Learning speed

Nanjing University has one very smart policy: they let students try out various levels and change classes in the first two weeks of term. The teachers in Gao Shang were abominable, so I shifted up a level to Gao Xia, or ‘upper advanced’. The class was harder, and quite overcrowded, but at least our teachers explained what would happen in the class and what the structure of each unit was. I thought it could work.


But then this happened: I missed a class on the Monday of the second week, and came back the following day, unprepared. The full class was spent going through the details of two paragraphs we were supposed to prepare. Had I done my homework, this would have been the most boring class – and indeed, all students were remarkably passive. As it was, it wasn’t thrilling at all. I started wondering, should I multitask and bring some writing to class, or could actually I skip en masse. But then I thought: I didn’t come all the way to Nanjing to skip classes or multitask. My Chinese is not that good yet. Surely, there must be some way for me to learn something here.

There’s a level above Gao Xia yet, called the Wenhua Ban, or ‘culture class’. I heard it was impossibly fast and stressful, with ruthless teachers just pacing on. I still thought I should give it a try, since I started to plan quitting options anyway… And the class was amazing. I enrolled on the spot.

The main difference between the Wenhua Ban classes and the Gao Xia classes is not so much the level – both have difficult material with relatively rare words, and activities require quite precise understanding and a capacity to put together an option – but the speed. In Gao Xia, the teacher explains all components, whole periods are devoted to close-reading a paragraph or a set of new words, with long feedback loops between students and teachers. In Wenhua Ban the focus is on contents, and you’re expected to follow. No word by word explanation of each sentence here, few Sheng Cis – all this is homework if you need it. And no waiting for someone to volunteer an answer, you’re put on the spot, and the teacher will expect a quick reply.

I believe in speed. When you’re biking surfing or skating, speed is key to balance. Slow down too much, and you’re sure to fall. The same I believe applies to learning: go fast and you may skip a few points, but you’re getting there, and enjoying the journey, pushed ahead by some natural impetus. Our advanced class teacher understands that, even encourages us to guess if we don’t know the meaning of a word, or be comfortable with blurry knowledge, if the time is too short. Lower levels at Nanjing University force you to dismount and push your bike at the smallest obstacle. It’s definitely painful, and I’m not sure it works. So why is it happening?

Teaching a system – on Chinese vocabulary learning

My first class at Nanjing University was a disaster.

Chinese classes are organised by level, based on an assessment of students’ competence at the beginning of term. I took the test and was placed in a ‘gao shang’ class – or early advanced. I saw this placement as a quiet achievement – after all, I studied the language on my own and at achieved quite a bit in parallel. And I was excited to start: I would meet other Chinese learners from around the world, I would finally get some proper guidance in my learning, and I would gain motivation from the classroom setting to cement all the Chinese I wasn’t sure I knew.

That’s not what happened. Our class began with a long presentation of rules and assessment criteria. Then we all introduced ourselves in turn. Seven girls from Korea enjoyed reading and music but couldn’t sing. Two Germans were looking forward to their classes. A Japanese guy really liked alcohol. And then we started looking at p.9 of the book, ‘Shengci’.

‘Shengci’ – ‘new words’ – became an immediate nightmare. This was our very first class. We knew what our assessment criteria would be – participation in class, exams, and regular dictation tests – but nothing had been said about actual learning goals, or the topics we would address, or what the book structure was. No, the first step was on p.9, looking at word after word: ‘sweet snacks’, ‘invite someone over’, ‘resist’, ‘temptation’. The teacher painfully wrote them on the blackboard and started with number one. Followed thirty minutes of pure detail.

I realise I was lucky with my education. This was surely the worst hour of teaching I attended since middle school. I felt intense depression. I’d been told I shouldn’t expect too much of the teachers, but I wasn’t thinking that bad. Was that their idea of language learning? A pile of unconnected and arbitrary details to memorize, then regurgitate in dictation tests,? I was at least able to put a name on my plight. I’m a super-intuitive learner, I need the full picture, I cannot get the parts if I don’t have a sense of the whole.

I may not have the most common intellectual profile internationally, and maybe China doesn’t value this type of mind much. But still, I think there’s a double problem with the way this class was conducted. The first is the lack of order and priority:  we’re given a list of ShengCis based on an arbitrary text, and expected to memorise all of them – though clearly some are important, others accessory. More importantly, the structure of the class does not encourage or help us integrate these new words into the linguistic system we’ve all developed already.

Language forms a system of interconnected parts, and linguistic progress happens when parts of that system become more precise – when the learner is able to know when a certain grammar structure is appropriate, better distinguishes two sounds, or develops alternative ways to say ‘good’. At least, this has always been my teaching philosophy: my students are not empty vessels to fill with knowledge. They come with an existing system in their head, and my goal is to clarify, expand and improve what is already there. That is why I believe that piecemal ShengCi learning is a complete waste of time. And this teacher I got in Gao Shang should seriously retrain.

Learning goals

Five days into my Chinese classes, I identified and articulated my learning goals. From then on, I knew what I should focus on, and I was ready to go. So for the coming four months, this is what I’m planning to do, learning-wise

1)   Abstract vocabulary building (reading, listening, writing, speaking)

Develop solid and intuitive understanding of about 400/500 root characters and their combinations used to express abstract relations (structures, groups, connections) and cognitive phenomena (feelings, ideas, judgements).

2)   Grammatical correction in production contexts (speaking, writing).

Word order and connecting words/prepositions are correct and idiomatic in over 90% of sentences produced. In particular, expressions of time and aspect are correct and intuitive (use of 了,过,起来,得及,继续,将来,等等).

3)   Phonetic accuracy (speaking, listening, reading aloud)

In optimal environments (quiet place, stressless interaction, high energy levels), correct articulation of all Chinese consonants and vowels, capacity to recognize and realise all four tones and tone combinations, correct attack and positioning of syllable stress.

4)   Endurance (speaking, listening)

Capacity to carry on a conversation in sub-optimal environments (noisy setting, complex relationship, low energy) for up to 30 minutes, or interact in an optimal environment for up to 4 hours without significant drop of quality.


This list is possibly the most important thing I’ve done this term. Every day, I can reflect on my language practice, and how it fitted into one or more of these four areas. Once in a while, I can revisit the list, and check if I’m progressing well, or if some new, more advanced shortcoming has emerged. Whether I read a book, write a piece of homework, talk to someone in a bar, or listen to the radio, the list is guiding my attention, helping me make sure I address what I need at this stage of my language learning journey.

Making up the list was neither quick nor easy. Years of language tutoring have developed an ear for linguistic shortcomings and a capacity to propose practical next steps. I’m not sure all language learners have the skills necessary to clearly define what their needs are, and what’s quite OK. Yet none of our teachers have encouraged us – let alone assisted us – in developing such a personalised learning program. Teachers didn’t even encourage us much to work outside classes, or provide any guidance on how to do so, beside preparing class material and writing essays on topics they provide.

And yet – as I wrote previously – the needs of advanced learners are extremely diverse. For international students especially, who came in country to gain confidence and fluency, this failure to guide personalised learning goals is a remarkable absence. If Nanjing University gives a feedback form at the end of term, this would be my clearest criticism. I wonder where this absence comes from though. Teachers unskilled in personalised assessment? A learning culture of doing as you’re told? Or fear from the university body that such focus on learner-based activities and progress will undermine the very concept of institutionalised learning, and make it obsolete.

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!

Learning Chinese in China – announcing a series

Since early September, I’ve been enrolled in Chinese language and culture classes at Nanjing University, thanks to the Victorian Government’s Hamer scholarship. The humid heat of the Yangtse region, the qualms of cross-cultural adaptation, and a thorough water-pipe upgrade in my neighbourhood left me too tired to write for a while, but sweet autumn has arrived, the pipes are laid, and I’ve made friends with my local environment. I’m ready now to share some of my September experiences in a series of blog posts – so watch this page for more. 

A few thoughts on learning Asian languages

The recently published Asian Century White Paper has caused a remarkable number of comments in the Australian press and blogosphere – a lot of them about the question of ‘Asian language learning’. I thought I should add my voice to the chorus, and bring a Continental perspective to the question. After all, I taught languages and linguistics for years, I should claim some expertise on the question. So for what it’s worth, here’s my plan to save the world

1) Make language education compulsory

In continental Europe, in most of Asia, and I believe in Latin America, learning a foreign language is compulsory. Yes English is the world language, and yes you can get away with others learning it. But you can also do your bit, and learn. And when I say ‘compulsory’, I’m not talking about a quick dip in year 7 or 8, but 4 hours a week from year 7 to 12. It’s gonna cost money, true. But isn’t Australia rich? And shouldn’t we prepare for the Asian century? If it’s important, I reckon we should pay for it – why not set up an Asian language tax? Maybe from all that iron we ship out up there…

2) Teach more than one foreign language in high-school

In Europe, all students take a second foreign language in high school, for at least a couple of years. Many choose to keep it as an option until year 12. We could keep it optional in Australia, but hey, learning Mandarin and Japanese in parallel makes sense: both languages share a common writing system, and trilingual speakers of English, Mandarin and Japanese (or a lot of other combinations) would be great profiles for an ‘Asia-focused’ role. Beside, the more languages you learn, the easier it gets. So why not think boldly, let’s not paste a layer of Asian language onto the kids, let’s bring up a generation of proper polyglots.

3) Make language count as bonus points

OK, this one is to counterbalance the radical sounding previous two. It’s an idea inspired by the French foreign service exam. For a future diplomat, mastering numerous foreign languages, even at intermediate level, is an advantage. Beyond the compulsory two languages for the foreign service exam, candidates can take an optional exam in as many languages as they wish, and all points over the pass mark will count as bonus towards their overall result – meaning these languages either do not affect or improve their average score. This could be applied in Australia for all Asian languages in the end of high-school exam, and help solve the problem of heritage versus non-heritage speakers. Heritage speakers would get more bonus points, true, but those who take Chinese as an option would still get possible bonus points over those who take a European language, or no language at all. Wouldn’t that be an incentive?

4) Accept and acknowledge failure

Not all students who take an Asian language will become fluent. Actually, the majority will never come near fluent, and many may not even go beyond a stuttering beginner’s level. Does that mean we shouldn’t even start? Asian languages are difficult, and when you teach something difficult, you must accept that many will fail to reach high standards. How many violin students produce anything like a decent sound? At least, they develop an ear for music. Even a smattering of Chinese or Indonesian will make students more appreciative when Asian migrants, clients, partners, visitors, collaborators, speak to them in not-perfect English. And even if they fail to become fluent in the language, they will at least understand the culture better. Beside, many will fail, not all. If every kid in Australia was to take an Asian language, and, say, 5% ended up fluent, 15% fairly proficient, and another 30% could somewhat manage a simple conversation – these are not unrealistic aspirations – yet wouldn’t that already make a huge difference?

OK – that was my early proposal for an Asian-language-speaking Australia. What’s yours? Or have we given up already?

It’s not too late to learn

Speaking or not speaking a foreign language is often regarded as a form of destiny. If you weren’t lucky enough to be given the push as a child, by the time you’re old enough to make your own decisions, the time has forever passed. ‘Life’ takes over, and you’ll never speak French, Russian or Mandarin.

This is even more true with notoriously difficult Asian languages. And so I hear voice after voice telling me they wish they could speak Chinese, Japanese or Indonesian; followed by – sometimes – an added sigh of annoyed resignation that their children’s school only propose French or German!

But it’s not too late. I started learning Mandarin at 29, outside any formal setting. Five years later, I can reasonably well read and translate short pieces written in Chinese, and I recently did an interview – all in Chinese  – on ABC radio.

Did I have more time than other people? I guess not. Over these five years, I migrated to Australia, started a new career in the public service, wrote a novel and a half, directed a short film, coordinated an exhibition, and developed a not-for-profit IT start-up. I also slept, ate, and saw friends; I even watched all seasons of Gossip Girl, Dexter and True Blood.

I did start in a good place though. I trained as a linguist, and a singer. I speak a number of European languages, which I started learning from the age of nine. And spent considerable time during my studies translating from the Greek, English, Latin or German. That certainly helped.

However, it’s not all there is to it. I met other people who reached equivalent fluency in the same amount of time, without a previous Master’s in linguistics. What we did share was motivation. It’s years before you can communicate, read, or get the feel of the language; not years of once a week, but years of – mostly – daily work. So without a strong commitment, you will drop off after a few weeks or months – unless you’re a child, and you just have to do it.

My life is full enough already, I hear. And yet how many people put that much effort into their gym routine. After months and years of repeated runs on the treadmill, they can boast a firm calf; now I can reply to them in Chinese.

If building Asian literacy is of such importance for Australia, why aren’t there more adult learners of Mandarin, Indonesian or Japanese? Or at the very least, why isn’t every jogger on the Tan hopping along to Mandopop tunes?

Language is at the sweet-spot between nature and culture. By nature, humans have a language; and yet language is a cultural artifact. Let’s not fall into the trap of  taking language as pure nature, therefore, and accept this nature as our destiny. Let’s make efforts, and learn Asian languages. I think we can do it.

A tool to better understand China

Rousseau called it “l’esprit de l’escalier” – staircase wit – finding your bon mot, the one that would set everyone laughing, just a few hours too late. It happens to all of us. It’s happened to me just recently.

Two days ago, I did a skype interview with a French IT guru, Jean-Michel Billaut, about the Marco Polo Project. We set off on the wrong foot: our first interview, scheduled at the end of May, had been cut short by cause of bad internet (when is NBN coming again?) So this time, I went to Hub Melbourne, where they have a decent connection (thank you Rick Chen @pozible.com). At 7pm, Melbourne time, for an 11am, French time interview.

And I wasn’t happy with it. For some reason, my French was confused (am I forgetting my mother tongue), and Jean-Michel kept asking me questions that somehow set me off balance – what’s our business model, how to find a French translation on the site, or whether Melbourne was better than Sydney. I did not manage to give back precisely pitched, clear and sharp answers that viewers would carry on in their head, like a mantra. Well, there’ll be more interviews.

The good thing is, retrospective frustration has shaken my brain a bit, and I’ve now coined a nice expression to describe Marco Polo Project. It is a tool to better understand China.

By using our platform, our users can improve their understanding of the Chinese language, and improve their understanding of the Chinese context. This defines it clearly. And entails a clear user base – people who want to better understand China. Popular as “China” has become, that’s far from everyone. More and more people want to benefit from or protect themselves from China – but few want to actually understand it. The former won’t care for us, and we won’t care much for them either. but I hope the latter will come to us, and tell us how to better develop our platform, so we can better serve them over time.

One thing to note in this definition is the comparative – our website will help users better understand China – that is, if they know something about it already. We’re not a website for language beginners, neither do we provide a broad stroke cultural overview. People will come to us to refine their knowledge, by reading original voices, or practicing translation skills that are, already, somewhat developed.

In other words, we won’t be “the China portal”, and our audience will be limited – but what we can hope for is to become a solid reference for people interested in that niche – and, I guess, it’s a niche, but a growing one.