How I Learned Chinese
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. And today, I want to talk about how I learned Mandarin Chinese
Now, before we get into that, if you enjoy these videos, please subscribe. You can click on the bell to get notifications and by all means, come and join me at LingQ to learn languages. Now, how I went about learning Mandarin Chinese. First of all, let me tell you that I was 23 at the time. And the reason I started learning Mandarin Chinese is because I was working for the Canadian Government Trade Commissioner Service.
And Canada was about to recognize the people's Republic of China. They wanted to train some people in Chinese. I was, I was lucky enough to be selected and off I went to Hong Kong. Actually, I had a choice of going to the Defense Language Institute in Monteray, but I decided instead I would rather go to Hong Kong, which is a Chinese environment, although not a Mandarin speaking environment.
So. I took about a year to get my level up to what was a sort of British Foreign Service Exam, translating newspaper editorials from English to Chinese, Chinese to English. I had to write a diplomatic note in Chinese by hand and obviously speak and translate and so forth. Took me about a year, but the important thing about being in Hong Kong is that it was not a Mandarin speaking environment so that, um, you know, my total immersion in Chinese was done without the benefit of being surrounded by people who speak the language.
So how was I able to do that? When I think back on it now, the main thing, and I'll go into detail as to how I went about learning, you know, the characters and learning to read and speak. But, but the main thing was the motivation. And that's the big story for me, China represented, uh, you know, this exotic world, civilization, culture, and I'll get into more detail on that, but, but I needed to be very much motivated because it was a lot of work.
I had to learn characters. I had to learn the tones and I was motivated by my interest in the culture. Today it's much easier to learn languages. We didn't have access to MP3 files. We had great big clunky, uh, open reel tape recorders. Most, uh, texts had no, uh, you know, obviously you didn't have online dictionaries, you didn't have online anything.
Today we have LingQ where I learn, uh, you know, I started learning Russian at age 60 on LingQ. I started learning. Arabic and Persian, I'm still learning them. I'm 75. It's just so much easier. Um, the whole, you know, the, the iPhone, the, the internet, everything has made language learning easier, including LingQ, of course.
But back then, we didn't have that. So I needed very strong motivation. Of course, today, if you have all of the advantages of learning with modern technology, Uh, and you're motivated, then you've got the best of both worlds and you need to be motivated. So to me, the motivation was that here was this ancient civilization, unknown to me, uh, you know, 4,000 years of history, Chinese talk about 5,000 years, but there's 4,000 years in terms of, you know, uh, some kind of record of some government there.
And for long periods of history, China was the most developed country in the world. Uh, probably up until, you know, three, four or 500 years ago. And all of a sudden this, this self satisfied, sophisticated almost world unto itself center of the, sort of the culture of East Asia, all of a sudden comes into contact with a civilization, Western European or not necessarily Western, but European civilization,
that has benefited from the, uh, you know, the science, the enlightenment, the, the industrial revolution. And all, and has gunpowder now and has other technical advantages that the Chinese don't have. And they're faced with the fact that they are at a disadvantage. And so here's this new culture. How do you react to it?
When I think of say the Qing Dynasty, which was actually a Manchurian dynasty, But more or less assimilated into Chinese culture. And then in 1911, you have the, the, what they call the nationalist revolution and all of a sudden it's no longer, you know, an imperial state it's some kind of Republic, but that period from 1911 through to 1949 was to me the most fascinating period of China. When I was learning in Hong Kong, we had to read The People's Daily and Mao's thoughts and all of that kind of stuff.
And it, wasn't very interesting because a lot of the sort of communist boiler plate, uh, you know, ideology and stuff, it's just a lot of repetition of, of certain themes that are kind of divorced from reality, but the novels of the 20th century in China, the struggles as, as intellectuals, try, try to come to terms with this new civilization and how much of the new civilization should they, you know, accept or integrate into their civilization?
What can they maintain of theirs? To me that must've been an amazing. Uh, you know, intellectual struggle. And of course, then there were different, you know, answers. There was the communist answer. There was a, you know... more of a liberal answer. There was more of a fascist answer.
There were lots of answers as was the case in many other countries. And I'm discovering that in Arabic or in Persian, when you see 19t hcentury Egypt or 19th century, uh, Iran have to deal with this, you know, collision now with these very arrogant, uh, Westerners who want to impose their, uh, will, uh, uh, on these very proud civilizations.
So that to me was, was interesting. So if I look at what I did. You know, first of all, you can see behind me, lots of Chinese books. Okay. And so I did a lot of reading. I started with this, uh, 20 Lectures in Chinese Culture, and I must admit that, you know, reading about the history of China, uh, you know, 1500 years ago or more recently, some of the, uh, declarations by, by, uh, you know, um, Sun Yat Sen for example, the sort of nationalist revolution and then, uh, you know, Mao's thoughts and all of that and reading about it in Chinese
was very exhilarating for me. And I followed that 20 lectures book up with, and I should say that before I got into that, before I started reading, we had this where I went to school, New Asia college in Hong Kong, Kowloon side. It was part of the Yale in China program. So there, and there's so many books in the Yale in China program and the starter book for them was Chinese Dialogues,
which was a series of dialogues spoken rapid-fire or so it seemed to me and they used their own, uh, transliteration system. It wasn't the pin yin. So I became accustomed to words and sounds for a good, I think two or three months before we started into reading and learning the characters. Once I had some characters then I could
get into the 20 lectures in Chinese culture, although we had no audio for it, which is unfortunate. And also this intermediate reader in, uh, Chinese, modern Chinese, lots of emphasis on patterns. And to me, the secret to learning Chinese is don't use a traditional dictionary because it's very time consuming.
And you'll forget in any case, any dictionary, once you close the dictionary, you've forgotten what was there, but with the Chinese dictionary and I got lots of them, it takes so long to look over it. It's a complete waste of time. I only dealt with reading material where there was a glossary behind each chapter. Of course, nowadays, That's no longer necessary because you have online dictionaries.
And so if you're reading in LingQ, you can look up words immediately. You can save them to a database. There's so many more things that you can do now that weren't available back in those days. But so the first thing is don't use the traditional dictionary, which today you don't need to do. And the second thing was, don't get tied up in grammatical explanations because the, the grammarians try to get in there and create all kinds of terms and stuff.
I never looked at any of that stuff. I dealt strictly with patterns. Here's how they say it in... here's how we say it in English. Here's how they say it in Chinese. And, and if I do enough reading and eventually enough listening, I will get used to those patterns in Chinese without worrying about grammatical explanations.
Uh, Oh, I did want to show you, as I say, passion is part of it, obviously, and I liked the, the characters and I had these 1000 flash cards with the what's known as the radical, which determines, you know, the, sort of the meaning of the character to some extent was in red. And I went through those. I had sort of a self-styled space repetition system that I use.
But eventually of course you come to terms with the tones and it's very difficult to remember the tones of individual words. So I listened to a lot of Xiang Sheng and I have at home. I have a lot of CDs of Xiang Sheng. I just grabbed a few here. My favorite is Hou Bao Lin and Iwasn't able to grab one of his.
But these Xiang Sheng are comedians that it's like a comic dialogue and they exaggerate the pronunciation as they're trying to be funny. And I just found them, you know, especially Hou Bao Lin. I just, it was almost like listening to music...
That helped me with my tones because you have to get the tones inside a phrase of some kind. So if I hear these tones, these, these phrases bouncing around in my brain, it helped me, even though the, uh, the Xiang Sheng comic dialogues contain a lot of references to historical characters or to literature and things of that nature that I didn't, you know, had no idea of.
Uh, so I didn't understand them that well, but it was the music of those dialogues that helped me. So that was the other thing that was very useful for me in learning tones is to do a lot of listening to that kind of material. Now I have here two boxes of CDs. Of it, which I haven't yet had time to listen to.
I kind of set them aside, you know.... And I don't know how many, how many CDs and I've got countless, uh, Xiang Sheng CDs and, and historical CDs and so much stuff. And of course, nowadays you don't even have to go... I used to go to S... when I was traveling to China, uh, you know, in 2003, maybe when I went, yeah.
If they do promote my book, uh, so I bought all this stuff, but no, of course you can go online and you can find YouTube videos, which by the way, you can import into LingQ with the subtitles. And that becomes a lesson. And so there's so many more things that you can do that I couldn't do back in those days.
So just to summarize, and I would recommend that you check out the video that I did on how I learned French. And that was of course the first call it language that I wanted to learn to a level of fluency and compare that to my experience with learning Chinese. And you'll see that the common denominator is
that I, I developed a passion for certain aspects of Chinese civilization of French civilization. And that's what sort of drove me to overcome the obvious difficulties. And the difficulties are not insurmountable. Chinese for example, has the advantage that once you have characters, it's easy to build vocabulary,
because they are the new words in the way we understand where it's are combinations of different characters. Uh, the grammar and in Chinese is if I compare it to Slavic grammar, it's very, very straightforward, but you have to learn the characters and you have to tackle the tones. So with each language, there are ,difficulties to overcome these difficulties
you have to basically have a passion. And a, I'm not gonna speak in Chinese today, but you could refer to some of my videos where I have had discussions in Chinese, uh, and, uh, yeah, I've maintained it, uh, maintained it. And even though I don't have much occasion to speak Chinese, uh, I think I speak Chinese better today than when I wrote my exam exam back in 1969, even though I was able to write then, and today I would have a lot of difficulty.
In fact, I can't write. By hand in Chinese. I can write on the computer, but back then I could. But today, because I occasionally revisit Chinese and I listened to CDs and content, and we have Chinese friends here in Vancouver. I think I speak better now than I did back then. So there you have it. I'm kind of rushing through it.
So I don't, I don't want the, this video to be too long, but that's a brief sort of introduction on how I learned Mandarin Chinese. Thanks for listening.