t know why I find it easy but could see the mistakes my classmates often do. The thing which I don’t like and find difficult the most is the tones. Its just frustrating.
    Anyways, good luck.

  • Lei89

    Hi Scott,

    The knife attacks are horrible. I hope everyone you know is ok.

    I’m studying Chinese too so it’s really interesting to read your stuff and get inspired. What do you think of Benny Lewis’s methods and what he accomplished in Chinese? How is your way different? Also, did you see this http://www.chinese-forums.com/…, he or she passed hsk5 in 4 months, what do you think of his or her method?

    Also, maybe post audio or video of you speaking, it’d be cool to see now and then later look back and see your progress is great feeling!

    Good luck!

  • Joe

    I think you are doing a amazing job learning to speak chinese as it is supposed to be a very hard language to learn.

  • Cristian

    Really informative article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!
    Now i definitely have to visit China.
    Off topic… can you please make your website responsive… many times I find myself reading from the phone and it’s not the greatest experience ever. You can find a bunch of plugins for wordpress to adapt the blog to mobile devices if you don’t want to make it responsive.
    If you need any help with this let me know!

  • orange030



    Thanks for sharing your experience in learning Chinese. It’s good for you to keep writing blog like this, a good lesson for me to learn English. As a starter, I should slow down my speaking to make others understand me first. based on that, my speaking can speed up and make it more fluent.

  • logicfollows

    Great post! It’s great to hear a positive view of China; like you said, there is a lot of negativity surrounding China from both natives and other travelers.

  • bo058


  • bo058

    8014notes.pdf not found….

  • MaFai

    Wow, seems you have lots of Chinese fans.

    Have you learned the below words?


  • Don Cai

    Hello, Scott, I read your article. I subscribed your newsletter few months ago. When I read about your latest article about China, I want to write an e-mail to you. It’s a really cool article. I mean your opinion about China is objective. You can make a reasonable and impartial judgement even based on your limited experience. As a Chinese, I really appreciate it.

  • Alberto

    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 😉

  • Ying Miao

    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