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 student of Chinese in 2019.

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.

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’re afraid of China! Afraid 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, the USA or Europe. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And 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.

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DuShu: a powerful reading tool

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You want to improve your reading of Chinese texts? DuShu is a reader app that will take any Chinese text and turn it into a learning resource. Check out what DuShu can do for you.

DuShu

I’ve been using DuShu for over a year now and I recommend it for intermediate and advanced learners who want to improve their reading skills. It’s extremely useful for reading news articles, but you can import any text you want.

I experimented with using DuShu everyday for 20 to 30 minutes, reading the news in Chinese. It not just allowed me to understand the latest news in Mandarin, but also allowed me to gradually speed up my reading and expand my vocabulary.

What makes DuShu such a powerful tool:    

  • Easy to use: Just copy & paste any text into DuShu, save it and the text will be added to your reading list.
  • Difficulty: DuShu will tell you the difficulty level of the text you are about to read. For more details you can go to text info in the upper right menu. It will show you the text’s statistics and give you a detailed difficulty rating with percentages.  
  • Start reading: DuShu offers two kinds of reading modes: you can read sentence by sentence or in full page mode. DuShu further supports your reading by underlining words, so you know exactly which characters belong together. It will also point out conjunctions and particles with a purely grammatical function that otherwise might confuse you. You can personalize these settings to your own needs.
  • HSK-friendly: DuShu generates a vocabulary list for each text. It shows you the HSK level of the character(s). It will tell you for example that 毕业 is HSK 4 vocabulary. This allows you to focus on your target level and ignore any words that are less relevant for your current goals.
  • Pronunciation: Any sentence can be read out loud if you want to listen to what you are reading. Also the tones are marked with different colors.

What to read…

I advise reading texts that are just a little bit out of your league, the gap shouldn’t be too wide though. If you have a solid HSK 4 basis you can have a go at intermediate up to upper intermediate texts, but the advanced level might be overkill for now. Not sure this is the right level? Try a topic you’re familiar with.

Avoid texts where you have look up every second word, unless it’s a text you are really eager to read. In general though, progress will be easier with texts that match your level, reading more satisfying.

If your main goal is speed, then you should try extensive reading. Pick texts within your comfort zone, texts you can read with ease, and just keep reading.

Success doesn’t come overnight, but invest enough and the results will come.

What could make it even better…

Doing some research on the app, I noticed some people having issues with the audio function: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I sometimes have this problem too.

Another thing which could be even better are the automatically generated exercises after each text. They are pretty good, but still somewhat basic. I’d be happy to pay something for more advanced practicing.

And what about this? You’ve finished reading your text and want to memorize the vocabulary. You can use the flashcard exercise, which is nice, but it only gives you 20 randomly picked words. What if you want the whole list and practice with a spaced repetition flashcard system? Yes, the vocabulary list can be exported (premium feature) and imported to Anki, but this doesn’t work very well in Anki’s android version. It would be great if DuShu allowed to make your own deck of flashcards from each text and provide a more sophisticated vocabulary trainer.

Integrated graded readers as premium feature would also be welcomed, because finding the right texts on the internet is not always as easy as one would expect.

Google translations are limited, so you only get 10 free translations every day. For more you must upgrade to the premium version. Once you read your ten sentences you have to rely on your own translation skills. Vocabulary still gets translated individually though, so it’s not the end of the world.

Fun would be to add an element of a competition. So that you could compete with friends or other learners on reading “distance” or speed and see how you list in the weekly top ten.

Closing the small complaining part, I recommend including DuShu into your personal Chinese learning tool kit. When used daily and in the right way, I am convinced it will improve your Chinese reading skills and take you the next level.

Why I don’t believe in Chinese character tests

Studying new characters everyday, you have to keep track of your progress somehow. People always like to hear exact numbers. Stating you have mastered over 2000 characters sounds impressive, but how can you be sure? You can find several online tests to check the number of characters you already know. But can they be trusted? I’m skeptical. Have a look at my test results and understand why.

I tried three different tests. All three tests are free – you don’t have to sign up – and take only a few minutes. I answered as honestly as possible. These are the tests:

The results blew me away, because they varied from 1600 to 3434 characters! How can the gap be so wide? Which test should I believe? Feel free to have a closer look:

Hanzitest

Hanzitest Chinese characters
Hanzitest gave me the lowest estimation. It says their set of characters is derived “from a mix of contemporary non-fiction, fiction and movies”. I think I can do much better than that.

Wordswing test

Wordswing test Chinese characters
The wordswing test showed me the highest number which I can live with for now, since I passed HSK 5, but still have a long way to go to HSK 6.

Hanzishan

Hanzishan Chinese character test
And the results from Hanzishan lay somewhere in between. The good thing: As you can see, this test lets you review the characters you didn’t know.

Which test is the best?

Personally, I can’t say which test is most reliable. The main complication I see with all three tests is that most learners of Chinese as a foreign language would typically use the HSK levels and vocabulary to orientate. Or, alternatively, the Chinese textbooks they use in class. No matter which books and methods, all focus on the most commonly used vocabulary as opposed to less frequent ones like these from the Hanzishan test which I couldn’t even find among the HSK characters (!):

missed character list
Excerpt from my missed character list (Hanzishan)

So that’s a problem. Grabbing a Chinese novel, opening a random page and pointing your finger blindly at some character could lead to the same result. Or so it seems to me, due to the randomness of the list above.

As a HSK-student, you would probably get a higher score testing HSK characters, but then again, Chinese texts don’t necessarily stick to HSK-vocab just to make your life easier.

As a testing method, I can’t recommend any of these tests, unfortunately.

Anyway, I could be wrong. If you want to feel the same frustration, give these Chinese character tests a try and feel free to comment your score down below.

5 Things we tell ourselves that keep us from studying Chinese

We sent people to the moon. We created touchscreens and video streaming. We discovered water on Mars. We developed robotic body parts. We can clone humans and grow new organs.

We excel in innovation.

What strikes me as odd though, WHY – at the same time – it’s so hard to get OUT of our COMFORT ZONE and take things to the next level.

This post is dedicated to this underrated capability of ours to come up with reasons that justify staying in our comfort zone just a little longer…

Especially, when we learn new skills OR LANGUAGES like Mandarin that are considered hard beyond belief.

Nr. 1: “I suck at foreign languages”

Many people worry about missing the mysterious language gene or think they generally lack the talent to learn a new language, especially a “hard language” like Mandarin. The idea that they could reach a certain level of proficiency in Chinese seems as likely to them as climbing Mount Everest without oxygen.

Language learning is a skill, however, that can be learned like so many things in life. If you weren’t particularly good at it at school, doesn’t mean you cannot do it. It probably just means at that time and place, in that particular setting, you couldn’t perform at the best of your ability. And is Chinese really that hard to learn?

Nr. 2. “Chinese is too difficult for me”

Is Chinese harder than Arabic, Icelandic or Spanish?

It depends for whom of course!

For Vietnamese people for example, Chinese is not completely outside their frame of reference. Many elements look and sound familiar:

I think this really comes down to how close your language is to Chinese. I, for example, am from Vietnam, my only mother tongue is Vietnamese and I’ve been learning English for roughly 10 years now and Chinese for more than 1 year. To me, English is definitely the harder one since its grammar and vocabulary are completely foreign, it took me like 5-6 years to be able to hold a normal conversation and to be able to listen and understand what others are speaking.

Nguyen Nguyen (YouTube nickname), commented the question if Chinese is the hardest language on earth.

Chinese generally has four main challenges as a foreign language:

  1. The writing system
  2. The tones and pronunciation
  3. The vocabulary (the lack of loanwords and other recognizable elements)
  4. Short phrases (idioms) linked to Chinese culture and history

Reading and writing Chinese is time consuming. No doubt about that. On the other hand: Chinese grammar is relatively easy. Compared to German for example, you don’t have to worry about different tenses, pluralization, cases, genus, articles and what have you.

Which means that basic communication can start from an early level, without the grammatical obstacles typical for German, English, Polish and other languages. Learning Chinese for daily survival is not as hard as many people think. Chinese people usually won’t hesitate to show you their admiration.

Nr. 3: “I don’t have time”

If you are a managing director with a family at home, you might well have too much on your plate already. You won’t be able to focus on yet another task, neither during the evening nor on weekends. You are either too tired or too occupied with work, family and the other 89 things on your to-do list.

What’s more, – I noticed this with management people I used to teach – if you cannot be good at it, you start to hate it. Therefore, without the proper time resources, any learning process is set up for failure.

On the other side of the spectrum, I used to know people men who worked a normal office job, were single and spent most of their leisure time playing Xbox and drinking beer.

Either way, time is a limited resource. That’s why we MAKE time for things (or people) we value.

The crucial thing for learning any new language is daily practice. Even 10 minutes every day amounts to 70 minutes a week, 280 minutes a month.

You can even do it on your way to work. If you “waste” a lot of time commuting every week, this is “hidden potential” you can tap into.

The hours normally wasted in the Berlin S-Bahn turned into a completely different experience when I started listening to audiobooks and courses in history and philosophy. Average traveling time per week: 10 hours. Around 480 hours per year! Why not invest some of that time in something more useful?

If you ever took driving lessons: it’s the same idea. Regular practice does the trick.

Imagine what you can achieve in a year if you spend two hours every week on learning something new?

Nr. 4: “I’m not in China. How can I learn Chinese?”

It’s a common belief that you have to be immersed in the language to make progress. Although not all immersion leads to proficiency, in general, language learners do boost their abilities significantly during their stay in the target language country. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.

Whatever you do, you should always prepare yourself for the real thing. If you are not in China right now, maybe you are planning to go their at some point and you’ll prepare yourself for that as good as you can.

If you cannot go to China: consider digital immersion and meeting up with local Chinese. The internet offers so many possibilities to communicate that Marco Polo would wish he had had. Chat with Chinese people, find Chinese teachers online, watch Chinese TV-series. There’s a surplus of options.

Nr. 5: “I’ll never understand Chinese culture anyway”

This is what a friend said to me after somewhat unfortunate first experiences with Chinese culture, working for a Chinese company. She never felt very sympathetic towards Chinese culture, but after being part of a Chinese company she completely lost all interest and felt she’d never understand “Chinese mentality” and their “indirect way of communicating” anyway.

“Never again”, she said to me, which I could understand, from her point of view. I just felt she gave up too early and let one bad experience waste everything. The road to understanding was from now on was blocked. By herself.

The obvious point here: If you don’t have any positive feeling towards a culture or language, learning their language becomes a struggle, cause you cannot develop any interest towards it.

This is where I’ve seen many people fail, because they couldn’t identify with their target language on any level.

Needles to say, studying the “Chinese mentality” and “indirect way of communicating” does serve as a mirror that could have prevented some of her hard feelings or at least questioned the universality of her own communication principles.

And Chinese culture envelops much more than the corporate culture of some Chinese enterprise entering the global market. The challenge here is to find some area of interest you can positively identify with.

“How to learn any language in six months”

Human learning capability is tremendous, but can you really learn ANY LANGUAGE in 180 days?

The man who makes this bold claim is Chris Lonsdale. He is a New Zealand psychologist, linguist and educator who adopted the Chinese name 龙飞虎 or “flying dragon tiger” (or something like that).

The title of his TED talk sounds like some shady language school’s advertising pitch. Then again, he did manage to catch people’s attention (over 18 million views on YouTube).

Here’s a summary of his speech:

Things that don’t matter in language learning

  • Talent
  • Immersion (per se)

Why immersion isn’t a necessary factor: “A drowning man cannot learn to swim.”

What does matter is Language modeling

  • Attention
  • Meaning
  • Relevance
  • Memory

Five Principles of Rapid Language Acquisition


1. Focus on language content that is relevant to you.
We master tools by using tools; we learn tools fastest when they are relevant to us.
2. Use your New Language as a Tool to Communicate, right from Day 1.
3. When you first understand the message, you unconsciously acquire the language. “Comprehensible input”; comprehension works; comprehension is key. Language learning is not about accumulating lots of knowledge. In many ways it is about
4. Physiological Training. “If you can’t hear it, you won’t understand it, and if you don’t understand it, you are not going to learn it. You have to be able to hear the sounds… Speaking requires muscle; if your face is hurting you are doing it right.”
5. Psycho-physiological states matter, and you need to be tolerant of ambiguity.

Seven Actions for Rapid Language Acquisition


Action 1: Listen a lot. “Brain Soaking”
Action 2: Focus on the meaning first. Get the meaning first before you get the words. Use body language. (Understanding through comprehensible input.)
Action 3: Start mixing. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to work.”
Action 4: Focus on the core (high frequency content). For English, 1000 words is 85% of anything you are going to say in daily communication; 3000 words gives you 98% of anything you are going to say in daily conversation.
Week 1 Tool Box (in the target language):
– What is this?
– How do you say?
– I don’t understand…
– What does that mean?
– Repeat that please.
Week 2-3 Pronouns, Common Verbs, Simple Nouns
Week 4 Glue Words: and, but, therefore, even though
Action 5: Get a Language Parent. Language parent creates a comprehensible input environment.
1. Works hard to understand what you are saying
2. Does not correct mistakes
3. Confirms understanding by using correct language (feedback)
4. Uses words the learner knows
Action 6: Copy the Face
Action 7: “Direct Connect” to Mental Images

Some side notes on flying squirrels

First, Lonsdale delivers a great speech on what he thinks is the best strategy to learn ANY language and he deserves credit for motivating and inspiring people as well as for offering practicable advise.

A question I had straight from the start though, is what does he mean exactly by ”learning any language”? What level of proficiency is he speaking of? Which language skills is he talking about? Is he referring to the highest achievable level? According to the Common European Framework that would include the following:

C1
Effective operational proficiency or advanced
Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize implicit meaning. Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
C2
Mastery or proficiency
Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

And for that you would need to study at least 1000 hours or at least 8 hours a day in six months…

I also couldn’t help noticing the contradiction that he learnt Chinese (I don’t know up to which level) by immersion. Doesn’t he tell the story that he stayed in China, “soaked his brain” in Chinese and gradually started making sense of the language? Basically, he is telling us that this combination of immersion and “survival” from day one worked out pretty well for him.

This leads to the question if you can apply the same principle when you are not “immersed” and not in “survival mode”, say you are learning Chinese in Brazil or Canada. Can you really recreate that kind of experience? I guess his message is that we should try.

Chris Lonsdale on how to learn any language in six months…

Let me know what your thoughts are on this topic. Can you be fluent in Chinese in only six months? Please leave a comment below.

Subtitled Chinese videos: Get the transcript

Did you know Youtube allows you to search for subbed videos and get the transcript?

The method is still imperfect but can be helpful if you want to get a closer look at the spoken text, which then can be copied and translated.

How to search for subtitled videos on Youtube and get the video transcript

The problem is that not all subtitles are in Chinese and not all subtitled content contains a transcript. You can try some random Chinese keywords like “为什么” and autosearch will offer you suggestions.

Add a comment below, if you get lucky or have any suggestions.

Learning Chinese? 10 BLOGS you should know about

When learning Mandarin, you have to find your own way, but why not profit a little from others who started their journey before you did?

The main reason I visit these language blogs is this: They are a great source for tips & tricks, ideas and inspiration, even free resources like reading materials, cheat sheets, video’s and podcasts. What’s your favorite Chinese learning blog?

When I made this top 10, I looked for four things:

  • Relevance
  • Passion
  • Integrity
  • Engaging and fresh content

Here we go!

ONE: Sinosplice

This is a great blog by John Pasden, an expert “who’s been around”. Check out his list of resources and podcasts for learning Mandarin. I put it on number one, because it’s a great starting point to see what’s out there online for Chinese learners.

TWO: Hacking Chinese

Hacking Chinese is a blog by Mandarin expert Olle Linge from Sweden who has studied for four years in Taiwan and teaches Chinese and English. Having a solid background in linguistics, he answers almost all questions related to successfully learning Mandarin Chinese. His main advise for language learners: “If you don’t take responsibility and think for yourself, it will take ages to reach a decent level, but if you become aware of how to learn and study efficiently, fluency is within reach.” Olle also organizes the “monthly extensive reading challenge“. The main goal here is not “intensive reading” but reading as much Chinese as you can below or at your current level.

THREE: Chinese Hacks

Chinese Hacks is a widely-varied blog where you find all kinds of practical advise, ideas and inspiration. I particularly enjoy the Chinese idioms covered on his site.

FOUR: Chinese Breeze

Chinese Breeze is run by three authors who studied Mandarin in China and offer their advise to other learners. This main overview by Kevin Peters, who taught English in Xinjiang for four years, is especially useful for starting learners.

VIFE: Just learn Chinese

This blog by native Chinese speaker Grace (currently living in Toronto, Canada) hasn’t been updated for several years and has some technical issues, but its content and resources are just to great to ignore. If you are looking for free reading material on your level, you might get lucky here. Or look for tips, for example on how to express disagreement in Chinese.

SIX: Sapore di Cina

This blog is actually a lot broader than just focusing on mastering Mandarin. I included it because of its practical tips for foreigners interested in traveling or even living in China.

SEVEN: FluentU

EIGHT: Sara Jaaksola

NINE: Carl Gene

TEN: En Route to Fluency

Related post: China podcasts

Check my post on podcasts about China!