In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.
Marco Polo Project offered an original take on language learning, inadvertently.
In France, where I was educated, language learning is omnipresent, and widely understood to be about intellectual self-development. From Middle School onwards, I was trained in classical philology – or reflective translation exercises. I learned about the shape of my own brain by measuring the gap between my default French language categories, and those expressed in Greek, Latin, English and German texts I translated into French. Later, in my English Bachelor’s, translation – intended for the same purpose – was a solid percentage of the final mark.
I made a wrong assumption that this was universal. It was a major blind spot, to which I attribute much of our later struggles.
There is an extraverted bias to language learning in Australia, and most English-speaking countries, as I discovered. You learn a language to ‘talk to people’, not understand others, let alone understand yourself. This is often presented as a self-evident need, and personal driver for language learning. In this paradigm, translation is pushed aside as irrelevant – even standing in the way of ‘thinking in the target language’, and performing adequately.
I have been known to say that I don’t speak to random people in French or English, so why would I suddenly want to do that in Chinese? Besides, with the progress of translation technology, mastering the art of smooth transactional interactions has become somewhat obsolete. While deep reflective self-knowledge has a value of its own, which it will retain, irrespective of technological developments.
This, of course, is a somewhat elitist view, showing my intellectual bias. And this bias coloured the direction we took. At some level, Marco Polo Project is, indeed, for the happy few. We cater to Chinese language nerds, who chose to pursue a difficult academic endeavour, and find joy in reading etymological dictionaries. It’s a narrow subculture, but an important one. Those language nerds make up the living tissue of global diplomatic engagement with China. If we can support greater self-awareness among this crowd, well, a lot of good is likely to ensue.
Yet Marco Polo Project is also an attempt at democratising self-awareness, and make the wisdom of classical philology more broadly accessible. From the start, the project has been not about ‘learning to speak Chinese’, but embracing hybrid identities at scale, and birthing a global world where China and Asia play a critical role. In this model, learning Chinese (or other languages) has never been about ‘engaging with China’, as if China was a stable, remote entity, existing sub specie aeternitatis. Rather, it is about becoming a global citizen in a world increasingly shaped by a rising and evolving China. It is more broadly about learning to navigate increasingly complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environments, where cultural assumptions and default categories must be challenged. This applies across all sorts of domains – whether migration, future of work and entrepreneurship, or adapting to the challenge of shifting our economies and societies to more ecologically-conscious paradigms.
This second ambition – to generalise self-awareness, and learn to deal with shifting and contradictory mental models – is not about a narrow subculture. It is about the future of education, and it needs to scale. So, we led systematic experiments in low-cost, context-independent models.
This combination of elitism and large-scale scalability has brought a measure of confusion, in our messaging and strategy. We’re targeting a niche group of intellectuals, yet also proposing a radical paradigm-shift in language education. We’re engaging a narrow subculture, yet hoping to be the seed of a new global community. Contradictions of the sort often trigger the richest creative questions, over the long-term. How to create a model dense enough that it can serve as a magnet for an elite of China nerds – yet inherently open enough to scale globally? This is the challenge we’re working on. In the short-term though, this contradiction breeds confusion, and is certainly not conducive to a clear business models and other narrow measures of success.
In 2010, I founded an organisation called Marco Polo Project. After COVID put a spanner in our wheels, we put most of our activities on ice. We’re now re-inventing what the future might look like. As part of this work, I wrote a series of posts exploring the original drivers behind Marco Polo Project. This is also an opportunity to reflect on success and failure – celebrate what was, mourn, and explore what could be.
Marco Polo Project was born in Tianjin, on a beautiful night of insomnia, in December 2010.
Earlier that year, I passed the second level of the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, and received a scholarship to spend three weeks in Tianjin. It was my first time attending formal education in Chinese. On day one, I learned that Chinese people like dragons and the colour red.
Back then, I was working for the Victorian State, exploring e-government. Wikis, open data, gamified tools for bug reporting were the next stage in citizen engagement and service delivery. My partner had a blog, documenting daily projects, with fans in the US and invitations to Writers’ Festivals. I was excited by the possibilities offered by the Internet to share stories, ideas and practices around the world – create some sort of new cosmopolitan identity, and collaborative abundance. Those were the glory days of the sharing economy, when Facebook was about friends, Google about knowledge, and a different type of world seemed possible. I was also fascinated by the discourses of a burgeoning ‘online China’ that my language skills were still too limited to let me access. What was happening there? I wanted to know, but my classroom experience gave me no clue.
That night, in the hotel attached to Tianjin Normal University, right next to the Balitai roundabout, I had a vision. What if we could gather a curated selection of texts from Chinese writers, cultural analysts and intellectuals publishing online, and offer them to the people learning Chinese around the world for collaborative translation. I imagined a thorough division of labour. Advanced learners and Chinese natives would scour the Chinese Internet for texts to share. They would propose a first version of the translation, discussing options in a comment section. Less advanced learners could read the translated texts, in bilingual format or English only, as a way to better understand China. There would be mutual support, a point system, and badges for various accomplishments, forming a grand online community. I went to the bathroom to keep my roommate asleep, took extensive notes, and got back to bed a few hours later, shaking with excitement.
Daniel Ednie-Lockett was the first believer. We met in 2009 through a Chinese language MeetUp. He ran a small company that took international students on local tours as a way to promote cultural integration, and would soon evolve into a language exchange network. It’s late December 2010, and we’re sitting at a café on Little Lonsdale Street. I share the vision with him. He jots down a few notes on a napkin. ‘I don’t know if it’s going to work,’ he said, ‘but it’s cheap enough to try’. With a thousand dollars or so, we could build a prototype. I was willing to lose that money. Dan introduced me to people who could help, I put an ad online, and gathered a first team. Three months later, we had a functional website running live, with a small selection of texts.
Human-centered design teaches you to look for a need – a problem to solve – through a systematic process, then go on to prototype a solution. There is certainly wisdom to that approach. Yet sometimes, the desire to create something comes first. This was the case for me, with Marco Polo Project. My creative impulse had a force of its own. I would not stop until I brought it to life. I believe this kind of creative imagination plays a bigger role than we acknowledge in entrepreneurship, as it does in creative ventures.
Yet the force of imagination comes with a downside. The vision may be clear, but it floats, disconnected from the world. Perspective only comes retrospectively. So, when things don’t work out, and compromises must be made, it is unclear where to hold on, and where to let go. Particularly, reaching a joint agreement on where to pivot is critically difficult.
By 2017, our website had fallen into disarray. With no business model or investment, the code was developed on the cheap. It was breaking apart. China blocked its online blogs and magazines one by one. Hardly anyone contributed to our translations any more. So, we decided to shift offline entirely, archive the magazine, and redirect our address to a new website focused on our workshop design activities. It made sense at the time, and has taken us where we are. Yet a bitterness remains. Something of that original creative impulse remains un-satisfied, and I often wonder if we should have simply kept on course.
I wish, in the early years, I had met someone who listened to me closely, took the time to sit down and ask ‘what exactly do you want’, work with me on the vision, and help me make the right decision. Either I met no such person, or I wasn’t able to recognize them. There was a lot of rush, narrow-mindedness, self-evidence and complex egos. I guess the texts in this series are a retrospective attempt at making sense, then – and figure out what I had attempted to do, in the hope that it will be useful for the future.
Learning new languages played a critical role in my education. I like to say that I learned how to think through classical philology, translating Greek texts into French, and reflecting on the distance between those two languages. But it all really started seriously in middle school. Back then, I was playing adventure games, and learning English was the way to explore this passion, and gamer identity. They were text-heavy games – anyone remembers King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion, or Leisure Suit Larry? – and none of those were translated. English was also a major subject at school, and I was well-aware that mastery would impact my academic success, and future social positioning.
Not long ago, I posted the following on Facebook: “Facetious but real question to my multicultural friends (and others): are there any (good) program or resources out there to help multilingual migrants (or minorities) help build empathy with monolingual people? As in – what is it like to live with only one language in your brain? How does it affect your vision of the world? What are the associated blindspots? This is for a potential project I’m ideating on. I’m not looking for a rant on how monlinguals are the worst, but rather, ways to genuinely empathise with what it’s like to * not * have multiple languages, which I believe is deeply inconceivable to many multilinguals.” (The project, incidentally, is a new turn in the Marco Polo Project story, supported by a City of Melbourne grant, under the codename ‘migrants to citizen’. Keep posted for more.)
My post attracted interest, and it seems there is no model to build said empathy. One friend though (thanks Armelle du Roscoat!) raised the following question: ‘aren’t multilinguals able to remember how they used to think before they have multiple languages in their head ? What that opened up in them?’ This triggered a new insight. Sure, I can sort of remember what it’s like to be monolingual, but I was a child back then. Learning foreign languages was so central to my education that, at some level, it is inconceivable for me to be an educated adult, who speaks and understands only one language.
Which means, when I think of, or speak with, monolinguals, I have three ways of relating to them. The first is, those are uneducated people. Which is fine, unless they’re in professions and positions that call for education – teacher, lawyer, doctor, manager, or any role of responsibility. Then I cringe. The second is more disturbing. I came to realise that I tend to think of monolinguals as radically immature, some sort of monstrous child-like narcissist, trapped in an adult body. Here, there is an odd mixture of repulsion and fascination. But the third mode offers a way out. My multilingual identity, the capacity to shift across languages and cultures, emerged from puberty onwards. I became able to decode various social cues, and adopt my performance, in a form of ‘language-fluidity’. Maybe, monolinguals are just like extremely cis-gender people, who wouldn’t dream of performing beyond received gender-norms – or fall into the worst stereotypes when they try. Sure, it’s a limited take on the world, but I have learned to relate to cisgender types, and I’m on that spectrum myself – so, monolinguals may not be continents away.
PS: if you know any good resource to build empathy with monolinguals, or would like to work on one, please reach out!
In 2020, I completed a PhD. My thesis maps an emerging ecosystem of digital Chinese language learning. I started the research in January 2015. At the time, the PhD was a way to fund my work on Marco Polo Project. Short-term, through a scholarship; longer term, by looking for ways to build partnerships either with universities or other digital platforms. Then life knocked on the door, and messed up with the plan. I was offered a COO gig with the China Australia Millennial Project, then a seat on the THNK School of Creative leadership, then a job as editor in chief with the Global Challenges Foundation. My skills, my interests and my perspective evolved, impacting both the PhD research proper, and the motivation for it.
I decided to stick with it though. This was my second PhD. I enrolled in one from 2003 to 2008, at Paris Sorbonne University, exploring collective nouns in contemporary English. I was on scholarship, and expectations were that I would get a role at a French University right after finishing – although life came knocking when I met my Australian partner in 2006, and messed up with the plan. Still, I completed my thesis. I was due to defend in early September 2008, a few weeks before leaving Paris for good. The research was ‘stimulating and original’, yet two of my assessors had found that the thesis fell outside of disciplinary boundaries. My supervisor had been aware of issues, I learned later, and conducted backdoor negotiations, but would not force things. Bad reports would stand in the way of any future academic career. There was an option to stay in France for another year, rewrite, and try again. I had planned a move Down Under, and wanted a fresh start, so I let it go.
It left me with a sense of caution regarding universities, and PhDs, but also with the sense of something unfinished. When I decided to try again at Monash, on the very first conversation with my prospective supervisor, I shared the story of this debacle. I was also very clear that I did not want to work in academia, but was genuinely committed to the sharing of knowledge. Gloria was wonderful, and fully on board. I knew better what to do this time – and was more closely guided – so, despite occasional bouts of ‘I should quit’, I completed the second PhD, through the pandemic.
Why did I bother? Sure, there is a title, photos with a floppy hat, and the job done. But I also did learn certain things that – maybe – only doctors know. Reflecting on that question, it strikes me that we put so much focus on the product, the thesis, and forget about the person. It’s not just about having a PhD, but becoming a Doctor. So, what have I learned by becoming one? And how is that valuable? Since the purpose of a PhD is to articulate original knowledge, I think I did learn something about knowledge – and originality. In a knowledge economy, this is probably valuable. But let me dig deeper.
We know less than we think
Education is always about confronting one’s own ignorance. Writing a PhD means confronting collective ignorance. I realized this most clearly when I tried to answer a seemingly simple question: how many people are currently learning Chinese around the globe? I had always assumed that we – somebody, somewhere – knew the answer, and everybody could get that answer if we – myself, anybody keen to find out – simply knew where to look. I had also assumed my supervisors, experts in the field, could direct me to the right source. No such luck. All sorts of figures floated around the Internet – 40 million learners now, 100 million soon, typically. But when I tried to confirm those numbers, the tracks lost themselves after some late 2000’s newspaper article from Canada, or a vague unsourced mention of ‘Hanban’.
I once wrote, in a moment of annoyance, that much of academic writing is not original thought, but platitudes with footnotes. I have come to appreciate the value of footnotes. At least, you can check where ‘facts’ come from. If a statement is not congruent with the source, you have grounds to start doubting the author. It takes effort, sure, but ensuring that facts and assertions at least can be verified is some protection against fraud. It also keeps in check the drive to cut corners and put forward unverified assertions in order to make a point.
Now, I have also learned to be cautious of footnotes. Not everyone follows the rules in spirit. When trying to figure out how many people are learning Chinese, I found an article – somewhat by chance – by Professor Hyeon-Seok Kang, called ‘Is English being challenged by Mandarin in South Korea? A report on recent educational and social trends involving the two languages’ (published 2017). The paper had a reference to ‘Lei & Cheng, 2010’, stating that there were 40 million Chinese learners around the world in 2010. Curious, I went to check that Lei & Cheng source. It was not, as I naively hoped, a solid survey from a pair of serious researchers from a serious university, but an article from China Daily online, attributing this figure to Hanban, with no source. Innocent overlook, or underhanded rebrand of hearsay? We shall never know.
When I look back, I think: of course, nobody knows how many people are learning Chinese. It’s incredibly difficult to assess. For one, what do we mean by ‘learn Chinese’? Is it anybody enrolled in any language class? Of any age? And for how long? Plus, how do you aggregate figures from around the world? How do you keep the numbers up to date? At best, we might have educated guesses (which I attempted – my rounded estimate is 6 – 17 million).
Yet before the PhD, I had an illusion that there was knowledge – illusion fed by the Internet, where figures were quoted in apparent confidence. On this point, and on many others, I was convinced that someone, somewhere, must know the facts, and the truth. This is a dangerous illusion, which I am now less likely to fall prey to.
So, learning #1: we know less than we think. If I don’t know, maybe nobody does. And if you’re ever doubtful, check the source.
It takes effort to build knowledge
Ignorance is uncomfortable. It brings feelings of shame, and anxiety. Research demands courage: willingness to face the chaos of radical uncertainty, and associated social ambiguity. It also demands endurance. Contemplatives are at risk of sloth – acedia, the noon-day demon of depressed procrastination. ‘Just write’ said my supervisor. I did, mostly. It was not my first rodeo, I wrote four novels (one published), and one thesis before. I have also written and edited hundreds of shorter texts. From experience, though, I know there’s a big difference between a 1000-word essay or short-story, and an 80,000-word document. A PhD thesis is not something you can physically complete in a burst of inspiration, or over a couple of late evenings. It is mainly perspiration, and you cannot afford to burn out.
Yet there is something about completing a PhD that differs from other long-form writing – say, novels. It’s not just about endurance, but patience. You must accept others’ unbearable slowness. Academic degrees up to Master’s level have skills and knowledge assessed by people who know more than the student. As a Doctor, author of original knowledge, you are by definition the world’s foremost expert in your topic. Meaning, you’re assessed by people who know less than you. Not in absolute, just on your topic. Still, this marks a step-change, directly related to my first insight, that we know less than we think.
So, learning #2: a doctor has shown capacity to present original knowledge to the next most knowledgeable audience, and convince them to reorganize their understanding of the world on the basis of that presentation. Doctors reduce ignorance, absolutely.
Knowledge does not exist in a void
New knowledge is not another brick in the wall. When I was a teacher, I used the following mental model: that my students already know everything. Except, that knowledge is vague, and mainly incorrect. Early in my candidature, I remember identifying the KPI for a successful thesis as: it will prompt readers to reshuffle their mental library. Incidentally, this is the purpose of the literature review – a section that gives a brief overview of relevant writing on the topic. It’s a trust building exercise, demonstrating homework done. It’s also there to assist the reader in this mental reorganisation: help them identify where to place the thesis and its original insights.
This was a piece I had to do right. My first attempt at a PhD failed for overstepping disciplinary boundaries. Academic disciplines are branches of knowledge: conventional ways of describing an aspect of the world, what counts as a fact, and how to gather valid data. They’re also social constructs – people working in different buildings, reading different books, and writing in different journals, with different funding streams and criteria. I’ve come to think of it like sports. Each discipline has its own rules, its own league, and its own champions. Sure, you won’t get anywhere unless you’re generally fit and coordinated, but it’s not the same skills, or body types, or attributes, that make for success. So, each discipline gathers different types of people, who have spent years honing a very narrow set of skills.
When you start a PhD, you can choose to play by the rules. Pick your sport, find a good coach, train hard, and if you’re good enough, with a bit of luck, you’ll make it to the league – i.e. tenure at a university. That’s disciplinary research. There’s another approach though, which is about figuring out what discipline – what methods and models – will be most useful to better understand a part of the world, or solve a complex problem. In academic jargon, that’s ‘transdiciplinarity’. It’s not a good bet for a research career, but if done well, it’s useful ‘out there’. It’s also what my research does. It tries to make sense of ‘what’s happening’ in that part of the digital world where people learn Chinese – what that part of the digital world looks like, who’s creating and maintaining it, and what we could do to make it work better. It’s about tech and education. It’s about digital communities, startups, and geopolitics. It’s looking at companies and people, websites, apps, and social media streams, and how all those pieces combine. It’s about what is there, measured against what was, and what could be.
Now, a PhD – whether ‘trans’ or not – goes beyond insights and good ideas. It is a question asked well, and a detailed protocol to reach an answer, with a lot of referencing in the middle. It involves not only reading piles of books and papers, but also gathering ‘data’ from the world, then analyzing it, in line with a defined method. Each discipline has its own key concepts, methods and benchmarks. Each sees ‘the world’ differently, and gathers different data. In my case – in ‘trans’ research – part of the work is precisely figuring out what to do. There was no ‘state of the field’ I could question or build on, nor a clear method to follow. So, there were wrong starts and double-ups. I observed, I interviewed, I reflected, I read. Methods attempted yielded insights which suggested other methods. Not all the data was entirely consistent. And there certainly wasn’t a neat linear process, following a clear-cut hypothesis-method-gathering-analysis-conclusion sequence. Describing this was embarrassing: it was not grand, and it was certainly not clean. Yet – and here I was very well guided – I had to be precise. ‘What did you do? Just write that’. I interviewed people. ‘How many? Where? For how long? Why them?’ I spent a few hours using a range of apps, read through the ‘how-to’ guide, and associated social-media feeds. ‘Which apps? Why those?’ I unlearned habits developed at innovation events – always present your best angle – and listed exactly what went into the sausage. I was terrified it would cause horror. It didn’t, and I strengthened my honest muscle in the process.
The final layer of work was to put the research into words: order the argument into chapters, and make sure all key terms were rigorously defined and consistent. In early drafts, I used ‘agent’ and ‘actor’ indifferently. Surely, the reader could figure it out? It was a firm ‘no’. Different disciplines use different words – or worse, the same word with a different meaning. I should not leave ambiguities, and always make it easy for the reader to ‘get it’. The same ethical drive towards maximal comprehension impose the drudge of formatting standards. You’re asking people to change their habits of thoughts, by reading a very long, very detailed argument – so please, be consistent with your style at least. Common courtesy, really.
So, learning #3: the reader is not you. If they miss the point, don’t blame them, write better. Leadership 101.
This process, of course, is extremely slow. It is made even slower by the machine, the very bureaucratic university with its many dysfunctions, ‘tick-the-box’ exercises and arbitrary deadlines. Waste of time? Well, a friend once put it this way: ‘creating a new product and selling it on the market, that’s easy. We all have desires and too much money to spend. But having one person really see the world differently, and change their minds, now that’s hard.’ I’m not one to praise impatience, and even – not always, but sometimes – found freedom in the deliberate slowness imposed by academic procedures. I rediscovered the world of otium, open intellectual leisure, that I first encountered in Year 12 philosophy. Here was a space where I could be free from the dominant logic of business. I would get no reward for ‘saving cost’ or ‘bringing revenue’. Quality standards were non-negotiable. This caused frustration, yes, but also protected my freedom to think, and for this, I am very grateful.
When I was close to completing, and at peak frustration, I described the PhD process as a deliberate exercise in humiliation. In retrospect, I think I was onto something. There is no good research without radical humility: that we know so little, that knowing is exhausting, that others resist correct knowledge. In the words of Pascal, that truth has no force of its own. Yet on the other end of humility comes deep self-confidence. With courage, and efforts, and discipline, I have touched on a solid kernel of correct knowledge. Others have seen and recognised it. So, whatever comes next, I’m probably not up to the task, but I might well be just as good as it gets. And that’s a doctor for you.
I had an important realisation about Chinese phonetics and its implications. In Chinese, each syllable has three combined characteristics – one initial consonant, or 声母, one final vowel, or 韵母, and a tone, or 声调. Together, they define one unit of meaning.
One consequence of this structure is largely unexplored, at least that I know of: Chinese has no nonsense words.
Let’s look at English for comparison. Let’s look at two phonetically close words, like ‘mutton’ and ‘button’. The distinction between those is marked by one phonological trait of their initial consonant. But kids (or creative adults) can (and like to) make up nonsense words like ‘putton’ or ‘nutton’. Those words do not exist in the language, but they might. Chinese doesn’t have this. Every possible combination of sound within the Chinese phonetic system is associated to a meaning – in fact, often more than one. In other words, the linguistic soundscape of Chinese is saturated with meaning.
I would like to explore further what this means for Chinese creative patterns, but also Chinese people’s relationship to sounds. If the language has no nonsensical words, it entails that every sound production is expected to have meaning. This would have consequences in comprehension patterns. It also aligns with the meaning saturation of Chinese toponyms and names: family names have associated stories, and given names all have a ‘meaning’, as do brand names. What is it like, then, to live in a linguistic world where everything has meaning?
So, I made it to the pages of Hacking Chinese, talking about the benefits of translation Chinese-English for language learning.
Remember? Once upon a time, translation used to be the main method for learning a foreign language. But then a new model came into fashion, called the ‘communicative approach’, promoting direct interactions in the target language. This makes sense: most of us are learning Chinese to communicate, not to become professional translators. So why should we bother practicing translation at all?
Last year, I followed a MOOC called ‘Education and Digital Culture’. I deliberately came to the MOOC with Marco Polo Project glasses on, and in the end, one core question about the future emerged: will we develop better systems for learning languages, or will we develop better translation systems.
At the moment, both are growing in parallel through the power of the web.
On the language learning front, the following is happening:
Traditional teaching methods are adapted and circulated online: podcast series offer a full language curriculum, tutors are available through skype, and Language teachers share their wisdom through blogs (like Olle Linge’s Hacking Chinese).
Companies are developing more ergonomic language learning tools online – all-inclusive training apps like duolingo, or more focused vocabulary building apps like skritter.
Collaborative platforms facilitate peer-to-peer learning – foremost among them Lang-8, which organises a multi-lingual community of amateur bloggers correcting each other.
Meanwhile, we can observe similar developments in the translation space, :
Dictionaries are available online or as apps – in Chinese, MDBG and pleco come to mind.
Translator forums, such as Proz, offer peer-to-peer support on difficult constructions.
Google translate and other companies are developing automatic translators.
Learning a language online – whether assisted by online curriculums, apps, or forums, will still require effort and time from the learner. Online dictionaries and translation forums also reduce the time needed to translate, but still imply effort. Automatic translators, however, differ in quality. The dream beyond automatic translators is to go ‘beyond babel’, allowing direct communication between people speaking different languages, and by-passing the need for language learning altogether.
So what future are we heading towards? Wwith better training, translation tools may not be so necessary? But with translation tools, language training may not be so useful either. Or will we need trainers to use these automatic translators? At present, google translate is improving, but complexities still require interpretation, testing, rephrasing. Teachers will help new humans master the machine that overcomes the language barrier.
Both scenarios hover between a utopian vision of a post-babel super-humanity to more dystopian visions of the future. On the one hand, a ‘mental athleticism’, or cognitive hyper-competition, where if you stop studying, more languages, faster, with better tools – you fall behind. On the other hand a ‘technical-only’ education that forgets about the beauties of idleness in the name of efficiency, or an education losing the wisdom and choice. Maybe, too, the division between a privileged class of overeducateds wired-in ergonomists at increasing distance from under-privileged undereducated people.
That uncertainty about the future of automatic translators and language learning tools also has political implications: if we’re on the verge of developing efficient translation tools, then why invest time in learning foreign languages – there’s better things we can do with our children’s time and our education money. Conversely, if better tools are coming, we should make sure we adopt them early, and train our people for a future where multilingualism will be a basic form of literacy.
We can’t predict what will happen, but we should be well aware of these tensions, and that no scenario, in the present, is at all certain.
From years of experience teaching French and English phonetics, I know that often, one simple change in the way we make sounds can improve our pronunciation dramatically. But few teachers – and almost no untrained native speaker – can accurately describe what a non-native needs to change in order to pronounce better.
I studied Mandarin on my own mostly – and like most Westerners, I’ve struggled with phonetics: tones, vowel quality, rhythm, aspiration. I didn’t know quite how much until recently. Early during my stay in Nanjing, I had an opportunity to join a singing show on Chinese TV (in the end, it didn’t happen). Before my interview, I wanted to check that a live performance wouldn’t cover me with ridicule, and recorded myself singing Chinese on my iphone. ‘Thick laowai’ is about what I sounded like. But this unpleasant experience had one very positive outcome: I was able to pick out some of the problems with my pronunciation, and based on what I heard, improve it.
The three tips below are based on this experience, and represent three areas of pronunciation where I feel I made significant progress just by changing one element in the way I articulate Mandarin. They may be strictly personal, or work for you – try them out!
1) More vowel, softer consonants
I’m trained as a classical singer, and I have a particular fondness for Schuman’s lieder. I also grew up in Strasbourg, and German is he first foreign language I learnt: trained ears still recognise echoes of it in my English. I could hear more than faint traces in my rendering of Jay Chou. I could hear every consonant exploding, hacking the flow of sound, like a pounding march: it sounded nothing like Chinese. I remembered some of my French classes: I improved some of my students’ accent by instructing them to de-articulate their consonants. I needed a serious dose of that. I recorded myself again, making sure I avoided any strong impulsion from my lips or jaw in between vowels, only softly closing them in between vowels. The result was astounding: it radically changed the quality of my singing, and I thought: “this really sounds Chinese”.
3) Use your diaphragm
Softening my consonants was a real improvement, but now my pronunciation was two soft. I listened to Chinese tracks again, and they all had a rhythmic beat I lacked. I thought again of my classical practice: one of the things we were encouraged to do was se our diaphragm on stressed syllables to mark an impulsion. I thought, if the structure of the Chinese language is such that every syllable has its own independent meaning – and a tone – maybe they all need an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tried, while keeping my consonants as soft as I could, and it worked! More importantly, I tried the same technique to speak aloud, and for the first time, noticed a radical improvement to my tones.
Tones – like all linguistic elements – form a system. And ‘bad tone pronunciation’ must be systemic. In a tonal language, changes in pitch carry word-meaning, as in the often quoted: 妈，麻，马，骂. These characters/words are all pronounced ‘ma’, with tone 1,2,3 and 4 respectively, and mean mother, hemp, horse and curse. Western learners (or teachers) generally focus on the differencebetween tones, trying as best we can to use a first, second, third or fourth tone, as required. But more fundamental is the difference betweenmarking and not marking tones; yet we never learn about this more fundamental difference. From this experience, and others later, I have come to believe that these changes in pitch require every syllable to start with an impulsion from the diaphragm. I tested the theory with a few Chinese friends who concurred, feeling that in Mandarin, the sound came from ‘down below the throat”. Therefore, to speak better Chinese, the first step to to give each syllable its own impulsion from the diaphragm.
Concretely, when you speak Chinese, at the start of every syllable, you should push forward with your diaphragm. To check that it’s happening, you can put a finger just below your solar plexus, the bit where your ribs come together at the front of your chest, and push it forward by contracting the vert top of your abs. If you do that simple move well, speaking Chinese will feel like a series of small jumps and hops, you will start sounding more like a native, and you will experience the four tones as a different type of dance step.
3) Use your nose
The balance of consonant and vowel improved, and the general beat of the language improved, but something was still off the mark – I still sounded like Bel Canto practice. One of my goals in coming to China was to learn the beauty of Chinese opera: to my untrained ear, the singers’ nasal shrill sounds were simply unpleasant. But my own non-nasal voice was certainly not right. I tried: I sang in a nasal voice – and sounded like a Beijing opera star.
How do you speak or sing in a nasal voice? The sound (and air) goes both through the mouth and nose. It’s particularly clear when pronouncing a Chinese ‘i’. Imagine that there is a vertical piece of cardboard in the middle of your mouth. Then, try to imagine that the sound is resonating inside a small sphere located somewhere between your back teeth and your nose. You can also place your hand in front of your nose – if air comes out as you speak, then you’re nasal.
No teacher ever taught me these three tricks, and I never saw them explained anywhere else. Maybe because they don’t actually work – maybe because nobody’s bothered to research and describe them – or maybe they are widely known, and I just didn’t know where to look. I encourage you to try them at least – and see whether they bring any improvement. Please share your own advice on pronunciation here.
Students of a foreign language are typically classified into three bands based on competence: beginner, intermediate, advanced. In my experience, progression is not strictly cumulative, but requires returning often to the same contents until the student integrates it. For that reason, most students are at an ‘intermediate’ stage, which is also the most difficult to teach. Language is a performance, like sport or music – you don’t only ‘know’ a point of grammar or the word for a certain object or action, but you can apply it in a setting to perform a communication or expression task. This is very common knowledge. Less often understood is this second point. Each language is a system, and forms a totality. Therefore, each new element we learn needs to find its proper place in the system. Tenses or word order rules, for instance, form a whole, but so does vocabulary. For that reason, language learning requires three very different activities:
‘Growth’. Learn new words or refine the meaning of known words, learn more advanced grammatical patterns, improve pronunciation accuracy, and develop more adapted rhetorical skills.
‘Clarification’. Correct errors in pronunciation, grammar, use of words; fill up gaps in certain semantic or pragmatic areas, so that the learner will understand and correct recurring errors. This clarification phase could also be called ‘systemic integration’, as what needs to happen is a fast check of the whole system every time an error is detected.
‘Endurance’. Automate whatever is known already: the same task should be done with less effort and more quickly, with more distractions present, or in a more stressful setting.
Based on this analysis, I would advocate for a radical rethink of language teaching pathways, while keeping the traditional division between beginners, intermediate and advanced learners.
Beginners should have a clearly articulated pathway to grammatical and core vocabulary building. I base my teaching on quickly developing basic syntactic patterns for localising and naming the immediate environment, expressing modality (I want, I can, I must), and simple interactions (a similar method is described in this blog post). In classes, growth, clarification and drills should be balanced, to ensure quick integration of the core structures. The beginner stream should finish by one or two sessions of systematic revision focusing on automating question and assertion; time, space, and aspect; persons and possession; modality and causality. Meanwhile, beginners’ vocabulary may be limited to a few essential objects, family names, and core action/relational verbs.
Distinguishing intermediate and advanced students is in itself a challenge, but I would propose the following criterion: advanced students are autonomous language learners, which means they can progress on their own without a teacher or structured method, through sheer immersion, while intermediate learners still require scaffolding from a teacher, a book, or any structured learning system.
Advanced students still benefit from the presence of a teacher or structured environment, along two different lines. On the one hand, advanced students can particularly benefit from a few targeted one-on-one sessions that will focus on correcting remaining errors in pronunciation, syntax or semantics. On the other hand, classes on a topic of interest delivered in the target language by teachers aware of linguistic difficulties can be particularly beneficial to build endurance, nurture motivation, grow vocabulary in specific areas, and clarify some confused pockets – particularly in semantics. But mostly, advanced students will strongly benefit from a stay in-country, where their existing levels will allow them to enjoy full immersion, and practice informally in all sorts of social settings – while building up confidence and training their endurance.
Intermediate students present by far the biggest challenges to teachers – mostly along two distinct lines:
1) Intermediate students are extremely diverse. All have a thing in common: they have major gaps in their linguistic knowledge to fill. However, not all have the same gaps, because not all followed the same beginner’s track – or any track at all – and not all integrated the same parts of whatever they learnt. That’s before even considering their individual motivations and learning styles. Even though institutions do their best to stream intermediates into various bands, each class will have massive discrepancies that have to be dealt with.
2) Intermediate students need very strong internal motivation. On the one hand, their level is still too low for them to enjoy a film, a book or even a conversation in the target language, unlike advanced students. On the other hand, their progress is less perceptible than beginner students; and since perceived progress is one of the strongest motivators for further studies, their risk of dropping out is very high.
I haven’t cracked the code yet of how to best teach intermediate students, but I believe the ultimate solution is to find ways of reducing the time students spend at ‘intermediate level’. My personal style is to delude myself into believing that I’ve reached an advanced level very soon, so that I can sustain motivation through direct encounter with quality contents. But less confident learners may feel discouraged by materials or situations too hard for them – and lack the generic cross-linguistic skills I’ve developed through years of language practice. Another possibility would be to remain in the beginner track longer, and ensure that bases are extremely solid, so that ‘intermediate’ studies mostly focus on growth.
Do you have any experience of teaching intermediate students? Please share them here!
I used grammarly to proofread this post. I’m not a native speaker of English and sometimes still wonder if my grammar’s all OK. They do a great job of spotting minor mistakes, and it means I can save my native friends’ brainspace for more in-depth advice on the contents of my writing.
Ten more days in China: time to review what progress I made in the language – and start thinking of a plan for when I get back to Melbourne. I have made significant progress in four areas: reading speed, phonetic accuracy, endurance, and confidence. These concrete example demonstrate my progress:
* I bought a novel yesterday, and read forty pages between last night and this morning, enjoying the plot, and with minimal gaps in my understanding. Though I still need to use pleco for the meaning of certain words, reading a Chinese text – including a large monograph – is no longer something I consider impossible. I am also able now to read and understand 90% of weixin messages sent to me without using an electronic translator, up from about 40% when I arrived.
* Three different Chinese people have complimented my pronunciation, saying that, in certain instances, I could be mistaken for a local. And I no longer experience problems getting people to understand what I am saying. I do note that my pronunciation becomes blurry under stress or when I get tired – but for a short period at least, I have reached my desired level of fluency.
* About a month ago, I had an in-depth five hour conversation with a Chinese friend on a wide range of topics – social enterprise, the meaning of life, family values, multiple server hosting, language learning. Between Christmas and New Year, I took part in a walk around old Guangzhou with a group of young Chinese people, and was able to lead and follow many conversations, one on one or in a group, while navigating the city, and was energised after this event.
* Yesterday, I made three phone calls in Chinese, including an important one to a writer I want to invite to the Marco Polo Festival. I was able to organise an appointment, explain the core concept of the festival, and get an in principle agreement exclusively over the phone. I still find phone conversations remarkably demanding – the low sound quality and absence of any non-verbal cue make it very difficult to communicate – but I am no longer terrified at the thought of making initial contact in Mandarin through this medium.
The main thing I want to pursue while in Melbourne is read, even read aloud. I also want to find a few Chinese friends who will speak to me primarily in Mandarin. And I need to find a series of podcasts or radio series to follow, so my listening keeps on track. I am also thinking of getting a few sessions with a tutor to brush off remaining mistakes, and make sure my bases are really solid – if you want to support Marco Polo Project, this is a great way to volunteer, and I promise to give you detailed feedback on your pedagogy. Anyone in for that :-)?