Bilingualism is Good for the Brain

I ran across this interesting info-graphic on the Twitter feed of the good folks at It highlights how bilingualism is good for the brain.


I like the idea of dimentia prevention. And the next time someone says I’m dense I’ll just tell them it’s my grey matter and that’s a good thing.

Image source:

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How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese? 

Another Great Reason to Learn Chinese


Learning Mandarin Chinese: 5 Great Ideas to Improve Your Skills

Note: This is a guest post by the good folks at the Learn Mandarin Website. They also recently interviewed me for a post on their site about effective language learning methods. 

street games in Beijing


Learning Mandarin Chinese can be undertaken via a wide variety of methods.

Recently, we at Learn Mandarin Now spent considerable time interviewing a number of Chinese language teachers, students and experts in order to find out about the preferred methods to effectively learn Chinese. We are now pleased to share with you five great ideas to improve your learning skills.

However, before we start, we’d like to sincerely thank Joann, from this blog, Outside In, for allowing us to write this post and who also contributed to our recent research.

The top tips can be summarised as:

  1. Learn Chinese by travelling to China

While not everybody can actually travel to China, owing to their particular circumstances, many people say that the most effective strategy is to go to the country and immerse yourself in the language. If you are really serious about learning Chinese and want to improve your skills quickly, this is certainly one of the best options. In fact, we discussed this subject with Joann previously: Learn Chinese in China.

  1. Keep on practicing

If you are not in China, or not able to travel there, there are sites such as Italki where you can still speak with native speakers. As an example, we know of some foreign students who learned to speak Cantonese even though they are not in a city where Cantonese predominates.

Obviously though, if you can get to China to live or work, one of the best ways to improve your language skills when you are there is to talk as much as you can to native Chinese speakers and try to blend into the local culture.

  1. Set attainable targets

While there are many online courses which claim to help you learn Mandarin Chinese quickly and easily, it’s important to remember that, no matter which way you choose, it will take years to speak fluent Chinese.

Don’t rush to try to study advanced Chinese; follow a clear learning pattern, starting with the basics—and don’t expect to know Chengyu or idioms from day one!

  1. Learning Chinese characters is a key element of learning Chinese

Often, students struggle with the dilemma whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters. However, in our opinion, it’s rather more important to simply get started and begin to take some action. If you can master either type of character, you can basically understand the other type.

In any event, learning Chinese characters is an important element of learning and, in fact, we offer some tips and the strategy about how to learn Chinese characters in this interview.

  1. Learning better Chinese is not always expensive

From recent research we undertook with expert bloggers: How to learn Mandarin Chinese, we found numerous sites offering to help students learn Chinese. When we looked closely, it was apparent that most are free or only require a small investment to get started.

No matter which way you choose, please check out our website Learn Mandarin Now as we are always finding new ways to help you learn Mandarin Chinese in the most efficient manner!

Related Posts: 

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

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A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

The folks at Learn Mandarin Now recently queried more than 50 bloggers (including yours truly) about their favorite resources for learning Chinese. Based on the responses, they put together this helpful graphic listing the top ten recommended language learning resources.


What would you add?

Image credit: Learn Mandarin Now

Related Posts:

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

As part of her research for a book about Esther Nelson, my friend Noel stumbled upon a digitized version of a Chinese language textbook used by foreign missionaries working in Sichuan Province in the 1920’s. It’s titled Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China, by Omar L. Kilborn.


Besides the fact that the romanization is obviously not Pinyin, and that some of the pronunciations seem to be based on Sichuan dialect, a glance at the table of contents reveals just how much things have changed:

Lesson 1: Conversation with a Teacher

Lesson 2: Hiring a Cook

Lesson 3: Hiring a Coolie

Lesson 4: Hiring a Woman Servant

Lesson 5: Giving the Cook his Orders

Lesson 6: Sweeping the Floor

Lesson 7: Washing the Floor

Lesson 8: Dusting

Lesson 9: Arranging the Furniture

Lesson 10: Piling Boxes

Lesson 11: Buying a Sedan Chair

Lesson 12: Sedan Chair Riding

Lesson 13: Travelling by Sedan Chair

Lesson 14: On the Road

Lesson 15: Changing Dollars

Lesson 16: Changing Silver

Lesson 17: Cleaning the Lamp

Lesson 18: Washing Dishes

Lesson 19: The Kitchen

Lesson 20: Setting the Table

Lesson 21: Putting the Food on the Table

Lesson 22: Cooking Eggs

Lesson 23: Cooking the Porridge

Lesson 24: Carrying a Letter

Lesson 25: Carrying a Lantern

Lesson 26: Buying Firewood

Lesson 27: Buying Coal

Lesson 28: Washing Clothes

Lesson 29: Ironing

Lesson 30: The Bedroom

Lesson 31: The Bathrooom

And last, but not least….

Lesson 32: Keeping a Cow



Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners






7 Things to Know About Culture Shock


The first time I crossed a cultural boundary; I was but 1 year old! And no, it wasn’t my parents whisking me off to some far-off tropical land; it was my family returning to the US after a term of service in Pakistan. My mother says that my older sister and some of the children travelling with her (you should hear THAT story sometime) spent hours in the London hotel bathroom flushing the toilet because they had never seen such a thing before. Obviously, I have no memories of that experience.

My second cross-cultural experience, and the first one that I remember, was 6 years later, when, once again, my family decamped from Pakistan back to the US for a year. I remember that things in the US were different, but don’t remember much ‘culture shock,’ because at that age, so long as your parents are nearby and you’ve got other kids to play with, that’s all that matters. I do remember the easy access to candy, though!

After that home leave, we returned to Pakistan for another two years, before returning to the US permanently. I was 14, straddling 8th and 9th grades (a confused age anyway), so I have vivid memories of the culture shock I experienced then. I’ll spare you the details, but what I remember most clearly is the feeling of alienation, of being different. In Pakistan, I was different — that was simply a permanent state of affairs. What tripped me up when I moved to the US was feeling different in a place where I was supposed to belong!

Then I learned to live in China, and now I am learning again to live in the United States. I may not be an expert a culture shock (who wants to claim THAT title?), but I’ve certainly had lots of experience. Herewith are seven important things about culture shock that I have learned along the way:

  1. The term was coined by Cora DuBuis in 1951, but popularized by Kalvero Oberg in 1954. Workers who served overseas before that no doubt experienced all that we now call ‘culture shock,’ but they just didn’t have a fancy word for it. Maybe they just used the word “hard.” I asked my mom, who began serving in Pakistan in 1956 if she or my dad or her co-workers had ever heard of that term when they went. “Nope,” she said.
  1. There are typically four stages of culture shock: 1) “Yippee! I’m here.” 2) “Whatever was I thinking?” 3) “I can do this.” 4) “It’s beginning to feel like home.”
  1. Each person cycles through and experiences those stages at different rates and duration. This can be especially complicated when spouses or children or teammates are at different points in the adjustment cycle than you. I remember a teammate in my first year in China (1984) who was furious with me because I was still in the “Yippee!” phase while she had already crashed into “whatever was I thinking?” “This [cultural difference] doesn’t bother you, and that makes me mad!” she said as she stormed out of my room.
  1. It’s about the rules. You are in a new place that has a completely different set of rules. Your rules from ‘back home’ don’t apply, and you don’t (yet) know the new rules. What makes this so alienating is that these rules are the basic stuff of life – how to eat, how to communicate, how to get things done. Sometimes the unfamiliar rules have to do with the role you are playing (teacher, doctor, student, preacher). As Don Larson, my mentor in this area used to say, “learn the rules to play the roles.” Good advice, I’ve always thought.
  1. There isn’t a point at which you ever say, “There! Done!” Remember those cycles? Well they go round and round and round. This means that if you have been in a place for years and years, you can still experience the confusion and alienation (and even disgust). Culture shock is a part of cultural adjustment, and that is a forever endeavor.
  1. Learning the language can mitigate the effects of culture shock. There are few things that can make a person feel more alienated than not being able to communicate with those around her (or him). So it stands to reason that learning the language – learning how to communicate – is a big help. It allows you to enter their world and learn how they understand and process reality. It allows you to learn the rules, and to communicate to the locals who YOU are. This is incredibly freeing.
  1. Learning the language can exacerbate the effects of culture shock. As you learn the language you encounter the deep structures of the culture – the values and the beliefs about right and wrong. In some cases this can make things more difficult as you encounter values and beliefs that are diametrically opposed to yours. Adjusting to different eating utensils is one thing; adjusting to looser understandings of truth and justice is another thing.

When dealing with culture shock and cultural adjustment, I have always taken solace Paul’s admonition to his brothers and sisters in Colossae:

“At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:2-6)

 Wherever you are in your adjustment process, may this be your prayer as well.

And finally, here are some excellent resources on culture shock and cultural adjustment:

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition, by Craig Storti

The Art of Crossing Cultures 2nd edition by Storti, Craig published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing Paperback

The Art of Coming Home, by Craig Storti

The Art of Coming Home

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business, by David C. Thomas

Cultural Intelligence: People Skills for Global Business

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility, by Duane Elmers

Cross-Cultural Servanthood: Serving the World in Christlike Humility by Elmer, Duane unknown Edition [Paperback(2006)]

{Note: A version of this post was first published at Velvet Ashes on August 15, 2014.}

Say Nothing, Understand Nothing

Having spent 20+ years in China, working primarily in the field of education, I witnessed first-hand the  national obsession with learning English in China. The good folks at China File have now put that obsession into pictures by translating an info-graphic that originally appeared on their Soho Business site. After citing statistic after statistic about the popularity of English in China, this is their conclusion:

Chinese people spend more time and energy learning English than any nation in the world. But for all this effort, Chinese students are still failing to achieve real proficiency. Why is this? Is the English craze actually detrimental to students?



Here are some of the more interesting stats embedded in the infographic:

  1. There are 300 million people studying English in China
  2. There are 100,000 native English speakers currently teaching in China.
  3. Chinese people spend $4.8 billion each year on English lessons.
  4. China is the world’s largest market for English as a Foreign (EFL) teaching.
  5. English is a required subject on all middle-school and high-school standard tests.
  6. In order to graduate, university students must pass the College English Test (CET).
  7. In December 2012, 9.38 million students too the CET-4 and CET-6 exams.
  8. The majority of Chinese students are studying English primarily in order to pass the tests.
  9. 56% of non-English majors spend most of their time studying English, yet less than 5% can carry on a conversation in English.

So, fellow China educators, what say ye? Is this what you see or are the conclusions of the info-graphic makers too harsh?

Please take the time to view the entire info-graphic here. It’s really quite interesting.


Be a Star! Teach English in China

Martians Speak English? 

Talenty English

(Image source: ChinaFile)




Another Great Reason to Learn Chinese

brain_0Last month I hosted a couple of friends from China for two weeks. It was great having them here, but since they don’t speak English I and a mutual Chinese friend traded translation shifts. Wherever we went and whatever we did, one of us had to be ‘on duty.’

Needless to say it was exhausting. By the time they left my brain physically hurt and it took me about 3 days to put the Chinese side to rest for awhile.

The day they left I stumbled across this article in USA Today highlighting a study that  shows how speaking more than on language may delay the onset of dementia:

The latest evidence that speaking more than one language is a very good thing for our brains comes from a study finding dementia develops years later in bilingual people than in people who speak just one language.


The study, conducted in India and published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is not the first to reach this conclusion. But it is the largest and comes with an intriguing new detail: The finding held up even in illiterate people — meaning that the possible effect is not explained by formal education.


Instead, the researchers say, there’s something special about switching from one language to another in the course of routine communication — something that helps explain why bilingual people in the study developed dementia five years later than other people did. When illiterate people were compared with other illiterate people, those who could speak more than one language developed dementia six years later.

Suddenly I saw all that mental exertion in a new light.

So if you’re looking for a way to stave off dementia…..LEARN CHINESE!!

Image source: Penn Language Center

My Mother’s Father’s Sister’s Cousin’s Daughter….Whatever!

Sometime during my first year of language learning (back in 1990), our teacher tried to teach us the various terms used to describe family relationships in Chinese: mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, etc. It was useful stuff, since we were all anxious to talk about our families in Chinese. We usually did fine as long as things were confined to the immediate family.

Then came the day our teacher branched off into relationships further out (cousins, in-laws, grandparents). Our eyes glazed over and our brains shut down. Watch this video clip to see why. ( “The Complicated Family Tree,” from OfftheGreatWall)

Got that?