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Steve talks with Alex, a university student in Vancouver who speaks Korean and is learning Chinese on LingQ.
Steve: Hello there, this is our EnglishLingQ Podcast again.
A surprise today, it’s not Mark and Steve, but it’s Alex and Steve.
Alex is visiting with us.
Alex is a learner, a member of LingQ and he’s also now helping us in a variety of ways.
He’s a keen language learner.
What are your languages?
Alex: Well, first off, I’ll say hello to everyone. I’m Alex.
I’m a university student in Vancouver and my languages, as Steve puts it, are primarily Korean.
I’ve been studying Korean for a few years and I just started to pick up Chinese about a year ago now.
Steve: I should say, as some of you may know, we launched Korean at LingQ and so we’re trying to drum up a little more content for our library, Alex and I. I know a lady who runs the local Korean language newspaper.
It’s actually a branch of Joong Ang Il Bo which is a major newspaper in Korea.
Steve: So we went to see her and this lady doesn’t speak very much English and my Korean is more for ordering beer than anything else, so I brought Alex along and I was very impressed with your Korean.
Alex: Oh, thank you, Steve.
Steve: You’re very fluent.
Alex: Thank you.
Steve: Yeah. How did you get so fluent?
Alex: I mean, I spent a lot of time just hanging out with friends and, you know, really immersed myself in the culture as much as I could.
You know, even before I had the chance to go to Korean, I just met a lot of Korean friends and tried as much to just spend time with them and do whatever it was that they did, whether it was going out and eating food or anything like that, just to get that exposure to the language and try and be able to hear it and slowly be able to understand it.
It was a long process, but I think it’s paid off until now.
I mean, of course, I’m still going, but.
Steve: And you’re in what, third year at UBC?
Alex: Yeah, I’ll be technically starting my third year in September.
Steve: But you’ve got some travel plans this summer.
Alex: I do.
Actually, in about two weeks I’ll be headed off to China and I’m going to be there for almost five weeks.
Steve: Whereabouts in China?
Alex: Primarily in Beijing and, really, I don’t have plans really set in stone, so I can kind of just go wherever I like.
I have a friend I know is going to be there.
He’s actually a university student and we took the same course and that’s how we met.
Steve: Is that Aaron?
Alex: Yes, that’s Aaron.
Steve: Okay. Oh, good. Okay.
Alex: And so, you know, I think I’m going to see The Great Wall of China.
Alex: You know?
I mean there are so many different things to see in China.
Steve: But what are you going to do other than that?
You’re not attending a course there.
Alex: No, I’m not.
Alex: My primary purpose is just to get as much exposure to Chinese language and culture as possible.
Steve: I mean, I think that’s a good strategy because, as I always say, attitude is so important.
So the more positive you are towards the culture and the people the better you’ll learn because you’re not resisting.
You’re just sort of eating it all up.
Steve: And so, mostly, I’ll tell you, in Beijing it’s not easy to understand them because they speak Beijing, but there’s a lot of “rah, rah, rah”.
That’ll be good.
Steve: That’ll be good.
Alex: I’ve had a few friends of mine who are also Chinese language learners and pretty much the consensus is that it’s really hard to speak like people in Beijing speak.
Alex: But I think they all want to, you know?
They like the way that they say stuff.
Steve: Well, I think, yeah.
And, as I’ve said, for people who are interested in Chinese learning, get some Xiang Sheng CDs.
You’ve seen me say that, right?
Steve: That’s the best.
That’s the best.
Because you can listen to them over and over and over again and at first you understand 20% and then it goes up 30-40-50-60.
Steve: I wish we could get some transcripts of Xiang Sheng dialogues, comic dialogs for our library in Chinese.
So you’re going to be in Beijing and The Great Wall, of course, which isn’t very far away.
Steve: And now there’s a high-speed train in Shang Hai as well from Beijing.
Alex: Oh, is there?
Steve: Yeah. I mean it’s not like when I first went there in 1970.
When I went there in 1970, I mean there was a car every 15 minutes.
Steve: And the city, I imagined it was as it must have been in the time of the Ming Dynasty.
Alex: Oh, really.
Steve: Well, it wasn’t really, but there were very few new buildings.
I remember it was October; they piled cabbage on the sidewalk because people would then store all this cabbage to get through the winter.
Alex: Oh, wow.
Steve: It was pretty basic.
Steve: And you had this impression, I almost expected to see camels come walking down, you know, into Tian An Men Square because that’s the feeling.
Alex: It was rather deserted, hey?
Steve: Oh, yeah.
Whereas, nowadays, you go there and it’s of course a modern city.
Alex: Right. Yeah, I mean it’s amazing.
I had the chance to go to China last year, actually.
It was quite a short trip, only about eight days in China and five or so days in Korea, but I was amazed at really how modern it’s become.
I mean the photographs I’ve seen in classes taken on China versus what I saw with my eyes when I went there, you know, even over the course of a period of five of 10 years, it’s just radically changed.
Steve: It’s absolutely astounding.
I don’t think there has ever been an economic transformation on the same scale and as rapid as what we’re seeing in China today.
Steve: And the impact on the world is just…it’s amazing.
Steve: China, they say, is going to consume like 40% of all the world’s energy.
Steve: Within, you know, five years or something like that.
Alex: Right, right.
Steve: I mean they consume 60% of the world’s iron ore.
Steve: I mean it’s astounding if you have 20% or 22% of the world’s population growing at 10% a year, you know?
And now their economy is already equal to or greater than…I don’t know whether it’s Germany or Japan, but it’s already humungous.
Alex: Right. I think it’s past both of them, actually.
Steve: So it’s a humungous economy and it’s doubling every seven or 10 years.
Steve: It’s absolutely extraordinary.
Alex: Yeah and, I mean, it’s been growing like that for 30 years now or more.
Alex: I think it was Dung Chow Ping…
Steve: Yeah, Dung Chow Ping, but I think it didn’t really pick up speed until the ‘90s.
Steve: I mean it started from such a low level.
Steve: So it’s one thing to go seven-10% growth a year, based on a very low level, but as you keep doubling and doubling and doubling and you’re still moving at that rate of growth…
Alex: Yeah, exactly.
Steve: …it’s astounding, absolutely astounding.
Steve: But, so Beijing, you’re just going to hang around and so forth?
You know, are you going to go to the interior at all from Beijing?
Alex: I’m not sure yet. I’m on a bit of a budget.
Alex: But, fortunately, I have a friend who’s there and he’s offered to put me up for the entire duration.
Alex: That really takes a big burden off.
Alex: So I’ll have a little bit of extra spending money.
I would definitely like to go to, say, XiAn or something like that, if possible.
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
That would be, I think, quite well, you know, worth it.
Although, just exploring Beijing and the Forbidden City and the older part of Beijing and stuff.
Steve: But it’s just so crowded now.
So Korea, how many times have you been to Korea?
Alex: I have been to Korea twice now.
The first time I went was about somewhere around six months after I started formally learning Korean.
So I couldn’t really communicate much at all, but because I had so much exposure, you know, for example, one instance I was in a taxi and I was going to the bus station, which was about 30 minutes away because I was in a rural city.
My friend stayed back at his place, so I was there alone with the driver and, you know, we conversed to the best of my ability for pretty much the whole 30 minutes.
Alex: So I had some good opportunities there to really try and push the envelope and see really how good my Korean was at that time.
Steve: You know an experience like that, 30 minutes with a taxi driver in a real meaningful conversation, to my mind, is worth hours of class time.
Alex: Yeah, absolutely.
Steve: Hours of class time.
And I mean it was very encouraging for me because in the class that I was taking at the time, back here in Vancouver, we didn’t really have the option to speak.
It was more focused on, you know, the textbook and my teacher she did a great job.
I’ve got to give her credit because, you know, she saw what our needs were and kind of deviated from this textbook and would always be willing to answer our questions, even if they had nothing to do with the lesson.
But, at the same time, it was so limited, even the course time, so we didn’t really get the chance to converse that much and especially with native speakers because none of the other people in the class were native speakers, so.
So, really, except that you have to pay for a taxi, the thing is to go to the country, get in a taxi and start yakking away, right?
When I was a student in France I used to go into Spain hitchhiking.
Alex: Oh, really?
Steve: And that’s where I learned Spanish because I would just be talking.
If someone picks you up it’s because they want company, right?
Steve: So you’ve got truck drivers and stuff like that, so I’d have my little Spanish book and, you know, I’d just talk and so hours and hours and hours.
Of course, nowadays, hitchhiking is not as easy as it was when I was young.
Steve: It’s been spoiled, but when I was young, I mean, you just leave any little town in southern France or anywhere in Europe in those days and there’d be four or five people lined up hitchhiking…
Steve: …and within 15-20 minutes you’d be picked up.
Steve: And so you’d just get in there and talk.
Alex: Yeah. That’s pretty cool.
Steve: Yeah. Oh, that’s great.
So, now, you’ve been to China.
Steve: How did you find the China versus Korea culture?
You know, what stuck you as the differences?
Alex: It’s honestly entirely different and I think the biggest reason why is Korea is much more modern.
Although China is very substantial in the global world, Korea is still much more modern, especially in Seoul.
I think there’s just a busyness in Korea, which I’m not really a big fan of.
That’s one thing that the second time I went back to Korea, or rather the first time I went back to Korea, it was something that I wasn’t too comfortable with.
But in China it seemed like there were a lot more people that were just friendly and there was this sense of community, even among these very crowded places.
Steve: Well, it’s funny.
Of course a lot of Koreans who are here in Vancouver, they’ll tell you they find Vancouver boring.
Steve: Because there’s so much more action in Korea, so it’s a matter of, I guess, what you’re used to.
Alex: Right, right.
Steve: And, I must say, the Chinese are actually quite easy to talk to.
Even when I was in China during the Cultural Revolution, where things were very tense and potentially they could get into trouble for talking with a foreigner…
Steve: …many people would shy away from you or give you dirty looks, but you’d always find people who were quite content to just “chew the fat”, you know, and just talk about whatever.
Of course I had to be careful not to talk about politics because that might get them into trouble, but we could always talk.
The Chinese, in that regard, I think are quite easy going.
Alex: Yeah, I think that’s, you know, definitely a similarity among rural Korea.
The urbanization of Seoul has just really changed the atmosphere there, but if you do go outside the city and, I mean, it takes a bit of time because the city is so expansive that you have to travel at least an hour outside, but if you do that’s where you find that kind of home country, typical rural friendliness and hospitality.
Steve: Yeah, yeah.
No, China, when I was there of course in the ‘70s, many of them had never seen a foreigner.
Steve: I can remember on one occasion I was in Shanghai with my wife and two kids and they were both blond, at that age; they’re dark haired now.
But we were walking down one of the major streets of Shanghai and we were surrounded by 200 people.
Alex: Oh, wow.
Steve: They were about 20 deep.
Steve: Perfectly, you know, harmless, but they were just like curious.
Steve: It was a hot June day and my kids started to cry as this crowd was kind of squeezing us.
Similarly, I remember once in northern China in the winter, I was in Harbin.
Not in Harbin, I was in a smaller town up in northeast China…
Alex: Oh, okay.
Steve: …and I went for a walk, as I always do.
I mean when we’re traveling, right, we like to walk around.
Steve: It doesn’t matter what it is.
Some little village, I wonder what this village is all about.
So you’re wandering around and I looked behind me and I had 200 little kids following me.
So, yeah, we were a curiosity in those days.
It’s not the case today; although, I’m sure in China if you went out into the boonies you might encounter the same, but, certainly, you mentioned Xi An or Beijing or any of those major cities, they’re quite used to seeing lots of tourists.
Steve: So we’re not the curiosity that we once were.
Well, now what are your plans with Chinese?
Now you’re in third year Korean.
Alex: No. Actually, I’ve finished fourth year Korea already.
Steve: You’ve finished fourth year Korean.
Steve: And so you’re going to come back to UBC and work on your Chinese?
Alex: I don’t know if I have any plans on taking another Chinese course and I think the biggest reason is that it’s just so expensive.
Alex: You know a year of Chinese is bordering on $1,000 now.
Alex: And, you know, I found that in the eight months of the course that I was taking, I didn’t really learn all that much.
Since that semester finished and I’ve just begun this kind of self-study type of learning…
Alex: …I’ve found that it’s much more rewarding because I’m the one who chooses what I study.
Alex: But, at the same time, it’s so much cheaper.
Steve: Oh, yeah.
Steve: I mean absolutely.
This is a common theme, you know, and we talk about it all the time, but there’s so…I think…you know I was going to actually break down and tell you this fall I’m going to Italy with my wife.
It’s my 65th birthday and all.
Alex: Oh, congratulations.
Steve: Thank you.
And so we were going to go; in fact, have plans to go to Sardinia.
And I found this Italian language school and they rent out a nice apartment that belongs to the owner of the school and everything.
I thought it would be neat.
We know the local people and ah, what the hell, I’ll enroll in a language course.
And I spoke to the lady there today via Skype.
It’s four hours a day and they begin with grammar and then they have a break and then they have their communications part and then they do writing.
I’m saying to myself, I’m going to be in Sardinia and I’m going to spend four hours of every day for a whole week sitting in a classroom.
They’re going to teach me grammar, which I can look up in a book.
Steve: It’s not that I don’t know the verbs in Italian, I can’t get them right and sitting in the classroom is not going to help me get them right.
Steve: So you get a lot of explanation, then they’re going to ask me to repeat it and reproduce it and get it wrong, which I don’t like doing.
Steve: So, actually, as a result of our Skype conversation, I’m not going to go there.
Alex: Oh, really?
Steve: I mean I’m going to go there.
Steve: They have a cooking school thing, so I’m going to take the cooking school three times a week.
Three evening a week we cook and we eat what we cook.
I’ll be there with my wife and I’m just going to visit around.
It may be cheaper to get a taxi and just talk away in Italian.
Steve: But, no, I see what you mean.
It is tremendously expensive, but, yeah.
And the resources that are available, whether it be a book, whether it be the library, whether it be Internet, whether it be LingQ, whether it be using flashcard systems or, you know, whatever, the live mochas.
I mean they all have their different flavor and different people like different things, but there’s less and less justification for sitting in a classroom.
Well, there you have it.
We kind of diverged from our normal.
We didn’t criticize anyone in Canada or the other stuff that Mark and I normally do.
We were a little more serious.
We talked about language learning with Alex, so thank you Alex.
Alex: Thank you for having me, Steve.
Steve: Okay and that will be the end of our discussion today.
Please let us know if you have any special requests; things that you would like us to talk about.
We had that one request for us to talk about endangered languages.
We were happy to do that.
We will talk about any subject.
What we have to say is not, you know, based on any depth of knowledge, but it does give you some vocabulary.
Steve: Thank you for listening, bye.