Having fun with Chinese colloquialisms from 奋斗

Posted in Linguistics at 10:18 pm by Benjamin Ross

Well, it’s been almost a week and I’m now 8 episodes into 《奋斗》. It still continues to be an invaluable learning experience, and I probably haven’t really felt myself pushed like this since my first 6 months of Chinese study. One of the benefits has been a whole new slew of fun new colloquialisms I have been picking up on, and wanted to take a minute to share.

动手动脚 literally means “move hands and move feet.” But more precisely it’s what we’d probably call in English “hooking up,” sexual relations in the Clintonian sense, if you will. 动手动脚 doesn’t necessarily imply having sexual intercourse, but it does tend to mean more than just kissing.

胡说八道 is an idiom which is sometimes shortened to just 胡说. It means “nonsense” or “bullshit.” For example, if somebody tells you that Hu Jintao is doing an autograph signing at Starbucks, you can reply 胡说八道.

物质主义 means “materialism,” and oh I wish I knew this word when I was still living in China. In the show, the concept is introduced by the main character’s father who has spent the last 22 years in the US. He asks his son 你知不知道物质主义 是什么 ? (Do you know what “materialism” is?) to which his son replies that he does not. Therefore, I’m not sure how commonly used this term is in China, although it sure is applicable.

One of the more interesting characters thus far is the mother of 杨晓芸, one of the main characters.  In the words 杨晓芸, her mother is 小市民 or “small town folk.” This issue arises several times and embarrasses 杨晓芸, including an instance during her wedding when she asks the MC not to announce her mother by name because it sounds 太土了,* “too dorky.”

杨晓芸, 何翠凤
Conflict is already starting to brew between 杨晓芸 and her 小市民 mom.

One of the small town mother’s side jobs is that she works as an agent selling and renting apartments. For this, she is called a 房虫, literally “house worm.” The small town stereotype is evoked when at one point she rents an apartment to her daughter’s friend for 500 RMB over the actual asking price. I’m thinking this small town folk/Beijinger dichotomy is going to get juicier and juicer as the plot progresses.

And finally, what TV drama would be complete without a 三角恋 or “love triangle?” 《 奋斗》 is no exception, with multiple 三角恋 ‘s already at the forefront.

Can’t wait for more. And I must admit, I am honestly interested in how this plot further develops.

*This is probably my all-time favorite Chinese adjective. It’s difficult to translate directly into English, but implies that the object is out of touch with what is cool and hip.



On the benefits of learning Chinese from television shows (Part 1)

Posted in Linguistics, Pop Culture at 1:52 am by Benjamin Ross

In the last few posts, I’ve been focusing on several of my own personal beliefs and opinions in regards to Chinese learning. By now most of you are probably quite familiar with my various stances on the topic. A few weeks ago I suggested 10 ways to study Chinese which are more useful than going to class. Of the 10, 9 were based primarily on personal experience. However, one of the methods, ironically the one which I believe provides the best path to advanced language mastery, I admittedly haven’t given much effort toward over the years. And this method would be…the power watching Chinese of television and movies.

So after all the discourse on Chinese learning, I decided to give Chinese television another shot. The most formidable hurdle with Chinese television…I’m not really sure how to put it nicely is…well, a severe lack in quality programming. While Chinese students lap up shows American shows to the point where I am no longer surprised when Chinese acquaintances ask me “Your last name is Ross, like Ross Geller?” or “If you date a Chinese girl, would you like her to be like Carrie or Miranda?” there has yet to be a Chinese show which has so captivated foreign audiences.

struggle 奋斗

This has been my obstacle as well, and I owe a big “thank you” to Peter Jeziorek for suggesting I watch 奋斗 (Struggle). 奋斗 originally aired in 2007 and is one of the first shows to focus on the 八零后 generation, those born between 1980 and 1989, the first generation to grow up entirely during the years following the Reform and Opening Up. The main characters of the show are a group of friends who have recently graduated from college, and are dealing with the typical struggles which face young adults in China such as finding a job, love and marriage, and the looming burden of caring for one’s parents.

奋斗 is not the greatest show I have ever watched. The acting is fair. The story grows excessively corny at points. And the plotlines are predictable. But the characters are well-developed and it tackles enough realistic issues of Chinese society to make it both interesting and educational. So far, I’ve completed five episodes, and I am shooting to watch all 32, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a much needed Chinese workout. Secondly, from a pedagogical perspective, I am curious what specific effects watching Chinese television will have on my language skills. If all goes well, expect more blogging as I get deeper into the project. But first I wanted to provide a few random observations and thoughts I’ve had up to this point.


1) I call it “power watching,” because you don’t just sit back, relax, and watch a show all the way through. The method I have been employing entails watching each episode three times, pausing throughout to look up unfamiliar words, and replaying words and phrases which need to be added to my repertoire. I am quite convinced that had I been watching each episode only once, and without pausing and rewinding, the linguistic benefit would have been minimal.

2) For any method of language study to be efficient, it needs to be done every day. Therefore I have been spending 1-2 hrs per day, every day, in front of the screen, “studying.”

3) Often, I find instances where I am familiar with a phrase, but realize my inflection has been totally off, or a word for which I have been pronouncing the tone incorrectly. In these cases, I rewind several times and repeat the entire phrase out loud. This has served to both call attention to, and rectify, several long-ingrained mistakes and malapropisms.

4) Television shows have two major pedagogical advantages over movies. Firstly, watching, digesting, re-watching, and comprehending a thirty or forty minute shows is much more manageable (and practical) than doing so with a movie which could last two hours. Secondly, there is a certain sense of linguistic continuity that goes along with following the same characters episode to episode, which would not apply to movies, where each new film contains entirely new characters and concepts.

5) Certain aspects of the Chinese language cannot be taught or explained in words. They have to be felt. The example which comes to mind constantly as I watch 奋斗 is particles. There are no set rules for when you say 啊,嘛,呗,呀 or the multitude of other particle words which have no explicit meaning in Chinese. And for most of us laowai, we cope with this dilemma the easy way: we omit them. Although I still have a long way to go, I am starting to feel where and when I should throw a 呀 or a 哇 at into a sentence. It adds an entire new dimension to the tone of speech, and I’m going to pay special attention to this as I continue through 奋斗.

6) I suspect that the cultural benefits of watching a show based in modern times starring people roughly my age (I still have 2 more weeks of my 20s) are going to be significant. As a foreigner in China, you always affect a situation in a different way than you would had you been Chinese, especially those situations which involve yourself directly. Watching Chinese people interact with one another (albeit fictional Chinese people) has already provided me with cultural insight that probably would have been of considerable value in say…dealing with ex-girlfriends or professional endeavors.


Between work and Chinese friends, the days in Chicago when I use Chinese generally outnumber those where I do not, so I’m already having ample opportunity to test out what I have learned. Roughly a week into this project, I’ve noticed expressions from 奋斗 have begun creeping into my idiolect (along with an 儿化音 taboot). But more importantly, I’m noticing subtle influence on my patterns of speech, specifically in regards to accent and delivery. It’s as if the voices of the characters are trapped inside my head and are providing an active template for my syntax and pronunciation.

Although it’s still early in the game, I would already say that hour for hour, watching 奋斗 has been the most efficient Chinese studying I’ve done in years. It wouldn’t have done much good at the early stages of my language study, but at this point I feel like it is going to be the absolute best way to continue to improve. If all goes as planned, I should be able to finish the show by the end of the year, and will hopefully have more observations in the weeks to come.



Ok, So you learned Chinese…Now where’s that dream job???

Posted in Linguistics, Society at 12:21 am by Benjamin Ross

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from an American friend of mine who had recently moved from China back to the US. My friend had spent three years in the Middle Kingdom, taught English, studied Chinese, and even worked a “real” job in Shanghai for half a year, and had now been back in United States for three months. His Chinese was solid, as it should be for anybody who spends three years in China, and good enough to be used on an occupational level. In his e-mail, he explained the frustration he was experiencing trying to secure a job in the United States which could build on his experience in China.

“I thought learning Chinese would be a hot commodity when I got back, and didn’t expect it would be this tough to find a job,” he expressed.

His sentiments are not out of the ordinary. In fact, the post-China unemployment funk is practically unavoidable for former expats upon their re-entry to the Western World, even in times when the economy is healthy. Part of the funk is due to the natural difficulties in transitioning back to American life. However, these frustrations are often aggrandized by high expectations, which are predicated on a fallacy that seems to follow any Westerner who has spent significant time living in China. It usually goes something like this and comes from the likes of parents, grandparents, teachers, generally anybody who is in a natural position to give you advice:

“Oh, you’re learning Chinese? China is the world’s next super-power, you know. You’ll be in high demand when you get back home.”

(Notice how people who make these comments never seem to be in the position to make use of your services. Yet they are confident others will be lining up to do exactly that.)

Chinese people provide similar, unsolicited life coaching. The line I hear most is:

你会英文也会中文。你应该做生意 。 “You speak English and Chinese. You should start a business.”

(As if that’s all it takes.)

The funny thing is that most of the people dispensing this kind of advice have never actually been in the situation which would require testing it out in the first place. They’ve never been an expat in China. And they’ve never looked for a “China job” in the US. However, they have heard all about it in the news, and they all seemingly buy into the axiom that: China is the next world superpower, and therefore there is no better way to cash in than to study Chinese.

The simple fact is however, mastery of Chinese, no matter how good you are, is NOT a golden ticket to employment in the United States.* That is, of course, unless your career goals are purely linguistic in nature (i.e. Chinese teacher, interpreter, or translator). More often than not, expats who learn Chinese and return home, find their way back into the same career (or school) path they had before they ever left for China in the first place.

Big money, international trades, product sourcing…these dreams are all in the trajectory of the scores of Tom Joads who show up annually in the Middle Kingdom. Everybody comes to China with a plan to strike it rich. Rather than a fortune and a new career, most expats seem to return home with little more than a thicker waistline, a prodigious collection of DVD’s, and possibly a new spouse. While China certainly is the current land of opportunity, capitalizing on this fact is not simply a matter of learning the language.

Although Chinese may in fact be in high demand, what’s equally important to factor in is the supply of Chinese speakers. According to the US census, in 2006 there were 2.5 million** people in the United States who speak Chinese at home. That’s more than any language other than English and Spanish. What this means is that not even counting the hundreds of thousands of American currently studying Chinese as a second language, there are already over two million Americans, who by virtue of growing up speaking Chinese, speak the language better than you ever will, regardless of how much you study. From international traders to insurance salesmen to delivery boys at the local chop suey joint, most of the “China jobs” in the US are filled by Chinese Americans.

On the other side of the ocean, English proficiency in the Middle Kingdom is spreading like SARS in a Chinese train station during Spring Festival. Every year Chinese universities are churning out millions (literally) of graduating English majors, a large percentage of whom don’t find jobs with their bilingualness either. Those that do, tend to start out in the 1000 RMB per month range, about 170 USD. In short, there is no bottleneck in communication between China and the United States. And in a capitalist world governed by the laws of supply and demand, there is little justification for hiring an American and paying him an American wage solely because he can speak Chinese.

That being said, it certainly is possible to create a career out of your China experience, but here are some points you should consider.

-A decent “China job” is best attained by using Chinese to augment a pre-existing skill set. While the language alone won’t procure much in the way of employment, Chinese should give a competitive advantage to individuals who already have existing qualifications such as an engineering degree, a background in biochemistry, or experience in the financial sector.

-There are a substantial amount of career-oriented positions available which will make use of your Chinese skills. The thing is, most of them are in China, particularly Beijing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. If your goal is to base your career on Chinese, you should be comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be spending the majority of your time in China.

-In order to secure a job using your Chinese, you’re going to have to be pretty good. Basic conversational skills and “knowing the culture” aren’t going to get you squat. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, but you should be able to sit in on a business meeting, soak up the details, and contribute to the conversation without falling too far behind. We’re talking a pretty advanced proficiency level here. Being literate helps too.

-But most importantly, finding a good China job relies much more on your actual skill set than your language skills per se. This is where people tend to kid themselves and hide behind their HSK scores. If you’re a poor communicator, disorganized, or can’t create an Excel spreadsheet, these traits are going to hurt your chances at employment much more than your inability to properly pronounce the third tone. Regard the bulk of your China job search as you would any other job search which wouldn’t pertain to your China experience. Your Chinese language chops are the gravy.

Now all of this is not to say that learning Chinese is a waste of time. Learning a foreign language, especially one spoken by 20% of the world’s population is, provides access to a wealth of knowledge and experiences unattainable to monolinguals. The ability to speak Chinese will allow opportunities for personal and intellectual growth to which it would be impossible to attach any price tag. But in terms of paying dividends measured in annual salary, the rewards of learning Chinese will likely never exceed the time and effort put into it. If you do decide devote the time and energy to study Chinese, do so out of a desire to further your own personal curiosities and intellectual development, not under the pretense that it will directly boost your career. For that, you’d be better off getting an MBA.

*I am assuming the same would apply to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Western Europe, but since I’ve never lived in any of those countries, I’m going to limit my direct discussion to the US.

**I’m willing to grant a significant number of that 2.5 million speak a dialect other than Mandarin (Unfortunately the census lumps all Chinese dialects together). However, current trends in immigration indicate that a) Chinese immigration to the US continues to increase and b) the vast majority of recent immigrants are proficient Mandarin speakers.



Tone in, Tone on, Drop out: 10 Ways to Study Chinese which are More Useful than Going to Class

Posted in Linguistics at 12:08 am by Benjamin Ross

So you read my last post and now you’re motivated. You’ve been intimidated a long time, but now that you understand Chinese is only difficult in the beginning, you’re ready to make the jump and begin your studies. What’s next? Maybe you should……take a class……right? Wrong!

I’ve often observed that when eager students are choosing to embark on the study of a foreign language, the natural inclination is to take a class. Learn the language in the classroom, then possibly go abroad (or start a new career) to put it to work. So the logic goes. What is ironic is that in my experience of both teaching and studying foreign languages in both the US and in China, never once have I met an individual who had a firm command of a foreign language and could attribute their skills in large part to classes. Not one! This is not to say that classes are completely worthless, but rather that they are, in a word, inefficient.

There are certain types of learning which are ideal for a classroom setting. Learning a language is not one of them. Mastering a language requires intensive practice as well as fine tuned adjustments, which need to be catered to the individual based on their own individual strengths and weaknesses. An environment with a single teacher and a classroom full of students is simply not conducive to this kind of activity since the teacher’s attention is spread out evenly among the mass. While the classroom setting can be helpful in some particular aspects (i.e. reading , explaining grammatical constructs) it has been my experience that a less formal (and more personal) approach to language learning is both more efficient and enjoyable than hours spent in the classroom. As a former teacher of many ESL classes, I have noticed a distinct pattern with students who have achieved superior English levels. The majority of their learning has occurred outside of the classroom. Those who confine their learning to the classroom (regardless of how hard they study) tend to teeter on mediocrity. Chinese is no different.

In the following post, I am offering ten ways to study Chinese which I believe are all more efficient uses of your time and efforts than formal classes. Next to each method, in parentheses, is a rough level estimate at which the method should start to become useful. These methods never expire so to speak, so an item marked “beginner” would still be useful to an advanced student, but not vice versa. None of these suggestions are not golden tickets in and of themselves, and any prudent study plan will consist of a combination of methods, tailored by an individual to his own style. Try them out, see what works, devise your own plan, and please feel free to add any suggestions in the comment section below.

Before we begin, you’ll notice that the majority of the points appear to be contingent on you actually living in China. This is about 85% true, and somewhat intentional. An absolutely necessary prerequisite to learning any foreign language is an appropriate language environment. The easy way to accomplish this is to move to a country where your language is spoken. I recognize that not everybody who wants to learn Chinese can move to China on a whim. Living outside of China does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to immerse yourself in a Chinese environment. It just means you might have to force it a little bit more, mainly by making Chinese friends and using the Internet. But that’s fodder for a whole different post. So without further adieu, here we go.: 10 ways to study Chinese which which more useful than going to class.

1. Find a Formal Language Partner (beginner)

Before we get any further, I want to make absolutely clear that my statements above apply to classes, as in a learning environment with a single teacher and multiple students. They do NOT apply to individual lessons and tutoring which can be of enormous benefit. For a prime example, consider the process of mastering Chinese pronunciation, which I maintain is both the most difficult and most vital aspect of beginning Chinese instruction. Mastery of Chinese pronunciation, especially tones, cannot be done alone. You can’t learn it from a book and you can’t learn it by mimicking audio recordings. Although I’ve never tried it myself, I’m willing to bet you can’t learn it from Rosetta Stone or any other kooky miracle software either. Why not? Because unless you were exposed to tonal languages before puberty, your brain is not hard wired to create nor decipher the four tones used in spoken Mandarin. What you need is a personal trainer, a native Chinese speaker to model, listen, and criticize for you the tones, vowels, and consonant sounds necessarily for your Chinese to be intelligible. Naturally, this process is virtually impossible in any classroom setting with more than two or three students. And it is accomplished most efficiently in a one-on-one setting. I could go on for pages on this first point, but let me just leave it at this. One-on-one classes language classes are infinitely more useful hour for hour than any class with multiple students. It’s simply a matter of resource distribution.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. One-on-one tutoring is expensive. You can’t afford it. Chinese may be a valuable skill but it’s not worth taking out a second mortgage to pay for daily tutoring sessions…Hogwash!

By virtue of reading this post, you are in possession of one of the world’s most sought after commodities. You are a speaker of English, the most in-demand language in the world. Throughout the planet there is a vastly disproportionate number of people who want to learn YOUR language. And in no place is this more true than the Middle Kingdom, where millions of students would pay large sums of money, just to have the chance to practice their English, with YOU. Do you see where I’m going with this? As a native speaker of English, there is no reason you should ever have to sit in a Chinese classroom with next to other students. Here’s what you do. Find a Chinese friend with decent English skills, a knack for explaining concepts, and most importantly, somebody who you are comfortable hanging out with in a typical social setting. Pick a location and set up a regular meeting time where you do English for part of the time, then Chinese for the rest. You could do grammar lessons, tone drills, or even free form conversation. The key is to construct your own study plan. Cooperate with your partner to identify your strengths and weaknesses and focus your lessons accordingly. Have one productive language exchange already set up? Organize another one, and another one. This is linguistic symbiosis, a phrase which you will hear a lot about as you read on. Rather than pay money to sit in a class with an unbalanced teacher/student ratio, barter your own language skills to get a better deal. And make sure to be choosy of whom you work with. There are more than enough Chinese speakers to pair up with. The ability to properly teach a language is not bestowed on everybody. Interestingly, I’ve found that often “ESL teachers” (both Chinese and English) are no better or worse than at this than a random person chosen through social regular social networking. So quit those classes and start making friends.

2. Talk to Everybody (beginner)

If you live in China, this one is easy. If you live outside of China, not so much, but still possible. By in large, Chinese people, especially the middle aged and elderly, have an acute curiosity towards foreigners. As the majority of the population still lives with little or no contact with those of us who are not Chinese, there is a natural interest in foreigners, especially those willing to communicate in the Chinese language. Whether with your neighbor, your trash collector, or the girl massaging your feet, never, ever, waste the opportunity to open up small conversation. Chances are the other party would gladly take the opportunity to chat and have a few questions answered by a foreigner willing to converse in their native language. And you, as a student of Chinese, should be gladly willing to engage in some free language practice. More linguistic symbiosis.

When I was starting out with Chinese, I always viewed my oral Chinese skills is in terms of small, otherwise meaningless conversations which gradually build upon one another. My goal was to have at least ten per day, most lasting two or three minutes. The content of these conversations would be highly predictable, making it easy for me to learn through repetition while gradually adding to my lexical arsenal.

So here’s what you do. Start with the basics. People will want to know where you’re from, what you do in China, and how much your monthly salary is. (Yes, no joke. It’s a common inquiry upon first meeting. Either get comfortable telling people how much you make, or learn a polite way to skirt the question.) Learn how to recognize and answer these questions, and from there, begin building an arsenal of your own. The convenient byproduct of answering personal questions from Chinese strangers is that generally speaking, it gives you carte blanche to make similar queries of them. Think of a trite conversation at a wedding with somebody with whom you don’t really want to be actively conversing. Ask how many people are in their family, where they grew up, what their opinion is on the current weather conditions, anything to continue the small talk. Repeat and reload. Repeat and reload. The whole country is your classroom.

3. Take notes (beginner)

From spring 2004 until summer of 2005, I did not go anywhere without a notebook in my pocket. If you are truly studying a language, you are never on break. It is imperative that you use every opportunity to learn new words, phrases, and grammatical constructions. Furthermore, it is important to focus on those words which most frequently arise in your regular daily routine. So if you’re a photographer by trade, you should be learning the words for “megapixel” and “optical zoom.” If you are a lion tamer, words such as “cage” and “roar” would probably be more useful.

To build a vocabulary built around your own life, you must always have on your person either a pocket sized notebook or a stack of flash cards. Use the notebook or the cards to record new words and phrases, as well as to record those words and phrases you would like to learn. Take your notebook or your flashcards everywhere you go without exception. If you take the flashcard route, splice standard sized cards into threes. Otherwise they won’t fit comfortably in your pocket. As the day progresses, you should be constantly recording those new words and expressions which pertain to your daily routine. You can use this method to build your vocabulary with non-specialized by commonly used words and constructions as well. Ideally, a Chinese acquaintance in your immediate vicinity can answer some of your questions real time. For me (like many foreigners living in China), I went through this stage as an English teacher, so there was always someone on hand to answer my questions. If you aren’t surrounded by folks who can answer your questions, make sure there is someone at the end of the day to whom you can ask the questions from your notebook. Offer to answer their English questions in return. It’s symbiotic. Shoot for between 5 and 8 new Chinese terms or constructions per day. Don’t overload yourself. You should be using all your down time (time spent waiting in line, at the bus stop, even in the bathroom), reviewing your new terms and constructions. All it takes is short study breaks of two or three minutes, but happening intermittently throughout the day. The key is repetition, repetition, repetition.

4. Get drunk (intermediate)

Just because you never get a break from studying does not mean that you don’t get to have any fun. In fact having fun is one of the most useful ways to put all the new phrases in your notebook to practice. One of the best ways to do this is to party with Chinese friends who don’t speak English. Excessive alcohol consumption is detrimental to studies, relationships, and most other personal responsibilities. However it will do wonders to your linguistic prowess, as long as you harness it properly.

Language students often find that the effects of alcohol can alleviate some of the nerves which preclude the use of a foreign language. As a teacher, I’ve even noticed among those students who are not particularly nervous, alcohol tends to stimulate the flow of their language skills. So much to the point where students in a state of partial or complete inebriation often speak with more fluidity than they do when sober. However, the key to effectively using alcohol to improve your Chinese is in the careful selection of whom you party with. It has been my experience that when Westerners and Chinese drink together, conversation gravitates towards English nine times out of ten. As a sagacious student of Chinese, you must do everything in your power to insure you will be the only English speaker in your group, and try to avoid Chinese friends who either already speak English or have a desire to learn it. (This also has the added plus of knowing your Chinese friends like you for your personality, and not for your potential as a portable English corner). Alcohol has the uncanny ability aggregate previously acquired morsels of language and consolidate them into flowing thoughts . But you’ll never take advantage of this if your evenings out at the bars are spent with other English speakers.

5. Learn how to sing (intermediate)

If you are in China and don’t live in a plastic bubble (or one of those corporate foreigner compounds), you are probably asked to “sing a song” on a fairly regular basis. Whether in the karaoke room or the classroom, the Chinese possess a particular liking (for better or worse) to egging on their friends to sing in public. Chances are, if you were socialized in the West and have no vocal training, you are easily embarrassed in this situation, and kindly decline such offers.

Learning how to sing, or more accurately making an attempt at learning how to sing, will not only ease potentially awkward social situations, it will also provide you with a valuable learning tool. Think back to when you were in middle school. Did you ever have to memorize some speech or political document for social studies class? In the United States it’s common practice for middle school students to memorize the Preamble of the Constitution. I had to do this when I was in eighth grade in the early 1990s. Now, almost 20 years later, all I can remember is the first three words. However, I can still recite on demand all three verses of Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby.” I also remember the words to “Bust a Move,” “The Humpty Dance,” and most of “We Didn’t Start the Fire .“ Why? Because the human brain has a knack for memorizing and retaining words which have rhythm or music to go along with them, and learning songs is an excellent way to build your vocabulary and syntax skills. I couldn’t tell you the cognitive science behind this so just try it out and see for yourself. Pick out a song you like from the radio, and ask a Chinese friend to help you download the lyrics, and transcribe them to pinyin if necessary. Then look up all of the unfamiliar words (Don’t let your friend do this for you. Looking words up is part of the learning process.) and type them into the margins. Print out your document, crank up the volume, and rock out. Trust me, you’re going to feel like a dork at first, but the anxiety subsides with time and practice. Plus next time you’re taken to the karaoke bar, you won’t be the wet blanket when it’s your time to sing. This also increase your chances at succeeding at item 4, getting drunk with your Chinese friends .

6. Pay attention to your surroundings (beginner)

Ever see those old Hong Kong movie where every street is depicted as a barrage of winding signs and flashing lights? Well, that’s basically what any street in China looks like—complete and total visual sensory overload. With its obnoxious symphony of signage and posters, there are few physical locations in China which are not potential workouts for your character recognition skills. Consider all the time you spend riding in cabs or buses and staring out the window, or standing line in the grocery store or at the DVD shop. You should be reading signs—all the time. Look for the characters and words you already know. Pay attention to unfamiliar ones which you see repeatedly, and ask a bystander their pronunciations and meanings. Write them down in your notebook. You do have a notebook in your pocket, don’t you? I’ve found most Chinese are more than willing to help with a casual question from a foreigner taking a stab at learning their language. Pay special attention to signage near your residence and place of work. These are the signs you will be reading every day, which means once you learn them, you will be repeatedly reading them over and over. Repetation leads to internalization. Wax on. Wax off.

7. Eat at Chinese Restaurants (beginner)

Some of you have probably seen my other site How To Order Chinese Food Dot Com. In addition to what I think is a very useful tool for foreigners wanting to order their own food in China, HTOCFDC is also the culmination of what I have found to be one of the most effective (and delicious) ways to study the Chinese language.

Most foreigners living in China eat the majority of their meals, except maybe breakfast, in restaurants. Ordering food in most restaurants usually necessitates the use of a menu. Think of each meal as an opportunity to learn one character. If you aren’t sure where to start, look down the menu and spot a character which seems to appear regularly on multiple items. Consider it your “character of the meal.” For me, my first “character of the meal” was 面 which means “noodles,” and appears probably more than any other character on a Chinese menu. Ask a friend (if you are truly a student of Chinese you should be eating most of your meals with Chinese acquaintances) to tell you the meaning and the pronunciation of the character. Write it in your notebook. The next time you eat in a restaurant, look for your character again on the menu. Think of it as the “Where’s Waldo?” of Chinese study. Once you locate the characters you know, learn another one, and another, one at every meal. In a matter of months, you should recognize a hefty percentage of the items on any Chinese menu. Use this as a building block for your reading skills, and you’ll start to notice your menu characters in places other than restaurants as well.

8. Chat online (intermediate)

Once you achieve an intermediate Chinese level, the Internet will rapidly emerge as a bottomless pit of linguistic calisthenics. Between voice chatting, blogs, and social networking, there truly is an unlimited access to a Chinese language environment so long as you know where to look. However, of the cornucopia of online Chinese language learning tools (which I should probably cover in a future post), none is more effective than online chatting.

To begin, I recommend signing up for a QQ account. (For more on QQ, read this post I wrote last year). QQ is a haphazardly designed, bug ridden, advertisement infested, thoroughly annoying, piece of software engineering garbage. It’s also your portal to hundreds of millions (literally) of native Chinese speakers more than willing to whittle away hours at the netbar conversing with complete strangers. While Skype and MSN also offer significant user bases, the advantage of QQ is the relative dearth of non-Chinese users. Put a sentence such as 我是一个会中文的老外 (I am a foreigner who can speak Chinese) in your profile, and you are bound to attract a steady flow of curious chat partners. You want to improve your Chinese chops. They want to chat with a foreigner—more symbiosis. QQ will allow you to both chat through typed characters as well as hook up your headset speak the old fashioned way. Use it to improve your typing speed, learn new vocabulary (I always have Kingsoft Powerword open when I’m QQing), or just to make new Chinese friends. For me, I credit my reading ability in no small part to hours spent on QQ discussing mundane subjects with complete strangers. And in addition to strangers, QQ is the perfect tool to keep in contact with those casual Chinese acquaintances whom you might sit next to on a train or share a room with in a hostel. You know, people you wouldn’t mind being in touch with, but don’t want to have calling you on the phone three times a week. So when they ask for your cell phone number, just give them your QQ instead. Everybody in China between the ages of 15 and 30, and I mean EVERYBODY has an account.

Furthermore, if you can speak, read, and write Chinese but can’t type it on a keyboard, then your language skills have already been marginalized by the technology. It is absolutely imperative that you learn to type. Unless you travel to China at 88 mph in a DeLorean with a flux capacitor, if you can’t type Chinese, you might as well be illiterate.

9. Text Message in Chinese (intermediate)

Whether I’m in traveling in China or at home in the US, I send at least twenty text messages every day. That means potentially at least 20 times per day I could be communicating my thoughts in Chinese, (assuming who I am texting can read Chinese as well). And since texting is generally used for relaying simplistic messages and ideas, it’s perfect for those who are in the early stages of their Chinese character learning process. Using pinyin, Chinese is actually faster to type on a keypad than English, and you will be amazed at how your speed improves once you make the switch to Chinese texting. Any cell phone bought in China should be able to text in both English and Chinese. If you bought your phone outside of China, take it in to an electronics mall and have them doctor it to include Chinese input. You can also find shops to do this in most places outside of China with significant Chinese populations. In Chicago there are at least three cell phone stores in Chinatown who will provide the service for around 20 dollars. Use Chinese texting to make your weekend plans, send greetings for birthdays or Spring Festival, or as a coy way to flirt with the opposite sex. I even use it with other foreigners occasionally because it’s faster than texting English.

10. Power Watch Television and Movies (advanced)

During my days of English teaching, at least once every semester I would encounter a student who possessed language abilities far beyond any of his classmates or peers, especially in terms of a native-sounding accent, inflection, and colloquialisms. As a teacher, I would always make it a point to sit down privately with these students and inquire as to their methods of learning foreign language, and there was a clear pattern which emerged: Compulsive consumption of American television and movies.

While it may not be of much help in the beginning (unless you are of pre-pubescent age), I am convinced that there is no more effective tool for native mastery of a language than endlessly watching foreign language films and serial television shows. The kicker though, is that those students who truly benefit from watching foreign films and shows, are those who have an authentic interest which stretches beyond any linguistic pursuits. They don’t watch because they want to improve their English. They watch because they enjoy the content. A supreme command of the English language just happens to be a convenient byproduct.

Therein lies an inherent roadblock to using film and TV to bolster your Chinese abilities. One reason Chinese students tend to get sucked into American movies and television is that the overall quality of programming is….well, incomparable. Due to several factors including the more mature state of the film industry and the lack of competition on the TV airways, much of what’s watched in China consists of cheesy kung fu flicks, singing competitions, and craptaculars.  The single greatest obstacle to students of Chinese, and one that I struggle with myself, is finding materials which are interesting enough to develop a legitimate interest which is not prefabricated on a desire to learn Chinese. There are a few recommendations I can give to start you out though. For film, check out anything done by Zhang Yimou. His films stand up to Western standards of quality, and often cover historical events and issues of interest to those desiring an understanding of the Middle Kingdom. As for television shows, look for a 1990’s series called 北京人在纽约 (Beijingers in New York). It’s the story of a Chinese couple who move to the United States, and experience the peaks and valleys of life in a foreign land. While not the greatest show ever produced, it’s certainly watchable. Watch each film/show multiple times and try to pick up more of the dialogue with each run through. It takes a big time commitment, but consistent exposure to Chinese TV and movies over an extended period of time will do wonders to your language prowess.

Notice I mentioned television shows and movies, and not newscasts. The reason being that most regular people do not talk like newscasters. While watching news may be of benefit to those extremely advanced students aiming to improve their listening, your time will be far more efficiently spent viewing content of a more quotidian nature.

So there’s my list of 10. While slightly exhaustive, it is by no means comprehensive. If you’ve read through the entire post, you’ve probably noticed a distinct pattern with all of my suggestions. Each one represents a method of incorporating Chinese learning into your daily routine of activities. This is because learning a language is a lifestyle, not a hobby. Instead of enrolling in classes and studying for exams, use the suggestions above to integrate Chinese study into your individual life patterns. Ditch the lavish classroom with its troops of students all vying for the instruction of a single teacher, and instead focus on your expanding rolodex of language partners. You’ll find that your productivity will increase dramatically, plus you’ll be having fun while you learn. I often hear folks complain about how much “work” it is to learn Chinese. And yes, in the beginning, you do need to put long hours into drilling your tones and basic grammar patterns. But more often than not, linguistic mediocrity comes as a result of too much studying and not enough real world application. There is no better teacher than the environment and situations you choose to put yourself into. So stop meandering away hours in the classroom and start learning Chinese the right way, by living.

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