Lingosteve’s wisdom on learning Mandarin

Steve Kaufmann is one of the world’s most experienced language learners and a well-known polyglot. What is his best advice on learning Mandarin?

Polyglot Steve Kaufmann

Steve Kaufmann alias Lingosteve grew up in the English-speaking area of Montreal, Canada. He was a graduate of L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, France (1966), and a Canadian Diplomat. Until the age of seventeen he spoke only English. Today he knows 16 languages and speaks at least half a dozen of them quite fluently, and he is determined to add more. He wrote a book called The Way of the Linguist, A Language Learning Odyssey and has his own channel on YouTube.

What I like the most about Steve Kaufmann is this:

  • Motivation: Watching his videos is inspiring as he’s probably one of the most experienced language learners currently alive and he tells you about what methods actually work.
  • Realistic: Steve doesn’t tell you nonsense like how to speak language X fluently in 12 weeks. Language learning is a long-term endeavor and hard work about which he doesn’t lie.
  • Old vs new school: Kaufmann didn’t grow up with the internet like my generation, but he appreciates and makes use of the tools and options from the digital age.
  • Excitement for new languages: For him learning foreign languages is a lifelong intellectual journey. The scope of his interest goes way beyond the language itself (history, culture, philosophy, literature etc.)
  • Polyglot experience: He is one of the few people who is able to compare the difficulties of learning – for example – Mandarin to other languages. His experience shows that the more languages you master, the more language learning itself becomes a skill and a “reproducible process”.

Can you learn Mandarin in six months?

  • 1:49 Language is a lifelong journey.
  • 3:37 The goal is to get comfortable.
  • 4:56 Listen to dialogues and lay off the characters.
  • 7:49 Listening and reading is the most effective method.
  • 9:18 The biggest waste of time.
  • 9:47 What books and materials should be used.
  • 10:26 I would start to write as soon as I can.
  • 12:38 Don’t worry and just speak.
  • 13:23 6 months are over. What’s next?
  • 14:03 Your languages are always with you.

We discussed this question before, but I think Steve gives a more honest answer. You can achieve a lot in 6 months, but you won’t be “done”…

To initially focus on listening and reading and to get as much (suitable) input as you can makes sense. Two things Steve Kaufmann mentions in this video strike me as interesting:

  • Start speaking when you feel ready. Get comfortable first. This is interesting, since most teachers will challenge you into speaking, right from the first lesson. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so, but I agree with Kaufmann that it’s more fun to engage in intelligent conversation instead of drilling sentence patterns and silly dialogues. But that doesn’t mean the latter can’t be useful or necessary. It’s just not very enjoyable and may turn some people off.
  • Don’t waste your time in the class room listening to the mistakes of others. This is another point many people will recognize. I always preferred to share the class room with people “better” and more fluent than myself just for this reason. But it’s not that you can’t learn from others. You’re likely to struggle with the same things (although with different nationalities that’s not always the case). Maybe it’s also Steve’s way of saying you should find your own approach and focus on those things that interest and motivate you rather than passively follow the teacher and other classmates.

Six hacks for learning Mandarin

  1. Listening and Pinyin
  2. Start with characters
  3. Look for patterns
  4. Read a lot
  5. Focus on listening to things you like
  6. Shadowing

Kaufmann’s main point again and again is that language learning should be interesting and meaningful. That’s why you see him throwing the 口语-book away (3:44), cause it contains so much boring and irrelevant stuff. I completely relate to that. At the end of the day, this means YOU are responsible for making your learning meaningful and fun. Read things you find genuinely interesting. This gets easier, the more advanced you get.

He also emphasizes the importance of patterns rather than learning grammar for the sake of learning grammar. Patterns that you can actually use in daily conversation, reading or writing. I agree with this. My experience is grammar patterns only stick with you when you actively use them or – in case of reading – when you meet them frequently in a sentence. Therefore, you’re well advised to look out for those elements you are really going to need and pay less attention to more secondary things like the difference between 记录 and 纪录 which get a lot of attention in the typical Chinese textbooks.

A more obvious but still very crucial point he makes is to be persistent and spend some time learning Chinese everyday. In other words, to cultivate good learning habits which automatically leads back to the first point: keeping it interesting as you’re gonna need that long-term motivation.

How Steve learned Mandarin

If you want to hear the full story of how Steve Kaufmann learned Chinese I recommend listening to this interview. Steve also speaks in more detail about his philosophy on language learning and discusses various strategies for becoming a polyglot.

Find your own way

All these tips are extremely useful, but we shouldn’t forget that each person is different and Kaufmann’s approach with its focus on characters and reading doesn’t necessarily work for everybody. Nor does every person has Steve’s intellectual curiosity and that accompanying sense of excitement. Like so many things in the world you have to make up your own mind about it.

What’s your approach to tackling Chinese? What do you think about Steve Kaufmann’s way of learning? Please leave a comment below.

Learning Mandarin the low budget way

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What can you do if you want to learn Mandarin but don’t want to spend loads of money to attend Chinese courses or visit China for an extensive period? Learn Chinese low budget style. Here’s how!

Video and online lessons

You need a teacher to study a new language. There are many teachers out there online posting video lessons for foreigners. Mandarin Corner, Yoyo Chinese and ChinesePod for example, to name three popular channels. Search a little longer and you’ll find plenty of other Chinese teachers and language schools operating from China who create authentic content free of charge. And not just classic teaching, but also specially edited street interviews and real life communication which are extremely useful.

There’s no shortage of beginner lessons too. Yoyo Chinese created a series that starts with the basics where each video builds on the next one.

You’ll also find an increasing number of Mandarin speaking laowai vloggers like Thomas阿福, 口语老炮儿马思瑞Chris, Fulinfang拂菻坊 or 莫彩曦Hailey on YouTube. Although it can be intimidating to see a fellow foreigner speaking Mandarin so fluently, it has the power to inspire as well. The CCTV show 外国人在中国 introduces many longtime laowai from different cultures and backgrounds and is worth checking out. It’s not a must, but it’s also no shame to have a role model. If someone from your own cultural background has mastered Mandarin, there’s no reason why you can’t, right?

Looking for a real teacher for online lessons? Then Italki is the place to start, but you will have to spend some money.

Online communities

Quora question about how hard it is to learn Mandarin.

Learning a new language like Chinese is no good on your own. You can find several Mandarin learning groups on Facebook and corporate sites that share content for learners. Members of learning groups do not always post the most relevant content, but in general you will find like-minded people and more experienced learners to ask for advice. Advice is much needed when you’re doing low budget learning, since most of the time you’ll have to sort out what’s best for you(r learning) on your own. Instagram can be fun place to check for Chinese content as well.

Quora answers many questions about learning Chinese and keeps you updated on new learning tools and tips and ideas how to study effectively. You do see some double content and not all answers are as relevant and correct as you would want them to be.

Chinese forums is a forum dedicated to all questions related to learning Mandarin. Many forum members are longtime learners and China nerds (in a positive way!). Over the years, lots of topics have been covered. If you have a specific question, you might get or find an expert answer here.

Apps

There are plenty of good apps available for learning Mandarin and it’s impossible to cover them all. The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco (or alternatively Hanping) is arguably the most essential learning tool – with lots of add-ons. Anki and Memrise are popular apps for flashcard learning. DuoLingo, LingoDeer and HelloChinese help you learn new vocabulary. That’s just to name a few. If you want to get more detailed information, this website provides an up-to-date list of apps. I noted elsewhere that language apps won’t solve all your problems, but they sure can be entertaining and support your learning in a meaningful way.

Make friends online and offline

Learning a new language like Mandarin is a lot more fun and worthwhile with native speakers to practice and communicate with. WeChat is the most popular social app in Mainland China with over 1 billion monthly active users. It is the preferred tool for communication – even in many professional settings. The app does come with some privacy issues (as does Facebook) not unlike Douyin – the “Chinese TikTok” – which is something you have to consider. When it comes to making Chinese friends though, WeChat can be a big help to connect to Chinese speakers and immerse yourself online. You can switch the interface to English and the inbuilt translation tool will translate Chinese accordingly.

More directly focused on language learning is the app HelloTalk. It’s a platform and online community which allows you to socialize online – by texting, speaking, camera sharing and drawing – with native speakers. You can actually save your chats and interactions to study them later. Quite useful.

The same approach can be used offline – more locally. Check your local university, Confucius institute and other language schools for language exchange programs for example. Get to know one member of your local Chinese community and your likely to be introduced to more Chinese expats. With some luck you’ll find a tandem partner to buddy up with.

Chinese music, movies and series

If you like music, you should try listening some songs in your target language. Find out what Chinese music you like and create your own playlist for your way to work or before you go to sleep. It’s not always easy to find “appropriate input” that you enjoy and understand to some degree, but any daily input is better than none. Unlike it’s often said, listening to Chinese music doesn’t improve the pronunciation of the tones so much, but it does help to get a better feeling for the language and acquire new vocabulary.

I’m still working on a list of movies and series that are fun to watch. For now:

  • ifun.tv (lots of choice, mostly no English subtitles for Chinese though)
  • tv.cctv.com/live (watch live Mainland Chinese television, all CCTV channels)
  • imdb.com (the movie database)
  • Wikipedia (an extensive list)
  • Netflix (I don’t use it myself, too afraid to get addicted)
  • YouTube (Some older movies can be found here, like “To live” and other classics)

Popup dictionary for your web browser

Install this add-on for when you’re surfing the Chinese web. It’s an extremely useful translation tool – even for those who aren’t actually studying Mandarin.

Blogs

Apart from all other channels, the blogosphere is a great space for tips, inspiration and experience sharing when it comes to language learning.

Share your goals

What are your reasons to learn Chinese? Which level do you want to achieve? Which language skills are most important to you? Let others know about your Mandarin learning goals. I see some fellow bloggers preparing for HSK tests and sharing their progress on a regular basis. That’s a great way to stay focused, reflect on what you’re doing and let your readers and friends support you. This seems like a lot of extra effort, but to be open about your learning routines and keeping track of your progress are actually rewarding and can get the best out of other people too. There’s no perfect approach, what counts is your daily effort and support from whoever is willing to offer it.


The “pitfalls” of low budget learning

As we’ve seen you can find plenty of free and instantly accessible resources online – almost to the point that you get swamped by them and feel kind of lost and paralyzed. This overabundance of materials forces you to take a more structured approach and to limit your time you spend on each. Although I recommend online communities, spending too much time on Facebook and other social media is distractive rather than effective. Before you know it the time you planned for studying is gone.

It is in self-limitation that a master first shows himself.

Goethe

This means – and this is easier said than done – that you have to confine yourself to the essentials. You have to be your own doctor in a way and prescribe your daily cocktail of learning materials. Combine YouTube video lessons and app learning for example. To some extent, you’ll have to create your own curriculum. Do ask others for advice. Experiment with different things and stick with those that work best for you.

He who considers too much will perform little.

Schiller

That all being said, there is no ideal strategy to master Mandarin. You have to find your own way.

What do you think of “low budget learning” for Mandarin Chinese? Can it be done? Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

New vocabulary trainer app: Daily Chinese

Pleco and Anki are probably the most popular apps for learning Chinese with flashcards. But what about an “all-inclusive flashcard app” that covers almost all vocabulary that you need to survive in China?

Too many apps for learning Mandarin

Have you ever felt lost in the monkey jungle of apps for Chinese out there? It’s hard to tell from the outside if an app is a valuable asset for your learning tool kit or just another anticlimactic nuisance.

Too many apps for learning Chinese

What’s more, some of the apps with a track record of quality content and high didactic standards demand monthly subscriptions which in time add up to quite substantial sums. Most of the time, I’m just not sure if I should invest that money in an app or rather use it to purchase books or even regular Chinese lessons.

But occasionally a new app pops up that’s worth our attention.

New app: Daily Chinese

When I stumbled across this LinkedIn-message about a new vocabulary trainer app for business Chinese, I wasn’t jumping in the air with excitement, but I clicked the link anyway. To my surprise, Daily Chinese looked promising and even has a very polished website.

LinkedIn message from design leader of Daily Chinese app
The LinkedIn-message

What’s the added value?

How revolutionary is it? Well, everybody is familiar with flashcard apps like Anki and Memrise where you can build your own sets of flashcards, structure your learning and track your progress.

Daily Chinese is similar, yet different:

  • You learn with spaced-repetition
  • You can track your progress
Several “packs”, progress tracker and performance stats. Screenshot from the app store (13.12.2019)

What’s different:

  • The app is well-designed and easy to use.
  • You don’t need to look for sets of flashcards made by others or create your own decks which can be very time-consuming. The Daily Chinese app provides key vocabulary packs for beginners, intermediate and advanced learners including HSK, grammar and idioms.
  • But there’s more: the app also contains survival decks for students and expats.
  • Or you’re dealing with China professionally? The special packs for work-related learning can prove useful. This includes such fields as office & email, language teaching, going online, finance and software. Other topics include the news, global politics, economics, science & tech and sports.
  • One of my favorites is the pack about the time of Mao Zedong. All the online-related vocabulary packs I find very useful as well.

Ready-made vocabulary lists

Until now, I had a hard time finding ready-made key vocabulary lists. The app (which is free btw) allows you to boost or refresh your vocabulary in a goal-oriented manner. Preview the list to see if the word are relevant to you.

Be aware though that there aren’t any example sentences. It’s vocabulary only. In my opinion, the app is most effective when you’re already familiar with the words and their context. It’s never a good idea to learn words that are completely new for you in isolation. That’s why I’m not convinced this is an useful app for beginners.

Would you pay for this app?

I would! But no monthly subscriptions please. I hate those. As a vocabulary trainer, this app is especially useful for people studying or working in China or those planning to do so.

What I don’t get

The Android version wanted to access my fitness data and list of installed apps. Why’s that?

Anyway, we have to wait for the beta-version to see how long this good thing lasts. You can download the app for Android or iOs.

Have you ever used Daily Chinese or do you prefer a different, life changing, planet saving app to remember all those characters? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

Can you learn Chinese from a textbook?

Last week I listened to the You can learn Chinese podcast where the above mentioned question was discussed: Can you learn Chinese (solely) from textbooks? And if so, to what extent? Can you become fluent by studying the whole textbook series of Integrated Chinese from beginner to advanced level? I doubt it, but maybe we should start asking the opposite question first…

Can you learn Chinese WITHOUT a textbook?

Yes, you can but…

Consider the case of Alice: she spent two years in China, but for some reason never found the time to attend Chinese classes or seriously study on her own. Neither in China, nor before China. During her time in China, she started to understand and speak some everyday life Chinese, but after two years, she still couldn’t read a complete sentence and wasn’t able to answer more specific questions like the kind of work experience she has and which cultural differences she experienced…

Easy come, easy go?

I know a number of people who acquired an impressive blending of survival Chinese without ever opening, let alone studying, a Chinese textbook. However those expats were typically very extroverted, outgoing people who enjoyed communicating with the locals from an early stage, unbothered by their limited vocabulary. But then again, sooner or later, they all reached their limit. They had learned everything they could by real life communication and then gradually stopped making any significant progress. Perhaps their Chinese level was sufficient for their purposes, maybe not. It is likely though they could have done better with some kind of “formal learning” to support them.

Flying in all directions

Because without a textbook you’re pretty much like a pilot flying without navigation: you’re going in all directions. What’s more, you know you can buy vegetables and a train ticket, but you don’t know your language level. Although HSK (or other Chinese tests) can’t completely assess your Chinese language skills, it is the best standardized assessment tool so far. It’ll at least give you some indication where you’re at. More than your Chinese friends can ever tell you.

Allergic to textbooks

How far will a textbook get you then? It depends somewhat on your personality and learning style. I know people and have taught students who reacted very allergic to textbooks. I worked for a private language school which discouraged using textbooks, because such books were thought to be the ultimate means to bore (paying) students to death. Teachers should rather bring their own ideas and focus on conversation. They didn’t have a copying machine, since “teachers shouldn’t rely on books and printed materials too much” or so they said… So is language learning without textbooks the new trend in foreign language education?

Can the teacher teach without a textbook?

Textbook-free learning has many practical implications. If you ask me now, to demand from young teachers to give classes without the help of a textbook is unprofessional for a serious language institute. Freestyle teaching requires a great amount of classroom experience, because it implies the teacher knows the curriculum by heart and how to deal with all kind of student’s questions that pop up along the way. The less experienced teacher typically is more reliant on navigation tools. He can’t just fly blindly towards his target. As a freshman you might do a good job on conversation class and have fun discussions about movies and personal ambitions, but to get all your students to the next level within the set period is a different story.

For that you would have to cover an X amount of vocabulary, grammar, sentence patterns, you name it. And you would have to do it in a specific order, not just randomly. In short: you need a good textbook to guide you. Only a textbook provides a basic structure, a step-by-step plan.

How much textbook?

The Chinese language program I attended as a student was based on the idea that you should acquire the Mandarin basics first (for one year). After that, you’d be sent to China and thrown in at the deep end. In the first year, progress was slow. Nobody felt very confident when speaking to Chinese people in their language. But still, by the end of the year, we had covered the groundwork: from counting to the 把-sentence. (We did have a group of experienced teachers.) It was in China that most of us fast-forwarded their command of the language significantly. Over there, we still used textbooks, but we weren’t bent over our books the whole day. Even in class, there were other activities like role playing, guessing games, discussions and so on. Outside of class, there was time for real communication. Learning was never limited to textbooks only.

So, how much textbook then? In the podcast, they answer the question with 25 percent. The other 75 percent should be spent “outside of the textbook”. Indeed, there is no point in endlessly studying your HSK textbook, from one level to the next, without actually using the language in real communication. That’s like preparing for the Olympics for years at home without ever getting out there to compete against other athletes.

Can you learn Chinese solely from a textbook?

To sum it all up: the reasonable answer is NO of course. Just like you can’t learn how to drive a car only by studying the mechanics of a Toyota or Chery.

That being said, I’m not stating that classic textbook learning is the only way. Guidance is important. The world of language learning is changing very fast. Professionals in education are shifting their attention to developing new apps, virtual reality programs and AI supported learning. Information and language input are much more accessible than they used to be. But all that cannot replace – at least in my view – the accumulated experience of teachers that typically flows into a good textbook series.

Which Chinese textbook did you like or hate the most? How far do you think can you get without the help of textbooks? Can apps like DuoLingo and the like replace old-fashioned paper-based learning? Please feel free to leave a comment below.