I’ll talk later about how difficult it can be to learn Chinese even when you’re living in China, but I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by focusing on the positive.

Most people won’t disagree with me if I say that the best way to learn a language is to live in the country and get total immersion. Having a husband and son, immersion seems pretty tricky these days. But that didn’t mean that we couldn’t at least try to put ourselves in a foreign language bubble.

And it is immersion in a lot of ways. I live in the outer circle of Chengdu-the only other foreigner I see wakes up next to me in the morning-or opens our door silently and comes to ask for a cookie as he climbs into bed next to me.

Even my English-speaking colleagues prefer to do their office banter in Chinese, so if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Right?

Anyway, there are little things that fill me with happiness living here in China and one of them are little, successful interactions with the random faces I see when I’m out and about. If you study Chinese, you will (or should) quickly realize that the locals are extremely friendly and that they are actually giving you FREE Chinese lessons. They might be shorter than your Five Minute Coffee Break Chinese Podcasts, but I find when I can connect someone’s face and gestures to something I learn, it sticks in my brain a little faster than repeating the word three times in my head or meticulously copying Chinese characters into my little brown notebook-I’m not knocking either of these methods since I use them regularly. I’m just saying that when the school garnder stops me and touches my bag while repeating the same sentence three times-I rush upstairs to the office and ask my co-worker to help me figure out what he was telling me. And all of a sudden I understand the verb ‘carry’. This is one of those ‘ah-ha’ moments where you realize that what I just told you is the lesson of the day. The man was literally helping me learn how to say “You are carrying things.”

At least, I think he was teaching me…when have you ever walked up to someone and said something like, “The sky is blue.” (Hmm…on second thought, I’ve said that word with a little exclamation point at the end of it here…it is a pretty big deal when the sky is blue in this little corner of the world) 

Anyway, the gardner isn’t the only one. The ladies in the grocery store across from our apartment complex are teaching Noah to count to ten in Chinese. The admin lady whose office is next to ours will run into me and teach me how to say ‘photocopy’ or ‘it’s raining’ or ‘it’s cold.’ The people at the market will tell me the name of the vegetable, and if I buy fruit from the  man that comes from another region, the men will crowd around and repeat the numbers in the Sichuan accent-which I am slowly getting used to thanks to my co-workers constant informative reminders about what the Sichuan people can and cannot pronounce in both English and Mandarin.

And my favorite story of this beautiful phenomenon happened at the market. You don’t have to hold on by the seats of your pants or anything, it’s not an exciting story by any means, I just feel good. You could publish this as a fluff piece or something.

One day I was shopping for vegetables and as usual people stare at me, a few young people dare to say hello, then switch to Chinese and ask me if I teach English, and talk about me to the stall owners. I don’t always understand everything but I catch the, “Does she speak Chinese? Does she understand? Oh, American…yadda yadda.” It can actually be a little annoying when you hear it and you feel just awkward enough that you decide not to speak up for yourself.

So, on this particular day, a lady asked if I could speak Chinese and the stall owner looked right at me and said, “Yes she can. She can speak a lot.” And the lady turned to me to ask me the systematic questions…to which I could answer with the systematic answers.

I don’t know why, but her (and, their, in general) encouragement and help makes me feel like jumping off the diving board into the middle of the great depths of learning this incredibly complex language is worth it.

I’ve often thought that learning a language is like going back to childhood. You are so innocent and vulnerable. These people give me little verbal pats on the back and are clapping when I’m able to take wobbly steps to the coffee table.

They want me to learn and in their own little ways they are helping me get there. For some reason, when the fruit lady tells some stranger that my Chinese is very good, I feel like I’ve been taken under her wing and she’s in some inexplicable way, proud of me.

These people are eager to communicate, but also a little hesistant and shy. I want to understand them, but more importantly perhaps, they want to understand me.

Chinese is not something I’ve been passionate about for a very long time. It always seemed a bit overwhelming to me and I always said I’d want to learn Russian if I was going to go outside of romance languages. Never say never.

When I pulled out the map and got down to job hunting for my next English job, China seemed to be the right fit. If I’m going to move to a country, I’m going to at least attempt to learn how to communicate.

That being said, a bit of a language nerd, I’ve always been against getting a tattoo if you don’t know what it says. Apparently, for good reason! Take a look-Justin Timberlake has a tattoo that says ICE SKATING?? Logical, manly, the next Brian Boitano?


chineasyThe concept? Learn a few root characters, say eight, and learn 68 words that use them. Build on those by adding a few more characters and very quickly you can read 200 words! If only it were that easy…but it is says Chineasy creator who is developing a very visual way of learning traditional Chinese characters.

I’ve checked her website which is still in its developing stages. She doesn’t really focus on the actual Chinese pronunciation, but just the character recognition-which is unfortunate for a language geek like me who wants every single aspect of the language (and I want it noooow) at my fingertips. I went on her Facebook page and she has mentioned on a post that she is in the throes of developing a language training site as well. Which I’m sure will be fascinating. Each part of life gets its own time, right?

It’s pretty creative all the same, and would work really well for someone like me who is a visual-learner. I need to see it to learn it-and I actually already invent stories when I can with individual characters. Of course, some of hers are actually using the origins or can be used with multiple words and she has all of that kinda cute and colorful graphic design going on (I’ve never illustrated my feeble attempts to actually write Chinese characters).

spinach stuck in teethSo, I was doing exercises on the website I use to study Chinese. Starting in level 2 they usually have all of these exercises you can do after the lesson. You can listen to chunks of the dialog and repeat, learn stroke order, practice typing, test your pronunciation…and sentence scramble. I like them all, but I ran into this one tiny problem…and it’s not the first site that has done this to me.

It seems that many ‘learn Chinese online’ sites think that newbies and beginners should not start learning characters right away. They teach us pinyin. Now, pinyin is like a pronunciation guide for the character-ally challenged. It uses the Roman alphabet and shows you the tones to use. It is, undoubtedly, a handy tool when learning Chinese. Chinese 5 year olds learn pinyin at school and personally, I take the time to write the pinyin on the back of all of my flashcards.

However, when I go to China, I somehow do not think the menus and street roads and such are geared to little 5 year old Chinese kids trying to make their way around the city. Nope, I bet everything is written in Chinese.

It’s funny, because I was just writing a quick assignment for a TESOL class I’m taking (so I can learn them children real good) and we had a quick overview of the different teaching styles that have been used to teach languages. So many of them dumb the language down. I’m an advocate of teaching people the 4 components of learning a language-even in elementary school, you can start introducing grammar concepts in a way that won’t bore a child (I say this with my French students in mind…I just used the similarities between French and English..and my 7 year olds could understand why we said I like to swim because they knew what an ‘infinitive’ was-or at least what it looked like…so, grammar introduced and time to play!), although mostly I’m talking about adult learners. If I tried teaching most adults with zero grammar, I think that I’d not only lose credibility but they’d also feel like children.

So, to be fair, most website do have sections dedicated to learning characters. They also have transcripts and character learning boxes (similar to when you were learning cursive) and such. I can see them and I can make my own flashcards…only I’ve just been noticing and it’s quite frankly turned into one of those things you groan at.

But why would your go-to move be to put everything in pinyin and only pinyin? I think I am old enough to choose if I want to learn a character or if it is too overwhelming (which was the answer ‘support’ gave me at another site) and should be learned later. In fact, I do make that choice…”road” is a good word to know in my mind. “terrible” is less important. “Beijing” is a good word to recognize…”Oklahoma” will probably appear a little less in a newspaper. “Cake” is ultra important to my sweet tooth…but “roller blade” not so much. See, I can do that and it isn’t so overwhelming.

So, why haven’t language learning sites started with everything and given you the choice to take English and pinyin away?

So, to be fair, most websites do have sections dedicated to learning characters. They also have transcripts and character learning boxes (similar to when you were learning cursive) and flashcard tools. Only, it’s turned into something I notice immediately, like when someone’s fly is down and their shirt is peeking out through the opening or when someone has a fork hovering around their mouth and a piece of spinach stuck in their teeth. I can’t help but not to notice it and I generally pride myself on being one of those people who will tell you to zip up your pants and get a toothpick.

Yes, I sound like I’m all wobbly. I’m not terrified it that is what you’re thinking. Although, if you don’t know how to speak a language that uses different tones, I dare you to try to hesitantly use new vocabulary words and try to pay attention to the tones you are using!

It’s kinda like jumping rope with your feet tied together and your hands behind your back…blindfolded. Easy, right?

So this is my 4 month video. There are times when I study 3 hours a day and weeks where I haven’t found the time to study even once a week. You might say it was the equivalent of 3 month Chrissie.

This is admittedly more than I could have done at the beginning, given I had no prior knowledge of Chinese (except the vague notion of xie4xie4, of course), so I’m really quite proud of myself.

Enjoy! (I mean, flinch, run for earplugs, press mute…save yourselves!)




I     I have been using two excellent websites to learn Chinese. In the future, I’d like to expand this to include one or two more. I may do that and compare the different pros and cons to using these sites (cons: a site would probably have to be very, very poorly made for me to give a big list of cons, just FYI. I love having access to as much language learning material as I can-my wallet being the only real constraint). For now however, these sites have provided me with the stability a complete beginner needs to feel like she is progressing.

1. CLO:   I have a paid subscription here because, I’ll be honest, I liked their webpage design-it was clear and bright. However it gets better, it really does. The site is great and the people who work for the site are friendly and prompt. Also, you don’t need a subscription to listen to the files. I like that you’d still be able to listen to them in order even if you didn’t have a subscription.

So, with a subscription you have access to a wide variety of .pdf files including: the transcript for the podcast in English, Pinyin, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, French and Spanish. Don’t worry, the whole transcript with not be in Chinese characters-just the dialog/when they use Chinese words. Then, you have a separate vocab. sheet, and two different character worksheets if you want to practice your writing.

I love that you can comment after any podcast and have a very fast answer from the people managing the site. This means that if you think you’ve got the concept but just want to double check, you can do that!

They also have a separate site that will show you how to write Chinese characters.

2.       FluentU.com: I think this site is in its early stages as when I started it was still free. It hasn’t changed yet, so check it out quickly so you can see how great it is. I know they are planning to make the switch in the very near future, although basic subscriptions will only cost $8.00.So, this site is very refreshing because they don’t offer structured courses, but rather structured video snippets of original content, pop songs, TED interviews (yes, they do them in Chinese, too!), cartoons, Elmo, Pizza Hut commercials, etc. You can watch them with English subtitles, pinyin and either simplified or traditional characters that are on a black background under the video. You can pause the video and subtitles at any time. Scroll over a word to see the meaning and click on it to add to a vocab. list for studying later.

I think there were still a few kinks to work out on the latter the last time I checked, but it’s really an innovative way for learning Chinese solo (it’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a high school classroom, but that you generally don’t know what to look for if you’re surfing the web).

China charactersWhen I started taking Chinese lessons, my teacher’s boyfriend suggested that I try what he did to learn Chinese. He told me he had used 7 boxes and had a system for studying flashcards that gradually got moved into different boxes as he learned the words/characters.

Seven boxes seems like a lot to me, and I tweaked it a bit so that it made sense to me. Today I use four boxes to store the flashcards for the new characters that I learn.

This method is not only great for self-study but I think it’s a great way to get others involved in your “I’m going to China” excitement, as they won’t need to speak any Chinese to help you.

Box one: New Characters.

Into the box go any words I want to learn. If I can get them right 2/3 times, they go into Box 2.

Box two: Learn the words by heart.

This is as simple (and as hard) as it sounds. Some words will stick better than others and go into box 3 right away. Others may spend days (or weeks, depending on how often you study) in the box. If you have even the inkling of a doubt, keep it in the box.

Box three: Learn to write (and at the same time recognize) the words.

Now comes the fun part: trying to write them. Now, this is not a beauty contest. I think if someone is really interested in writing getting some help from a tutor or taking a class upon arrival would probably be a good thing. This is just so the word becomes recognizable to you. You know, if you learn how to recognize the sign for ‘rice’ or for ‘noodles’, you might not know what’s accompanying it, but at least you can switch things up a bit. I can actually recognize a few signs now that I probably couldn’t write: “store”, “tea” and “beef” being three that I’ve recently seen on shop signs and boxes.

Box four: Two week review.

By the time you’ve truly mastered writing the characters, generally you know them pretty well. Now, set them aside and go on to newer, more interesting words. In two weeks (or in one, or one month) go ahead and pull them out to test yourself.

This method is great because I can have my fiance quiz me when I want to truly test what I know. Because one side has the word written in pinyin, English (or your native language, of course) and a sample sentence, the other person can have very limited knowledge of Chinese and still help you learn.

Then what?

I suppose you could have a fifth box to store all acquired vocab. in, although you could certainly store things in a folder or a Ziploc bag…I’d keep them at least until you leave so that you can do one last big review before jumping on the plane.


There you have it the 4 (or five) Box Method for learning the Chinese language.

China charactersI heard of someone who had been living in China for several years teaching English who still hasn’t learned Chinese. . I know there are quite a few people living in Toulouse who don’t speak French either…and they only (although I am not disputing the intricacy of the French language) have to learn French…cough, cough. The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t surprise me that much because I think I can easily compare it to my immersion camp experiences

You see, when I worked in French immersion camps, I was reduced to pretending that I was that stereotypical person who was in a foreign country but could barely utter, “Bonjour” without provoking fits of hysterical giggles from little 12 year-olds who they themselves were left pointing at things shouting, “’ey meez, pleezuh.” And most of the counselors actually didn’t speak French and besides the site staff, no one had any outside interaction with the rest of French society. There were a few members of the counselors that could speak French, for health and safety reasons, and we relied on them when we were off site.  We ended up forming a mini world and you end up not even realizing what those implications would be if you actually had to live in France. Granted, this experience for most counselors was a one or two summer experience that would ultimately pay for some travel time. The other counselors were basically tourists in the country and discouraged from using French by their employer.

Now, “tourist” label aside, I think living in China must be similar. You work with maybe 5-15 other people who can speak your language and you form a mini-world. Perhaps there are one or two bilingual people on staff to help you get by (go to the bank or see a doctor). Furthermore, you are the “face” of the school. People want their children to be taught be someone who “looks” American and who speaks English…probably not Chinese.

But the logic to not being able to do both is illogical and highly impractical. As an English teacher there are several ways to teach. It’s just that the current trend is very highly based on a communicative approach, which has a tendency to lean towards the extreme side of things, in my mind. Everyone wants immersion, immersion, immersion.

However, I can think of one key area having a little bit of a foreign language (no matter where you teach) would be a good thing. Explaining grammatical structures and nuances of vocabulary (idioms especially). I don’t think you have to take away from the communicative approach if you can express yourself in Chinese, but I do think you can enrich the learning process as a whole.

Of course, if your level of Chinese is anything like mine, you are a far cry from being able to explain English grammar to someone in Chinese, let alone ask for (and understand) directions to the nearest shopping center.

Added to that, I think not speaking any Chinese could cause the following negative side effects:

1. Having no independence.

This is essential for me (and probably most of you). I am specifically thinking of all of the times in France where I wanted to drag a French administrative clerk into the back office and interrogate him on things he wasn’t answering clearly at the front counter. Obviously that would have been highly unlikely, not to mention illegal, but it was nice to be able to ask questions-and adjust them to my level of frustration.

In Chinese, I’ll have to be extremely patient, but I would like to be able to go to the supermarket and be able to ask if they have black tea. I’d like to be able to go to a street market and haggle. And I’d like to be able to ask my ayi how my son’s day was.

2. Not understanding what people are saying about you.

Okay, so you have to be paranoid to think that most people will walk down the street and start talking about you to your face and know that you won’t understand them. And, the only reason I’m mentioning this is because we’ve got the “camp effect” up and running again. You see, if you have done any reading about living in China, you’ve probably run across the “rock star effect” (Google it, if not), where people will randomly approach you for pictures just because you aren’t Chinese. Well, I’ve also heard stories about people being talk about and pointed at. I think it’s the “camp effect” in the sense that, people will be people. When an entire camp thinks you don’t speak French, the 12 year-old boys might say something about the body of their 25 year-old counselor (sad, but true story) or they might admit to smushing a bug on their least favorite counselor’s pillow (also sad, but true story). They’d never do that if they thought you spoke French. So, what happens when an entire country doesn’t expect that you speak their language…well, if you speak their language, you’ll probably be able to post some pretty great (or sad, but true) stories.

3. Perhaps it won’t be possible to just ‘get by’ in English…

Everyone always says that you can get by in Paris or Berlin (I use these to as real example of times where I’ve heard this), but then have a shocking amount of stories where they have trouble communicating which leads them to say, “I thought you could get by with no English, but most people really can’t speak it that well.” So basically, the word “get by” gets used to mean, “travel as if I were in my home country” (and no, I don’t think most travelers actually get frustrated about this, I’ve just heard it in passing and from Americans as well as Europeans…). I don’t doubt that in Beijing or Shanghai and perhaps even Guangzhou, you could “get by” to a certain extent with no Chinese. But “get by” does not mean getting the best prices or finding the local watering hole. It means depending on the kindness and patience of others to help you when you are trying to get from point A to point B. So again, as tourist, this generally isn’t a problem. Most of us want to see point A and B and C in 5 days before we start work again. But, I think most of us would get tired of just ‘getting by’ if we lived in a place for longer than 3 months.
3. Not getting the most out of your stay.

Not learning the language of the country you are in, in this case China, means not getting the most out of your stay. If coming to China is a decision that was 2 months in the making (or 6 or 2 years), and probably one where everyone had an opinion, shouldn’t you want to make the most of it? If you learn Chinese you can ask people their opinion about things you’ve noticed. You can ask why and I can almost guarantee that the answer would be different than if you asked the same question in English. Simply because, a lot of times our questions aren’t, “What time is it?” They might be more along the lines of, “Why do Chinese people seem to…?” And that takes a depth in language that will probably get simplified if the Chinese person speaks to you in English.

4. Watching the surprise on people’s faces when you speak in Chinese.

This is something that won’t happen all of the time, but at the beginning, it can be very rewarding to get compliments or looks of surprise from people. You think, “Yeah, that’s right. I can use that expression.” And then, even back home, you’ll be proud to tell people that you can speak Chinese, because let’s face it, before I was learning Chinese I would secretly thing that a person had to be a very dedicated, patient scholar to learn a language I thought was so complicated. You’ll be proud of yourself.

And that’s why I think it’s important to learn Chinese (if you’re moving to China, that is).