“Lao-why” study in China? A day in the life of a language student

I became aware of just how poor my Chinese language skills were about 12 hours after I landed into China for the first time. I found myself an hour and a half and three iced teas into a bus trip to my exchange city of Ningbo, on a bridge, surrounded by water, with no land in site.  It was on that bridge that I became acutely aware of the fact that, in a moment of crisis, I could not effectively communicate in the language I had studied for two years and was, most unfortunately unable to articulate to my bus driver that he needed to stop at the next restroom. 

The benefits of a language exchange are numerous. Being surrounded by the language even outside the classroom means you are constantly learning and improving your ability to express yourself. In my first few weeks of exchange, I would constantly order a bottle of 帅-shuài (handsome) instead of a bottle of – shuǐ (water) until one kind waitress corrected me. Though slightly bemused at having asked for bottles of iced handsome all around Ningbo, I never made the same mistake again.  Learning a language in its country of origin is invaluable and being exposed to native speakers, along with the intricacies of the culture make the value of your language studies tangible in a way that sitting in a classroom and reading from a text book can’t.  The most valuable lessons in Mandarin have come from my interactions with locals, whether it be my taxi driver teaching me the proper directional phrases when driving, or the security guard of my building explaining the Chinese view of ancestry and good fortune (…. and the proper remedy for a nose bleed, which is in fact a cow’s gall bladder, would probably just rather the nose bleed.) 

Guilin Tavel

The next time I found myself in a predicament surrounded by water, I was much better prepared. About six months after arriving in China, I travelled to Guilin with some friends who were visiting. Cruising down the Li river in our bamboo raft, admiring the karst mountains and natural scenery that has inspired Chinese art and poetry for centuries, our profound appreciation was cut short as our driver stopped our tiny vessel in the middle of the river. Realising that he had not in fact collected tickets for our journey he turned to ask where our blue ticket was as proof of payment.

Mandarin Shooter Quest, Stage 10 - Yangshuo near Guilin

Mandarin Shooter Quest, Stage 10 - Yangshuo near Guilin


Taking a moment to appreciate that I actually understood why he had stopped in the widest part of an icy river, devoid of any other human life, I turned to see my other passengers looking extremely apprehensive.  Turning back to our driver, more than a little smug, I took out the yellow slip of paper in my pocket saying,  “I’m sorry I only have this one!” a rather puzzling exchange proceeded for ten minutes with our boat driver attempting to take the slip of paper from my hand, and me insisting this was not the correct ticket.  All was resolved however, when I realised that he was in fact correct, and I needed to review my knowledge of primary colours.  But hey, I never got blue and yellow confused again!


Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Throughout my time in China I have definitely found this to be true. Even the most stilted and awkward attempts at speaking Chinese have often been met with surprise and appreciation.  After my first exchange experience in China, I returned home resolved to go back as soon as I finished my undergraduate degree. It’s the mistakes and blunders along the way that make any foreign exchange experience memorable and definitely contextualises what you’ve learned in the classroom. For me, moving to China was affirmed why I decided to take on the language in the first place, and gave me the motivation needed to continue with it long after I move home.


Considering a language exchange in China? Here is a list of things to consider!

  • Learning Chinese in china? Makes sense! Being able to step outside the classroom and continue with your studies is a big plus!
  • Cost of living- taking on a language exchange, particularly in a more rural city, can be very cheap! It is also worthwhile to look into the numerous scholarship opportunities provided by the Chinese government. Some of which can be found here
  • Exposure to a diverse range of language and culture- learning a language, while being immersed in the culture of its origin definitely makes for a holistic learning experience
  • Having a desire to learn a language such as Mandarin take a particular type of person. While you will no doubt meet a diverse range of people from all over the world, having Mandarin as a common denominator means you will undoubtedly make friends for life!
  • Being able to live in a country such as China, does equip you with the ability to be adaptable, resourceful and outgoing!  The downside is…. It may also give you the travel bug and may leave you with perpetually itchy feet!

Having trouble remembering key words?  The best way to remember vocabulary is repeat, repeat, repeat! Mandarin shooter quest allows you to review Chinese vocab while taking you through metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing as well as natural wonders like Guilin, sans icy water and irritable boat drivers.

“Ten ‘did that really happen’ moments every Laowai will experience”

Moving to a different country has its challenges no matter where you go. But as anyone who has travelled to the Middle Kingdom will realise, China has its own list of… unique experiences that might leave you asking “为什么?” (Wèishénme/why?)

1.  Menopause Dancing

We start our count down with a personal favourite: If you’ve ever fancied an evening stroll through China’s bustling streets, you may have come across a group of (mostly) elderly women performing uniquely choreographed dance routines. With soundtracks ranging from stirring traditional Chinese love ballads to uniquely Chinese takes Western songs such as the Madonna classic “Like a Prayer,” these ladies sure know how to take it to the streets.  Sometimes referred to as 绝经舞 or “menopause dancing,” this practice is seen as not only a social outlet, but also a free and easy way to exercise. Keep it up ladies!

2.  Spitting Image


Imagine. You’re walking through the tree-lined streets of Shanghai’s French Concession, a milk tea in one hand and fresh baozi in the other…. Suddenly the serenity is shattered by the discordant sound of someone or something attempting to jettison all fluids from their mouth cavity. The wind shifts. There is a moment of suspended horror and you attempt to locate the source of the noise.  Ah yes…. Spitting is a permanent fixture of the Chinese soundscape, something many expats never quite get used to.

3.  Photo Ops

Funny photo

Ever wondered what it was like to be a celebrity? Travel to China! While visiting such wonders as the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, or even just taking the metro, foreigners may find themselves to be the unknowing subject of a not so subtle selfie, be approached to join a family photo or even be handed a baby! While some may find this practice bemusing, it has to be a confidence booster to think that someone finds you to be just as photo worthy as some of China’s most famous tourist attractions!

4.  Pyjamas in public

Chinese in Pajamas

In the lead up to the 2010 world expo, an initiative called "No pyjamas in public places- be civilized for the Expo" was implemented to attempt to stop the practice many Shanghai locals have of wearing pyjamas in public.  Comfort won out however, and you can still see many Shanghainese taking leisurely evening strolls in their quilted jammies.

5.  Caught Napping

Chinese sleeping funny places


Whether you’re in the office, classroom or even walking the streets, come lunchtime you may notice a city-wide snooze fest as people put their heads down for a post lunch nap. According to Chinese medicine, by midday, the body is tired and needs to regenerate, making naptime a common practice in most Chinese businesses and schools. Perhaps Western companies can also adopt the saying '中午不睡,下午崩溃', meaning if you do not take a nap at noon you will collapse by the afternoon. Words to live by!

6.  Very…Lost in Translation

Lost in Translation China

You walk into a restaurant; eager to try the culinary delights of the orient. You look down at the menu and are provided with such delicacies as “customer gets angry face” “urinating in pool you are the best,” and “spicy cold children.” If you aren’t lucky enough to read Chinese, you might be left having to rely on some not so accurate translations. While we doubt children really are a staple food source in Chinese cuisine, these mandarin mix-ups do often prove very entertaining!

7.  Gan Bei!

US President cheers

干杯! Literally translates to “empty your cup.” But don’t fret! The phrase is often used as the Chinese equivalent to “cheers!” In Chinese culture, the emphasis isn’t necessarily placed on what you’re drinking, but whom you’re drinking with.  Countless toasts will be had and, if you’re at a business dinner, there are specific traditions that are observed. If you do happen to find yourself out to dinner or drinks with Chinese constituents, try and avoid the baijiu…trust me.

8.  A Breath of Fresh Air?

batman pollution china

After living in China for an extended period the term “getting some fresh air,” tends to take on new meaning.  In January 2017, much of Northern and Central China was rocked by the worst air quality in recorded history. With over 32 Chinese cities on “red alert,” the “airpocalypse” as it was dubbed saw flights canceled, highways shut down and businesses closed. For those traveling to China, air quality index apps are highly recommended and the more industrial your mask looks, the better!

9.  Crowded House

Claustrophobics beware! With a population of over 1.3 billion people, being lost in the crowd is almost unavoidable. Whether it be lining up to board the metro, or waiting for a lift, sometimes the best policy is to push or get pushed! Fancy a trip to the Great Wall during Spring Festival?  Or a dip in the pool on a public holiday?  Might be best to reschedule…

10.  A Crappy Situation

And we round off this list with a rather unsavoury practice,  but as they say“千金难买早知道”- it’s better to know early.  Many Chinese children wear adeptly designed clothes that prove unrestricting when nature calls.  Reports of kids being allowed free reign on streets, in restaurants, even planes have flooded social media, particularly in recent years, with debates erupting on the Mainland and Hong Kong regarding ways to cease this…. crappy practice.

Though China does have its eccentricities, it should also be the top of anyone’s “must visit” list.  With its buzzing metropolises and breathtaking natural wonders, China does not lack in experiences for the avid traveller. The best way to embrace any culture is of course, to learn the language. If you want to learn more or like what you’ve read, head over to our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/mandarinshooterquest/ for more language and culture tips!

Mark Zuckerberg to John Cena: famous people you didn’t know could speak Chinese

With over 1.2 billion speakers worldwide, it is no wonder Chinese has become a more popular choice among language learners in recent years.  In the United States alone, students enrolled in Chinese have seen 100% growth in schools between 2013 and 2015. But among foreign Mandarin learners, who is the most surprising?

Here is our top 5 reviewed by Mandarin Shooter Quest:

Mark Zuckerberg

Zuckerberg learning Chinese

In October of 2014, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg impressed audience members at Tsinghua University by delivering a speech and answering questions entirely in Mandarin. Though his pronunciation and grammar cannot be considered by any means fluent, he was praised by many native Chinese for his attempt to learn the language at all. While Facebook is still banned in China, it seems Zuckerberg’s resolve extends beyond his desire to master the language saying “you can’t have a mission to want to connect everyone in the world and leave out the biggest country.”

The Verdict

Vocab and Grammar: While one blogger likens Zuckerberg’s efforts to “an articulate seven-year-old with a mouthful of marbles” his command of the language is commendable  3/5

Pronunciation: Though heavily accented, with the help of his wife and the numerous resources that come with a net worth of $63 billion, we have no doubt Zuckerberg’s Chinese will improve significantly 2/5

Chinese reaction:  There was a mixed bag in the reception of Zuckerberg’s first public attempt at Chinese with responses ranging from simply “bad” to  “this CEO is so cool, I want to cry.” Most can agree however that conducting a 25 minute Q&A in a room full of native speakers is no small feat 4/5

John Cena

When thinking of WWE superstar John Cena, “language aficionado” is probably not the first thing that springs to mind. However, while speaking at a WWE press conference about expansion to China, Cena proved he was more than just a (pretend) wrestler, conducting an almost three-minute speech in Mandarin. Apart from what can be assumed as a fairly rigorous training regime, WWE also offers free language courses as part of their talent “Wellness Programme.” In an interview with Sportsnation, Cena explains his interest in the language stems from his desire to foster better relations between WWE and the Chinese market.

The Verdict

Vocab and Grammar: While simple, it is clear Cena really understands what he is saying, making the speech coherent and engaging 3/5

Pronunciation: Like Zuckerberg, Cena’s speech was heavily accented however it is clear he understands the vocabulary he is using 3/5

Chinese reaction: There is something inspiring about watching a 120-kilo wrestler in a pinstripe suit conduct a press conference in Mandarin. Western social media lost its mind over Cena’s speech, however as WWE is still relatively unknown in China, only time will tell whether he will become a Weibo sensation. The star does now have an official account so he is well on his way  2/5

Kevin Rudd

Majoring in Chinese at the Australian National University, Kevin Rudd tops this list as having learned Chinese the longest. His command of the language can be largely attributed to his time spent at the National Taiwan Normal University. During his time as Prime Minister, he conducted numerous speeches and Q and A’s In Mandarin and is the first (non-Chinese) leader to be fluent in the language. With a Chinese son in law, and all his children studying the language, it is clear Mr. Rudd has a great affinity for the language and culture of China.

Anyone who has taken on the challenge of learning Chinese can sympathize with the viral video of Mr. Rudd having…. a difficult time with speech preparation using an array of colourful language to describe the frustration often experienced when learning a second language. If Mr. Rudd could carry out such a paroxysm, then he most certainly tops the list in command of the language!

Vocab and Grammar: Though modestly describing his Chinese as “getting worse and worse” Rudd is able to answer complex questions regarding foreign policy and Chinese culture with ease, noticeably impressing his interviewers 4/5

Pronunciation: Mr Rudd is a clear winner when it comes to his understanding of the tonal structure of Chinese, something that comes with study the language for over 30 years4/5

Chinese Reaction: many Chinese commentators have commended Rudd’s Chinese language skills and attributed his close ties to China with his strengthening of bilateral relations between China and Australia.  Although even with this advantage, didn’t manage to survive a leadership spill  4/5

Kanye West

Kayne West mastering the art of the chopstick aged 10

Kayne West mastering the art of the chopstick aged 10

It might come as a surprise to many that before Kanye West dominated the music and fashion spheres, he was just a ten-year-old kid wearing double denim eating "chaofan" in China.  Yes, young Yeezy did in fact spend a year living in China while his mother was a visiting professor at the University of Nanjing. While his mother was once reported saying Kanye did pick up the language while attending a local school, those hoping for ‘Ye to drop some Chinese bars in his next album will be disappointed as it seems the rapper did not continue with the language upon his return to the States.  Perhaps Saint Pablo’s next venture could be taking up Putonghua?

The Verdict

Unfortunately for us, there is no footage of little Kanye spitting verses in Mandarin, however the thought of the rapper spending a year in China does add another layer to the life of Pablo  1/5

The First Families

IIn 2009, President Obama’s then 9-year-old daughter Sasha got to practice her Chinese on none other than Chinese leader Hu Jintao, during his visit to Washington. Not a bad first language exchange! Not to be outdone however, Arabella and Joseph Kushner, the oldest kids of first daughter Ivanka Trump, serenaded Chinese president Xi Jinping during his first meeting with their grandfather. Arabella, who is just five years old, has been learning the language since she was a toddler, with a video of her reciting a poem going viral on Chinese social media in 2016.  Perhaps young Arabella can teach her Grandfather some Chinese idioms before his next meeting!

The Verdict

Vocab and Grammar: As these young Chinese students don’t have the benefit of age on their side, their command of complex grammar and vocabulary cannot be expected to be anything but…adorable. We have no doubt that with the benefit of time (and the opportunity to rub shoulders with China’s most influential people) will set them up for Mandarin mastery.

Chinese reaction: A video showing five-year-old Arabella Kushner singing in mandarin hit 18 million views in less than 24 hours, an impressive feat for such a young learner!  4/5

And the winner is…..

KANYE! Okay, so in terms of command of the grammar, vocab and intricacies of the Chinese language, Mr. Rudd is a clear winner. His understanding of not only the language, but the political and social constructs of China is highly impressive…. However we can still hope Mr West stumbles upon this article and decides to take up Mandarin before his next album?

How failing Chinese was the best thing for my language learning

By Bronagh Marley

At the end of my first year of university, I failed Chinese. Twice.  I was told that due to my poor performance in my language modules, I was no longer an eligible candidate for an exchange programme, and thus no longer able to continue as a student of my chosen degree. After much discussion, numerous email threads and few tears, I was permitted to continue with my chosen field of study, but was, most understandably, advised not to continue with my study of Chinese.  Thinking that third time was definitely the charm, and no longer under any illusions of the challenges associated with Mandarin, I re-enrolled the following year and scraped through the rest of my university career with lack lustre Chinese language scores. But hey, I passed! Despite my dedication to the study of Mandarin, I still struggled to find effective methods of retaining information presented in my classes.

The study of Chinese was a point of much trepidation over my four years at university, but were I to do it over, I would enrol in Mandarin without a second thought.

“Just memorise" - An introduction to Language learning

Over my four years of varying degrees of Chinese study I have tried and tested numerous methods, resources and class structures and can say that, though far from an expert, I have been able to find a method that works for me. My first attempt at Chinese was in my first year of university.  The textbook used, Integrated Chinese, taught in no other way than rote learning; a large slab of vocabulary was given followed by a passage that I would come to find out from my Chinese friends were often inaccurate and more Taiwanese than Mandarin.  I was told by my teachers to “just memorise.” A long list of words memorised in a week were just as soon forgotten. Exactly what was required in our mandarin classes was dubious and exam time would, no matter how many hours of study went into preparation, be met with panic and a complete lack of understanding.  My classmates and I would lament the fruitless hours spent writing out a long list of characters, only to open the test paper and realise none of it was relevant.  As a result, Chinese students dropped like flies, going from a class of 125 to a mere 24 by the end of the year.

In my third year of university, I participated in year exchange programme to the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.  Unfortunately, due to complications with subject approval, I was unable to fit Chinese language modules into my schedule, something which in hindsight, I should have been a lot more proactive about pursuing. As I have come to learn when dealing with certain aspects of Chinese administration: persistence is key.  While this year was an excellent introduction to China and fortified my resolve to come back at the end of my degree, having an extra year of language study in China would have made a significant difference in my progress.  This was made even clearer to me a few weeks ago when an old classmate from Ningbo showed me her textbooks, which are in fact the same ones used in my courses at Jiaotong.

Studying in China

Studying Chinese in China - a turning point in my language endeavours?

Having studied Chinese for three semesters at this point, I felt confident in my ability to perform daily tasks easily. I was mistaken. My university’s Chinese course was heavily geared towards reading and writing skills, something which doesn’t prove useful when stuck in a Ningbo bus terminal for three hours while trying to get back to campus, or in a doctor’s surgery when a bad batch of soup dumplings could very well be your demise. It was these moments of incompetence that emphasised the importance of speaking and class participation in language learning.  With this in mind, I enrolled in a Chinese language buddy programme, where local students were paired with exchange students wanting to improve their conversation skills. My buddy, Cucumber (yes, his self adopted English name) seemed utterly terrified at the prospect of speaking Chinese with a foreigner, and thus my first and last meet up was spent speaking broken English as his side long glances at his watch and the door did not prove encouraging to my already shaky Chinese skills. I watched on with a mixture of resentment and interest as my friend from Liverpool, whose previous knowledge of Chinese did not extend beyond her local takeout, caught up to my level within a semester.  This was largely owing to her language buddy, who would invite her out for meals and insist on speaking Chinese at least two hours a week. I now view my exchange year in Ningbo as a year of trial and error, where I formed my appreciation for Chinese culture, and a resolve to continue my study of Mandarin.   

At the end of my degree I chose to undertake a year of intensive Chinese study at Jiaotong University in Shanghai. My goal at the end of the year would be to comfortably pass HSK level 4, something that relies heavily on my ability to recognise vocabulary.  I noticed a marked difference in the teaching style and materials from my first class. All of my teachers used little to no English in class, and introduction of vocabulary was done so in a practical sense, with dialogues and example sentences, rather than rote memorisation at home. By understanding the words in context, I found that my rate of recognising words was much quicker than my study attempts back home. I can now identify that the textbook and teaching methods used during my undergraduate approached advanced topics and vocabulary, when the basics were not yet cemented.  With dedicated listening, speaking and reading classes, vocab and grammar are often touched on three times, and now find myself with a much stronger foundation for continued study. Though the textbooks used (汉语教程- Hànyǔ jiàochéng) are somewhat out-dated, often with mistakes in the English translation, when used by a competent teacher, I have found them to be a useful resource. 

Great Wall of China Walking Down

Studying without study:  the changing face of language learning

I feel the biggest issue facing language faculties in both school and universities is the retention of students, as many become demoralised when their hard work does not produce expected results. It is realistic to assume my competence in mandarin will not lie in my ability to write characters, but in my recognition of them.  As an aural learner, I particularly like online tools such as FluentU and Mandarin Shooter Quest as they provide an audio-visual way to learn new words. I have recently started using fluentU after lamenting to a classmate about my lack of exposure to Chinese outside of the classroom or the back seat of a taxi. While Shanghai is a fantastic city, it is very easy to remain in the “laowai” bubble and get away with very little Chinese. The app provides well subtitles and interactive Chinese videos, where in depth definitions of vocabulary can we clicked on and studied further.  This is a fun way to stay engaged with Chinese popular culture, while improving vocab recognition.

With the date of my first HSK exam fast approaching I have relied heavily on Mandarin Shooter Quest (MSQ), a shooting style game that breaks up the monotony of rote learning, something that has become the bane of my four-year struggle with Chinese.  Players choose from Most Used or HSK world lists then progress through 24 Chinese cities while identifying pinyin, characters, and English words. I feel a tool such as MSQ complements traditional forms of study as time otherwise spent mindlessly scrolling through my newsfeed could be spent practising HSK characters with very little effort. I think that a product that presents an exciting, educative experience to help even the most language challenged individuals (myself included) can improve their rate of character memorisation. Pronunciation can also be improved by turning on the sound function, something that I find particularly beneficial, as I am more likely to remember a word when I hear it.

There are no short cuts

Throughout my Mandarin endeavours, I’ve learned that there are no real short cuts to mastering the language, but by making study enjoyable and suitable to my own learning style, I have noticed a marked improvement in my progress. Moving forward I need to remember to stick to my study plans and not be deterred by the “Cucumbers” of the world and find any opportunity to practice speaking. Through none traditional forms of learning, I’ve been able to break up the often tedious hours of study and make vocabulary learning engaging and relevant. My biggest piece of advice for anyone looking to embark on Chinese learning came from a University lecturer of mine. In response to a particular Mandarin related outburst he told me, “it is often unfair to paint a picture of weakness of students, as perceived “weaknesses” can often become strengths and vice versa.”  When it comes to my relationship with Chinese, this is definitely true.  I don’t think I would have realised how important Chinese was to me if I had not failed in my first year. By recognising the weaknesses in my study habits I was able to form the best methods of study for me. Though this still an ongoing process, by recognising how and why I study mandarin,  I think I am in a much better position to achieving my goals!

Harbin Ice Festival