How much Mandarin can you listen to in one month?

1

For one month I digitally teamed up with like-minded spirits for a Mandarin learning challenge. This is what I learned.

Hacking Chinese challenges

Maybe the biggest problem of self-studying a language in the long run is to keep the flame of motivation burning. Especially if you’re not perceiving any clear sign of progress – no matter how hard you are pushing forward – and no one of your friends shows any particular interest in your “hobby”…

The truth is most people can’t relate to language learning as an activity to voluntarily engage yourself in. To stop feeling that you’re completely wasting your time, it’s worth looking for like-minded spirits who share your passion. They can also support you to tackle another issue: to set achievable goals and make you see light at the end of the tunnel.

This is where the Hacking Chinese challenges come in. The basic idea is to digitally team up with other motivated people for – what could be called – a Mandarin learning competition focused on one of the four language skills. You set a personal goal, make it public and give it what you got.

The June 2020 challenge was all about listening, an activity which is (arguably) more laid-back than writing, reading and speaking, since all you have to do is sponge up spoken words.

Set a goal and share it

I updated my personal goal twice: from a modest 15 hours to 20, up to a more ambitious 25 hours eventually, cause I wasn’t sure how much time I could find to effectively listen between work and family duties.

How high you set your goal doesn’t really matter, as long as it is reasonable and challenging at the same time, which is easier said than done. Listening about an hour everyday, I reached my goal of 25 listening hours surprisingly smoothly – that equals more than one day of quality Mandarin input. It was the perfect excuse to spend more time on YouTube. Other participants managed 30 or even 50 hours.

Finding suitable listening materials

Finding the right stuff to listen to was a challenge in itself. For an intermediate learner like me randomly tuning in to a Chinese radio station or listening to some podcast I’ve never heard of before doesn’t cut it. The Chinese audiobook called “十年徒步中国” I tried proved to be too difficult to enjoy. I missed major information about Lei Diansheng’s hiking adventure and pretty soon lost track of the supposedly simple story line.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, personal record

The popular YouTube Channel Mandarin Corner worked best for me. I really enjoyed all the Mandarin subtitled interviews with taxi drivers, tattoo artists and the like. Very authentic and perfect when you’re not yet ready for non-subtitled, high speed Chinese radio and podcasts.

A little more challenging were the speeches from TEDxTaipei with a great variety of topics and (mostly Taiwanese) speakers to choose from.

One of the bests things of teaming up with others is that you can share ideas and resources: Popup Chinese and Learning Chinese through Stories are podcasts I hadn’t checked out before. The same goes for the Chinese podcast websites Qingting.fm and lizhi.fm. There’s definitely no lack of Chinese audio materials. It’s just where to find something that matches your level and interests.

Check your progress and the leaderboard

We live in a KPI-obsessed world. That’s not always a bad thing. The performance chart keeps track of your progress, so you know if you’re on schedule or not. I’d normally never do this kind of thing, but I realized it does help to stay focused on your goal. Plus, it feels reassuring to know you’re on schedule and delivering a solid performance.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, performance chart
My performance chart: my goal was to do at least 25 hours of Mandarin-listening

There’s an element of competition to it as well. Open the leaderboard and see how you have been performing compared to the others, with the score standing for hours spent listening. It’s not about being the best of course. Far more important is to motivate yourself and others. As you can see everybody did quite well.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge, leaderboard

It worked

By joining this Mandarin Challenge, I studied far more productively than I could have done on my own. I know I can be goal-orientated and self-motivated to a certain degree, but being a part of a group of enthusiastic people with a shared objective felt like shifting gears. It was also refreshing to focus on one language skill for an entire month.

That’s why I am really grateful to Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese for organizing this Mandarin adventure. If you’re interested in participating, you can check the upcoming challenges.

What does your HSK level really tell about your Mandarin skills?

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Many people taking the HSK exams share the same experience. When they’ve reached HSK 4 level, they think they’ve arrived. But once they turn on the Chinese news, they still don’t understand what’s being said. So what do HSK exams really tell about your proficiency in Mandarin?

The HSK merry-go-round

The HSK merry-go-round or why you shouldn't be focused on HSK results only.

The story doesn’t stop with HSK 4. Because as soon as people realize they’re not as proficient as they thought, they more often than not sign up for the next level. HSK 5 is supposed to get you to “professional proficiency”:

Test takers who are able to pass the HSK (Level V) can read Chinese newspapers and magazines, enjoy Chinese films and plays, and give a full-length speech in Chinese.

(HSK 5 language skills description)

But can they really? I passed HSK 5 in 2017 with 208 points (out of 300) and even though my score could have been worse, I didn’t doubt one second that I had passed the test only by the skin of my teeth. I could hardly read a Chinese newspaper, let alone “give a full-length speech”.

HSK 5 is supposed to equal C1 language proficiency which is almost native-like fluency. It’s surprising how many people who come this “far” actually feel their grasp of the language is insufficient.

So what else to do than prepare for the “final stage”? HSK 6 is officially the highest language level you can achieve in Mandarin, so formally speaking it’s the end of the line. There’s nothing beyond that.

How come then that many people who passed HSK 6 come to feel that the highest HSK level still isn’t that “special” and isn’t actually “enough”?

Beating HSK vs real life Mandarin skills

Then I spent this year reaching HSK 6 level which is pretty much where I am now. And to be honest I still feel like my Chinese is not good enough.

Experienced learner after passing the HSK 6 exam

The funny thing with HSK is that you can completely crush the higher level exams and still do relatively poor at real life communication. For example, you might be a master at the HSK listening part, but you still don’t get a single word of the taxi driver talking to you, because he speaks relatively fast and with a slight accent.

It reminds me of Chinese students who got the highest grades on their English tests, but can’t use the language at all in the real world. They for example can’t keep up with a real conversation and answer “yes” to open questions – BUT they’re very successful at passing the exams.

HSK prepares you for HSK

Writing HSK is a skill on its own I’ve written before. One thing is essential to understand: The HSK is tailored to the classical classroom style of teaching still very common in China. In a typical HSK preparation class the teacher will focus on vocabulary and grammar points and use 95% of the speaking time hammering in vital HSK stuff. The rest of the class is usually dedicated to making as many mock exams as possible – to get you fit for the exam. NOT FOR REAL LIFE.

What does your HSK level tell about your Mandarin proficiency?

On the other hand, I don’t want to trivialize HSK. Most people who pass the national standardized test – especially the higher levels – have come a long way, others never make it. In my eyes, HSK 6 is impressive. It means you can read complex Chinese texts and write a great number of characters to compose an essay.

But there’s a problem with being HSK-focused only. The reason is this: studying (solely) for HSK will only make you a star at taking the HSK exams, while in fact you could be spending your time far more effectively.

Developing real life Mandarin skills involves a lot more. Like learning to cope with regional accents, slang, formal and informal language. Or learning to deal with different “genres” of Chinese – comedies, modern and classic literature, poetry, newspaper articles, scientific articles, emails and bureaucratic documents. HSK only provides a basic framework which proves insufficient once outside the classroom more often than not.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try…

So if you don’t need the certificate, should you still take the exam? It all depends on your situation. You should probably spare yourself the trouble, but then again, why not give it a try to see where you’re at. Especially when your self-studying and you don’t have any other points of reference. Maybe you do better than you guess!

Although by now it’s obvious I’m not a big HSK-fan and try to see HSK for what is, I gotta admit I’ve been tempted to take the HSK 6 exam myself. Mainly to have a goal to focus on and test my progress since I took HSK 5, three years ago. Back then my biggest problem was reading speed. My reading was so slow that I couldn’t finish the questions in time. I’ve been working on that by reading more often and more extensively, but will it be enough to survive the HSK 6 reading part?

My HSK score, HSK 4 and 5 (2016-2017)
My HSK score (4 and 5): writing HSK 4 I didn’t have any problems with reading. Taking HSK 5 though, I struggled against time. Clearly the processing power of my Hanzi brain was lacking.

You only know if you try.

What are your thoughts on taking HSK exams? How does your HSK level relate to your actual Mandarin skills? Feel free to leave a comment below.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life

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Recently I started watching a fairly new documentary series called “人生第一次” or “The Firsts in Life” which is very popular in China. Here’s why I think it’s a good resource for learning Mandarin – even though it has one problem.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” is a highly rated 12-episode documentary series planned and released by CCTV. It captures 12 “first time ever” moments that are of great significance to Chinese society, running through different stages of life such as birth, school, family, career, and old-age care. At the beginning of each episode, a “storyteller” will lead the narration.

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - Score on Douban
“人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life” was well received on the Chinese movie database Douban.

5 Reasons to use “人生第一次” to improve your Mandarin

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The firsts in life - 5 reasons to watch the documentary series
  • Year: 2020
  • Duration: 12 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Mandarin / English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

For our purposes here, let me just give a few points why The Firsts in Life is suitable learning material:

  • Popular series with short yet moving episodes
  • Potential conversation starter
  • Mandarin and English subtitles
  • Universal topics everyone can relate to
  • Study vocabulary by topic (birth, school, army, office etc.)
  • Revealing glimpses of Chinese society and ideals presented by Chinese state television

And here comes the problem: although the main language is Standard Chinese, on several occasions people speak the local dialect. That makes it hard to follow every now and then, especially in the final episodes that focus on the elderly, but the subtitles help a lot.

人生第一次 – The Firsts in Life – the 12 episodes

  1. 第一集: 出生 – birth
  2. 第二集: 上学 – go to school
  3. 第三集: 长大 – growing up
  4. 第四集: 当兵 – join the army
  5. 第五集: 上班 – go to work
  6. 第六集: 结婚 – to marry
  7. 第七集: 进城 – move to the city
  8. 第八集: 买房 – buy a house
  9. 第九集: 相守 – take care of each other
  10. 第十集: 退休 – to retire
  11. 第十一集: 养老 – enjoy life in retirement
  12. 第十二集: 告别 – farewell

Episode One: “Birth”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 1

The first episode offers a glimpse of what it means to give birth in present-day China or rather – important detail – in the Red House Hospital in Shanghai, which is affiliated to the Fudan University and one of the highest rated hospitals in China. If you’ve never witnessed a birth before, this might prove an “in your face” viewing experience.

Episode 2: “Going to School”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 2

This episode focuses on the first school day ever for group of children in one of China’s first tier cities. Choosing the right school is a major decision for Chinese parents as they don’t want their kids “to lose at the starting line”.

Episode 3: “Growing Up”

人生第一次 -ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 3

In a mountain village somewhere in Yunnan Province kids receive unusual lessons: they are taught to write poetry. Life in the mountains is hard, with parents often working far away from home to support the family. One 12-year-old girl even lives on her own, video-calling her mom late at night when she is done working. These kids suffer many hardships, but they never lack inspiration to write poetry, resulting in a kind of primitive and pure art created by children.

Episode 4: “Being a Soldier”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 4

Have you ever wondered what’s it like to join the Chinese army? These young recruits join a special unit of Chinese paratroopers and receive their first training. In a matter of weeks they will be ready to make their first jump from a real airplane. The viewer witnesses this highly interesting transformation from school boys who just said goodbye to mama to hard-boiled soldiers serving in the Chinese army.

Episode 5: “Go to Work”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 5

I thought this was going to be an episode about people entering the labor market and starting some kind of office or factory job. And actually I wasn’t completely off the mark, except the people in question have an extremely hard time getting any job at all, because they are physically disabled. If it wasn’t for Wang Shaojun who – sitting in a wheelchair himself – started an employment training center for disabled people, they’ll probably still at home suffering, invisible for society. Wang Shaojun’s training enables them to work as customer service agents and earn their own money. But it’s more than a training center: this is a place where people become friends for life.

Episode 6: “Marriage”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -The Firsts in Life - episode 6

Marriage is a huge thing in China and weddings are still amazingly traditional – even in futuristic Shanghai. We witness some young couples marrying in the Pudong marriage registration office in Shanghai. They are all eager to receive their marriage certificate which bears similarity to a passport. How do modern, hardworking Shanghainese see marriage?

Episode 7: “Entering the City”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 7

The migrant worker. China’s economy couldn’t run without millions of migrant workers. To get rid of poverty, the government established a labor service station that recruits workers from poor villages in Yunnan. The tragedy of almost every migrant worker is the same: they leave their family and loved ones behind to make money in the big city.

Episode 8: “Buying a House”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 8

In China renting is for losers. In the long run every family is supposed to buy its own apartment, even when this means becoming a mortgage slave. Finding and financing their own apartment is one of the biggest challenges young Chinese face today. This episode focuses on a real estate agent in Beijing who tries to close a deal between two families, all the while hoping that one day he’ll be able to afford his own house.

Episode 9: “Look after each other”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci -  The Firsts in Life - episode 9

Next to Jiangxi Nanchang Cancer Hospital, Aunt Xiong and her husband run a shared kitchen. Aunt Xiong’s small kitchen is the source of many heart-warming stories. Family members of patients come here every day to cook a simple meal, because even in difficult times, says Aunt Xiong, a person has to eat. It takes only 1 yuan to fry a vegetarian dish. These low prices are more than welcome, since cancer treatment is extremely expensive.

Episode 10: “Retirement”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 10

It always struck me that whereas working people in China usually slug their guts out to make a living and hardly have any spare time, retired people have plenty of time to dedicate to all kind of leisure activities like dancing, singing and calligraphy. Many seniors retire early – the standard retirement age in Germany for example is currently 67 – and have a rich social life. This episode focuses on the Sichuan University for the Elderly in Chengdu. Many enrolled students are in their sixties and go to university for the first time. The goal is not so much to leave the university with a degree, but rather to enjoy and cultivate arts with their peers.

Episode 11: “Elderly Care”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 11

Elderly care in China: in this episode an old lady from Shanghai decides to leave her home behind to live in a retirement community. Another older gentleman doesn’t want to make the same move, even if that will lead to someday becoming “a burden” to his family.

Episode 12: “Farewell”

人生第一次 - ren sheng di yi ci - The Firsts in Life - episode 12

In China, nearly 70 percent of wills are invalid each year. Why does a seemingly simple piece of paper fail to play its due role? How can conflicts and disputes arising from wills be avoided and resolved to the greatest extent? Is it necessary to make a will? Shooting at the Chinese Wills Library in Beijing, CCTV recorded the story of people coming to make a will for the first time. Like Chao Wenzhen, 73 years old, who comes to make a will in name of his wife.

Closing remarks…

“人生第一次” has a touch of social realism to it: sending out the “artists” to capture the life of ordinary people – not raw, but in a stylized way, with a narrator giving his or her interpretation. I don’t mean that in a negative way: most of the stories are genuinely touching. “人生第一次” has been conceived for a Mainland Chinese audience, so it gives an inside perspective on the topics at hand and doesn’t at any occasion call China’s “normality” into question. That makes it extra interesting when you put your anthropology glasses on.

For study purposes or just as Mandarin input I recommend the series, although I have to admit that the regional varieties (mostly Shanghai dialect) are a complication.

Chinese dreams (2019): must-watch China doc

In short: You take a Dutch guy who wants to become a professional photographer. You put him in China with a camera team and he starts making an incredible portrait of present-day China. Since these three documentaries are almost unknown outside of Holland, I decided to share them here.

How the Dutch filmmaker Ruben Terlou ended up in China

After finishing high school in the Netherlands, Ruben Terlou went to China to make a living as a photographer. A rather unusual step for a young Dutchman, but Ruben was convinced that China was the place to be for him.

Settling down in Kunming and learning Chinese, he fell in love with the country and the people. He became fluent in Mandarin. But after two years of trying his luck as a professional photographer, he returned to Holland, allegedly broke and disappointed.

He than began studying medicine instead, putting photography second, but still visiting places like Afghanistan to shoot material. He finished his studies cum laude, yet he never became an actual doctor.

All in all, I have spent around four to five years in China, I guess. I appreciate the honesty of the people the most. Chinese people are very open about their emotions and can reflect well. The country is and remains fascinating because it is constantly and massively in motion.

The filmmaker Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Ruben Terlou: Holland’s unappointed China ambassador

Ruben’s China documentaries became an instant hit in the Netherlands. In every discussion about China people would mention his name.

For most Dutch people China used to be a far away place. Little did they know about the people who live there and their daily lives. Ruben’s China series made a change, focusing on a broad variety of topics and letting Chinese locals tell their own story. He showed that Chinese are not incomprehensible strangers, but fellow human beings. Not an easy task, especially under growing political tensions:

It would be nice if my work touches the audience. Because with all that news about the Chinese trade war, misunderstanding towards the superpower is growing. “What a horrible country, that China,” many people say. I want to remove that distrust, hope to paint a balanced and human image of China.

Ruben Terlou in Dutch newspaper Trouw

Not the usual biased approach

Many China documentaries made by westerners fail insofar that they are deep-rooted in prejudices (and often ignorance) and choose the moral high ground. Most importantly, they don’t bring any new insights.

Ruben Terlou cannot help but see China through the eyes of a westerner, but at least he makes a serious effort of leaving judgement to the viewers. But there’s more that makes him stand out from journalists and filmmakers that cover China:

  • He holds back his opinion and allows people to tell their stories
  • He’s not looking for cheap sensation
  • People open up to him and tell him very personal things
  • He’s a keen observer and a brilliant listener. He knows what to ask at the right moment.
  • Not only his Mandarin is fluent, he also knows a lot about Chinese history and culture. This is demonstrated in his interviews as well as in his selection of topics and filming areas.
  • He captures unusual places, people and situations like hospitals, circus artists and vanishing minorities.

China is the ideal laboratory for story telling. Had I made the same series in Belgium, or even in India, my conversations would affect the audience less. Those countries are closer to us. Precisely because China is strange to us, I can expose the essence of mankind. Do you understand? China is linguistically and culturally so different from us that it serves as a mirror.

Ruben Terlou in Trouw

Three times China

Three different series of Ruben’s China adventures have been produced. The main language is Mandarin Chinese with Dutch moderation and – most important – English subtitles. Starting with season 1:

Along the banks of the Yangtze (2016)

The six episodes

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 1 - 3

Along the banks of the Yangtze, langs de oevers van de Yangtze, Ruben Terlou, TV-series (2016), aflevering 4 - 6

  • Year: 2016
  • Duration: 6 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Through the heart of China (2018)

The seven episodes

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 1 - 4

Through the heart of China (2018), door het hart van China, Ruben Terlou, documentary, Aflevering 4 - 7

  • Year: 2018
  • Duration: 7 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: English
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese dreams (2019)

Episode 3: Ruben wonders how it is possible that each year nearly five million marriages go on the rocks in China. He travels with a judge across the countryside, attends divorce cases in a court, and joins a so-called “mistress hunter”. In a “love hospital” in the mega city of Shanghai, he witnesses a relationship therapist in action.
  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 4 episodes X 43 min.
  • Subtitles: Dutch
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate

Chinese like any other language ultimately is a tool for communication. Ruben mastered the language and moved on to use his wits and talents to do great things. What’s your dream? What do you think about his China doc? Please feel free to leave a comment.

花儿乐队 – 果汁分你一半 (2006)

The flowers – I share half a cup of my juice with you (2006)

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
今晚多么美满
约会相当浪漫

我果汁分你一半
我结账你买单谁跟谁别细算
我果汁分你一半
偶尔我也会烦
脸色说翻就翻
我果汁分你一半
就算怎么艰难也要保持乐观
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
当喜欢上自然 一个眼神交换

我果汁分你一半
我吃饭你刷碗 不是我要偷懒
我果汁分你一半
偶尔你也会乱 发脾气不敢管
我果汁分你一半
向前向后攻占 粘我阴魂不散
我果汁分你一半

月亮弯弯绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫 磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀

我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
我要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊
你要那个那个那个
那个那个那个
那个那个那个啊

月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
月亮弯弯 绵绵绵绵缠缠
果汁分你一半 爱相互分担
长路漫漫磕磕磕磕绊绊
果汁分你一半 爱相互扶搀
啦啦啦…

New show: Granny knows best 奶奶最懂得 (2019, TV series)

jamie bilbow cooking with granny 6

In his new show “Granny Knows Best” Jamie Bilbow takes the audience on a journey to rural China to learn from the true kitchen heroes – Chinese grandmothers. How did the British moderator become so fluent in Mandarin?! Three reasons why you should watch the show.

About 奶奶最懂得 (2019)

  • Year: 2019
  • Duration: 8 episodes X 30 min.
  • Subtitles: Chinese
  • Difficulty: Intermediate / upper intermediate
The series’ rating on Douban (04.12.2019)

Three reasons to watch the show

  • Expand your cooking vocabulary and culinary horizon
  • Be impressed by Jamie’s Chinese skills and how smoothly he communicates with the locals
  • Meet 16 wonderful grannies and discover places in China you have never seen before

The 16 inspiring women I met on my journey were such a pleasure to film with and I can’t wait for you to meet each and every one of them! The show promotes the universal message that grannies are the cornerstones of families, they bring us together and their cooking provides an important reminder of how good simple traditional food can be.

Jamie Bilbow on facebook about his show Granny Knows Best (09.10.2019)

How did Jamie (大米) become so fluent in Chinese?!

Jamie Bilbow speaks Chinese amazingly fluent, knows his cooking vocabulary and has his way of communicating with the locals, making them feel at ease and disclose their culinary secrets. How did he become so fluent?

Jamie (1988) was born in England and moved to Hong Kong at the age of one, but but didn’t learn Mandarin or even Cantonese during the first 18 years of his life. Learning Mandarin became a crucial goal, once he realized that he wanted to become a chef de cuisine in China and learn everything about Chinese food.

His recipe for success: “I say yes to any opportunities that present new challenges, even if they aren’t related to the ‘final goal’. I say yes more often than no and put myself into as many new situations as possible.” (South China Morning Post, 14.06.2017)

These challenging situations include training chefs in North Korea, peddling a hummus cart business, publishing a Western cookbook in Chinese and running a cooking school in Beijing. Before he got famous in China, Jamie also participated in Chinese language competitions with other foreigners.

Jamie Bilbow selling homemade hummus through the old streets of Beijing (Source: Jamie Bilbow on LinkedIn)

Not that his fame and Chinese skills don’t speak for themselves, but Jamie actually holds an undergraduate degree in Chinese from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) as well as a Chinese teaching degree from the Institute of Education, UCL, both based in London.

You can find more about his activities on facebook or weibo.

Watch all episodes of Granny Knows Best here.

Other posts on Kaohongshu

Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

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Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are Chinese language student in 2020.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is “drifting off” in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

6. Love it!

I almost forgot this one. Many people all over the globe admire the Chinese state for its way of driving modernization forward and dealing with rapid societal transformation. They see XJP as an example of a strong technocrat leader.

A post on LinkedIn from a guy working for a Chinese enterprise: He recommends Xi’s New Year’s speech as learning resource and doesn’t forget to post it on his LinkedIn-profile. For me doing this as an exercise at home with your laptop is one thing, boasting about it on social media another. It becomes a political message...

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (“We” are of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, Europe or the west in general. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And it’s good to put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.

PRC turns 70: Xi Jinping’s top 10 most used words

Chinese flag

This blog doesn’t discuss politics of any kind and that’s not going to change, but on the first of October something strange happened on my WeChat feed. Without warning all the more or less harmless content turned red!

The East is Red

Instead of the usual bourgeois pictures of food, cats and traveling, an endless stream of Chinese national symbols and fervent “birthday wishes” dominated my WeChat moments: from kids dancing and waving the Chinese flag, to “Xi dada” inspecting the military parade and greeting the soldiers.

Not that it’s any of my business, but all of a sudden Xi Jinping and the party were allover the place! And people who normally don’t involve themselves in politics on any level, now wrote messages in the most patriotic tones, celebrating the 70th birthday of the PRC. I even saw people making selfies in front of their televisions, showing the world that they weren’t missing a single word of their benevolent leader’s speech.

学习强国: “Study Xi and strengthen the nation”

Which reminded me of this Chinese app “xuexi qiangguothat a Chinese friend showed to me not so long ago. It’s an app designed to study Xi Jinping’s thoughts and ideas by watching video’s and reading texts. Of course, you can earn points and are competing against other people. The higher your score, the higher your position in this online Xi JP study club.

Needless to say, all your activity on the app can be tracked and is (probably) linked to your ID, at least if you work for the Chinese government. It’s the updated version of Mao’s little red book which in the craziest days of the cultural revolution Chinese people had to carry around everywhere they went and cite from memory.

But here is the good news: resourceful people invented a cheat tool that does all this hard work for you. Simply install the app and the software will “read” and scroll through articles automatically which boosts your score and obviously saves a lot of time.

Running the speech through a text analyzer

But anyway, my main concern here is to answer the question which level of proficiency you need to reach to understand Xi Jinping’s PRC anniversary speech, held on Chinese National Day (01.10.2019), before he drove past the military in an open car, greeting and thanking the soldiers.

Listening to it myself, I understood more than I expected, not least because the Chinese president spoke slowly and clearly in Standard Mandarin.

Although I recognized many familiar words and phrases and could grasp the meaning of most that was said, when I ran Xi’s speech through a Chinese text analyzer, the statistics told a different story, even revealing an “advanced” difficulty rating. “Advanced” meaning that the text is way beyond intermediate level and not an easy read.

Taking a closer look at the vocabulary and the idioms used, the speech indeed is rather difficult and contains many subtleties of CPC political language that – I guess – only insiders and experts can fully apprehend. The main message though is clear: “China is back, we’re strong and we’re here to stay”.

Text statistics Xi Jinping speech (2019.10.01)

Top ten of most used words

In the top 10 of most used words, we only find common characters. In his 8-minute speech Xi used the word 人民 (people) twenty times and 中国 (China) fourteen times. This is followed by the adjective 伟大 (great, magnificent) which Xi mainly combines with 祖国 (motherland), but also with the following words:

  • 中华人民共和国 (People’s Republic of China)
  • 中国共产党 (Chinese Communist party)
  • 中国人民 (Chinese nation or Chinese people(s))
  • 复兴 (Renaissance (of the Chinese nation))

The Chinese president used the word 世界 (world) to point out China’s growing strength and global meaning and urged the Chinese people to stay on the path of steady and peaceful 发展 (development), telling them to 坚持 (persevere) and keep pursuing socialism with Chinese characteristics.

Here is the top 10 of his most used words:

  1. 人民 rénmín (20X)
  2. 中国 zhōngguó (14X)
  3. 伟大 wěidà (10X)
  4. 中华 zhōnghuá (9X)
  5. 我们 wǒmen (8X)
  6. 全国 quánguó (6X)
  7. 世界 shìjiè (5X)
  8. 发展 fāzhǎn (5X)
  9. 共和国 gònghéguó (5X)
  10. 坚持 jiānchí (5X)

There is still much to be said, but then again, this is not a political blog. This blog post just goes to show that sometimes politics in China is hard to ignore, even if you are “just trying to learn the language”. In particular on Chinese National Day.

Back in the days of Mao Zedong, one could hardly open a Chinese textbook that wasn’t full of revolutionary slogans and communist role models who sacrificed themselves for the socialist cause.

I think we all agree that political ideology should never be the main focus or even a major part of a language study, unless your interest in politics and state affairs is the reason you study Chinese (which is OK!). Please feel free to comment your thoughts about this topic down below.