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Interview podcast with Chris on the experience of learning Chinese

Recently, I did an in-depth interview for a podcast with Stefan from Brainstorm Languages, and we had a great conversation about living in China, dealing with the pollution, work in China, cultural differences and my experience on Chinese national TV.

We also talked a lot about my experience learning Chinese, and I mentioned a lot of learning tips, so I’m putting that part of the transcript up here.

The full podcast is in two parts and you can listen to the whole thing and download the MP3s here and here.



Stefan: Chris you started studying Chinese in 2006, so what made you choose to study Chinese?

Chris: I’d always been interested in studying languages and different cultures and when I was young and all through school I was very interested in languages. I wanted a new challenge and I wanted to do a subject at university that would allow me to study a language and also travel and study abroad, so I was heading towards that area and then one of the biggest challenges I could think of was Chinese. Something attracted me about the writing system and the culture. It just seemed to be a completely new area, so I decided to study Chinese.

Stefan: So you wanted a challenge… You said on your website that you were fascinated by the exotic or different countries. You weren’t strictly interested what was going on maybe around you in the UK but abroad, and you were definitely drawn by exoticness, and by different countries.

Chris: Yes, I’m the kind of person who is interested in different cultures and languages and who loves to travel and get into new things. Earlier I had taken a number of languages at school and I decided to try a new one. Chinese was just a completely new area for me. It’s been a hell of a ride. I’m in Beijing now, I’ve studied in Qingdao and Taiwan. I’ve travelled quite a bit around China, so I got a good experience out of the whole language learning thing. It’s brought me work opportunities. It’s changed my personal life and it’s it’s really brought me a lot.

Stefan: At school you said you studied Spanish, Russian and  French. How would you compare Chinese to these languages?

Chris: Well when you’re learning Chinese you really don’t have at the beginning anything which you can compare with or any kind of point of reference. All the vocabulary seems completely different it’s not like French where ‘restaurant’ is like ‘restaurant’ in English. You don’t have anything like that. Everything is completely new, so it is a massive learning curve at the beginning.

In particular with the writing characters and the pronunciation it’s very difficult at the beginning but obviously over time, if you’re actually using the language and actually living the language on a daily basis then it is easy to make progress. Because if it’s something you live and you deal with all the time then it is very realistic to be able to speak Chinese but it’s very hard work at the beginning, obviously.

Stefan: Can you take us through your journey from 2006 learning Chinese?

Chris: I started in 2006 at university. I was studying full-time at the University of Cambridge. I was doing a course there and I was studying in the UK for about a year before I even went to China properly to actually use the language, so I had an opportunity to build a foundation in the language before I got to China which I think really helped me. Some people go to China and then they have the goal of learning Chinese but when they get there they can get stuck in an English bubble and it doesn’t really happen.

I had the advantage of actually doing some Chinese before I went for a year and then actually I went to Taiwan first. I studied there for two months in the summer and then obviously I was back at university so at the beginning I was just studying full-time and then using summers to go to Taiwan and mainland China and to boost the language.

Then after I graduated in 2010, I went back to China and the first thing I did was I taught English and I was also learning Chinese at the same time. I had already been learning for four years then so I was just kind of improving my ability and the language. Since then I trained as an interpreter in London, which was at a completely different challenge and allowed me to get a very advanced listening ability and advanced vocabulary in the language and since then I’ve just been kind of carrying on. I’ve been back in Beijing and I use the language every day now in my work and my social life. It’s been 7 or 8 years now and I’m still going strong.

Stefan: I think that lot of people listening who are thinking of learning Chinese have to work at the same time as learning so probably don’t have that much time. What aspects have you seen people having difficulty in when learning Chinese and how would you advise people to overcome them?

Chris: I understand that not everybody is going to be like me, full-time, wanting to study the language and people have busy lives and they’re trying to fit it in in their spare time. I think you’ve got to decide what your goals are really, and what you want to learn. If you just want to learn some of the spoken language and be able to understand and get around, then you can get into some of the audio courses, podcasts and things like that.

Chinese characters are a big challenge so that’s something you’ve got to decide: if you really want to learn how to write the characters, because that is going to take a lot of your time. I wouldn’t want people to be slowed down just by thinking they have to be able to write every single character perfectly before they can move on.

Learning to speak and understand and the writing, they do all fit together and after a while if you’ve been learning for a long time, it sounds difficult at the beginning, but you will find that you can connect the dots together later and you can continue to connect those dots together.

For example if you’re watching TV. They have subtitles on the TV and you can hear the pronunciation and you see the characters and you will be connecting things together. So I would say you have to decide what your priorities are and not get completely bogged down with writing every single character, because obviously if you recognise the characters, that’s already really good. If you can type the pronunciations, the sounds of the characters, then you can type on a computer or on your phone, so not necessarily being able to write all the characters might not be a huge problem.

I would say don’t necessarily worry about tiny problems with the pronunciation, but obviously learning the four tones in Mandarin is really important. When you learn the characters and when you learn words you do need to know what tone they are pronounced in.

Getting tones right and early on is something which is really beneficial. Even if you find that you’re speaking very slowly at the beginning because you’re trying to get the tones right, I think it’s worth putting that investment in in the beginning. Pronunciation mistakes are much more difficult to correct later.

It is useful to at least learn to recognise the characters. I wouldn’t advise people to just learn speaking and just the Pinyin without actually learning to at least recognise some characters, because I think that’s something which can be more difficult to make up later. But as I said you don’t have to know how to write all of them. Some people won’t have that as a priority, and that’s understandable.

Stefan: You were saying about when you watch TV, because I was just watching TV before I was interviewing you and the brilliant thing about watching TV in China is they always have the subtitles, so you can listen and you can see the writing at the same time and that’s going to help a lot.

Chris: The subtitles can be a safety net or if you’re able to read and you can’t really understand so well. They can be as something which helps you to learn to read because often on the TV these shows are  slightly more colloquial so the language might be slightly easier, so that can also help you to learn to read, so it’s good practice definitely.

Stefan: I’m an intermediate level Chinese speaker, but for example if I watch the standard national news I can only understand a little bit because that the words they use are very formal, but if I watch the local news I can understand about half of that. The language does vary.

Chris: The vocabulary they use in the news is a very specific type of vocabulary. It’s something that you’d probably have to get into as a separate thing, because they’re not really everyday topics, but if you do that you’ll find that a lot of the same vocabulary and topics come up again and again and again, especially the Chinese news, if you know anything about that.

If you’re in China and you are able to watch the TV and you can watch some of the entertainment shows and the interview shows, they are much more light-hearted and easier to understand, so that’s a good way in.

Stefan: I want to be able to watch TV not just as a learning tool, but I want to actually get enjoyment. When I’m at the stage where I can enjoy the shows, I think I’ll be subliminally learning and that’s a good place to be. That’s where I’m aiming at.

Chris: I think finding things that you’re interested in is very important, definitely.

Stefan: What tools you would recommend people to use when studying Chinese?

Chris: Loads of tools. The good thing about learning Chinese is that software and electronic tools can really help you a lot. When I first started learning Chinese I was using a program called Wenlin, which is a reading tool, but I think it has gone out of fashion a bit now. Basically you can paste a Chinese text into it and then you move your mouse over the characters and it will tell you how they’re pronounced and what they mean. That’s a really excellent tool to get over the obstacles of reading, because when you’re reading Chinese there are so many characters, and you probably don’t know a lot of them. It feels really difficult, but if you’ve got these tools then it can be much easier.

I also recommend Pleco, the app for phones, the iPhone and android phones. That’s a dictionary you can look up words easily on that wherever you are and you can also write characters onto the screen even if you get them slightly wrong. You can use that to look up characters anywhere. That’s really really useful.

Stefan: A lot foreigners have that one and it’s really useful. I remember when I was starting out writing on Wechat I would get messages back and not understanding all of the characters they are used. I just cut and paste that into Pleco, and – bang – every word is taken care of and I understood everything, so that is a great tool.

Chris: Being able to look up characters instantly is just amazing yeah.

Stefan: Another one that you recently investigated is Skritter.

Chris: I recently did a review of Skritter and it’s a very fun way to learn how to write Chinese characters on your phone with your finger. When I was learning Chinese characters, I used to trace them on my knee or on scraps of paper or anywhere. I had loads of pieces of paper with Chinese characters on, but now you can use these apps and they can test you. That’s a really good app for learning to write Chinese.

I also use Anki, the flashcards app, and put my vocabulary down into that, and I use my phone to test me. So I use all of these tools and there are a couple of add-ons for your web browser where you can can highlight words and it will tell you what they mean. There’s one called Chinese perakun, and there are a couple of extra tools you can use on your computer as well.

Stefan:  I’ve not used Skritter but I really like the idea of using your finger to draw characters because it’s more intimate. I’ve got this sense that it would be better for learning than writing with a pen. What do you think?

Chris: Well it is slightly different but it teaches you all the basic strokes. It teaches you what you need to know, but it is very slightly different, but not so different that it’s a big problem. Also for people who have the iPhone you can also switch on the Chinese handwriting keyboard and you can actually write characters into your phone as well to look them up.

Stefan: On your YouTube channel you give a really good explanation about what people need to know about choosing to learn traditional or simplified characters. Could you outline the issues for our listeners?

Chris: I would probably suggest that you choose one of the two types to concentrate on at the beginning, because if you try to learn both at the same time, which is what I did, I wouldn’t necessarily advise doing that.

The traditional characters are used in Taiwan and in Hong Kong and Macao, if you’re interested specifically in those places and the simplified Chinese characters are used in mainland China and Malaysia and Singapore.

Obviously Mainland China is is a much bigger area and the amount of things on the Internet which are published in Chinese from mainland China is going to be a lot more, so it might be a good idea to concentrate on simplified Chinese characters, unless you’re particularly interested in the other places mentioned.

The original Chinese was the traditional characters and then the Chinese government took some of the characters and simplified them to make them easier to write and make it take less time for people to become literate, so the starting point was the traditional characters, but they’re not really used much now in mainland China. Hopefully that’s that’s cleared it up!

Stefan: I’m curious because I’ve learned simplified characters to about HSK5 level. if I was to try and learn traditional characters now, how long do you think it would take for me to get up and running with everything?

Chris: I’m not really sure of the answer that question because I haven’t gone that route. it is normally easier to go from traditional Chinese characters to the simplified characters, rather than the other way round, but it is also possible to do it that way. Some of the parts of the characters which have been signified are the same. So, for example one specific component is always simplified in the same way, so if you know that rule then you will automatically know a lot of characters.

You can also speed up the process by watching TV show from Taiwan where you might already be able to understand what they’re saying, but all the subtitles are traditional Chinese. You could also watch Chinese movies with traditional Chinese subtitles, or you can buy DVDs in China and then you could switch on traditional subtitles and immerse yourself in that. Then, within a few months you could probably at least recognise most of the common ones, if you wanted to do that.

Stefan: So you are probably looking at a couple months, maybe three months to get up and running. That gives me a sense.

Chris: Obviously writing them is a lot a lot more difficult, but to recognise them, if you already had a base and you just want to recognise these characters then in three or four months you might be able to get a good foundation, if you already have the characters in your head.

Also in China in a lot of the karaoke places the actual videos come from Taiwan’ so they might be traditional characters as well. They would be a lot of ways you could immerse yourself in that and boost your knowledge of that.

Stefan: There are a lot of foreigners getting work in Hong Kong, so if people can understand Mandarin and in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese, then the transition from Mandarin to Cantonese is quite a large one isn’t it?

Chris: Yeah it’s pretty large. It’s much easier to learn Cantonese if you already know Mandarin because a lot of the vocabulary is the same, and the grammar. A lot of it works in the same way and also the books for learning Cantonese are much better if you know Mandarin. You can just buy books in China for Chinese speakers, but it is very different and the pronunciation is very different.

I’ve study Cantonese and I can understand it pretty well but I can only get by in normal conversations, because the pronunciation is very different and it would be something you have to spend a lot of time on.

Stefan: It’s seven tones in Cantonese, is that right?

Chris: In terms of the different contours of the pitches, there are seven, but one of them is kind of falling out of usem so it is kind of six or seven. Some people say, depending on what you’d call a tone and how you define a tone, there can be nine or there can be seven or there can be six. You don’t really have to worry about that so much when you’re learning. People in Hong Kong, they mainly just learn the tones in Cantonese by copying other people and learning it by repetition basically. You don’t necessarily have to be so worried about how many tones there are and be put off by that.

Stefan: People usually mention Cantonese, that there are seven tones, but if you don’t have to get hung up about that then that’s good. You wrote an article and you said that research has shown that with just 3000 characters you can read 99.2% of modern Chinese; with 2000 characters you can read 97%. I never knew that statistic. I think people get confused, when you say 3000 characters to read a newspaper, but then when you compare that with HSK 5 you need to know 2500 words. But that’s not the same as characters, is it?

Chris: No, characters are not the same as words. That statistic is true for modern Chinese. If you know 3000 characters, you will pretty much recognise all of the characters that you see in daily life, in newspapers or online, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you will know all of the words.

For example, different characters will be put together. Two characters could make a word and you might not know what that word is, but what I found is that if you know what are the characters themselves mean then often, not always but quite often, you can guess roughly what the word actually means. For example, computer is ‘electric brain’ and if you know both of the characters then you might  be able to learn that word much more easily or guess what it meant. You would find it easier to learn words. Everything is connected together.

When I was learning Chinese I did use these lists of characters as as a kind of goal and as a framework to learn characters from, because I knew that I could learn to read much quicker by knowing for example these 2000 characters, and then even if I didn’t know all of the words, if I could recognise 97% of the characters already it was more of a confidence boost, because even if I didn’t know all the words I could learn them quite quickly. It made me feel that I was getting there much more quickly.

There may be 50,000 characters in Chinese, but most of them aren’t really used that much, and a few thousand characters is enough to to get you through. That’s a realistic goal I think, over a couple of years of learning, if you’re serious about learning Chinese.

Stefan: How does someone go about getting to that goal of 3000 characters? I’ll mention again the HSK  with the words. A lot of people follow that path. They learn the 2500 words, but how do you make sure that you’ve learned the most commonly used 3000 characters?

Chris: If you want to know the most frequent 3000 characters you can search for that online and there is there a list that you can find. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you just go through a list of characters and learn all of them. It is something which is better as a supplement to your course  or your reading to give you a boost or to revise from or to know where you are. However, it is a useful reference to have and then for example if you go through the list and you you can fill in gaps in your knowledge and it’s really useful for that. It can help you to build up your reading ability quickly.