Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chinese immersion with Carl Gene Fordham

“My mission from advanced Chinese learner to professional interpreter”

Who wouldn’t be interested in someone who writes under a tagline like that? I have been an avid reader Carl Gene Fordham’ blog and have been following his Twitter feed for quite some time now. Therefore, Carl was also one of the people I turned to with my question about bridging the gap to real Chinese (see Asking the Experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese).

It turned out that he had much more interesting things to say that would fit in just a few hundred words. This article is the result of an ongoing dialogue between us that includes both his original answer and some expansions in various directions. In case you aren’t already familiar with Carl, I asked him to introduce himself and this is what he wrote.

If you’d rather read about how to become a translator, check this interview I did with Carl: How to become a Chinese-English translator and what it’s like to be one.

Who is Carl Gene Fordham?

cgfCarl is a NAATI-accredited Chinese-English translator with a Master’s degree in Translating and Interpreting Studies from RMIT University and a HSK 6 Certificate (the highest level Chinese proficiency certification). Carl currently runs a translating, interpreting and IELTS training school in Melbourne, Australia. He also writes a popular blog about translating and interpreting Chinese called 一步一个脚印.

Apart from hearing about his opinions about immersion, I was also curious about how he became an advanced learner, what made him keep going after reaching an advanced level and what advice he has for others who are currently learning Chinese. Now, let’s get into the interview, starting from the most basic thing: textbooks and courses.

To what extent do you find teachers and textbooks helpful for learning Chinese?

The way I see it, the job of a good textbook and, even more importantly, a good teacher, is to provide you with the means to secure a solid foundation in the language you are learning. For me, this involved taking Mandarin classes from mid-primary school to high school, which eventually led to me majoring in Chinese during my undergrad, and studying translation studies at a Masters level. But independent learners can get much the same foundation with the aid of a tutor and, of course, the right amount of motivation. All of this can assist you in developing a decent level of proficiency with only a minimum of bad habits and fossilised mistakes, provided you are truly engaged in the process. This “textbook” or “classroom” level of Chinese, though, has its limitations.

So how do we transcend this limitation, then?

Everyone has their own take on this, but I don’t think it’s really all that complicated. The key to getting really good at a language over a relatively short period of time simply involves using it as much as you can. By “using” I don’t mean reading a book or watching a TV program. I mean making the effort to mingle, interact and converse with as many native speakers of that language as you can find. What this inevitably entails is stepping out of your comfort zone, throwing yourself in the deep end and socialising in the language you are learning.

It sounds simple of course but few are willing to do this. Most language learners, with the exception of a few oddballs it must be said, are incredibly introverted. This is not a bad thing in of itself. Shier people tend to pay more attention to details, picking up more intricate aspects of the language more quickly than their outgoing counterparts. But they do themselves a disservice by sticking stubbornly to outdated ways of learning.

What should we do instead? What new ways of learning Chinese are available?

With the advent of the Internet and social media there have never been more opportunities to learn a foreign language regardless of your geographical location. Many people are shocked when I tell them that I have never lived in China. In fact if I added up all the time I have spent in China over the years on sporadic trips it wouldn’t exceed 4 or 5 months. But it’s really not all that surprising when you consider the sheer number of Mandarin speakers living in Australia and the incredible ease of making Chinese friends online. And that’s exactly how I reached fluency in Mandarin in an English-speaking country. I took advantage of the opportunity to make native-speaker friends both in Australia and online.

But while having that social network of native-speaker friends is important, it is equally important to create your own language-learning environment, or “immersion” if you like. When I first started really getting into Chinese this meant converting as much as of my daily routine from English into Chinese. Since most of my time back then in high school and early uni was spent chatting online with friends I had met in my own country, I made the decision to start making more Chinese friends, mostly through language exchange websites. Soon enough, most of my contacts on MsN Messenger (the IM of the day) were Chinese. Eventually I quit MsN and switched to the Chinese IM QQ. Facebook I got rid of too very early on and to this day I refuse to reactivate my account as I find it a complete time-waster.

Chatting in Chinese online helped me improve my reading skills, as well as my general expression skills and feel for the language. Better yet, it was a good stepping stone to when I eventually started making a larger number of Chinese friends face-to-face. Online chatting is a free, comfortable and unintimidating way to make friends and improve your language level. It also allows you to see very clearly certain things that you may not pick up on when meeting people in real life, and definitely won’t learn in the textbooks, such as common sentence structures and slang. And of course being asked the same half-dozen questions over and over again gives you a great opportunity to try a myriad of different ways of expressing yourself!

I’m personally not that surprised that you can reach a high level without living in China, but I’m sure readers would like to know more. Could you go into more details about this? How did you achieve it?

I still maintain that socialising is the fastest way to create an immersive language learning environment. I have heard of people doing things like labelling items around their home, changing their phone or computer’s system language, putting on Chinese radio as background noise, etc. For certain types of learners those strategies can be very helpful. But in my opinion most people would be better off spending that time actually using the language.

Language is, after all, a tool for communication, so learning how to communicate naturally and efficiently should be your ultimate priority. And the only way to improve that skill – after having already gained a solid foundation, that is – is to strike up conversations with as many people as you can find, either in your city, or online. You’ll soon find out what language patterns are the most common, and how to imitate them most effectively.

I know that some people experience ”language wars”, where they find it difficult to make Chinese people speak Chinese with them instead of practising English. Have you found this to be a problem for you, considering that you’ve mostly learnt Chinese outside China?

I find this question a bit funny to be honest. In Australia, Cantonese and Mandarin are the most commonly spoken languages apart from English. And in the capital cities where most people live this is even more obvious. So you don’t really have to insist on anything.

In my experience Chinese people are very willing to speak Mandarin, to the extent that they often refuse to speak English to me, even after telling them I need a break! And during my time in China and Taiwan, I had the same experience. It’s extremely rare that I come across a Chinese person who flat out refuses to speak Chinese to me, perhaps 1 out of 100. And in any case I’m happy to speak English or Mandarin to anyone – after all, we all want to improve our second language, so we should be patient enough to help anyone who genuinely wants to learn.

Is there anything we should pay attention to while using the language as much as possible?

I recommend taking as many notes as possible, for the simple fact that you’re never going to remember everything you encounter in what may originally seem to be simple, run-of-the mill conversations. Over the years I have shamelessly copied sentences my language partners have said to me, archived them and used them with other people.

Inevitably, people comment that my spoken Mandarin in many cases sounds like a native speaker. But anyone with the passion and motivation can achieve this. You just need to pay attention to the details, and always be curious. My Chinese friends have spent countless hours explaining to me the intricacies of the language, and I am forever indebted to them.

Curiously I have never met a Chinese who got tired of my inquisitiveness. Nor have I come across any of those notorious “English ninjas” that some Chinese learners complain about. In my experience Chinese people are very eager to teach foreigners any aspect of their language or culture. Some even consider it an honour. If you have to teach them a bit of English in return, I think that’s totally reasonable. If they try to dominate the process (I personally haven’t had this problem), simply find someone else – there are millions of other potential language partners out there all over the world!

Now that we have dealt with the basic approach, let’s talk about more advanced students for a while. Do you have any advice for those that are already conversant in Chinese and can survive in most non-professional environments involving Chinese? What’s the next step?

This is a difficult question to answer, because different people have different motivations for becoming fluent in a language. But like any other interest that turns into a passion, I guess you really have to ask yourself how you can turn it into a career, or at least a very active hobby. In my case, I chose to enter the translating and interpreting profession, while also running T/I training classes on the side.

What this means is that I have to use Mandarin every day, both at work and with friends. This makes best use of the skills I have taken so many years to attain. It also means that that muscle in my brain gets the amount of exercise it needs. Otherwise… what’s the point? That muscle would just weaken, and I’d eventually lose all those skills. And anyway I haven’t found anything else that gives me remotely the same buzz as learning – and using – a second language. In the future there may be a third, but so far Chinese is the only language that has truly stimulated me – apart from my first language, English, of course!

What is the next step for someone who has learnt Chinese? What job opportunities are available, for example?

That “next step” could really be anything you want it to be. I’m constantly surprised that the vast majority of people I know who speak Mandarin as a second language seem completely uninterested in the translating and interpreting field. Instead, I’ve met people who are more interested in using Chinese in a diverse range of other fields, from business, to tourism, education, academia and even diplomacy.

This is not that surprising, though, when you consider the sheer millions of people around the world who speak Mandarin – and I’m not just talking about citizens of the PRC, but the greater Mandarin diaspora as well. You simply have to recognise that the employment opportunities for bilingual (and bicultural) professionals are overwhelming. However, these opportunities may not always be obvious; you may have to use your own networking to find (or create) many them. But they are definitely there, and completely up for grabs for anyone who has taken the time to learn about Chinese language and culture.

I personally feel that the more Chinese I learn, the more I realise how little I know (a cliché, I know, but still true). How do you keep motivated to continue improving?

For me personally motivation has never really been an issue. I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t interested in learning Chinese, and languages in general. I’ve studied many other fields, from music, to theatre, to film, to journalism, and even law, but Chinese is the only subject that has sustained my interest over such a long period of time.

For those learners who may be feeling “unmotivated”, the only advice I can give them is to hang in there. The beginner and intermediate stages may be frustrating or even monotonous at times, but trust me when I say the hard work you put in will be worth it when you have your first fluent conversation in your second language, or read your first foreign language book. It’s absolutely thrilling.

Do the strategies you use now differ from those you used as a beginner/intermediate learner?

Probably not actually. I mean obviously now I’m fluent in the language I’m not attending classes and poring over textbooks, but I still use the same methods to learn as I did in the beginning stages. I still socialise with Chinese people as much as I can. I still ask questions whenever I don’t understand a word or phrase. I still take copious amounts of notes. I still enjoy reading Chinese texts out loud, practising how I can make my Mandarin sound as clear and professional as possible. I’ve found all of these strategies useful ways to boost my proficiency, as well as my confidence.

I can’t see myself abandoning them any time soon. But I still acknowledge there are plenty of areas I could still improve on. For example, although my listening is already quite good, I often find very formal Chinese difficult to understand. Not to mention my Chinese handwriting which resembles a primary school student’s, and all those characters that I always forget how to write. But improving these two skills would require many hours of intensive practice, and that’s something that I don’t really have time for at the moment. Maybe sometime next year I can make them a priority.

Solid advice and interesting thoughts overall! Could you perhaps summarise the main points of your approach and offer some practical advice?

To sum up, you’d be mad not to make the effort to make Chinese friends to help you along your language learning journey – and the more, the merrier. If you combine that with a solid “textbook” foundation, some careful note-taking and a curious mind, you’ll quickly find yourself in the ideal language-learning environment to attain fluency in Mandarin.

As for practical advice, everyone of course has their own way of learning a language, but this is what I recommend:

  1. Beginner’s stage: Get a good teacher and a good textbook. Learn the basics, and get a good foundation. Time frame: Around 6 months, if you work hard.
  2. Intermediate stage: Start making friends who speak the language, preferably native speakers. Practice conversations with them. Ask questions and take notes. Memorise anything you find practical. Watching TV shows/movies and listening to music/radio may also be useful to improve your fluency. But nothing should take precedence over conversation practice, in my opinion. Apart from improving your reading level of course, as this skill is essential to making your learning more efficient. Time frame: 5-10 years.
  3. Advanced stage: Figure out the best way to put all you’ve learnt into practice – either as a career or a hobby. The main thing is don’t let all that hard work go to waste. Time frame: Rest of life.For some learners, this outline may seem controversial. I know there are those who think that fluency can be attained in a matter of months, and not years. But the way I see it, to be truly fluent in a language, and especially one as complex as Chinese, 10 years is a more realistic time frame. But so what? If you enjoy it, do it. You don’t need to worry about how long it’s going to take if you’re having fun along the way.

I think that the time frame you set depends on your goals. For people like us who have made Chinese part of our lives and careers, Chinese is definitely a life-long journey, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s perfectly possible to achieve a lot in a shorter time span. To each his own!

I’d like to thank Carl for sharing his experiences and advice with us. If you want to know more about him and learning Chinese, you should bookmark his website and subscribe to his Twitter feed now!

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  1. nommoc says:

    I appreciate the thought of it in some cases taking ten years to become fluent in Chinese.

  2. John says:

    5 – 10 years for fluency in a broad range of topics, situations seems realistic to me.

    1. Jon Strauss says:

      Don’t forget the 6 months that preceded it! 🙂

  3. Jon Strauss says:

    Great article! Thanks to both of you, Olle and Carl. It’s inspirational and informative. Here are a couple bits that grabbed me:

    ‘…converting as much as of my daily routine from English into Chinese’

    ‘You just need to pay attention to the details, and always be curious’

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you highlighted two very important concepts. The first one is something I think is very important myself, but that I haven’t actually written about. When I studied Chinese very intensively, I scrutinised almost everything I did to see how I could turn that into a learning opportunity. It’s quite interesting how much you can convert if you’re serious about it. The second idea about being curious and paying attention to details is also crucial, especially when combined with the notebook idea. I wrote about that here and I really agree on that noticing isn’t really enough, writing things down is necessary if we want to really learn.

  4. Gary says:

    Great article! Thank you both, Carl and Ollie.

  5. R Zhao says:

    I find it interesting that he has found a very small percent of Chinese speakers (1%) are insistent on speaking English with him. I think the difference between himself and others is simply spoken ability level. I think it’s worth pointing out that if your Chinese ability is below a native Chunese speaker’s English ability, your conversation may easily slip into English. It will feel more natural and probably a lot easier. Until you reach a fairly advanced level of spoken Chinese, I think these “language wars” may continue. I honestly don’t think it’s just a matter of Chinese speakers wanting to practice their English, but often them wanting to make you feel (the struggling Chinese speaker) more comfortable.

    1. Sara K. says:

      On the other hand, Carl Gene Fordham has only spent 4-5 months total in China.

      I often get Taiwanese people trying to speak with me in English, even when their English speaking ability is significantly lower than my Chinese speaking ability. One of the more obvious reasons for this is that Taiwanese people in Taiwan do not get many opportunities to practice speaking English with a native speaker, so some want to take the chance when they see it (though most are too shy to try).

      If he’s mostly been talking to native speakers outside of places where Chinese is not the main language, I’m not surprised that he hasn’t met many native speakers who speak English.

      1. Olle Linge says:

        I think both of you are right. The most important factor when you communicate with people you know is how convenient the conversation is. Few people you know well will insist on speaking a language that doesn’t work well for communication, for instance. However, when dealing with people you don’t know well or that are complete strangers, your language ability becomes less important. Some people really just want to practise English. I have encountered a few people like that.

        I asked Carl the question because I’ve met lots of Chinese exchange students in Sweden who want to practise their English. Here in Taiwan, I can just ignore people who only wants to speak English, only speak Chinese with them or even use Swedish if all else fails. However, that kind of behaviour becomes unacceptable in countries where Chinese isn’t the native language. It would be strange, rude and quite bad in general to refuse to speak English with Chinese people in the US! You’d be the Chinese ninja yourself.

        What I hadn’t thought about was the availability factor that Sara mentions. In English-speaking countries, Chinese speakers typically don’t have a problem finding people who speak English. In fact, they might feel relieved that a native English speaker also speaks Chinese, which might be interesting and useful in many ways.

  6. George says:

    This is a big contrast from acadamia.

    I have been rereading a copy of “Theories of Second-Language Learning” by MccLaughln that starts with dethroning Skinner’s Behavoiralism, and the runs through Krashen, Chomsky, and other for about 4 decades of destruction of one theory after another.

    In the above, you find a good teacher for six months and then the rest is up to you. No ivory tower theory and rebutual, just try to get involved and stay involved in productive progressive application of your communication and reading skills (I suspect not much about writing).

    This web site has been extremely helpful to me as the weekly arrival of another email reminds me to stay engaged and keeping trying to learn more.

    I find the older books by Yale Press and Tewksbury remain some of the best and easiest to get through that Beginner phase in into Intermediate. Too many of the new books hae gotten too clear and really have lost sight of providing the ‘must know’ first, followed by the ‘need-to-know’ info. Something about ‘cut and paste’ editing with lots of color computer graphics has worked heavily against writers publishing good lean texts that don’t confound the learner with side panels, and clutter.

    Above all, keep it simple and try to practise with native speakers regularly.

  7. Lili says:

    This article was so interesting and encouraging to me. I am an absolute beginner in Chinese and I continue to struggle with finding that one good language teacher. I’ve primarily been using resources online, and my location makes finding a teacher in person really difficult. Any suggestions?

  8. chiara says:

    very interesting, inspiring article!2 points particularly attracted my attention: “‘You just need to pay attention to the details, and always be curious’” and the time frame to learn Chinese.

  9. Ken Wong says:

    It’s amazing how many amazingly interesting articles and information come on your site. Carl is certainly a standout as far as language learners go, 活到老学到老, I believe his mantra would be. His progress has been impressive and is inspirational, I believe he also has a determination that not not many could match. I’m interested in his view that most language learners are introverts though, I would have thought otherwise.

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