Sunday, January 29, 2012

Using & Abusing a Language Exchange Partner

You already know about using a Chinese teacher as an essential part of your self-study program, and you know my thoughts on choosing a teacher, but one topic that I still want to discuss is that of using a language exchange partner.

For me, having such a partner is not an alternative to having a teacher - it is in addition to having a teacher. They play different roles for me.

I know that there are many people who have cost constraints (or limited choices where they live), and paying for a private teacher isn't an option. Fortunately there are alternatives - and this is where language exchange comes in.


As a beginner student you could always just grab a coffee with a Chinese friend or colleague, and ask them the questions you have. This was easy for me when I started because I knew several Chinese people working in the same office as me, and I could walk up to their desk, ask a really dumb question and walk off. They were really pleased with my interest in their language, and were generous with their time. My questions - and the desire to practise speaking - grew, and over time I graduated from desk-questions to a quick coffee together.

Even though these people were very generous with their time when I started this way, I became self-conscious after a while about how much of their time I used, so I decided to "move on". Note that they never expressed a concern to me about this, it was just my own concern for their time.


I didn't want to dominate social time with my Chinese friends with too many questions, and language exchange seemed to make a lot of sense. I could connect with someone (face-to-face, email, Skype, etc.) and in return for their time to help me with my Chinese, I would offer the same time to them to help them with whatever they wanted.
  • My first language exchange partner was an email relationship only - she lives in Fuzhou. I would email her questions, or write some text (originally only in pinyin!) and she would answer my questions, or correct my written work. Then she would send me some of her own written compositions, and I would feedback on that. (In those early days I avoided the telephone - I was too shy as a real beginner.)
  • Over time we became good friends, and I even spent a weekend in Fuzhou hanging out with her, speaking a mix of English & Mandarin. I was one of three white people I saw that whole weekend, so you can imagine I was quite in demand when she took me to "English Corner" the one evening :-) - they loved speaking with a "real Westerner". She and I are still in touch today.
  • My first face-to-face Exchange partner was with a Taiwanese woman in London - I wanted to practise Mandarin, and she needed help with her Finance degree. We met when I responded to an online post of hers.
  • We too are still friends, and have met for coffee in London, Hong Kong & Taiwan.
I was much more comfortable with Language Exchange than I was with the interrogation of my Chinese friends. The give-and-take was balanced, and it's a great way to meet new interesting people!

Things to look our for!

Having had a number of language exchange partners over the years, these are some of the things I would recommend you keep an eye on ...
  • Try to keep the time split fair, so there no sense of guilt or resentment on either side. If you only have an hour, then state up front that it will be half-half, and stick with that. There is always next time. 
  • Their English is probably better than your Chinese - so try avoid your coffee meeting turning into an English social event. If it's too 'social' then you'll find yourself resorting to English, and you'll probably be the one to lose out. 
  • Introduce some variety to keep both your interests up - something to read, topics to discuss, questions about the material you studied since the last time.
  • From my perspective, although I continue to share with language exchange partners, time constraints means if I have a spare hour I would rather pay for that hour to be focused on my Mandarin learning, rather than losing half of that to speaking English. 
  • You can do it one-to-one as I've described above, but you also always have the option of meeting in large practice groups - details of these groups appear below too.
  • If you're not happy with your partner, find another. Remember that language learning is meant to be fun!
An exchange for language exchange?

Here are some of the sites I have previously bookmarked - either because I used them or because I once thought I might. Try them, and see which gives the best results. For obvious reasons, they're biased a bit towards UK and HK.
  • Bilingual Chat: This is an online community of foreign-language learners, for meeting and exchanging.
  • Language Exchanges:  As it says on their site, "The Mixxer - a free educational website for language exchanges via Skype"
  • Livemocha: This is a full language learning website, but members of the community are usually quite open to exchanging one-to-one on Skype too
  • Language Chain: This London-only group actually pairs up language-learners, pre-vetting them, and changing partners regularly for you to keep the variety going. 
  • Gumtree: This site is more than just for buying & selling things. Choose your country & city, then take a look in the Community section under "Skills & Language swap"
  • Global Citizen: Although they teach a variety of language courses in HK, they sometimes arrange language exchange evenings over a few drinks. And if you really want to try a new way of meeting people, check out their 'unique virtual worlds' where you exist as an avatar in a cyber world, and meet people that way
  • Meetup: Search for 'Mandarin' and your city, and you could find a group near you. And if you can't find one, there's nothing stopping you setting up one of your own! (I've found great groups in both London & HK)
  • Chopsticks: A language & culture exchange group in London for the more advanced Mandarin speaker, including lectures every now and then
  • HK Language & Cultural Exchange Group: This group is for general language sharing - meet in a group, or meet others one-to-one

If you know of other places for meeting language exchange partners, or have some advice to others, please write something below. And if you have any horror stories to tell about bad experiences you've had, leave a comment below ...

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Choosing a Chinese Teacher

Previously I have written in broad terms about how I use a Chinese teacher as part of my self-study regime, and following that I'd like to describe how I choose teachers who are consistent with those goals. If you've used a different basis for making your own decision, please feel free to leave some comments below.

learning online

Although this is not really for me, there are many websites where you can get online teachers, ad hoc or pre-booked with them, and learn via Skype or other video software. A couple sites which I have previously bookmarked that provide this service include ChineseTeachers, TutorChinese and eChineseLearning- and there are a lot more.

I believe this type of site is quite popular, and maybe depending on your lifestyle or location this would be the only reasonable option. But I like the human contact of sitting opposite someone in a coffee shop, drinking a hot latte, and sharing Chinese. I like watching them write on paper rather than type on a screen, and I like their being able to underline words, use arrows to show where my verb should have gone, and cross things out.

So I choose live teaching for myself. For others I recommend whatever words best for *you*.

choosing a Real! Live! teacher  

I started off searching the web for Chinese teachers in my area. Especially in Hong Kong, a number of nearby language-specialist schools appear in the results, but I focus on those offering lessons as individuals. This choice was discussed in a previous post - I don't want to be constrained by attending pre-planned lessons or even have to wait my turn to ask a question in small group. And although these school do offer 1-to-1 lessons, they are materially more expensive than 1-to-1 lessons with private teachers.

Then I corresponded with each of the potential teachers I found, asking about costs, and possible times (weekdays/weekends, mornings/afternoons/evenings, and flexibility - because of my travel schedule). Additionally, I filtered out teachers for other reasons:
  • There were some teachers who were insisting that they'd take me chapter-by-chapter through a text book - but that would have bored me to death so I rejected them. 
  • There were others who insisted on a minimum number of hours a week - I rejected them too, because I'm in charge of my time, not them.
  • For my most recent choice, I loved the fact that in addition to knowing English, Mandarin & Cantonese - she is currently learning French & Spanish herself, so truly understands the challenges of language learning.  
I tried one or two lessons with the 'finalists' :-) and rejected some of those for a variety of reasons:
  • their inability to speak at a speed that I was happy with
  • the fact that their pronunciation wasn't always 'standard' enough (one claimed to speak Putonghua but I struggled to get even half of her simple sentences)
  • the quality of their explanations when I asked questions.
And that is how I decided.

As always, these thoughts reflect what works for me. Make sure you focus on what works for you - and follow that through. Good luck!

I would love to hear from you how you chose a teacher, or chose not to have a teacher. What things does a teacher do that bothers you? What do you really appreciate? And if you're a fan of online teaching, let us know how it works for you.

Friday, January 6, 2012

I have sexy legs!

Moving beyond the realm of the world's funniest joke in Chinese, here's something very funny that actually happened to me last week!

As I've mentioned in previous posts, a great way to practise your Chinese it to get a massage from someone who only speaks Chinese, and it's easy to find someone in Hong Kong like that, at a reasonable price.

So last week I was getting a massage from someone who I have not had before, and she was spending too long on my back, so I wanted her to move on to do the rest of the body, starting with my legs.

Chinese digression: The phrase 可以吗? (kěyǐ ma) literally means "is possible?" - and is often used in the context of asking permission, or making a request. So if I used the well-known topic-comment structure, I could say “电影可以吗?” (diànyǐng kěyǐ ma?) - which would literally mean "Movies, is it possible", but ultimately I'm asking "How about we go to the movies?"

So back to my massage, I was wanting to get her to move from my back to my legs, so using the exact format as above, the conversation went like this:
    Greg:  我的腿可以吗?  (My legs, is it possible?)
    Massage lady:  你的腿很性感!  (Your legs are very sexy!)

This left me very confused for a moment! Was she hitting on me? Did I mishear her? What else could 'xing gan' mean?

Then I realised, the sentence structure "X kěyǐ ma?" can also mean "What do you think about X?"  So if I said "diànyǐng kěyǐ ma?" while coming out of a movie, I could in fact be asking "What did you think of the movie?"

So while I thought I was asking her if she could please massage my legs now, she thought I was being weird and asking her what she thought of my legs. She probably thought I was hitting on her!

Comments 可以吗?