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A Secret Recipe for Chinese Learning–An interview with Keoni Everington

Keoni talks about his unique experience learning Mandarin and shares his recipe for true success with the language

12·02·2012

A Secret Recipe for Chinese Learning–An interview with Keoni Everington

Keoni talks about his unique experience learning Mandarin and shares his recipe for true success with the language

12·02·2012

The web director for The World of Chinese Keoni Everington (华武杰) is from the USA. He has 20 years of experience of learning Chinese; he can speak Chinese as fluently as a native Chinese speaker in our office. Some of my foreign colleagues admire Keoni’s language skills and would like to be able to speak Chinese as fluently as he does one day. With this blog, we get an opportunity to listen to Keoni’s special Chinese experience and enjoy his secret recipe for Chinese learning.

Q:Many foreigners consider Chinese learning a tough task. What’s your opinion? When you began to learn Chinese, did you experience frustration? If you have, how did you overcome the difficulties?

Yes, Chinese is indeed a very difficult language. It takes a lot of extra time if you want to really be proficient in every facet of the language including the writing. Learning the characters alone will take a number of years of constant memorization. The concept of tones, especially, is an extremely difficult concept for speakers of non-tonal languages to wrap their minds around. I was quite intimidated in the beginning, but because I had a high level of proficiency in another foreign language, Spanish, I already had many of the tools and study habits necessary to learn Mandarin.

In my case, I was very passionate about learning the language because I found out when I was an adult that I was part-Chinese, so I found it quite fascinating to try to learn the language and culture of my grandmother’s ancestors. The more I delved into Chinese language, culture, history, philosophy and martial arts, the deeper I wanted to go. I saw Mandarin as a challenge and was not willing to give up until I had reached a high level of fluency. Over the course of two years of study at my college, I watched my Mandarin class shrink with each semester, from about 30 students to three of us by the end. I had an obsession with the language that meant I pretty much had no life for two years as I spent many hours every day memorizing characters. I was so engrossed that I didn’t have time to be frustrated.

Keoni banging head

Keoni venting during one of his moments of frustration with Mandarin

Over the next two years during my first trip to China, I started to study more and more complex grammar and advanced vocabulary, I would sometimes hit a wall where I felt like I wasn’t making progress or that my mind was on overload. I would sometimes take a break from my studies and do fun things like watch Chinese movies, play mahjong (麻将) with Chinese friends, go out to eat or sing at KTV. I was still using the language, with less stress and more fun. Eventually, I would make it past the wall and I’d reach a new, higher level with the language. I think my experience of progressing with the language in spurts rather than in a steady stream is typical of many language learners.

Q:I heard you have been an English teacher at Tsinghua University, and you have had many work experiences in China. What’s the role of work experience in Chinese learning?

I was first able to come to China as an English teacher at Renmin University in 1994. The next year, I taught a variety of English courses at Tsinghua University including a class that showed American films to English majors. That was one of the funniest jobs I had ever had because I was able to combine my love of films with my interest in languages. Both at Renmin and Tsinghua, I sometimes would cheat a little in that I would ask my students the Mandarin equivalents to things I was teaching in English or even try out some of my new vocabulary in class from time to time. I once estimated that, including large lecture courses and night classes, I taught approximately 2,000 students English over two years, so I definitely did my share of teaching English, but I learned a lot from my students in the process. During my off hours, I attended a number of formal classes on both campuses, met with numerous language exchange partners, and attended night classes at the 补习班 (bǔxí bān,taking classes after school or work) Global Village (地球村). During my first two years in China, I immersed myself deeply in the language, forcing myself to use it on a daily basis, and even within the first two weeks after arriving in China, I was able to become conversant in the language.

I then moved to Taiwan, where I taught English at the Taiwanese  补习班, ironically also called Global Village. I continued my practice of teaching English and learning Chinese there as well, only this time writing was in 繁体字 (Fántǐ zì,traditional Chinese characters) and the local dialect was 台语 (Táiyǔ) a Taiwanese variant of 闽南话 (Mǐnnán huà). Later that year, I entered the China-focused MBA (CHEMBA) program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa which had a language emphasis on business Mandarin. The capstone of my studies with this program was to spend a semester interning at an educational software company in Shanghai. Shanghai was a new challenge because many of the people in my office preferred to speak Shanghai dialect, so out of necessity I picked up some key phrases. Even when taking a taxi to work, I had to tell the drivers the name of the street the office was located on in Shanghai dialect, otherwise they simply didn’t understand. The name was 乳山路  and in Mandarin is pronounced “Rǔshān lù”, but in Shanghai dialect it sounds something like “Zisay Lu.”

Over the years since, I’ve worked in a number of companies where Chinese was the predominant language including a  brokerage firm in San Francisco, a Chinese Dot-com company in Silicon Valley, and here in Beijing I’ve also worked in a translation company, a law firm, an advertising agency, and acted in kung fu films. I also lead a college study abroad program here to Beijing one year. With each experience, I’ve learned vocabulary specific to the industry and learned more about how Chinese organizations work. For example, while at the software company, I learned the terms 多媒体 (duōméitǐ, multimedia) and 虚拟 (Xūnǐ, virtual).

Q:You have a passion for Chinese kung fu, and you followed the Master Sui Yunjiang (隋云江) to learn Meihuangzhuang (梅花桩) and Baguazhang(八卦掌). Does this activity spur you to learn Chinese? How do you think of the relationship between Chinese culture and learning its language?

The reason why I became interested in all things Chinese was thanks to a trip to Hawaii when I graduated from high school where I met my grandmother for the first time. She said I was essentially a quarter Chinese, which was quite surprising and interesting, so I started to take an interest in Chinese culture from then on. There was a kung fu club at my university and so my first encounter with Chinese culture was through martial arts. I’d actually always wanted to learn kung fu having watched reruns of the TV show “Kung Fu” and Bruce Lee (李小龙) films along with other kung fu films from the 1970s. The discovery of my Chinese heritage made me even more interested in the art, so I grabbed a flyer for the kung fu club. The masters who taught me kung fu in the US were Americans, so there wasn’t a lot of exposure to the language at that time other than basic names of stances, like 马步 ( mǎ bù,horse stance),弓步(gōng bù, bow stance), 徐步 (xú bù,cat stance)… As part of my International Studies major, I was required to achieve a high level of fluency in at least one language. I initially studied Spanish and after achieving a certain degree of fluency in that, I decided to try Mandarin as a challenge and, again, because of my heritage.

Keoni Kungfu

From left to right: Golden Pheasant Stands on One Leg, Horse Stance, and Bow and Arrow Stance

When I came to Beijing I trained with a number of different kung fu instructors before I met 4th generation Baguazhang (八卦掌,Bāguà Zhǎng, Eight Trigram Palm) Master, Sui Yunjiang (隋云江), during my second year. He could not speak English, but by that time, I had already lived in China for a year, so I had a high degree of proficiency in the language and I was able to communicate easily with Master Sui. I strongly believe when it comes to learning a complex cultural art rooted deeply in tradition and in history such as kung fu, it behooves one to learn the language. There are so many cultural references in the names of kung fu movements and forms that you’re missing a lot if you don’t learn these things. The names of moves are composed like poetry or songs to help the person training remember the sequence and structure of the movements such as 金鸡独立(jīn jī dú lì, posing as a pheasant standing on one foot). I found training in kung fu and studying Mandarin that the two feed off each other. Especially, because I train with Master Sui in an esoteric art known as Baguazhang, there is a lot of detailed explanation in Mandarin required. Some concepts just don’t translate well, and it’s best to learn the original words in Chinese characters. A lot of the training with Master Sui is experiential and hands-on. He will demonstrate techniques by doing them to you and explain to you what is happening as you experience it first-hand. After class, we always have tea with the master and we will often discuss the training of the day. The drinking of tea afterward is a major part of the training and is an important part of kung fu. Master Sui says: “kung fu training is actually training in culture.” By training in kung fu, you are 修炼自己 (xiūliàn zìjǐ, cultivating yourself) into becoming a better person physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Q:You have mastered Chinese intonation and the four tones well. For the learners who have pains with them, do you have any suggestions?

The best Chinese teacher I ever had required we record ourselves reading Chinese characters aloud. She would make us listen to the recordings ourselves and later she would listen to the tapes and give us feedback. I think recording yourself and  accessing your own pronunciation in comparison to others, and having a trained professional give you feedback, are effective techniques. It is also good to have a tutor work with you one-on-one reciting the tones and making sure you get them precisely right. The best test, of course, is to put yourself in situations in which the counterpart is a native speaker who doesn’t know you or often hear foreigners speak Chinese. A typical restaurant in Beijing is a good example. If you can ask for something like 绿茶(lǜ chá, Green tea) successfully, then you know for sure your tone is correct.

Q:For the people who want to master Chinese, what do you want to say to them?

I was taught when taking a course on Teaching English as a Foreign Language in preparation for teaching English overseas that the Eclectic Approach is best. That means a combination of learning techniques is the best way to achieve a well-rounded command of the language.  In practice, that means exposing yourself to the language in as many ways as possible. If the person is not in China, in addition to taking a structured class with a textbook, I would suggest also listening to music, watching TV shows and movies, reading comic books, ordering in a Chinese restaurant, establishing language exchanges, playing Chinese games with native speakers such as mahjong, and getting involved in sports such as badminton or ping pong with groups of Chinese.  Once you’re able to read more Chinese characters, try reading books on a subject you are familiar with and interested in. Naturally, read a lot of kung fu books. My proudest achievement was reading Sunzi’s Art of War (《孙子兵法》,Sūnzi bīngfǎ)in traditional Chinese characters.

Ultimately, you must spend time in China itself and surround yourself with native speakers as much as possible; otherwise it is almost impossible to achieve a high level of fluency. Nowadays, there are large pockets of exchange students and expats in the largest cities like Beijing and Shanghai, not to mention legions of college-educated Chinese who are fluent in English, so it is also advisable to consider going to a city that is off the expats’ beaten path for a couple years to wean yourself truly off English. It doesn’t hurt having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend, but this is no guarantee that you will learn the language, especially if they’re already fluent in English. You will still have to do a lot of hard work on your own no matter what, but as a mentioned in a previous blog on 10 Chinese Equivalents to Common English Idioms, 有志者事竟成 (yǒu zhì zhě shì jìng chéng, where there’s a will, there’s a way).

December 2 is very special for Keoni, as it’s his birthday, Happy birthday!