【Case Study】Rick’s Mandarin Success

Below is a transcript from the podcast. Check out more testimonials here, and click to learn more about The Mandarin Blueprint Method.

Phil Crimmins:
Welcome back to the Mandarin Blueprint Podcast. I’m here with Rick who has kindly agreed to chat with us about his experience of the Mandarin Blueprint Method course. But before we get into anything specific about the course, I thought we could talk a little bit about what got you into learning Chinese and also just a little bit about you, Rick. So maybe you can give us a little self-introduction and why you decided you wanted to learn Mandarin?

Rick Toholka:
Sure, Phil. Happy to chat with you guys. Basically, I’m a fifth-generation Australian. I had a rural upbringing, and I trained as a communications and electronic engineer, and I served for 26 years in the Royal Australian Air Force, and I left as a senior squadron leader. I then went back to uni and completed some postgraduate training in digital comms, and then I embarked on a second career as a telecoms IT project manager with Telecom Australia or Telstra. Basically, there I worked as an IT project manager, a program manager, and finally took a very senior role as a project director overseeing 200-300 million dollar IT upgrade programs for them.

Rick Toholka:
I then had a career change; I joined an international IT giant and was responsible for managing teams throughout East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Australia, and specifically the People’s Republic of China offices in Beijing, Delian, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong. Now I’m a beef farmer, a retired beef farmer, but I’m quite active. And basically I’m providing prime Angus beef to China. And also, or victories I suppose, is that early in my air force career I married a Malaysian-Chinese lady and I had three mixed Chinese-Australian children, and so you get an understanding how I interrelate with the Chinese. I’ve lived and worked in Malaysia for the best part of 10 years and I’ve traveled extensively throughout East and Southeast Asia. Been to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Taiwan, Shanghai, Xi’an, Beijing, Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo, to name a few.

Rick Toholka:
I got serious with Mandarin about eight years ago after I completed the Michel Thomas spoken Mandarin CD course. It was eight CDs and it was pretty good. It was sort of, “We’re not going to teach you to read and write, we’ll teach you to speak the language and we’ll give you a bit of the grounding.” It was good grounding. So then I enrolled in night classes and I completed Mandarin Introduction Certificate Level I and II. And it was basically the social pleasantries and it was slow and frustrating. After that, I enrolled at The University of the Third Age and attended classes for one term, and it was very frustrating because everything moves at the speed of the lowest common denominator. The last eight years have been a conglomeration of applications on the internet and some of them are good and some of them are trashy, but they all failed to make me literate, yes. And I had no confidence in it, so basically I’m here at your doorstep because of that background, because of my frustration.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. I had never heard of the Michel Thomas method until you mentioned it in a comment and I looked into it a little bit. It’s interesting because I took the approach when I first started learning Mandarin, very focused on the characters, which set me up well for what we’re doing now, but I’ve never considered the idea of starting purely from speaking. I think Luke did that. Luke started off with Pimsleur, which is focused on speaking. That’s an interesting way to go about it. I imagine that if that were the case, that learning characters and words, you’d kind of like be like, “Oh, I know this already, but now I’m seeing it in it’s a written form.” Which is probably quite satisfying, I would imagine.

Phil Crimmins:
And also, what were you saying? The course you took on the social pleasantries and the lowest common denominator in the class. I can completely empathize with that. That’s something I had to deal with at Sichuan University a lot, especially because we were learning through this method that we’ve now developed and created for Mandarin Blueprint. And we were kind of figuring it out at the time, but as a result, I kept getting farther and farther ahead of my classmates and that was frustrating because we would be in class and I would find the teacher would have to stick to, like you say, the lowest common denominator just to keep the class going, which got to be a little bit boring and frustrating. So I can totally understand that. So that was the problem you were facing when you were looking through that.

Phil Crimmins:
And of course now that you’re working in as a beef farmer and working and selling beef to Chinese clients, it’s obviously going to be a huge help to you to be able to speak Mandarin. Because I think in a lot of things like that, that’s the type of thing that gives you an edge. Obviously, you want to have good quality beef and all of that, but to some degree, if you can talk directly to a Chinese client and speak in their language, that’s got to give you an advantage. Especially in China, they really appreciate that. I guess then in that case, you kind of answered the first questions I would have asked you in that introduction. So let’s talk a little bit about the Mandarin Blueprint course. So first of all, how did you find us?

Rick Toholka:
Well, because I was on the internet, about three years ago you started marketing and sort of put the Mandarin Blueprint out there and you explained what you were doing, and I sort of followed you piecemeal along the way. And then when you got to sort of some serious marketing, you had reached a very good point I suppose, where you were up and running. And I looked at it and I thought, “Yeah, let’s have a look at this. This looks pretty good. Yeah.” I just wanted to say too, that because of the interaction I’ve had with many Chinese people both in Australia and overseas and in China, that I just reinforce the point you make that it opens doors. You don’t have to say very much, just a simple [foreign language 00:07:08]. You speak Chinese to them, they sort of say, “Well, who are you?” Boom, boom, boom. And that is pretty good.

Rick Toholka:
But also when I started the course with you, one of the early bits of advice was, “Hang on. Don’t worry about the speaking, get involved with the characters.” And I can really understand that because although they’re nice, they’d have to tolerate the fact that you’re speaking to them at kindergarten level. And I think the advice that you sort of give was; get your 600 characters under your belt before you start trying to use it in a verbal fashion. And I think there’s a lot of value in that and I hope that’s the case.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. Well, certainly the theory of language acquisition seems to say that it’s the input hypothesis. That if you want to get truly good at a language and acquire a language, you need to have as much input as possible, which means as much reading and as much listening as possible. And reading is even better than listening, surprisingly. I was surprised to see that research because you’d think that it would be listening. But reading, if you read a lot, the context, I guess it’s because maybe you have more parts of your brain that can kind of engage with the content. But if you read a lot, you end up acquiring the language faster, and then at that point you can output and activate the language. But activating the language is a much faster process than accumulating your passive vocabulary. And so the only way to get really good is to read a lot.

Phil Crimmins:
And so if you’re going to read, you got to learn the characters. There’s just no way around it in Chinese. So our attitude is “Okay, that’s the hardest part. That’s the thing that makes Chinese unique, so let’s tackle it right off the bat.” And so, well speaking of, we obviously have a character learning method that is a bit nontraditional, I guess you could say. We use the mnemonic system and all of that. So what’s your experience been of how we teach characters and were you skeptical about it at first? And sort of talk me through what that was like for you.

Rick Toholka:
Okay, so that’s a good question. I was skeptical. I thought with the multitude of courses available and the syllabuses and all the rest of it, why is this going to be any different? But I’m pleased to say I’m quite inspired because I found it very different very quickly, immediately. That’s why I’ve locked in, I’ve warmed to the training. I think I’ve moved a head fairly quickly. I got through the pronunciation because I had a pretty good understanding of the pronunciation, but it was a very, very useful, start to consolidate that pronunciation. And then, when I started on the course proper, learning the characters, it works first up. And I thought, “Hang on, this is very good.” Because you do those other courses and you learn a character a day and what have you, the next day you forget that character and you’re wasting months and years. And I found that this was the consolidation. And of course the Yankee database interface that you’re using there is fantastic for the spaced repetition learning. And I found that very, very, very good.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. Yeah. I love the SRS learning, because in a way, even though there’s a little bit of you have to get used to how Anki works at the beginning, which can be a little bit frustrating. Once you get that working it’s such a relief because you know that anything that goes into your new cards you’ll remember or at least if you forget, you’ll bring it back really quickly. Which is really the fundamental problem with most traditional learning courses is that the way that they teach them in the first place is just kind of wrote. They’re like, “Okay, here’s a new character and here’s what it means. Just try to remember that.” And then you don’t have a review software either, so you’re not having a good first learning approach and then you don’t review it properly or you review it too much perhaps.

Phil Crimmins:
The SRS allows you to review it the minimum amount possible while still retaining it. So yeah, SRS was a huge boon to my study, so I’m glad to hear that it’s working for you as well. So let’s suppose you were looking at a new character now. Which level of the course are you in currently?

Rick Toholka:
Okay, so I’m up to 105 characters.

Phil Crimmins:
Okay, perfect. So you’ve gotten to the point where you’re through the first two phases. So if you approach a new character, about how long does it take you to go from the starting point to moving on to the next character in terms of going through your little pneumonic scene for it?

Rick Toholka:
Okay. So I have a bit of a starting point because a lot of the characters that we’ve done so far I’ve been across the Pinyin meaning of that character, but I haven’t known the character. And so it’s probably taken me about no more than 10 minutes to sort of put together the actors, the sets, and to compile a little story. Yeah, 10 minutes I’d say. So then I follow your advice and sort of don’t think too hard about it, and I actually rely on Anki to actually get the repetition. But I also approached you a few weeks back and said, “Hey, how do I include the script in there?” And you gave me the advice of how to do that. And I’ve done that for the first 105 characters and I find that’s very useful as well. Very useful. And maybe something you can consider.

Rick Toholka:
That said, I’d just like to say the way you and Luke have put the effort into compiling this course is really fabulous because you hold our hands at the start but you very, very quickly let us run. And that’s no mistake, that’s no accident. It’s very, very well-conceived and implemented, and really well done. And I think that is going to help keep people on board, and certainly, it’s helped me. I see it as sort of positive reinforcement of “You’re up here, now stretch yourself a bit.” And I think that’s good. And I hope that, I’ll imagine I will, continue throughout the course.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah, yeah. Luckily we’ve had so many great comments and sort of customer suggestions that have been put into the course that we address in the podcast and then we put them into the course itself. So you’ll still see us as you go through, but it’s a little bit less past character 105 because you know what you’re doing at that point, but at least you can get suggestions. It’s kind of cool because now new course content gets created every week by members of the course, which is great. So it means it’s not just Luke and I with the suggestion, it’s everyone. So that’s kind of cool.

Rick Toholka:
Can I say, Phil, at character 105, of course the beauty is there’s no Pinyin and there’s no English. And to my surprise and the surprise of some others that I’ve heard, it’s sort of like, “Hang on. I’m reading Chinese for the first time and I didn’t realize I could.” And that was very positive.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. No, we really wanted to get people to that point while recognizing that you can’t totally rush into it. We want it to be a real feeling like you’re actually seeing this and you know it. It is possible to get to the point where you’re reading full Chinese sentences and understanding what they mean with only 105 characters under your belt. Considering that you need to know eventually, you need to know something like 3000 characters maybe, depending on how far you want to go. But it’s really quite cool. Let’s talk a little bit about what you think we might be able to do to improve the course. You already mentioned perhaps adding a notes field to the Anki cards so you can record your scenes.

Phil Crimmins:
Just to comment on that briefly. I do agree that that’s a good idea to have a place where you can record your scenes, but I also think that as you get good at it you should be able to just remember them as they are. Because the idea is that the pneumonic techniques, the better you get at them and the more you add the different what we call special effects, which are basically just memory champion techniques for remembering individual facts, you’ll be able to remember them in the same way that you remember any life memory. Like if you remember something from 20 years ago, it’s because there’s something about the things that happened at that time that stick into our highly evolved memory centers of our brain. And so if you can sort of hack that process, you can do the same thing. Now obviously at the beginning when you’re just getting used to the techniques, it’s a good idea to record, so I’ll keep that in mind. But apart from that, any other suggestions for how we could improve the course?

Rick Toholka:
Well, just on that particular point. I take note of what you said. In fact, you’ve told me that and I’ve given it some consideration, and I think it’s a very valid point and I think that the sooner you can drop the actual recording of it the faster you’ll be able to move on. And I understand that. I think the regular positive reinforcement that you and Luke give us along the way is very important, and I imagine that’ll continue. I think too, although I’m quite junior and this is quite early days, I can see a clear and achievable path to the fluency in Mandarin that I’m looking for. Yes.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah. Well, that’s great to hear. That’s what we want, we want people to feel like. We know that it’s a big mountain learning Mandarin, but if you know where you are in the mountain and you can see the top, then that can help a little bit with the motivation along the way. It certainly helps for me. I remember a very distinct point. I don’t know exactly, it was about a year into my study where I sort of realized, I was like, “Oh, I’m going to do it. I think I’m going to do it.” Because so many people fail, so you think, “Okay, if all of these people fail to learn Mandarin. They try.” And I run into them all the time here in Chengdu, the ex pats who’ve been here a while. They’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I tried to learn Chinese, but it was so tough,” or whatever.

Phil Crimmins:
You naturally, when you’re first starting off, you’re like, “Am I going to make it? I don’t know, maybe I’m just not smart enough.” Or maybe whatever. There’s a point everybody reaches where they go, “Oh wait, no. I know what to do. I can do it. I can make it. All I have to do is just keep showing up and to study each day.” What we’re trying to do anyway with Mandarin Blueprint is get people to get that feeling earlier, so that way they’re more likely to continue. So that’s really great to hear. Well, I guess then the last question I would just have for your Rick, is would you recommend Mandarin Blueprint to somebody who’s just found our course?

Rick Toholka:
Well, let me say, based upon my life experience, being married to a Chinese and you would think after decades you would expect that you’d be able to speak the Chinese. She was actually not Mandarin educated, she was English educated but spoke Hokkien, and native Hokkien, and Cantonese, and of course no Mandarin. And so I tried to learn Hokkien. And I can speak the social pleasantries, I can go down to Singapore and talk to the older people because they speak Hokkien. But there was no reading or writing. There was no characters, although they do exist, but that it wasn’t there and it wasn’t available. And so having now experienced something that gives me a strong feeling that I’m going to make it, of course, there is nothing better than Mandarin Blueprint. And I think you guys are on a real winner here.

Rick Toholka:
If it’s only developing slowly now, I think there’ll be a point where you’ll achieve critical mass and then it’ll explode. And I can see that you guys are smart enough to sort of perhaps appoint people in other countries to actually spread the word. And yeah, I think it’d be really good. And I’d like to see it from an Australian point of view because we’ve got a lot of Chinese migrants. They’re very good people in the main. Very good people, very family-oriented, very progressive. And I think that many Australians could do themselves a favor by actually learning the language and making us a more cohesive society. Yeah.

Phil Crimmins:
Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s a very hopeful sentiment to end the podcast on. So thank you so much, Rick. And definitely, we’ll see you on the course. Ask any more questions at any point and we’ll be happy to answer whether it’s in the comments or on the community forum. Thanks so much, and we’ll check in with you in a few months and see how you’re doing.

Rick Toholka:
Okay. Phil, keep on doing what you’re doing. Well done.

Phil Crimmins:
We will. Thanks very much.

Rick Toholka:
Cheers mate.