Good students, heritage speakers and adventurers: a typology of advanced Mandarin learners

I’ve been learning Chinese for about five years now, and I’ve become reasonably fluent in the language. But I walked along an atypical path: I studied by myself or with language partners for most of the journey – never followed a curriculum, never had recurring mistakes identified and corrected. I’m not alone though. The path leading to Chinese fluency – or indeed, fluency in any language – varies greatly from one advanced learner to another, and at some stages at least, most advanced learners have studied or practiced outside institutions.

Nanjing University runs a placement test for all its international students, but then has the great intelligence to let people switch around classes for two weeks until they find an appropriate one. My early days were focused on choosing the right level and teaching style – and part of the process involved observing other students, to see where I fitted. This is how I developed a typology for Chinese learners in advanced classes – building on my previous discussions with fellow sinophiles.

The first is the good student: European-American or East Asian, she majors in Chinese at university, or studied through school and still takes a formal language classes. She’s got an extensive knowledge of characters and a wide vocabulary, she can write characters by hand, knows about chengyus, and often read classic texts. But she’s young, and brings a ‘student attitude’ to class – passive expectations and exam stress. And if her Mandarin skills are high, especially reading and writing, she may not have spent a lot of time interacting with Chinese people, and therefore lacks confidence when speaking or expressing an opinion.

Heritage speakers form a second group. They speak Hokkien, Cantonese, or some other dialect at home – even Mandarin sometimes. They identify as Chinese, like Chinese pop culture and practice the language watching films or singing KTV. Most of them attended Sunday Chinese school in their childhood, and picked up some extra skills on trips to their families. They can understand almost everything, and speak semi-fluently, sometimes with a strong accent. But they struggle with characters, if they can read them at all. The tech-savvy ones you recognise easily: they spend half the class bent over their phone or ipad, using pleco to convert hanzis into pinyin and vice-versa.

The final group is made up of ‘adventurers’: these people came to China with little or no language skills, on a scholarship, international internship, or just on a whim. There they met people, got a job, fell in love – and along the way, they picked up some language skills. Or they have Chinese friends at home, even a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend, and learnt a number of characters on the go. They can speak and listen reasonably well, though tones are probably quite messy. Some can read, even quite well; few can hand-write. They bring high levels of self-motivation and confidence, but make numerous mistakes, and have multiple holes to fill, including basic structures.

These three groups have different learning needs and learning styles; yet they come together in advanced classes, where teachers don’t make much effort – if any – to specifically develop activities targeting the strengths and weaknesses of each group. I say – what a wasted opportunity. So I would like to start thinking of ways that differentiated learning could increase the results of advanced learner classes, and find ways for students in each of these groups to best improve their own language skills, and help other students by reflecting on their Mandarin journey.

Any tips or suggestion – please write a note in the comment section!


When I ask people how they’re doing – especially work colleagues, but others too – many reply “busy”. I never quite understood what the word meant, but for a long while, I assumed it was an actual description of their objective circumstances: so many demands on their time that they cannot stop to think, more work than any human could possibly handle, various pressures, etc. And I developed a certain guilt, because I so rarely feel “busy” – never for more than a few hours anyway. I am a perpetual slacker, who lets others take the burden and goes off on a stroll? Should I make myself more busy?

Yesterday, at a friend’s birthday party, I heard the ‘b’ word mentioned again from another work colleague I don’t know very much. I decided it was time to ask, and I did “what does busy mean, I’ve never actually understood the word.” She had an interesting answer “when you’ve got so much to do that you don’t have time to answer emails, and feel a bit dizzy.” “Oh, I’ve never been in that state, or at least never for more than two or three hours.” She called me lucky – slightly peeved, or jealous? And left.

I reflected. When I was in high school, and then in preparatory class, I always finished my essays and assignments on time, even a day early. I may have been the only one. People saw me as a strange oddity. The feeling was mutual. We had three weeks to finish a paper, the paper took between 15 and 20 hours to finish. Surely, the right time to start was not the evening before. Yet half the class did, and a good third only got to it a few days in advance. I could see that I was the odd one out, and yet I thought – if you started on time, you wouldn’t rush at the end.

I’ve now realised it’s the same with ‘busy’. Surely these ‘busy’ people are in the state not because they do more than me, but because they live with a backlog of things to do – just like people (the same busy people?) live with a constant negative credit balance, and only use their income to pay off their debt. But when they finish something, they don’t do some extra time to scale down their backlog, they just mop around. New deadlines arrive, and pile up. So that’s what ‘busy’ means: I have a debt of things to do that’s running after me, yet I never get on to it. I over-committed in the past, and never took the pain to renegociate my load. People are waiting for me to do things, and I’m holding them back.

But it’s not only that. “Busy” people will make you believe (maybe they actually believe) that holding back others makes them important. There’s a dark side to ‘busy’ people, so let’s be suspicious of them – and let’s not pity them too much. Let’s laugh at their scuttling around; and if something’s important, let’s keep the “busy” people away from it.

Afterthought on crowd-sourcing

In the previous post, I talked about how the bet behind the Marco Polo Project is that there is a demand for reading original Chinese voices in translation, rather than news about China.

I realise, after some reflection, that the model for Marco Polo rests on a paradox. That I trust the online crowd to bring across these individual voices, rather than water down the selection and translation, so that everything and everyone will sound the same.

Am I taking an absurd leap of faith?