Episode 183 - Find your Why for learning mandarin

183. Find Your “Why”

Podcast Duration: 00:49:39
183. Find Your "Why"

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Gavia by Email

Hi Luke & Phil,

I must be very close to my two year mark with MB and I want to write you a proper “report” to tell you how I’m doing, but I’m way to busy at work to do it now… However, I still want to say THANK YOU for these two years!

Right now I’m especially glad I got the Habit Building course. My Chinese habit was quite strong from the beginning and I think I would be studying every day even without the habit course. But with my professional life as crazy as it is right now, I’m sure that without the Habit Building Course I would feel that I’m not advancing or doing the “right” things. Thanks to the habit course I now know that even if Chinese is sort of on a backburner in my life for a few weeks, I am not losing my focus. A few more characters, a few moments of immersion, Anki every day whether I feel like doing it or not, I do it. It just happens. Even if I feel like I’m not studying nearly as much as I would like to, I’m not feeling lost.

One question: What to do about words that come out “backwards” all of a sudden? I speak for a good half hour every week with my language partner. Speaking is not my main focus, but I’m starting to activate what I have learned and it’s fun. I notice lately that I often know that I know a word OR I don’t even now that I know, but it just “comes up”, but then I don’t QUITE remember or know it and end up saying the characters in the wrong order. It happens frequently now and it didn’t before. Today I said 妆化 instead of 化妆。 I only notice these myself when my language partner tells me he doesn’t understand what I mean, although by now he’s getting so used to it that he understand by guessing that I’m turning things around again and just bursts out laughing.

Any tips? I guess more immersion…. maybe I just need a more solid base for my words in general (I’m doing individual characters on a faster track now than sentences to learn words) and/or I’m trying to “activate” those words a bit too early and need more input and less speaking. Maybe this didn’t happen before because I was using a MUCH more limited vocabulary and now I’m starting to relax and tap into that unconsciously learnt part of my vocabulary? (Trying to think something positive in order to not get frustrated here).

On the other hand…. searching for a word like that must mean that I’m still translating in my mind, right? Today I was, but sometimes it seems like those “switched order” words come out unconsciously, automatically, but if they REALLY did, they’d come out right, wouldn’t they, not in a switched character order? So….I need more immersion… and probably a bit more sleep too. No matter how strong my habits are, I do notice the lack of sleep and general tiredness in how things are going.

So… any tips on how to keep my characters in order in words?

Take care!


Hi Luke & Phil,

I don’t remember the exact date but I must have signed up for the MB pronunciation course somewhere towards the end of June 2020 so it’s time to look back and see how far I have come in two years. What can I DO with my Chinese now? What do I even WANT to do with it, to begin with?

I’m currently on level 63, character 1767 of the Upper Intermediate course and I have reviewed sentences up to level 51. Right now I plan to work on a pace of minimum 1, average 3 characters per day, add new sentences only very slowly and use the rest of the time for immersion and output practise. That means that I should be finishing the Advanced course characters some time in the fall of 2023 and will still have sentences for a looooooong time to come, mixing them with immersion material and sentence mining, little by little.

My initial motivation to learn comes from a morning moment 25 years ago in a Beijing park after practising taiji together with the locals. ALL of them wanted to talk with us, but we had no language in common, so I absolutely wanted to learn Chinese. But life happened and I forgot my Chinese dream, until 22 years later when I started considering another trip to Beijing in 2019 and I remembered my long forgotten dream of learning the language.

So you could say that my first and foremost goal is be to be able to communicate better if I ever get a chance to travel to China again. That’s why I want to focus on spoken, conversational language and I absolutely want to be able to understand and speak. Also, I already have two “slient” languages that I only read in, but I’m not comfortable speaking due to lack of practise and I DON’T want that to happen with Chinese! That’s why I insist on listening and speaking.

There are other dreams, like

– being able to read “real” literature and enjoy movies and series in Chinese

– learning some classical Chinese at some point and reading traditional texts on Chinese philosophy

– learning about traditional Chinese culture and history in Chinese

– understanding a Chinese explanation of qigong technique, although this is not a very essential as I have a fantastic teacher in Europe that speaks fluent English

– just connecting and communicating with Chinese people, understanding how the world looks from their point of view

– I’m not learning Chinese to do business, but if Chinese tourists ever return to our part of the world, maybe doing business with some of them might be an opportunity to practise Chinese, just for the sake of learning more?

– that elusive “fluency” that no one knows how to define…

Are these realistic dreams for a 50 year old who is overwhelmed with work and too busy to really study anything? Do they make sense? No, not really… but I don’t care. I just study on, following the MB course, character by character and enjoying the journey. At this point I have come too far to quit anyway and to be honest I don’t even care if I can’t ever go back to China. I would still continue learning, even if I don’t really know why.

So how am I doing with these dreams after two years on the MB course? Let’s see:

I can type Chinese now! I can start a written chat any time with people I have “met” on HelloTalk or someone new. I can easily tell them my story, where I am from, where I live, what I studied and what I do for a living, my hobbies and interests, why I study Chinese…. and I can ask them about their story.

Of course I’m missing many words, but it doesn’t matter, I can just throw in a word or two of English (only occasionally) and say …用中文怎么说? and they will tell me. next time I’ll know! (if I then review that, that is…) When they correct me the messages still come back with some, sometimes a lot, of red (that is, mistakes) in them, but that’s OK.

What’s important to me is that picking up the phone and starting typing Chinese feels COMPLETELY NATURAL to me now. Even easy, there’s nothing hard about it, it’s just as normal as switching the keyboard between my native Finnish to English or Spanish to write in those languages. No, my Chinese level is nowhere near my strong languages. But typing Chinese, almost daily, even if it’s just a little bit, feels just as normal to me.

I can also read most of what they answer. I need to look up characters and words of course, but mostly I get the point of what they are saying even before I go run it through google translate just in case to know what they are saying. I have been asked a few times where I used to live in China “because you sound so Chinese”. They generally don’t expect someone in a totally non Chinese environment write like that after two years of study. That said, my level is NOT very high, I only write very simple things of course. But I feel that it is a VERY good start, a solid base. I have been writing on HelloTalk for about a year and a half already. I could start early since I had studied some characters (nothing else, just characters) for some time before I started MB.

During that early morning moment in Ritan park in Beijing about 25 years ago I REALLY wished that I could speak Chinese. If someone took me to Ritan park’s taiji corner tomorrow morning I could easily have that conversation in Chinese now IF IT WAS THROUGH TYPING ON A PHONE. 😀 Speaking…. is still another matter.

I can’t read real books. 1700+ characters don’t quite make it yet. As I’m tired of graded material I have not been reading much of anything for a long time. I can’t read subtitles either, mostly because my reading speed is too slow even if the characters happened to be familiar and understandable.

Now with less sentences on Anki I feel that my characters really need some company, they need to make friends with other characters, I want to see them “out in the wild” and I feel the need to read. So I have just ordered some transcripts of my favorite podcast to start reading something that is conversational, everyday spoken language and not too difficult. Reading will be one of my focus areas for my third MB year.

Seeing a paragraph of characters anywhere else than a HelloTalk message (that I EXPECT to understand) still feels like the “great wall of China”. My brain still switches off to “can’t get that anyway” mode. That’s something I would like to change in the next year. I want to climb over that wall, soon!

I can speak comfortably on the phone with ONE Chinese person.That’s my language partner, who calls me every Sunday night and we are on the phone for 45min to an hour. Topics go from “how was your week” and talking about weather or food to cultural differences, covid situation, travel, language learning, literature, movies, series and world politics.

How is it possible when I otherwise feel that I really can’t speak? Well, we have been speaking like this for a year. First calls were short, EVERY sentence was VERY slow and needed to be repeated three times and possibly still translated before it was understandable. But we know each other by now, there is often enough context to guess what the other person is possibly saying and we know each other’s level. His Spanish is on a quite similar level as my Chinese. We are both serious and experienced language learners, our conversations are very relaxed, just to practise and have fun, not so much about systematically studying really. That phone call is always the highlight of my Chinese week, a prize I get for whatever I have been doing to study and improve.

I have tried speaking with other people on the phone, but I don’t have much time and it feels too daunting to start establishing a dynamic that would work for both with a new person. My biggest problem in speaking is still understanding what they say. I mostly don’t or only guess unless it is very predictable and slow. I have tried, but I just get frustrated and quit or switch to English very soon with anyone else for now. I can open my mouth in Chinese but I can’t say it feels natural or easy at all. EXCEPT on Sunday nights on the phone with my language partner. That’s 1 out of 1,4 billion Chinese people. But it’s a start, right?

I haven’t really spoken Chinese face to face at all with anyone. If I try it’s more like I say something which they mostly understand or guess from context if I have first “prepared them” saying something in English like “I’m going to try to speak Chinese now, so listen carefully please….” and then I will smile and nod while they talk to me and THINK that I’m understanding something. Often I am, but not understanding CLEARLY enough makes me too nervous to respond anything so there is no conversation really.

I have been told my pronunciation is much better than an average foreigner’s pronunciation and that I’m understandable, but also that the my tones are still way off and it makes it sometimes hard to follow what I’m trying to say.

I can listen to ONE native podcast easily, understanding enough to keep my brain encaged in it even if I don’t understand everything. I get most of what is going on and if I listen carefully in 10 minute “sprints”, repeating each sprint three times back to back, I end up understanding practically everything about the message even if I may miss words.

I have been wondering whether this is true or if I just THINK I understand, but I just got a transcript of one of my favorite episodes and I’m reading it through systematically. It seems that I really did understand maybe 95% or more of the message through listening.

Listening to other native material doesn’t work well at all yet. The reason I can follow this one is that I am used to their accent and way of speaking, they use simple, conversational, everyday language and I think it also makes a difference that they have clearly had a lot of contact with western culture and are fluent English speakers with many international friends and listeners. It’s not a podcast specifically made for language learners and not graded material, but it works wonderfully for me.

That said, getting here has taken me about six months of listening to it weekly and I started at understanding only some words and parts of sentences. It helps a LOT to have the topic of the episode in English and maybe run the description through a translation software first to know what they are talking ABOUT before starting. But I don’t need to do that anymore. I just understand. And it feels SO cool!

The podcast is 打个电话给你 – One Call Away. It’s mentioned as level 4 immersion material in the MB Immersion Course, so I’m the rebel here, skipping ahead SEVERAL levels above my real level… But really, there are not THAT many characters that are not included in the intermediate course, it’s just fast! By they way, the girls are originally from Shenzhen even if it is listed as a “Taiwanese” podcast in the Immersion Course. In the episode where they discuss accents one of them mentions that many Chinese people also think that she sounds Taiwanese. The other’s native language is in fact Cantonese. Most of my HT friends also told me “it’s obvious that they are Taiwanese….” but they aren’t. Which on the other hand also means that the transcripts are in simplified characters which is great!

My next goal is to get to a similar level, that is, I can understand what’s going on, my brain won’t switch off because of frustration, I can stay engaged, with a Beijing accent podcast, 日谈公园。It’s similar in the sense that it’s conversational, chat-between-friends kind of thing, but probably with much wider topics and a (sometimes VERY) strong Beijing accent. At the moment it feels mostly like One Call Away felt in the beginning, but now that I have gone through the process of getting to a decent level of understanding with one podcast, it’s easier to BELIEVE that it can happen again. And since my Chinese studies SOMEHOW got the first spark of interest precisely at 日坛公园…. this just sounds right to me. 🙂

Chinese has not yet “arrived” into my physical, real world. It’s all on the internet, with the MB course, HelloTalk, series… My only real world Chinese friend is my taiji teacher who is not AT ALL interested in helping me learn Chinese 😀 But he’s my challenge, the one whom I can trust to give me the most brutal feedback, in a very old school Chinese, super strict and demanding teacher kind of way. His opinion has now changed from “you do know you will NEVER learn, right?!” to “I admit that if you now went to live in Beijing for you would probably speak pretty fluently after living there for a year or so”.

I don’t speak Chinese with him, but any whatsapp conversation is all in Chinese. I even felt that I MAY have heard a LITTLE bit of something maybe resembling something like pride in his voice when I was trying to participate in a conversation in Chinese with him and a Chinese restaurant owner and he told them “她写的比她说的好多了”!

He lives far away anyway and there are no Chinese people here I would like to talk to. If and when Chinese tourists return I guess I will get one of those Mandarin Companion T-shirts that say 跟我说中文 and just walk around town on weekends wearing it and see what happens… In normal times we do get a lot of tourists here. A new client of ours, a Vietnamese born American who is a long time resident of Shanghai, recently mentioned she may be able to recommend our business to some of her Asian friends. For the time being I could tell her that “I speak just enough Chinese to make a Chinese person smile and make them feel welcome, even if it’s not fluent enough to really communicate for business.”

Anyway, after just two years and lots of fun studying, this is more than good enough for me and I’m really looking forward to whatever new skills I’ll reach during my next MB year!

Thank you Luke and Phil – and a big thank you also to Christine for being my MB study buddy with whom I can share tips and tricks and the joys and frustrations of the journey, it’s been so helpful!

Kind regards

Gavia Arctica

I really don’t know how much time I spend because none of it feels like “studying”!

You know my situation: 50-60h work weeks and an elderly parent at home to take care of nights and weekends – time is limited.

– Flashcard reviews for 40-75 minutes per day, that’s done in 5-10min intervals all through the day little by little

– Maybe an hour of relatively concentrated immersion / character study / pronunciation practise / writing (not consistent… one thing or another) + a bit of passive immersion while cooking & cleaning, not necessarily every day

– Many weekends end up being total Chinese marathons for hours but other weekends I hardly find the time to review flashcards, on the average I do (much) more on weekends than weekdays

– NEVER a zero day, why take time off from something that’s fun and relaxing?

That’s now, the first year it was maybe not as constant, less study and watching lots of series, too difficult material to count as immersion really, but that helped to get used to the sound of the language.

I’ll see if I can find that Chinese text for you, just to make myself review and correct it again. I would probably benefit from a BIT more systematic approach to many things I do, but I don’t seem to be able to help myself, always moving on to the next interesting thing, now it’s listening…. at some point it was writing… then pronunciation…. or speaking…. then characters again…. I can’t do everything all the time but these “sprints” in different areas seem to work for me. I can’t “plan” then though, my interest just shifts from one thing to another. But as long as it’s fun and it works, who cares…

Take care!



Annette by Email

Hi Luke and Phil,

I enjoyed the full length interview with Kaiser Kuo (Legends of Language Learning). I had briefly come across SupChina a long time ago, but it wasn’t a direct language learning site and I dismissed it. Now that I know better what I can learn from it, it is indeed a very interesting site and I have started to listen to some of the podcasts while working out. I found the first half of this one really interesting: https://supchina.com/podcast/why-typing-characters-is-better-than-handwriting/ 

It makes me not feel too bad if my character writing is not 100% in response to studying my flashcards. If I type I know for sure if it is the right character or word I am looking at. I have long thought that typing pinyin helps me in an auditory way to remember the word and it seems to be confirmed. Ultimately what works depends on one’s optimal learning style, preferences and interests (e.g. calligraphy). I actually add the pinyin of the radicals we learn to the flashcard because it helps me remember the prop – as weird as it may sound to some people. I need characters, props, to have sounds and I believe so far I have come across two that have no sound and are harder for me to remember (one for sure is not an official radical which of course explains why there is no sound). Anyway, just thought I would point out this first half of the podcast given that you encourage some hand writing when going through the flashcards.

My progress is much slower now in the intermediate course. I have found a new rhythm that works which makes me not bother with images for the sentences that combine a new character with others into words. I do, however, like to unsuspend all the sentences to read the same word used in different ways. I look at it as additional, graded, reading material. I find that I no longer need the images with most two-character words, only in a few instances will I do this. I also spend much more time on immersion which in an almost bi-weekly increment increases in enjoyment as I learn new characters and words, some from the shows I watch that I add to the flashcards. Especially the vocab boosts spread throughout each intermediate level are a boon to understanding more. 

I just learned 微, what a grand character for a word meaning just the opposite. The dictionary says the traditional character is the same, guess that is why it is as complex as it is which triggered a ridiculous, almost “High Noon” standoff type story between Worf (Star Trek), the Terminator 彳and the tap dancer ⺙as part of the prop ensemble. 

Still having a lot of fun with learning Chinese and not hit the intermediate level blues (yet),



Rita by Email

Dear Luke an Phil,

Woow again to your communication, so well thought, light, entertaining and educational, good for you guys!!

I loved your example about Bruce Lee’s JKD method, which I’d never heard of (not fan of martial arts 🫣😄), and your summary of: “Economy of Motion”, Efficiency, Directness and Simplicity.

Sooo useful.

Congratulations for having done such a great work, using the best of the good methods around. It’s been a long journey, a lot of work, well worth it.

Thanks for all the references from other courses, and the tips for what doesn’t work…

And thanks also for all your innovations, the main one is the Pronunciation Mastery..

Thanks again for the communication, congratulations again! you have succeeded in making your unique course as close as perfect as possible, the next best would be to be born to Chinese parents and learn from them.

My appreciation and warm regards to you and your beautiful families.

Rita Vallarí

Mexico City


Kyano Maddock on 怎么才能写好句子?

Golly, this was difficult to get through. I read it yesterday and then again today. Much easier the second time/day going through it. Pumped to come back to it in a few weeks and smash it! Yew!!


Matt Shubert on Vocab Unlocked from 招

I was waiting for 咱们 to pop up somewhere in the course. In my immersion practice so far with mainland TV shows, I noticed 咱们 being used very often in casual dialog, is there any meaningful semantic difference between that and 我们? Is it a regional thing, formality, generational? Would it make me sound more like a native to use it? Just curious!