Jared and John discuss the importance of and how to develop motivation in learning Chinese. Guest interview with Theresa Munford from the UK and started learning Chinese after the Cultural Revolution.
Why are you studying Chinese? It seems that everyone has a different reason, but your reason is critical to your success in learning Chinese. Jared and John discuss the importance of having a reason to learn Chinese and cultivating existing and new motivations. If you don’t have a reason to learn, you wont get far with the language.
Guest interview is with Theresa Munford from the UK. She began learning Chinese shortly after the Cultural Revolution in an idealistic time. She provides a perspective that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. As you listen, you’ll be taken back to another time and place where China was waking up to the rest of the world.
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Links referenced in this Episode.
So today, our topic that we're discussing, why do people want to learn Mandarin? This was something that was brought up to us. It's like, well, let's talk a little bit today about some of the motivations. Like, why are you learning Mandarin? And if anyone who's been listening to this podcast for any length of time, you'll see that when I interview someone, I always lead out with this question and say, Hey, why did you start learning Chinese?
Prompted that whole big decision of your life. And so after interviewing all these people, what's your sense that the answers tend to be. All different or is there a trend? Well, I think this conversation is going to end right where I'm going to start here, but I'm going to say that everyone has to have their own individual motivation and everyone's motivation seems a little bit different, but you've got to have it because if you don't have it, you'll never progress towards any level of proficiency or fluency.
Yeah. And it's interesting. What kind of motivations work and what don't like about 10 years ago, there was a big spike in the amount of people learning Chinese. And it became like this big, hot thing, like, Oh, Chinese language of the future, you got to learn it. Then you see all these new products flooding into the market and they confuse us Institute very active in the United States, promoting Chinese.
But. Because it's hot and because maybe I'll need it in the future is usually not a good enough motivator for most people. So the result was a lot of people started, but not many people followed through with it, but I'm the good news is if you look at the overall trend, even compensating for that spike, it is going up because Chinese is getting more and more important in the world.
And not because maybe it'll be useful for the job, but because more and more people are coming into contact with Chinese and Chinese people. More and more people are feeling a new motivation to get started. And I think it might be good to share a little bit of my story because we've touched on it a little bit, John and I, we covered your story, I think was on the third podcast.
Was that right? Yeah. We don't even know. Okay. If you want to know, John's like story about how he started learning Chinese, you can look at the second or third episode, I've done so many podcasts and told so many stories. I have no idea what I've said. We need someone to catalog that for us, right? It's going to be a broken record here.
Well, anyway, my story was is that I hadn't learned any Chinese at all. China was never even on my map, not even in my wildest dreams, 2009, I was finishing a graduate degree at Purdue university, shout out to Purdue boilermakers, and I had a couple job offers. Uh, it was a tough economy at the time, but my wife and I, we just really, I don't know.
It sounds crazy to tell the story now, but we just really felt like, you know, maybe we wanted to move abroad and the job offers I had had no path. Anywhere overseas. And it's kind of funny when I go back and think about this. I wasn't even thinking about learning another language I was thinking about, Hey, it'd be cool to go live overseas.
So we just kind of said, Hey, it's kind of now or never. So I just burned the ships and it took a little time, but I just moved to China. I moved to Shanghai. I'd had no job or anything. I just moved there before I went though. I remember thinking that I'm going to learn Chinese. And I thought like, I'll take me about a year.
I'll learn Chinese. And I didn't get so serious about it. And it was one night I had a dream and it was just like, I am this guy, my dream was like, you know, are, are you studying Chinese? And I'm like, no. And he's like, well, you better kind. I'm like, Oh, I guess I got some, you know, a program, you know, it was like some CDs.
It was kind of this multimedia program where I was learning that as done. No, it wasn't Rosetta stone. I think it was Fluenz. That's what it was Fluenz. So I got this, a program and I started learning Chinese a little bit. And when I got to China, uh, I actually had some roundabouts, some connections with a guy who I lived with there.
I went out there by myself. First. I left my wife and kid here and he spoke. Really good Chinese during the first three months I was there. I would just was like on the streets just trying to practice Chinese, but I was like really trying hard because I didn't have a job. I needed to start to learn some Chinese and I needed to communicate and I knew it was going to help me.
Potentially get a job there in Shanghai. I eventually did get a job, but one thing I realized and I think going back, one of the key motivations for me to really continue on and try to really build my Chinese proficiency was that I was working for small Chinese companies there in Shanghai. And later on, I started some, my own businesses and my kids when we got to China, they were not in school yet.
And I knew that it was not likely that I was going to be in a situation to pay for them to go to like an international school. If anyone who's looking at international schools in China, Shanghai, specifically, you're looking at like $25,000 a year for tuition. And I knew that was going to be a little beyond our means.
And so I was expecting that we were going to have to send our kids to a local Chinese school. And so one of the key things and motivations for me was that in order to survive and allow my kids to get education, that they're going to have to go to the local school. And if that was going to happen, I was going to have to be able to support them in a way in their education.
And so I took it upon myself to really focus on learning Chinese, to be able to help and support them. No, that doesn't go into real story, how I got proficiency, but that for me was a motivator, which really kept me trying to improve and progress along my Chinese. Okay. But for that motivation, like, could you have always just left China?
Well, it was just something where we wanted to be at the time and we moved back to America since a couple of years ago, but I kind of wanted my kids also to have that experience of growing up in another culture and learning another language. All these things pulled together to really give me some motivation to learn and continue to progress.
But also I ended up starting some of my own businesses in China. I opened a bakery. It's still running for you, listeners. Yes. I have a bakery. It's a cinnamon roll bakery in Shanghai. It's in the heart of Jean district there near the Jean temple. We do cinnamon rolls. That's it. And in order to do that, my Chinese became much more important because I was just trying to open the business by myself.
I had to go through all the health licensing process by myself. I even set up the business by myself and I had some Chinese at, at some point to help with some of these things, but largely I had to do a lot of this by myself. So my Chinese became very important for me functioning and for my also livelihood there when I was in Shanghai.
It sounds like you kind of put yourself in a sink or swim situation. Yeah. And so I had to swim. All right. Like it's kinda weird because when people ask me about my motivation, I feel like I don't have anything. That's really impressive. It's like you studied to, to such a high level, like you must be super motivated and have some kind of really deep, interesting motivations.
And it's more like, Oh, I like it. And I think it's interesting because I like it so much. I also chose a career path, which was completely intertwined with learning Chinese. Even now when I have advanced clients and they're focused on things like digital media marketing or finance, or the psychology of child rearing, they're going into these pretty difficult topics in Chinese and are managing their studies.
Then of course, I'm reading a bunch of stuff. About these topics myself. I don't know. It's just interest and combined with my career because I kind of engineered it that way. They kind of keep each other going. This kind of gets back to, you have to have some sort of motivation to continue learning the language.
Now I think it would go through some other stories of people that I've heard and maybe we haven't even covered it on a show. I did an article on our Manor companion website, a guy, he was in his sixties and he had started learning Chinese because he wanted to read about Tai Chi. In Chinese, it was like his obsession.
And now you can find some books in English, but for him, he wanted to connect with the deep cultural roots of Tai Chi in order to do that, he said, I need to learn Chinese. And so when I had gotten in touch with him, he'd been studying for a couple of years and he had actually read through all of our graded readers and he was moving on to higher level stuff.
And I believe it'd be interesting to reach out to him now. That was like one of his goals. I find that if you want really fluent Mandarin is it's often most useful to have a goal related to communication. Cause I'm, you know, interest is Chinese history or Chinese medicine or whatever. Then you can just immerse yourself in books, get good at reading and never really talked to anybody.
But since most of the learners I encountered, they really want to be a fluent speaker. Then it's good to have a motivation that relates to communication. You know, you remind me of Steve Kaufman, who we had on this podcast a few episodes ago. If anyone who doesn't know Steve Kaufman, he is a internet famous polyglot.
He speaks a roughly 20 languages, but he has real motivation for learning languages was to be able to communicate and connect with new cultures. And that was like, I mean, if you think about it, Like, why are you going to go out and learn 20 languages? And he's in the seventies and he's still learning new languages.
But his motivation now is, like I said, go out there, experience new cultures and connect with them in a way that you can't through translation. And I think that's true for a lot of people. You don't realize that they really want to make that connection with another culture. But, um, I think for a lot of us, we kind of have this inherent interest.
It's, it's probably just curiosity. Right. Um, because I think a lot of us know deep down that if you don't learn another language, you can't truly connect with another culture and some kind of deep, meaningful way. Yeah, it's really important because if you just think about it, if there was no way to communicate, if you don't speak their language or they don't speak yours, I mean, how can you really connect?
It's a very difficult, you can't understand someone's emotions, what they're feeling, what they're thinking or what you even trying to do. Yeah. And a lot of it is like, um, if you only ever communicate with really well-educated speakers of another language, then there's this whole other section of society that you have no contact with.
You have no idea what they think about what they, what they talk about. What they know about your country. And so I always find it super interesting to just talk to everyday people, people that don't speak any English and have no hope of ever really gaining proficiency in it, and maybe thought that they'd never in their life even be able to communicate directly with a foreigner.
Like those kinds of conversations are super rewarding. So I kind of want to flip it on its head a little bit here, and we're talking about, you know, maybe. Yeah. What are people's motivations? Well, also something that I've seen are maybe not good motivations, or maybe not sustainable motivations to learn the language.
And one thing I have seen is sometimes people learning a language just to prove someone wrong. Right. You know, sometimes you can carry you through, but I have seen some people like I'm going to learn language. Cause they said I can't write well, once that. Person may be out of your life or you just get over that, you know, you need to find some times like a better motivation.
And I had talked to someone who said they started learning Chinese because, you know, someone said it was so hard and you couldn't learn it, but once they got into it, yeah, that was me. Was that you? Well, I've talked to some other people too, right? Kind of, I mean, I did find other motivations, but the challenge aspect was a part of it in the beginning.
Indefinitely, but ultimately you're gonna need to find some other motivations along the way, because that probably isn't going to see you all the way through to a high level of proficiency. Yeah, I agree with that. Another thing I've seen too, is learning a language because someone else is expecting you to do it.
Now, this goes into a lot of other things too, is that maybe you set an own your own expectation that I should be able to learn this. Or if someone says, I want you to learn this, I've seen this sometimes with parents towards kids, but. Maybe that child, or maybe you, you don't have your own intrinsic reason or motivation to do it so you can remain disciplined and you can remain studying and focusing on it and memorizing things.
But if you never really find that own spark and that own real reason to learn, then you're really not going to get far. I mean, I've seen people and some of those situations and, you know, they just still, maybe they're not quite conversational because it's not really their interest. It's not something they really want to do.
So I'm just kinda throwing out that, that you, you also, even if you're very disciplined and so on, even as half as high expect expectations for you to learn the language, you're going to still need to find your own steps along the way. If you really want to put that together and really connect with the language.
Yeah, I've seen two different kinds of a, this kind of learner. One is the Chinese heritage learners, right. Their family insists that they learn it. And in some cases they don't even want to, but they feel like they have to. So yeah, I sympathize with those types of learners, but there's another guy which is really interesting that I've come into contact with maybe once or twice in Shanghai through my business.
And it's. Non-Chinese you know, foreigners come to China and they live and work in China and they don't really want to learn Chinese. Like they don't have a strong interest, but they realize that they should. And so they kind of study out of guilt. And so like, that's the only reason they're trying to learn Chinese because, well, I've lived here for five years.
I should learn it. I find that that is the absolute worst motivation. Those people make these slowest progress. That's really interesting. So, so I, I support them in wanting to learn Chinese, but it's really a good idea to work beyond the guilt and find other things that interest you about the language, you know, people aspects of the culture or whatever, because relaying on guilt as a, as a motivating force is just not going to work.
So, John, let's talk about how to find your purpose, how to find your reason and your motivation to learn Chinese. Well remember that a lot of my experience is working with, uh, learners here in Shanghai. And so it's a different situation because they're in China and they can actually go out and use it. So what we always do with our personalized curriculum here in Shanghai is we find something that they can learn, which ideally immediately after their lesson, they can go and use.
So you don't study something that you're not going to use and you do study stuff that you're going to use immediately. You focus on high-frequency language. And even if it's not the most exciting thing, if it's something that, you know, you can immediately use and see the results. That is super motivating.
And by the same token, I've found that some people, they come all the way to Shanghai. They're super pumped about learning Chinese and they just go to some random schools, sign up for a Chinese course, everything seems fine. And they find that after, you know, two or three months, their motivation is really lagging and they blame themselves.
They're like, Well, I don't, I actually want to learn Chinese anymore. Like I remember I used to want to, but now there must be something wrong with me. Cause I'm losing interest even though they're blaming themselves. If you just look at their textbook and you'll see that it's a horrible, horrible textbook, you know, chapter one, going to the post office, you know, which nobody uses, um, stuff like that.
And it's just a bunch of useless, outdated stuff and they're just. Spending hours every day learning this stuff, and they're not learning the stuff that they could actually use in their daily lives, which they would enjoy using. And they would benefit from like, that is a motivation killer. So you have good motivations and then you have ways of killing your motivations that you really need to avoid.
You point out something very important here. You know, this is, we talk about it. Comprehensible input and making sure you like you're reading at the right level, you know, and there's kind of three stages of reading, you know, there's extensive reading, intensive reading and reading pain, things that can kill that motivation you get in that reading pain category where you're reading below 90% comprehension.
Oh man. And I've seen this on sometimes polyglot Reddits. Threads people saying, Oh, I'm going to start learning Chinese. And they have like, you know, some classical Chinese book in the dictionary. I'm like, Oh my gosh, you're not going to get very far. Cause that stuff that'll, that'll beat you down. And if you guys have listened to a lot of interviews that we've done here, you know, sometimes people are talking about how they went through really difficult times.
Learning Chinese, or they had a very difficult teacher professor and I'm like, Whoa, how did you get through that? You know? And sometimes people got through just by sheer will, but you gotta remember for any one person who got through that just by sheer will, there's probably 10 others that just ditched out.
You know, in, in society, I, this is too much. I'm not gonna, I'm not going to go through that. Totally true. And so motivation is actually something that can be cultivated. And I think that's often forgotten. It's like, do you have the motivation or not? If you don't, you're going to fail. Um, it's not that simple.
So sometimes you find that an initial motivation, something as stupid as you say, I can't do it. Well, also you, but if you can find other motivations and then cultivate them or bridge to new motivations, It can be really effective. So what do I mean by cultivating motivations? If, uh, maybe realistically speaking, you need Chinese for your future career and you can't use it at all until it's advanced.
It's pretty hard to just commit to years and years of study to eventually get fluent enough to use it for your job. Right. So then you have to find the aspects of the language that you're actually interested in that can start working your way up and fluency and proficiency. To give an example. I have a client, he works in finance for a long time.
His Chinese was too low to have any kinds of conversations in the office better than, you know, Nihao. So rather than just working for years at finance, he would find stuff that he was interested in and it turned out he was really interested in certain Chinese. TV programs. And so he'd focus on that, knowing that it wasn't directly applicable to his work, but he was making overall progress.
And once he got to a certain point, it was much easier to start plugging in a work-related vocabulary and then making the relevant progress towards his career. So I think what you're talking about there is, is, is maintaining that motivation and finding that motivation to continue on. But I think what it is is what you're pointing out is that we need to have little wins along the way.
And John, this is something that I feel like, you know, I'm not sitting here trying to plug man or companion on this, on this segment here. But, you know, we try to create books that are easy for people to read. And I can't count the number of emails and comments we have from people that like, Oh, I read this book and it just.
I never thought I could do it. And that just came the huge motivation to continue to learn the Chinese, you know, that's a breakthrough moment for a lot of people. And so if you are kind of at that level, you know, you're ready, like 150, 300 character level, you know, you try reading one. That was great readers.
Doesn't have to be ours, try another one too. You know, that can be some significant motivation to continue on, but you know, it's sometimes it's that either you finally connect with someone in the language, you got to get out there and you got to use it. Cause that is one of the key things are about finding your motivation.
Is that ultimately at the end of the day, You're going to need to use your language in an effective way. And by doing so and connecting either with something written, spoken, audio, visual, whatever that is going to create experiences and moments that are memorable to you and are motivating. To help you continue learning Chinese.
And it's not just about wins, but also about rewards. Like if you're, if you're on a course of study where all you ever get is feedback about what mistakes you're making, then, uh, yeah, you can make progress, but it's super de-motivating. And just like someone who's on a, on a diet occasionally lets them solve, have a little dessert or a cheat day or something.
You need to give yourself something in Chinese, which you legitimately enjoy the cleverest way to do it is to find. Some way that it's somehow related to your main goal, but even if it isn't a Chinese girlfriend, that's the number one joke. I always says, like it trying to like, you know how to learn Chinese, get a Chinese girlfriend.
That was never an option for me. Cause I was already married in China. But you, John worked out pretty well. Well, actually my future wife was willing to date me in the first place because I already spoke Chinese. Cause she didn't want to have to like speak English. Well, it didn't hurt. Yeah. It didn't hurt.
So as I was saying, probably the cleverest way to do it is to reward yourself with things that you really find interesting. That is somehow also related to your, your ultimate goal. But even if it's not, it's better to do something which you enjoy that's in Chinese and keeps you going then. Just burning out and quitting.
So like, uh, you know, if your goal is to be able to talk about finance and Chinese, but you really enjoy reading level to journey to the center of the earth, but men are companion then, you know, there's, there's nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong at all. So the point is guys find your motivation and keep finding new things that will motivate you.
Find little rewards along the way. Those things are going to help you continue to learn a language and advance to higher levels of proficiency. So get out there and do it. You can do it. You can do it guys. There's no one answer and it's a very personal thing, but it's definitely possible.