My story – Learning Chinese 1980s style


Someone asked me about the Pimsleur method of learning a language. No, I didn’t use it and cannot see the point of hearing stuff in my own language. Though with a good teacher “substitution drills” are fine. Also, learning to read, particularly with Chinese is a totally different skill to learning to speak. And here’s how to learn another language.

I began learning Chinese when I enrolled in night-school in Sydney in 1984 at Sydney Institute of Technical and Further Education (TAFE). As a kid learning about Orwell’s 1984, that date had always seemed impossibly far away. Once a week for a couple of hours we had a teacher and a language lab. The lab work focused on hearing tones. The text was something along the lines of “Chinese 300” which was 300 sentences in 10 chapters of situations like: personal introductions, restaurant, directions, buying tickets, buying stuff at shops etc. The teachers were a tag team – Madeleine Lee and her husband Philip. Thanks guys, you were great.

I used to drive to and from work at the jail, 1/2 hour each way. I had the Chinese 300 cassette tape in the car and I recited along together with it as I drove. I must have looked funny in the car talking to myself. But by the end of 8 months, before I left to go to China, I could recite the whole tape like a parrot. (请问,到汽车站怎么走?Can you tell me the way to the bus stop please.) After I got to China I could ask simple stuff. The problem was understanding the replies.

Before I left I wrote to four or five institutions in Beijing which offered Chinese programs for foreigners. I got one written response from Beijing Normal Teachers College 北京师范学院 (now Beijing Normal University) which was non-committal. But Madeleine and Philip told me that it was very important because it was a formal letter from them to me, it was on their letterhead and it had opened communications between us. So I set out.

I flew to Hong Kong and caught the train to Beijing. In HK I bought the best little cassette recorder you could get at that time. I arrived at the school’s accommodation on a Sunday afternoon, showed the fuwuyuan (服务员) receptionist the letter, which flummoxed her, but a student passing by persuaded her and the caretaker she consulted to rent me a room for the night so that that it could be sorted out next day. I was in! And I had had my first lesson in guanxi and Chinese generosity! Next morning they asked me how long I wanted to stay and I said I wasn’t sure, but I booked a week to try it out. I ended up staying six weeks before I went off travellling. There were only 4 other foreign students there! For some classes I had one to one tuition. Now there are hundreds and they’ve built a new building for them.

Back then we were housed in the ‘Foreign Experts’ accommodation. The first thing I did  was to get the fuwuyuan waitress to read out the restaurant blackboard menu onto my tape recorder. I then learned to recite the menu by listening, winding back the tape, speaking, and repeating the whole process. I copied her as exactly as I could. I vividly remember parts of the menu to this day (chicken cubes and roasted cashews 宫爆鸡丁) and say them with her lilting intonation even now.

At one time I wanted to buy a little fruit knife and went confidently off to the shops. They had no idea what I was talking about. These days many Chinese people are much more used to foreigners mangling the language and can guess what they are trying to say. So it was back to my tutor, learn the sentence properly with the right tones and try again.

My biggest aid was the tape recorder and my personal notebook of phrases and vocab.

I set out to learn the days of the week, months, numbers, family relations (every Chinese person I met wanted to know about my family), jobs and income. Oh, and most importantly I wanted to learn how to ask questions about the language. Vital was 请你再说慢一点 – Could you please say it again slowly. I quickly learned not to tell the truth about my income because the income disparity between ordinary Chinese people and me (from a wealthy western nation) was astronomical. One guy, trying to figure out our relative wealth, asked me how many donkeys I owned – I think I said four. The idea of a personal car was unthinkable. When I told someone about high-rise buildings of fifty stories and high-speed elevators, they seriously thought I was deranged – it was so far out of their ken. I remember flicking a spent biro into the bin and my tutor being horrified. She just as quickly retrieved it and showed me that in China they take out the little plastic ink tube and replace only that. Likewise when I got back to sleepy little Australia sitting quietly down in the remote Pacific with six jets at the terminal, and then I tried to tell people about population pressures, pollution, etc, it was beyond their ken.

From the very beginning in China I arranged tutors (students usually) who could drill me on Minimal Pairs. Some tutors weren’t very patient with this, because it can be a hard boring slog. Eventually I found the right person. I remember in one of the formal classes asking the teacher to teach me how to use a Chinese dictionary. She refused, saying I wasn’t ready. I stopped going to her class and found another class. Boy was she mad. She stormed into the class I had checked myself into and ranted and raved. It was my first big lesson in “loss of face”. She lost heaps of face because I had spurned her class and no one had ever done that before. The teacher in the new class took a communicative approach with listening and substitution drills and was brilliant.

After six weeks in school I travelled around in China for six weeks, unconsciously taking pretty much the same route as in all the language dialogues I’d learnt. Then, back in Australia, TAFE let me skip a year in their Chinese program. At the end of the year I was back in China for another three months – this time I simply got a shared room in the foreign students dormitory at 北京语言学院 Beijing Languages Institute (now Beijing Languages University) where I had a contact – more guanxi. I then lined up my own personal tutors. I used to tape sentences from them, and from the local radio and do the old wind back and listen trick. The radio was a bit too hard for me but was great for learning numbers (the Chinese love statistics, even though a lot of them in the political and economic realm are completely fabricated). I soon found a structured book of newspaper readings with vocab lists. I have to say that China is amazing with the range of resources for learning Chinese which are available, especially compared to Indonesia or other parts of Asia, or Latin America.

Later on I used “Business 900” (same idea as “Chinese 300”) and learned lots of business and trade stuff as I began to prepare for NAATI exams. By this time there had begun to be neat little computer programs where you could set the wind-back time to the number of seconds you wanted. And I remember now that tiny mp3 players were coming into use and they were pretty nifty.

All in all, it was hard work. I remember describing my wife as a “mandarin widow” because she would go out with friends or to films and I would stay at home learning Chinese.

It was only in about Year 3 of my studies that I decided the time was right to begin seriously learning Chinese characters – the next project was going to be learning to read. I wanted to be able to sit near the fire at night and curl up with a good book. During the night-classes I had paid lip-service and pretended I was learning to write Chinese characters, which was what they all believed in, but I had decided to myself that I wanted to speak first and read second.  Years later before a trip to Japan, I spent time with the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrase Book and audio and learned off the phrases like a parrot using the same method of listen, speak, wind back, listen, speak, wind back. It served me well.

But before I close, I must pay the highest tribute to my teacher Sue Tang in Canberra. By the early 1990’s Joanna and I had become bureaucrats and I enrolled in lunch time reading classes with Sue at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). She was brilliant. Thanks Sue!! With her (no thanks to AusAID which tried its darnedest to stop me) I got a great boost and was able to sit the DFAT test and soon after the NAATI test, gaining accrediation as a professional Chinese to English translator.


2 thoughts on “My story – Learning Chinese 1980s style

  1. Cool story, and good on you for persevering! I’m a JA>EN translator, so I might go so far as to say that I can sympathize with the pain of learning to read.

    再見 (or perhaps 再読?)


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