Back to Square One: A New Approach to Learning Chinese

Authors: Jordan Wolff


Many foreigners find that learning Chinese is easier said than done. So what is a distraught expat to do when encountering Chinese Algebra?
People come from all over the globe to get a taste of Chinese culture and to learn the language. However, many foreigners soon find that learning Chinese is easier said than done. So what is a distraught expat to do when encountering Chinese Algebra?
I sat down with Mandarin Blueprint Co-Founder Phil Crimmins to discuss his program. "Our core message is that developing a positive mindset about Chinese is just as important as the methods and tools used to study it. The process of learning any language is not a short one, and it therefore has to be genuinely enjoyable, even addictive, to guarantee success."
Phil came to China six years ago from his native home in the USA in search of the experience his friends so enthusiastically described. He winded through Beijing and Chongqing making a living by teaching English and playing drums until eventually settling down in Chengdu. "When I came back to Chengdu, I knew the city was quite special and so that was when I made the decision to really learn Chinese and enrolled in Sichuan University. But when I was at the university, I always thought it was best to learn Chinese based on methods that I was finding online, more than what the university was necessarily teaching me. I was trying to take what the university was teaching and fitting it into my own system. I kept developing that system and as I did that, I discovered that learning Chinese is what really got me to love Chengdu."
What is it to you that makes Chengdu such a special place?
The best thing about Chengdu without a doubt is the people. The people here are the most welcoming, warm, accepting people that I've had the pleasure to deal with and it took me being able to communicate with them in a deeper way than just "hello" and "thank you" for me to see that. As soon as you enter into a home, go to dinner with somebody, have a drink with somebody, they reveal themselves.
In terms of why that is, I think there are certainly things about Eastern culture that have been sort of a benefit to how Chinese people interact in their personal relationships. So for example humility in China is very strongly taught as a value. And humility doesn't just mean like saying "oh no no no" after a compliment. That's not all that humility is. When you're talking to me, I need to properly listen to you because maybe you know something I don't know. I find that is very true with Chinese people when you get into a discussion with them. They are very willing to listen to you and go through your whole argument even if they disagree with you. I find this especially true with Chengdu people. They give you the time of day to speak it through, which is really refreshing.
Also Chengdu is one of the cities farthest from the Capital. It's been that way for a long time and so it's like Chengdu people have always had their own identity and seen themselves as having their own character. A character that takes pride in being able to enjoy a balanced life.
Couldn't agree more. Ok, talk about the food. What's your favorite Sichuanese food or food in Chengdu?
Sure, so I like all Sichuanese food. I think that Sichuanese food is awesome and has introduced me to flavors that I never knew existed. For example, hotpot was a pleasant awaking. I think that hotpot is really fun because hotpot isn't just about the food, it's also about the environment, the excitement and the bustling environment. There are a couple of restaurants in Yulin (玉林) that do hotpot that are really good and I have a few little spots near my house that are quite nice. But as much as I love my hotpot, I think that probably 乐家烧烤 (Lejia Shaokao) is my favorite restaurant in Chengdu and they serve shāo kǎo (烧烤, barbeque).
Let's talk about the class and program. How did it start and what is the philosophy behind it?
Sure, so this is a huge question and there is a lot to it but, simply put, both my partner Luke and I have been researching ways in which the process of learning Chinese is more efficient. We found that it was better to build foundationally.
Let me explain it: when you are trying to learn a second language, it needs to be almost like a virus in a computer program. It needs to be something that integrates into your life in such a way that is almost subtle and intuitive because language is intuitive. So Luke and I are just trying to get the best learning methods that are out there today and present them in a way that your average person who just really wants to improve their Chinese into their skillset can learn as quickly as possible.
So at the moment we have a course that is 16 hours and we call it Mandarin Blueprint because after this 16-hour course, you should have loads of tools available to be able to integrate Chinese into your life in all aspects; reading, writing, speaking and listening. But we are also focusing on pronunciation, how to learn characters, how to learn words, how to use those words in sentences and how to get the most out of your resources that are online.
So really the value proposition that we are hoping to offer people is that for a little bit of time investment at the beginning of your journey in learning Chinese or even for an intermediate student, you can really cut down the overall study time by a lot through avoiding what doesn't work and focus your time on techniques that have been proven to work.
What would you say to the foreigner that feels they don't need to learn Chinese? What doors have opened up for you by speaking Chinese?
I would never judge somebody else's life and how they choose to spend their time. However, I would just say that it seems like foreigners who are not learning Chinese are missing out on a bunch of things that could be happening for them. I think it was that Nelson Mandela said, "Speak to a man in a language he understands and you go to his head, but speak to him in his own language and you go to his heart."
The opportunities that have opened up for me have been amazing. It has also led to a lot of enjoyable events and it's great meeting people. It's just great. As far as I understand, Chengdu is still the fastest growing economy of any city in the world. So it's a place of just constant opportunity and its not going to be like that forever. From a practical side, knowing the language can be quite lucrative but it also just enriches the entire experience living in China.
Besides taking your class, what immediate technique or practices could a foreigner do to pick up their Chinese?
Well, what I would say is whoever you are and wherever you are, make sure you have a pair of headphones and make sure that whenever you have time, listen to Chinese in some form. The idea is to teach the brain to care about the sounds that otherwise would be completely meaningless to you. I see no better way to do that than to just picking up one of these smart phones, opening up an app and just pressing PLAY.
If you are interested in hearing more from Phil you can listen in to his podcast, where he interviews both local Chengdu people as well as expats living in Chengdu. You can find his podcast at: The Third Eye 第三眼
About the Author: Jordan Wolff is from California, the US. He has been living in China for almost 3 years and is currently working in Chengdu. His articles and photographs have been published on the Bottom Line Newspaper and Gaucho Marks Magazine.

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