In country learning

A common trope of language learning advice is that you don’t need in country learning anymore, since you can design your own linguistic environment anywhere. This is both entirely true, and extremely short-sighted.

Indeed, with online news, TV and radio, international communities, and resources like lang8 or skype teachers, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment. But how much effort and willpower does it take to craft and maintain this environment.

I taught myself Chinese, most of it outside China, and passed an HSK 5 last year. I am the living proof that you can self-teach outside China. Yet I am a very strong advocate of in-country learning.

I’ve been in China for just over four months now, skipped about half of my classes at uni, and made more progress than I would ever have in Melbourne. Necessity has a force of its own. I needed Chinese for my everyday life, and I needed Chinese to fix issues at home. More importantly, I needed Chinese to develop a social life – I soon had enough of the local expats, and most of the locals spoke only minimal English. On average, my friends in Shanghai or Beijing don’t speak Chinese as well as those living in second-tier cities. They never properly learnt, because they never had to.

Learning a language is an extremely demanding task, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Suddenly, simple cognitive tasks become significantly harder than they used to be – suddenly, you’re no longer able to perceive or express intellectual subtleties – and you feel exhausted all the time. The temptation to give up is extremely high, no matter what level you’re at. Learning at home is all very well, but by the time you’ve carefully blocked out all English and crafted your Chinese bubble, do you still have the moral strength to stay there and learn, or resist the many temptations of home – the cup of tea, the phonecall, the facebook page, the drinks with friends. That’s not to say you cannot succeed – I managed. But every step requires a double effort – not only learning, but also keeping that artificially constructed second-language environment alive, possibly keeping out friends ad family who will bring you back to your mother tongue. In country, you can just focus on learning, and every step forward is a step towards more social integration.

Language is a social bond, that creates emotional and intellectual communities. And for that reason, I believe the is nothing like in-country learning to build the necessary motivation. For that reason, scholarships sending students in country are extremely valuable – and I am very happy both that I was able to receive one, and that our government was enlightened enough to set them up in the first place.

Goat wisdom

Maybe that’s because I’m a Capricorn, but I’ve always enjoyed goats. They’re smart, they’re cute, they’re funny – and they’re wonderfully daring creatures.

I recently saw this photo pass on my facebook stream, showing goats on the quasi-vertical edge of a dam in Italy. And I found it an inspiration for my own ventures.

Here’s the wisdom I got from these daring goats – values I try to stick to myself:

  • Just because something looks impossible doesn’t mean you cannot do it.
  • There’s always a bit of rock you can hang onto – you just have to look hard enough.
  • To climb a mountain, you should be lean and strong, but most of all, you should be balanced.
  • Balance is all about putting your weight in the right spot.
  • When you’re standing on a vertical cliff, your posture might look awkward, even clownish. But you’re the only one in that spot, and those laughing at your posture are not able to get there in the first place.
  • If you’re standing on the side of a cliff, a clumsy move may take you down – but no tiger will come after you.
  • You don’t have to be sad and lonely standing on the mountain edge. You just hang out with other goats.
  • There’s food enough for a lot of goats on the mountain edge – none of the cows, horses or rabbits will come up and fight for it.

In country learning – on motivation

Has anyone ever told you, with a serious face: ‘If you want to learn a language, I think you need to go to the country, that’s where you’re gonna learn’? And in retort, have you never come across a post on a language learning blog explaining that, with the possibilities of the net, you don’t need to travel to create your own language learning environment? I’ve been living in China for three and a half months now, and my language skills have made tremendous progress as a result, even as I attended classes less and less. I’d like to reflect on this recent experience to provide my insights into the ‘travel or stay home’ debate about language learning.

It is true that, with internet media, skype-tutors and multicultural communities, it is entirely possible to build one’s own ‘in-country-like’ environment in any major western city. Conversely, the same elements of globalisation mean you can live in China without ever speaking Mandarin, surrounding yourself with expats, hanging out in English-speaking cafes and restaurants, and streaming American movies on your laptop. It is particularly easy when you live in Shanghai or Beijing, where expats are many, and often have a great story to share.

There is no necessary scenario playing itself out, and learning will take efforts. The nature and degree of effort needed, however, may vary. Learning a new language is extraordinarily demanding, at an intellectual level certainly, but in terms of motivation too. Not only do you keep forgetting the words you learn, not only do you find yourself articulating vague statements along the lines of ‘Australia good, bad, China good, bad, same same’, but whenever a parameter changes – noise in the background, someone speaking in a soft voice, or a topic you’re not familiar with – you find yourself unable to perform at the level you thought you’d reached months ago. And often despair strikes in.

Learning Chinese in China can be remarkably painful. The taxi driver will not understand you when you say ‘Nanjing university’. The waiter will not understand that you’re saying ‘black coffee’. That pretty girl or boy that you met will have an impossible accent; or the loud music will bang bang their speech into syllable mash. You will stare at the bus timetable, and not find your stop among the sea of characters. Easily, you will fall into the comfort of expat bubbles, or avoid anything involving speech and movement. But when your energy returns, you just have to step on the road, and you’ve got Chinese all around you. More interactions with your environment will require – and develop – further language skills. And sometimes, Chinese will just barge into your comfort zone, in the form of a loud neighbour, perplexed waiter, or bill to pay.

Learning from home, the opposite will be true: your Chinese bubble will be fragile, and require ongoing care and attention. Sure, you can build a community of Mandarin speakers around you – but if you bring anyone else into the mix, the group language will shift towards English. Sure, you can listen to Chinese radio, but can you do that when your friends are around. And sure, you can read Chinese books and papers and magazines – once you’ve reached a certain level – but who’s around to talk about them – and where do you get them from?

Finally, when you learn in-country, opportunities will increase your appetite for the language, and your desire to learn more. Whether it’s appealing books at the bookstore, business meetings and partnerships, or good-looking locals, you will have a direct sense of how much more you could do if only your language skills were better – and that sense will help you get through the pain and frustrations of learning. While at home, learning that foreign language requires an extra layer of discipline – to reject other more appealing offers, drinks with friends or colleagues, a film with your partner, a short week-end on the coast. And when you’ve spent the cognitive energy to reject these offers, stick to your discipline – how much is left for study?

Living in the country for a while won’t help you learn the language out of necessity – but possibility.

Have you learnt a foreign language at home or by living overseas? What was your experience like – please share it in the comments of this post!

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!

Motivation in a gamified world.

Can we gamify everything, and if we do, will it still appeal to learners?

Part of my own intellectual journey, as a teenager, was rejecting games. Is it generational, or a more universal aspiration to move on from child- to adulthood ? I don’t know.

I was born in 1978 from young ‘hip(pish)’ parents, and so find myself on the cusp of Gen X and Y. I grew up with computers, and developed a moderate video game addiction from the age of about 10. My upward mobility consisted of transitioning from Nintendo to Atari, then on to a proper PC with Sierra Online adventure games, Ultima series role playing games, and – best of all – Sid Meyer’s Civilisation. Beside, I read massive amounts of literature, watched enormous quantities of TV, and got good grades. I even joined a theatre club – altogether, a balanced early teenager life, if slightly nerdy.

When I hit grade 11 (‘Premiere’ in France), I changed schools to join a special ‘humanities’ class. At that time, I resolved I would focus on reading and study, and give up the computer entirely. I replaced Ultima with ‘teach-yourself-Latin’, and Civilisation with history books. For the next four years, I lived entirely without computers. At 18, I even rejected TV, reducing my screen-exposure to cinemas only.

This rejection was part of my growing up, and I clear remember it as a kind of ‘rite of passage’: leaving the game-screens of childhood behind, as I got rid of my transformer robots around the age of 10, and move on to the world of adults.

I suppose, this was a transitional period, before Facebook and iphones. But I still wonder: what will mark the passage to adulthood, when children grow up in a world of gamified screens?  In ‘a day made of glass‘ , the tools used by children, teachers, doctors and parents are strangely similar. Children inhabit a pre-adult world of high-tech, while adults occupy a gamified world of touch-screens. What will actually motivate these children to study? Or in this ideal high-tech worlds, is there perfect continuity between childhood and adulthood?

I remember reading the following thought in a book on education by Alain: that there should be a distinction between the class-room and the playground; that children do need to relax and play – but also need the possibility to go beyond childish play, to feel the awe for a difficult intellectual task. The same point appears, in a various form, in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Education is about change, and this change goes beyond ergonomic playfulness. How will online education deal with this question? What will motivate learners to learn, if they have nothing to aspire to, beyond the fun of the game? Or am I just saying this is it because I was trained before MOOCS, or in France – and therefore a bit antiquated myself?

Reflections on translation – an interview with James Friesen

Pasted here is the text of an interview that I did with James Friesen, student of translation at Taiwan National University and active translator on Marco Polo Project. James contacted me for an interview to discuss what the work of a translator can be like. This was a great opportunity for me to reflect on the Marco Polo model for collaborative translation, and what might have inspired him – and I had a great time chatting with James!

James Friesen

I read a news article this year on why women in China do not divorce their husbands, even in the face of infidelity and flagrant mistreatment. The piece, actually a vignette of sorts, was aptly written from the perspective of a divorced Chinese woman; the piece was written in translation. She argued that saving face and fear of losing economic status stave off divorce; there was no mention of love. This seemed to me a rare and fascinating insight into the mind of a character that Western readers are not often privy to. The link at the bottom of the page accredited the story to  ‘’. Following the link lead to the source of the translation and a somewhat unpredictable resource – a vibrant online community of voluntary translators. On the Marco Polo Project one can find many other insightful articles on topics ranging from city life in China, Buddhism and homosexuality in Taiwan, and other short stories. I contacted the founder and CEO of the project, Julien Leyre, as I thought the website was a brilliant idea. I wanted to pick his brain on some issues relating to the project and translation in general. He was kind enough to respond to me, and our exchange eventually culminated in the interview you see below:

JF: For starters, can you briefly share your background, and how you came to the field of translation?

JL: Sure, I would say my background could be separated into two aspects: cultural and intellectual. I am Frenchman who grew up close to the German border; my family is Mediterranean with Italian ancestry. Living in a multicultural environment I developed an interest in language and cultural differences from a very young age and gained an understanding of multiple languages. In university I specialized in languages, majoring in English and Classics at Ecole Normale Superieure, my Masters is in linguistics, and I passed an exam to be a high school and University teacher. I have also been interested in writing from a very young age – things like short stories, poetry, collaborations with filmmakers; I also published a short novel in Paris and have been involved in various writing projects over the last ten years.

JF: Growing up in a linguistically rich environment, was doing translation an intentional decision or something you just fell into?

JL: I guess I fell into it speaking and reading seven languages to various levels; it is common for continental Europeans to speak three or four languages. One of the key things that drew me to translation was my training in classics. One of the things you do when you study classics is translate or re-translate texts from the Greek and Latin. The way I learned how to think in this regard was largely by close reading of Plato and Aristotle while doing a translation. Translation for me is conveying meaning from a certain language to those who cannot access this language. This involves closely reflecting on the way a meaning is constructed in a text – in a word it’s philology. Which is closely reading a text in order to understand what it actually means, and it often involves a process of translation as well.

JF: Can you share a little about the Marco Polo Project?

JL: It’s a website where users can read and translate contemporary writing from China. There are two aspects to it. It’s a collaborative online magazine that proposes Chinese writing in translation by crowd-sourcing the translation, delegating the translation process not through one specific person but to whoever comes and does it. The other way to look at it is a platform that encourages translators and advanced language learners to come and practice translation. It is something that we do anyway as a part of our learning so doing it in collaboration is a good motivation; it is more fun and gives meaning to what we do, essentially the more we do it the more and better we learn.

JF: What does the process of translation look like for you?

JL: It depends on what I translate. On the Marco Polo Project, I translate in layers. I start translating as I go, which is not what I was trained to do – I was told to closely read a text numerous times before starting. I start with a quick translation as I go, using google translate on the side, anything that is simple, to get an overall idea of what I’m translating. A rough patchy draft, let it rest, and come back to it to fill in the blanks, and improve what I had translated the first time, and finalize it, looking for consistency – also sometimes, consulting a native speaker to confirm doubtful passages of the meaning of idiomatic expressions.

JF: Does translation theory enter into the picture? For example, do you apply what you learned in your classics training?

JL: I would say it is in the background. What I mean is, because I spent time lecturing and doing research in linguistics in semantics, of which translation theory was a part, I completely absorbed it. It has become a part of the way that I think and not a conscious process anymore, almost like breathing. Secondly, it’s about how you relate as a mediator between the original text and the audience, which are two different worlds. You will position your translation in between these two worlds. The type of text determines the type of audience and how they relate to the text. In translating a vacuum cleaner manual you will not care so much about the way the original text is structured, rather you will care more about the meaning. Translating poetry however, you will stay much closer to the structure of the original. Texts on the Marco Polo Project are creative non-fiction, essays, blog posts, and so they sit somewhere in between.

JF: What draws you to a given piece? What makes you say, “I want to translate that”?

JL: The simple answer is gut feeling, but the gut feeling has something behind it. I look for a piece that is original and well structured. By originality I mean the content of the piece is something I have never read about before. Generally the more specific a piece is, the more likely I am to translate it. For example there is a piece called ‘The Tears of Animals’. I thought, wow, a Chinese person is speaking about how they relate to animals crying, I had never heard about that before, I want to translate that. I also choose pieces that are clearly articulated, ones that you can follow the construction. If you choose a piece based only on style, there is often a big distance between Chinese and English which makes translation very difficult, but a structured piece translates relatively well.

*Link to ‘The Tears of Animals’ (

JF: What are some advantages/challenges of having a ‘living online community’ collectively translate something? 

JL: There are two main advantages to this type of platform, and I will start with the more cynical one. It makes translation cheap. The problem that we have is that there is a growing to demand to understand China; content written in Chinese is a good way to address this demand. But if you use the old model of sending a work to a professional translator with a high level of quality control etc. it’s really slow and there are not enough translators to meet the need. By crowd sourcing you can reduce cost. Translating collectively can help people to do better work and give them a sense of accomplishment through collaboration, for example if you translate a small part of a large piece. Translators can help other translators, it gives a sense of meaning and community. Are they actually good and accurate? To an extent I think people undervalue the quality of translations by people who are not professionals. As a language teacher, I thought the translation of my students were not too bad, however you do need to monitor that a little bit. The other challenge is keeping the good translators interested because a native English speaker who is also fluent in Chinese is hard to keep, there is lots of demand on their time, so it’s about finding ways to encourage people and keeping them engaged. A living online community requires moderation, giving feedback to people, providing new content, etc. so it takes a lot of work, it doesn’t do itself.

JF: Blog translation seems like it is becoming an independent genre, and beyond that, a mouthpiece for censor-dodging Chinese users. What implications does this have? 

JL: The question of censorship is something we’ve thought about from the start of the project. We want to bring across a diversity of voices from China, which may include some sensitive material, but we do not want to be blocked from China as that would defeat the purpose. We want the material to be available for Mainland Chinese; we want to stay out of trouble but at the same time avoid just replicating government speech, there’s no point in that. So we have to play it by ear, but we basically try to focus on some good non-sensitive material. Sensitive areas include Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, demonstrations against the government, some comparatively non-sensitive areas for example are gay rights, feminism, love relationships, and the way technology is affecting the life in big Chinese cities. Western media happens to be, in my perspective, obsessed with sensitive topics, Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng are all over the news. But there are other intellectuals who do an insiders view on China, for instance Li Yinhe, who studies gender issues, is not popular in Western media but also not censored in China. Topics like these are less covered and, quite possibly, more original and more interesting because of it.

JF: What are your goals for the future of Marco Polo Project?

JL: I would like the project to show up on the list of the top 20-25 major reference websites on China. I would like it to be on the radar of translation students and people doing research and analysis on China, in terms of language learning and practice, as well as reporting, media, etc. I would like to build a bigger and more active community than we have at the moment, and there are a couple ways of doing that. We are doing a campaign right now to pay for a few improvements on the interface, to make it more user-friendly. The other way is to build partnerships with institutions, especially language learning institutions, translation centers etc. We believe that if teachers recommend the platform to their students and possibly even integrate it into their curriculum, We will be trialing that at La Trobe University in Australia, so we can refine the idea of how to put it in a workshop etc. and hopefully in the future we can take that model elsewhere.

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.