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Chinese in Plain English

An interview with Cheng Yangyang, founder of Yoyo Chinese


Chinese in Plain English

An interview with Cheng Yangyang, founder of Yoyo Chinese



Cheng Yangyang 

Profession: Founder and on-camera host of Yoyo Chinese

Nationality: American

Cheng Yangyang believes that we all have our own niche and that for her it’s teaching Chinese. Yangyang got her start as a former TV show host and became one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with tens of millions of video views. Based on the idea, “Chinese Taught in Plain English”, she founded Yoyo Chinese, on online education company that uses simple and clearly explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. Now, Yoyo Chinese has a comprehensive curriculum of over 400 video and audio lessons on its website to teach Chinese in a fun and interesting way that is easy to understand.

How did you first become interested in teaching Chinese? What was the original inspiration for Yoyo Chinese?

Back in 2005, I was teaching English to Chinese people online using popular TV shows like Friends and Sex and the City. I was pretty bold in my teaching style; I would talk about subjects other teachers normally don’t cover. For example, I remember one episode where Joey from Friends misheard the question “What would you do if you were omnipotent?” He thought the question was “What would you do if you were impotent” and hilarity ensued. I used that clip to teach the words “omnipotent” and “impotent” and explained a little bit about Western sex culture along the way. As those videos became more and more popular, I thought to myself that there were already a great many excellent English teachers in China, but there are not nearly as many great Chinese teachers in the West. Why shouldn’t I apply the same kind of fun, creative teaching style to teaching Chinese?

Tell us a little about your Chinese philosophy and teaching  methods; what makes Yoyo Chinese unique?

One unique element of Yoyo Chinese is that we teach Chinese from an English speaker’s perspective. After many years of hands-on experience teaching English speakers, we intuitively know what an English speaker finds difficult. Over the years, we’ve figured out a clear way to explain things to them in a way they can understand. For example, to introduce Chinese word order, I tell them that if it’s a simple sentence such as “I love you”, the Chinese word order is the same as it is in English. You just need to translate the sentence word-for-word and you get the right Chinese sentence. However, when it comes to complicated Chinese sentences, like ones with time and location elements, the sequence is different from the English. I tell them how it’s different and encourage them to start speaking “Chinglish”, i.e. speaking English with Chinese grammar. For example, instead of saying “I went to the library yesterday”, I encourage them to say “I yesterday went to library”. Instead of saying “I work at IBM”, I encourage them to start saying “I at IBM work”. This method works really well and my students started intuitively using the Chinese word order.

What’s the most fun part of your teaching?

I think the most fun part is when I get to innovate. I always like to figure out an interesting way to explain difficult concepts to my students. For example, in one of my Google Hangout on-air sessions, I taught students how to correctly pronounce “zi, ci, si, zhi, chi, shi, ri” by remembering a simple concept called the “special seven”. I told them that within this group of special seven, you can automatically replace all the “i”s with a “$ sign” in your head (z$, c$, s$, zh$, ch$, sh$ and r$). That way, they have no choice but to focus their full attention on
the pinyin consonant that comes before the $ sign. This might not be the most academically correct explanation, but it works well. I love it whenever I come up with an effective solution like that, and the students have that “ah-ha” moment.

What aspect of the Chinese language is difficult for foreigners? If a student plans to give up Chinese learning because they believe it’s too difficult, what advice would you give?

For English speakers, it’s the Chinese tones and Chinese characters that pose the greatest challenge. I have seen students get frustrated to the point of quitting, and what I notice that all these students have in common is that they are trying to tackle too much, too soon. Trying to learn spoken Chinese and written Chinese at the same time, too early, is really like trying to tackle two languages at the same time, and of course it can be overwhelming. I recommend students start learning Chinese characters only after they already have the basics down. When they reach the intermediate level, that’s the perfect time for them to pick up Chinese characters. At this level, they will find learning characters much more enjoyable because there will be lots of “ah-ha” moments. They will say, “Ah, this is the character for this word. No wonder.” Also, learning Chinese characters at this level helps because you’ll have a lot more building blocks to work with. So my advice is “don’t focus on characters at the beginning”. Get your basics down and learn the characters later.

Is it easy for Chinese people to start a business in America? What are some of the challenges that you have to overcome?  

Compared to other countries, it’s actually quite easy to start a business in the U.S., but the more important question to ask is how to build a successful business; that is difficult. Growing up in the Chinese educational system gave me the discipline and drive I needed to be an entrepreneur. After all, you have nobody to report to but yourself. However, it also poses challenges in my entrepreneurial life. I didn’t do much critical thinking when I was young. Everyone had a set path and we just needed to embark on that path which would eventually become our lives. That’s exactly the opposite of the essence of entrepreneurship, dealing with uncertainties every single day. There’s no set path; we create our own path. There’s no set direction; we create our own direction. In the beginning, I felt a lot of anxiety because I constantly felt I had been thrown off a cliff without a safety net to catch me. Gradually, by simply sticking to the journey and not giving up, I got used to a new mental state. I don’t know what’s in front of me and I don’t know if my decision is right or wrong, but it’s okay. I’ve started to make peace with myself and trust that in the end that things will work out. You know what? Things have been working out for me. They’re not always what I expect, but I can handle them. When the things you do become your habits, they become easier. The key is to keep doing them until they become a habit.