Neil’s Improving His Life in Taiwan with Mandarin Blueprint

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Neil:
It’s kind of cool because I’ve only seen you in videos before and it’s like oh wow, I’m talking to a movie star.

Luke:
Why didn’t you wait until I start the thing before [crosstalk 00:00:12].

Neil:
Oh, sorry.

Luke:
Oh man. Anyway, welcome to the Mandarin Blueprint Podcast. We have with us Neil and, first of all, Neil, I’d just like to get from you a quick introduction, if you don’t mind. Just tell us a little bit about yourself.

Neil:
Okay. I’ve been living in Taiwan for about 14, 15 years. And one of the reasons I came to Taiwan was because I was really interested in Chinese calligraphy and [Haji 00:00:45]. And even before I moved here I found the books, I found a teacher and started practicing calligraphy. So my main focus when I got over here was doing Chinese calligraphy, not so much on the speaking part. And so when I first got to [Taichung 00:01:05], My focus was on learning menus so that I could order coffee and food, the basic necessities. Coffee was first actually. And now I’m a single dad, my daughter goes to Chinese school and I’m interested in meeting other women, so I figure it’s about time I improve my ability to speak and listen to Chinese. And just as a further note, what I do here is I teach yoga, and so I’m speaking in Chinese, but my listening skills are really not that good. My vocabulary is fairly limited to yoga terminology and, like I said, bring coffee and whatever food I need.

Luke:
Oh, brilliant. Do you live in a … You live in Taiwan, right.

Neil:
Yeah, Taichung. It’s sort of not quite halfway down. About two hours away from Taipei.

Luke:
All right, tell us a little bit about the place where you live. What’s it like? Because I’ve never been to Taiwan. I’ve always been in mainland China, in mainly the cities. So tell me a bit about where you live. I can hear a police siren. You’re not in a … Is it a dodgy area?

Neil:
Oh, yeah. Well there’s a fire station about two blocks down, so I’m sort of on a main road, I should close [crosstalk 00:00:02:23].

Luke:
All right.

Neil:
I’m on a main road. But I’m basically with my daughter, who’s 11, and Taichung is a major city, but I lived in Chicago for a while, and before that I lived in Calgary, and both of those, they’re big cities, but they have a small town feel. I get the impression New York is really vibrant and exciting, and Taichung is the exact opposite of that. It’s not really exciting at all, but on the other hand it’s a great to raise a child. I feel safe with her here. She walks a couple of miles school and it feels like a really safe place to bring up a family. It’s not the best place if you like nightlife and stuff like that. People are friendly for the most part. I really quite content here. Life is [crosstalk 00:03:19].

Luke:
I would say that’s the one thing about living in China, and Taiwan’s even better maybe perhaps, but the low crime rate, it’s very safe.

Neil:
Yeah.

Luke:
That’s great. So you had a bunch of different reasons then. Well you started off with one or two reasons, maybe an interest in Chinese culture and that sort of developed into other things, which tends to happen, doesn’t it? So you’re saying your main … What would you say your main reason for smashing Chinese right now, which you are doing, what is your main reason right now? Is it just to connect more with your local culture, with your daughter. What is it?

Neil:
Well it’s sort of I’ll get into conversations with people and it’ll be very, “Hello, how are you doing?” And that’s about the limit of my conversation skills. And up to that point they may say, “Oh, your Chinese is so good,” and then they find out how long I’ve been over here, for 11 or 13 years, my Chinese is really … Wow. And so part of it’s that, and part of it is I’ve been to a couple of schools over here where there’s a mix of character learning and spoken Chinese, and quite literally it wasn’t the best experience. And I just feel like I’ve been here long enough, I’ve made enough sort of false starts to try and learn the language, and basically you guys came along and I sort of got your email for a little while and then I sort of oh, screw it. I’m just going to jump in and try this.

Neil:
And I don’t know if you want to edit this part out but I saw the seven day free trial and it’s like you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to try and take as much in as I can in seven days, see if I can learn it all and then just quit. And then it’s sort of like I’m doing it, and it’s like oh, it’s really well organized, I’m [inaudible 00:05:13] the Anki cards, you might want to edit that out, I type my own notes, all the things you suggest, I just don’t use Anki, I use Notepad because I can touch type Chinese. And so I basically do the same sort of thing that Anki’s supposed to do, but I do it on a Notepad. But now it’s sort of like I’m going along and I see characters, and I generally know the meaning of them in English, but I never know, especially the tone. But now it’s like I’m sort of like I can remember the tones and everything, and it’s just brilliant. It’s really exciting.

Luke:
Yeah, this is awesome to hear. And don’t feel guilty about that. I mean we all do that, right. Who doesn’t like to do stuff for free? If you can avoid paying, why not? But yeah, unfortunately, there’s way too much stuff. You don’t get to do it in seven days.

Neil:
Well, I’ll tell you. Just go on, I’m going to interrupt you for a second. But I think one of the nice things, because your pronunciation course, I started on that, and that was really good, but I only did two lessons of it. And I wanted to get back to it because that course, the few lessons I listened to, were really, really clear and it’s like this is the bomb, and this is free. But the thing is, when I had this seven day goal, it’s just like I’m going to try and get in as much as I can. And so basically I was going just screaming through that material and basically it just got me in the habit, and now I’m sort of like every day, even though I’m busy doing other stuff, it’s sort of like okay, today I’ve studied a little bit, but I was waiting for someone to attend the meeting.

Luke:
Yeah, that was me. Sorry, I was late today. That was me. Thanks for fitting it in there. [crosstalk 00:07:15].

Neil:
But no, that basically got me started and now it feels like I’m on a roll, so I’m just going to keep on going through it. And, like I said, once I got started it was really exciting to see yep, I’m at the stage now where I’m at the sentences and that’s really cool because I can sight read of lot of it, and I’m looking forward to progressing through that and just going on like that.

Luke:
I’m looking forward to hearing from you about it. And we do like to do follow-ups as well. So I’ll definitely schedule another call with you and we’ll follow up with you in a couple of months, definitely. So what would it mean for you, Neil, if you could read and speak Chinese? You had good literacy levels, you can read, say, a novel, and you could speak fluently on a wide range of topics. What would that mean to you and what would you do with it?

Neil:
Well, for me, I think one of the things, I’ve tended to be a loner. I’ve got a few close friends who I connect with. I tend not to hang out at the pubs and I like the occasional beer, but I’m not a person who likes to drink to socialize. And so what I’ve realized is, for me, it’s really important to be able to communicate with people on a deeper level, not just, “Oh, how’s the weather?” And so I guess for me that would mean being able to communicate with a lot of people, because I have a lot of … I’ve met a lot of different teachers, whether it’s calligraphy, [Chinese 00:08:50] or [Taiji 00:00:08:50], and then I sort of get by because a lot of that, you can sort of understand through body language, but it is sort of missing a big opportunity. Like I’d really love to be able to talk to these people in their own language and understand, and not have an intermediary.

Neil:
So one level of it is that my daughter speaks English pretty fluently, so it’s not really a big deal being able to speak Chinese with her, but reading your story about how you met your wife, and it’s sort of like yeah, that’s what I want to be able to do is more or less what you did. Sort of be able to talk to girls in their own language and be more … At British Army, about 20 years ago, and part of our basic German course was learning, “Are you married?” So I want to learn more than just being able to ask a girl in Chinese whether she’s married or not. I want to be able to have meaningful conversations.

Luke:
Yeah, follow up questions. That would be pretty important.

Neil:
Yeah.

Luke:
Yeah.

Neil:
Yeah. Does that answer the question?

Luke:
Absolutely. Answers it pretty well. And I was curious about your daughter because I was going to ask if your daughter was fluent in Chinese, or English, or both?

Neil:
Well it’s interesting because she goes to a Chinese school, Waldorf School actually, which is all taught in Chinese. And when she was younger that was pretty much all she talked. All she spoke was Chinese and I thought crikey, this is going to be interesting because my Chinese is not that good. But through a mix of things what we used to do is we used to watch English movies a lot, and we’d watch the same movies over and over again, and I think that’s how she learned to pick up English now. Now her English is pretty good, so we can communicate no problem in English, but at the same time she can communicate quite well in Chinese at school with all of her friends.

Neil:
Her writing is not so good because the education system over here relies, I think, a big part on grandparents and parents to sort of slap their kids over the head and say, “Hey, learn this right now.” So I haven’t been so good with that. But I’d say she’s fairly bilingual. One problem, and another friend who’s a parent said [inaudible 00:11:21], once they started learning English, with 26 letters, it’s a lot easier to learn to read and write English than it is Chinese, and now it’s sort of like I really have to push her to continue reading and writing Chinese. That might be another thing, going back to your previous question, is the better I can speak Chinese, the better I can help her with reading and writing at the very least, and maybe she can start helping me with pronunciation.

Luke:
So you’ve sort of already answered this next question, just make sure it’s nice and clear. So I’m really curious, as I am with all these questions, what are the three parts of the method that have the biggest impact on you personally? If you can’t name three, that’s fine, but just what parts of the method affected you the most?

Neil:
Well, I’m guessing, for me, remember the characters and the pronunciation. So for me, coming up with a person for the initial part of the pronunciation, that was challenging, but once I got used … It wasn’t really challenging, it was just getting used to this new thing. Then picking out the places … Sorry, am I answering the question in the right way? Did I answer the question you asked?

Luke:
Okay, so I’ll ask, and maybe I’ll … So there are a few parts to the course, right. You’ve got pronunciation, there’s learning characters, and words, and sentences, and our videos, or whatever, any other aspects of it. What three aspects of the course affected you the most? Or do you think had the biggest impact on your [crosstalk 00:00:13:05]?

Neil:
Oh, yeah. Okay. So because I go off on tangents and I was like am I answering the question you asked-

Luke:
I do the same. Don’t worry.

Neil:
… or what I think you asked? But basically the basic method for memorizing characters and the pronunciation. So figuring out a person for all the initials, and a place for the finals, that the way that you redivide … the way you redivide the initials in the final so you have more initials, so it’s easier to remember people and faces versus finals, it’s kick ass because I’ve only got a few … I was scrounging a bit for different places to use for the finals. And then some of my places I realized I didn’t really have a good memory for your particular rooms. So I’ve had to adjust just slightly, but overall, that in a nutshell is the really kick ass thing about your method is, like I said near the beginning of this podcast, it’s like I’m walking along and I can look at characters now and it’s like wow, I can remember the tone and it’s so easy.

Neil:
But yeah. No, that was good. And it was kind of … And again, another thing I like is when you look at your course outline and for each section you show all the characters and you can see how they’re all related, they all share common elements, and how you basically stack it up based on that. So the whole thing is laid out really nicely. So I think the whole thing, as a method, is really good.

Luke:
All right. Thanks, man. Yeah, we wanted to go for that games theory thing, that you’ve unlocked this, but you still got all this to unlock. Challenge as well as excitement and curiosity. And so I’m glad that’s working. So is there anything else at all that you think is worth sort of pointing out that’s been especially helpful to you? So we’ve got obviously the tones, the character method itself, the structure, the way we gamify it a little bit. Anything else? Or is that it?

Neil:
No, like I said, it’s just … No, I think the only thing that sort of held me back, and I don’t know why, and it might be just because I’m busy, but the only sticking point for me was getting up to speed with Anki. and yeah, that was my only … I guess because I’m learning so much, it’s like ah, God darn it. I don’t want to learn one more thing. And that is probably one thing I’ll just have to go through the video and look through that and figure it out. But even without that, I think I’m getting along. I’ll see how my tones progress. I want to go through your … And again, pointing out the pronunciation course you’ve got, I might have to go through that. It’s really clear and concise, and I remember you, you’re particular the way your pronunciation … I can’t even say the word now.

.

Luke:
One of the funniest things ever was when people would say pronounciation. It’s one of the most mispronounced words in the world as well, I reckon.

Neil:
Yeah, and that’s something I might have to revisit as well, but it feels like I’ve had enough exposure to that sort of material. I think I can get it, but I’ll probably review that once I get up to the reading level I want to, and that’s another thing I do want to do. You asked me earlier about what my goal is. My goal is talking with people, but also reading is another thing I’d like. I’d like to be able to read in Chinese as much as possible.

Luke:
Oh yeah, I do every day. Yeah, it’s really pretty fun. I mean I don’t get the chance, I guess … I don’t practice speaking as much as I should these days, but I always make sure I get in at least 15 minutes or so reading a day. And I don’t even read particularly … I read Game of Thrones and stuff, a bit of pulp fiction, that sort of genre as well. And comics, that’s my favorite thing to read. But I always read a little bit at the end of the day to wind down. It’s really fun.

Neil:
Yeah.

Luke:
Yeah. I don’t-

Neil:
Well that was-

Luke:
Yeah, go ahead.

Neil:
Well that was actually one of my projects because I bought the Chinese version of The Martian, I like Neal Stephenson, so I bought one of his books in Chinese, and Jack Reacher’s another one, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, so I buy some of those books in Chinese because I’ve got the English version, so I can sort of cross correlate. And actually what I’m hoping to do now is get to the stage where I don’t need so much the English version, I can just go through the Chinese version and try to build my understanding from that, or just go now.

Luke:
It’s a great idea to buy them in advance, I think, and just have it on your bookshelf there staring at you, and so that’s your goal, to be able to pick that up one day and work your way through it. I thought it was you actually, but obviously I don’t think it was, because you would’ve mentioned it by now, but there’s someone on the course recently, fairly recently, who mentioned they bought Lord of the Rings. I think it might be [crosstalk 00:18:32].

Neil:
No, it wasn’t me.

Luke:
They just started learning Chinese, I think. And they’re like, “I bought Lord of the Rings, my favorite book, the best book ever written, and I’m going to get into it.” And I didn’t have the heart to tell him it’s one of the most hardest … Even a Chinese person would be like, “Whoa, this is difficult.” But it’s great to have these … It’s great to have it as a goal. I don’t want to discourage him at all, I think it’s a fantastic goal, but it’s a lofty one.

Neil:
Yeah. I started to realize that, because I picked up the first book of Game of Thrones as well, because I’m guessing it’s the same in mainland China, they tend to come in … one book might come in two parts, maybe three parts. So I bought the first book, or the first half of one of the Game of Thrones books, and I started reading it. It’s like wow, this is heavy going because the language is so … Even in English it’s sort of a lot of special language, and I’ve decided now actually, if I want a more practical book and fun book to read, one I’d like to read is It, Stephen King.

Luke:
Oh yeah, I’ve read that. In English, not in Chinese yet.

Neil:
Yeah. I thought that might be a fun one because the language is a little bit more closer to everyday.

Luke:
Yeah. I mean you’d be surprised, reading Game of Thrones so far, it depends which character and what they’re doing. Because there’s loads of conversation in it and it’s more down to earth, more normal. And, of course, when you get the chapters like Bran chapter, or Aria, where they’re kids, it’s one of the most amazing translations I’ve ever seen. The guy who translated is this very famous sci-fi writes in China, and he’s incredibly talented.

Neil:
Oh, I think he’s done a couple of movies. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him in the bookstore. What’s his Chinese name?

Luke:
I don’t know his Chinese name, but I think he wrote Santi, a very famous Chinese sci-fi writer. Three-Body, I don’t know how you translate it.

Neil:
Yeah, that’s the one. Yeah.

Luke:
Yeah. I can’t remember his name. But anyway, because obviously there’s a lot of people that are not interested in Game of Thrones. They’re like, “Come on. Get to the next bit.” But the point is I think comics are a good way to go. Even if you don’t like comics as a medium, you will because-

Neil:
No, actually, that’s something I would like to.

Luke:
Yeah, and I’ve been putting together this resources section of this new ebook that I want to put out, and I’ve just been going through … because obviously I want to make sure I check every resource, make sure whether it’s free or paid, and what. I was going through all the comics, and they’ve done some amazing stuff with comic apps right now. I think you might need a VPN if you’re outside of China, but you’ll be fine in Taiwan. The comic apps are fantastic. They’ve just got so much choice and just fabulous content, and it’s relatively simple, relatively colloquial. And they even have this really cool feature where you just switch it on and you have all these live … Not live, sort of floating comments on each page where people have pointed to a specific part of the picture and made a comment in Chinese, so you get so many layers of very natural language. It’s something that I think you should try first, or one of the earlier things to go for.

Neil:
Yeah, well actually, sorry, one of the things I was thinking of as well is I got a lot of friends on Facebook. Do you get Facebook much over China?

Luke:
Yeah, everyone’s got a VPN.

Neil:
Yeah. Okay, then cool. But I was thinking a lot of times I’ll see comments, there’s another avenue, just copying as was another one. But I will look at comics. Yeah, just opportunities abound.

Luke:
Yeah, nowadays really is the most amazing time to learn any language. Yeah, there’s just so much stuff in the technical … As long as you don’t mind staring at the screen too much, there’s lots of top technology stuff you can do. So in this sort of vein, walk me through the results you’ve achieved so far and how that’s impacted you, because you haven’t started from zero, so I’m curious. Where were you in terms of your level exactly and how far have you got because of the Mandarin Blueprint methods? And how’s that affected you?

Neil:
Well basically I’ve had these stages where I’ve worked with various teachers or taking courses, and generally my thing is okay, I’m going to study Chinese for a bit, I’ll study it, and then I’ll pack it in after a month or two months. I’ll get a little bit forward and then I’ll backslide. And I think I noticed it a lot in my yoga classes. Some days I’ll be speaking, and it’s really clear, and people understand what I’m talking about. Other days I’ll start to backslide, and in general that’s when I haven’t been studying Chinese for a long time. And what I’ve found now, since I’ve been studying this method, and it’s only been two weeks, or thereabouts, is, like I said, I can walk along and already I can see … Keep in mind what I’ve mostly been studying is the characters, individual characters, and only now I’ve started getting to the sentences. But I think the most important thing is I can remember tones and pronunciation. You’ve given me a tool that makes it easy for me to recall tones and pronunciation.

Neil:
If I see a character that I should know, but I don’t, then I just go back through my notes to see what the story was. And the story is like oh, okay. So easy. And usually that’s enough to reinforce it. So I would say we’ll see how it goes, if I make it past two or three months and consistently continue to study, but I think you’ve given me sort of the big kick I need just to really get my Chinese to speed. Like I said, your story about meeting your wife, learning Chinese to speak effectively, I think that too is a big sort of driving factor. Reading your story is like holy, it is actually possible to work at it to learn to speak within a year. That’s sort of a doable timeframe. If I work out this and continue practicing, that’s sort of what it means to me. It is sort of like I’ve got a method that could help me learn to speak comfortably within a year. So that’s what I’m sort of looking for, to test out to see if I can get to that stage as well.

Luke:
So it’s more like you haven’t been on the course for too long, you’ve been on it just a couple of weeks, and we’ve thought you’d made it far because obviously you’ve been skipping through a lot of the lessons because there’s a lot you know. So in terms of actual progress, physical progress or neurons building, and all that stuff, maybe not as much as the average person, but what I think, because I’ve been in your position before, or the position I think you’re in, where it’s like you definitely want to learn it, you’ve tried many times, but it’s not been that successful. What maybe we’ve given you is a bit of hope, a bit of motivation to say, “Oh, it’s actually possible. It’s physically possible for me to become fluent in Chinese within a reasonable timeframe.”

Neil:
Yeah, definitely. Yeah. And again, reading your stories, all the problems you had, the roadblocks, it’s like yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve experienced. And you’re talking about the HSK, whatever that test is, the goal not being the HSK but it is a good milestone, a good marker. And I thought yeah, what the heck? Because I’ve got enough experience, I’ve got enough experience with the characters, I think, and I think I’ve learned most of the different pronunciation. So my sets, my actors, those are nearly complete. So yeah, I’d say that’s the biggest thing about this course. It gives me hope that I can learn to speak and understand Chinese in a reasonable amount of time, and have perhaps reasonably meaningful conversations.

Luke:
Fantastic. Was there anything going into the course that you were skeptical about?

Neil:
Actually no, to be honest with you. There are a lot of courses out there. There was one I was looking at and I thought that sounds kind of good. I think for me what tied it was I’m sort of passingly familiar with different memorization techniques. I had to learn to touch type Chinese, which is a shape based method of breaking down characters, a [Cangjie 00:27:58] method. And so that was, for me, a taste of memorization, associating different shades with different, easy to remember … It was sort of like a taste of what your method is, or a sample. So I think really, based on own experience with memory methods and wanting to learn anyway, your course offered a pretty good fi, and it just sort of getting in there and trying it out. And I just feel like yeah, this is really the cat’s ass, or the cat’s whiskers.

Luke:
I’ve never heard that one.

Neil:
Sorry. [crosstalk 00:28:37].

Luke:
I’ve literally never heard that one before. I’ll use that. No, it’s a common thing I’ve heard from people with some experience in memorization, visualization, the mnemonic, that sort of area, they hear our story and they hear about the method, they’re like, “Okay, I’m going to try this,” and they’re quite into it from the get go because, “Oh, this sounds up my alley,” it sounds like the cat’s ass, as you say.

Neil:
The cat’s meow, I suppose what it was supposed to be, but yeah.

Luke:
The cat’s meow. That’s the one. So would there be anything that you could point out, because this is just as valuable for us as what’s good about the course, is there anything about the course so far that you’ve seen that you think could be improved on, or you want more of, or you got too much of, or shouldn’t be there at all?

Neil:
No, to be honest with you. Yeah, sorry to say this, but for me right now it’s good as it is. I can’t think of anything. Like I said, you get comments from other people. Sometimes I need an idea for an actor. A couple of the recent initials, I had trouble thinking of something and I saw someone’s comments, yeah, that’s it. So I think you’ve got enough with the people being able to … with us being able to add comments. In general, I haven’t had any real big problems with it.

Luke:
Yeah. So would you recommend MB? And, if you would, why? If not, why not?

Neil:
Definitely. Like I said, I’m in Taiwan, so I guess the only problem would be that it’s simplified characters, but on the other hand, because simplified characters are simplified, if people could take the time to associate them with the traditional characters and, to be honest, cut all the BS, yeah, I definitely would. It’s definitely made it easier for me. I wouldn’t have a problem with … I would be quite happy to recommended it.

Luke:
That’s awesome. Thank you.

Neil:
[Chinese 00:30:46]. Do you say [Chinese 00:30:48] in China, or is that a Taiwanese thing?

Luke:
No, we love that over here as well.

Neil:
Okay, yeah.

Luke:
I appreciate that very much.

Neil:
No, it’s like the course is really well laid out. It makes it easy, and I’m just trying to set up my own course for yoga, and I’m loading up all these videos, and I’m using a different platform than you guys are, but there’s so many videos, man. What am I supposed to do? And with yours, because it’s in section, it makes it manageable, and it’s sort of like you don’t have this holy crap, there’s so much. Well, if you go through it and look through all the [inaudible 00:31:32] wow, there’s a lot to learn. But then once you focus on each page, it makes it easy. I guess it’s the game, or it’s sort of like going through a video game and going through the different levels, like yeah, I got through it.

Luke:
That’s awesome.

Neil:
So yeah, I think, based on my previous experience in trying to learn Chinese, I’d say I wouldn’t have a problem recommending it at all.

Luke:
Brilliant. That’s great. We really appreciate it. And thanks for your time today. I’ll leave it there before I go off on a tangent, or you go off a tangent, and thanks very much. It’s been great meeting you!

Neil:
Same. Take care!

Luke:
All right. Bye-bye.