George: My name is George Fleming, and i'm sitting here with my friend Chris Parker and I'd like to ask him a couple of questions about how he got into learning Chinese and about his experiences so far.
And we'll be conducting this in Chinese to give you an idea of what it sounds like.
Ok, let's start, Teacher Gao.
Why did you want to study Chinese? What motivated you?
Chris: Actually, I am very interested in languages themselves. Before, I studied French, Spanish and a little bit of Russian but I don't speak Russian well at all. I didn't do a good job of learning it, but I studied a couple of different languages at high school, and I started to get interested in learning languages.
It's a subject I'm very interested in so I started to get interested in Chinese, Arabic and other languages, and in the end, I wanted to give myself a new challenge, and I wanted to take on a more challenging language, so I started learning Chinese.
George: The languages you tried before are all pretty interesting, like French or Russian or Arabic. They represent the culture and history of a country and so on, so why did you end up choosing Chinese rather than any of the others?
Chris: I haven't studied Arabic, it's far too tough!
Another reason was that there weren't that many people learning Chinese so I wanted to study something different, and there are a lot of attractive aspects about Chinese culture, like Chinese characters, which are very interesting, and not so many people are studying Chinese, so I wanted to study something different to be honest, and I wanted a challenge.
If you want to learn French or Spanish, because we are both from the UK, you can go to France or Spain. It's not that far. So I thought, if I want to study Chinese then I should probably get started earlier because China was farther away and learning Chinese takes a lot of time and effort, so I had to get going.
George: You say you should start learning it as early as you can, so when did you start learning Chinese?
Chris: When I was about 17 or 18, when I went to university.
George: That's quite late to start, our situation was similar, we both studied Chinese starting as an undergraduate, so at the beginning did you feel it was challenging? Did you ever regret choosing Chinese?
Chris: I didn't ever regret it, but at the beginning I thought it was very difficult, especially the characters. At the start, we had to learn a lot of characters, not just to recognise them but also had to learn to write them.
I think the writing is difficult There were a lot at the start. Every lesson we might have 20 or more to learn, and I wrote them several times, but I could never remember them, and kept forgetting how to write them. But I spent a lot of time writing them before I really cracked them.
It was tough at the start, and I found that it was a bit harder than I thought before. However as time passed, I learnt a lot more of the language and everything started to become clearer. And it wasn't as hard as people said.
At the beginning I went to visit different universities and their Chinese courses. I remember very clearly, I came across a final year student. He said he had studied Chinese for 4 years. I asked him what his level was like, "can you speak, can you read Chinese?"
He said "If I read a newspaper, I can only get the gist, but it's not very easy," and I just thought, because I didn't want to believe that it was that hard, so I thought maybe he wasn't that into it, or hadn't spent much time on it it couldn't really be that difficult. There had to be a reason, so I was a bit stubborn and I didn't want to believe him.
And it wasn't as hard bad as people said, including the pronunciation, and the characters, because the writing is hard, but recognising characters is not so hard, knowing the meaning. There aren't that many commonly used ones and you can learn them.
George: So what do you think the biggest challenge is in learning Chinese?
Chris: I think it's got to be the characters. People think the pronunciation is an issue, that you have to have to be musical to get the different tones, but I don't think it's true. Not all Chinese people are musical. Although the sounds are pretty different to English, it's not as hard as it's cracked up to be.
But the biggest challenge is writing the characters. Even now, there are a lot of chararacters that I can't remember how to write but I can recognise a good a few thousand. But if you ask me to write a difficult one like 'sneeze', I wouldn't get it right.
George: It's not just foreigners,even our teacher, back in the day, would forget some of the characters
Chris: So this is really normal, and a lot of people don't really write, they just use computers or send text messages, so it doesn't really matter if you can't write all the characters especially for a foreigner learning Chinese.
George: You just mentioned that we often forget how to write characters. Have you got any methods for recognising or writing characters more easily or for remembering them?
Chris: I think you have to see them a lot of times, you can't see them once and remember them. The best method may be to learn the components, or radicals, and what they mean. For example 'grass' or 'heart', then you'll have some hints as to the meanings of the characters.
Also you can learn the pronunciation components for example 'place' looks a bit like 'visit' and the pronunciation is similar, and part of the character is the same. Different characters may have similar meanings or pronunciations.
But I think you need to do a lot of reading and learn them in context, to understand what they really mean and you'll remember them.
George: So when you started, was pronunciation a big issue?
Chris: I think it's not such a big issue, but it's something you have to pay attention to, especially the tones. If you don't use the tones at the start, then it will be a big pain later. If you don't understand the pronunciation at the start or practise it, then it will cause problems later on.
So I think the tones are not as challenging as people say but you have to focus on them.
George: You have to solve problems early on, rather than later. When did you first come to China?
Chris: In 2006, I went to Hong Kong, and then to Beijing as a tourist.
George: Had you learnt any Chinese before that?
Chris: I was pretty much the same as you. I only knew a tiny bit. 1 2 3 4 5, "Can you speak English?", hoping that they could..
But by then I had already decided to learn Chinese, so I knew the next time I came I would be able to communicate with the local people.
George: The first time you were in a Chinese language environment was in Taiwan, right?
Chris: I went to Taiwan for 2 months in 2007. In 2008, I came to Beijing and Hangzhou and Shanghai, and later I visited Beijing and Qingdao.
George: At that time, were people able to understand what you were saying?
Chris: Chinese people are very willing to chat to foreigners in Chinese, which is a really great thing. BUT.. not everybody will understand every sentence you ever say, admittedly, but people being willing to talk is a good thing, and you have to be patient.
For example, when you say something and the other person can't understand you might have to say it again or be patient, or learn how you should have said it or whether the tone was right. For example you might say 'sugar' instead of 'soup'. But these problems are not as big as people make out.
Normally, even if you don't use the tones or you use some words wrongly, people can normally understand, although sometimes they won't.
The biggest problem may have been that at the beginning I was just talking in simple sentences and then started to build things up and speak a bit more fluently. But, although I was able to communicate on a basic level, people spoke in very complicated sentences and very quickly or with an accent like a Beijing accent, or a local dialect, which is a big challenge, but you can get over it.
George: It's hard on your listening. People from different places. You might get used to the accent in one place, then you go somewhere else.
Chris: Like, you go from the north to the south and find they speak completely differently, but you can get used to it. it just takes a few months to adjust.
George: So the process requires patience. You've stuck it out all this time almost 10 years, 8 or 9 years. I think some people watching this will be thinking that they don't have the time to learn Chinese, they are really busy with work or study, so what would you say to them?
Chris: First of all I think you need to be interested in the language or the culture to be able to learn it well, if you think that it's just 'cool' to be able to speak a bit of Chinese then that might not be a strong enough motivation.
You may need to be interested in the culture, or the food, or kung fu or characters or whatever. But time may not be the biggest issue because everybody is busy, right? We can't just study full time. People need to work, or have family or kids, but I think everybody can study, for say 20 minutes or 30 minutes, and keep it up maybe once or 2 or 3 times a week, and you can progress very quickly. Don't think you have to learn a lot at once or study for really long chunks. You can study one step at a time. I think anybody could do that if they wanted to.
But you need to have a clear goal, for example to be able to speak the language during your travels or be able to speak it in simple situations and then you can build on that, because you can't do everything at once, so you have to get there gradually. Persistence is really important. You can't think that you are going to learn everything in 1 month or 3 months or even in 6 months, become totally fluent.
But if you can make the time and you persist, then I think anybody can do it.
George: Do you think it's something that only young people can do, or could anybody get fluent in Chinese?
Chris: I think a lot of people think that if you are a bit older, then your memory is not as good as it was or it would be a challenge.
George: So what would you say to them?
Chris: I'm also teaching Chinese now, and a lot of people I'm teaching are a bit older in their 40s or 50s or even people in their 60s or 70s are taking my course, or taking Chinese.
George: Live long and keep on learning..
Chris: Yes, so if they can do it, then other people can take it up too. Either as a hobby, or learn a little as long as you are interested in it. Interest is the biggest driver. Being older is not such a problem. You need to be passionate about it.
George: Yes, that's the most important. You've studied Chinese for 8 or 9 years, do you think it has changed you at all?
Chris: I think through studying a language in detail, I've expanded my horizons and learnt to think about things from other people's points of view. This is more of a deeper change.
But to put it more simply, I've had a lot of opportunities from learning Chinese, especially in China. If you are looking for work here or living here, and you can't speak the language, it's a big obstacle, that goes without saying.
I've done interpretation and translation and worked in the media, and different jobs, training and other things. Speaking Chinese was a big advantage in getting these opportunities.
So whether you are in the UK or the US or wherever you are, if your work concerns China or you want to come here to study or live, then studying Chinese, whether it's just a little or if you can persist and speak a bit better then you're going to get a lot from it.
George: And you've got a lot from it too, after so long.
Ok thanks a lot for talking about your experience learning Chinese.
Chris: My pleasure George, and thanks for doing this!