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Learn Mandarin Like Mischa Wilmers: Graded Readers, News in Chinese, Novels and LingQ!
Elle: Hello everyone and welcome to the LingQ podcast with me Elle. Remember all you English learners you can study this podcast episode as a lesson on LingQ. I will always pop the lesson link in the description. Using LingQ you can work through the transcript, translating the words and phrases that you don’t know to add to your own personal database.
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This week, I am joined by another wonderful guest Misha Wilmers is a language learner, blog and LingQ user. Welcome Mischa, thank you so much for joining us.
Mischa: Thanks very much for having me on.
Elle: And whereabouts are you joining us from on this fine Monday?
Mischa: So I’m in Manchester at the moment, uh, Manchester in the UK. Elle: Excellent. In the kind of north, I guess. Yeah.
Don’t, you’d call Manchester north, right? Northern England.
Mischa: Northwest. Yeah.
And how’s life in Manchester these days? Mischa: It’s good. Um, at the moment I’m on a staycation kind of thing, not going abroad this year.
So I never thought I’d say that about going on holiday to Manchester. I actually work in Leeds, which is about an hour away from here, but, um, yeah. Um, generally things are good. The weather is for Manchester standards, um, reasonably good. Okay.
So not too bad.
Elle: Excellent. That’s a great word, actually, “staycation.” vacationing at home.
I think a lot of people around the world will be doing that this summer. So yeah, hopefully, hopefully the weather stays nice for you. Uh, so Misha, as I mentioned, you are a language learner and a blogger. You run a blog called I’m learning mandarin.com. So as we can guess, you’re currently studying Mandarin Chinese. So what, uh, first off, what made you decide to land on Mandarin? Why, why Mandarin Chinese?
Mischa: So I guess the initial reason was basically the, I had moved to a new city, so I moved from Manchester where I’m from about five years ago to Leeds. And when I first moved to Leeds, I was looking for things to do. Um, I was looking to meet new people, didn’t know anyone in the new city. And so I saw that the university that I was working for, um, they were advertising cheap Mandarin classes at the Confucius Institute that operates on campus. And so I decided to just take advantage of them.
I had a basic interest in languages from before, um, because I grew up bilingual, I’m half Spanish. So I grew up bilingual in English and Spanish. And at school I’d also done French, but I always felt like, um, I always really enjoyed doing French, but I felt like, without doing much work I had a kind of natural advantage over other people just from knowing Spanish with the similarities between French and Spanish. So when I was thinking about activities to take up in the new city I’d moved to language learning seemed like an obvious choice given my previous interest.
But I wanted to like set a new kind of challenge to see whether I could cope with the language is different as Mandarin rather than something like another romance language, like French or Italian or something like that.
Elle: And how did you find those classes and how many… was it like a course of classes or you just went to the odd one and then we were all on your own studying?
Mischa: So initially, um, it was a course of, a beginner course of eight classes and that kind of got me going, that kind of kept me inspired.
Um, I really enjoyed that course, it was a one and a half hour classes in the evenings after work once a week. Um, so really not enough to, to learn very much Chinese at all, but enough to inspire me to want to keep going basically. I then complete, I completed a couple of other courses after that, um, which were similar, but a slightly higher level each one, but, um, all of them quite basic stuff again.
So I completed about three or four courses overall.
Um, after that, I’ve just been mainly self studying, using LingQ, and other tools like that. Yeah.
Elle: Excellent. So yeah, self study. What does that involve for you then? What, uh, what kind of methods? What kind of, I guess let’s talk about methods first and then maybe talk about LingQ little bit. Mischa: Yeah. I mean, when it comes to methods like I split my kind of Chinese learning experiences intitwo parts because I’ve been on it for about four years now.
Um, um, the first two years, my methods were basically, I didn’t have any methods because I was trying to figure out like, how, how do you learn Chinese? I had absolutely no idea how to learn a language like Chinese, as I say, like completely different challenge to learning something like French when you know Spanish.
Um, so I kind of spent a lot of that two years trying to figure out different, download any apps I could, figure out different ways. Things like Duolingo are like the first obvious things that you come across, they have the best like marketing.
Obviously they have the most money to spend. So, um, I came, so, so basically the first two years I had no idea what I was doing.
I would like go to my classes, leave my classes and then try and get some, um, language exchange partners, and there’s quite a lot of Chinese people on campus. So there was no shortage of people to speak to. So I’d just leave my class and try and practice with Chinese people. But after two years, I kind of felt like I need to try something different.
This isn’t really working.
And that’s when I came across, um, Steve Kaufmann’s YouTube videos, um, and he was talking about, cause he has one on learning Chinese, um, and it, he discussed how, um, the most important things for him were kind of listening and reading. And that was the first time that like I came across what seems like quite an obvious point, but I didn’t realize at the time, which was that input is the most important thing when learning language.
So all the, all the kind of stuff I’ve been doing at the beginning stage of like trying to use basic words and phrases I’d learned in class and practiced them over and over again with language exchange partners, but not really having any idea what they were saying back to me. Steve Kaufmann’s videos kind of helped me to see that, like there was maybe another approach. And since my previous approach wasn’t really working, I felt, um, I thought might as well give this a go.
And, um, so from then, um, I used a lot of, uh, graded readers, um, at the beginning because, and I blog about this as well, because particularly in Chinese at the beginning the characters are a huge barrier to being able to read even a very basic level.
So I found something that was really useful that I hadn’t quite, I hadn’t discovered the mini stories on LingQ, which if I went back now, I might do. But, um, at the beginning stage, before I started using LingQ, my main input was from graded readers.
So there’s Mandarin companion graded readers I found really useful. Um, um, yeah, so they’re basically just short books, short stories. They’re not like high literature or anything like that, but they’re entertaining enough. Um, they’re more entertaining than like your average textbook kind of thing. So I started doing a lot of reading and then listening to the, um, to the CD of the audio, the audio of the books as well.
Mischa: So, so mainly like, um, my methods since then have been embracing this mass immersion approach.
Mass input approach, but without, obviously, without being in the country. So, um, so from, from the UK.
Elle: Excellent. Excellent. And so how, so you said the graded readers, you, you, when you first discovered Steve and then LingQ you were into the graded readers. Were?You…
was that tough. I mean, were you studying the characters, I guess, as you read, were you, were you reading the same story multiple times?
Mischa: Yeah, so, I mean, by the time I got to, by the time I started reading graded redesigned, maybe memorized, committed to memory about 500, uh, characters through using flashcards, uh, using Pleco and things like that.
Um, and that helped. So I was already able to read a bit like, but I’d just been reading short dialogues in textbooks. So then when I first started reading graded readers that are graded at different levels. So the first level, the beginner level is like, um, set at like maybe 500 words or 500 characters.
So, um, so I started reading them about two years ago. And when I first started they were like really challenging for me. I was reading above my level I think at the beginning. Maybe I was reading, like I start with the 500 characters one, but they’re not necessarily the characters that you have that you’ve committed to memory. So there’ll be lots of unknown characters.
So it was a bit of a slog, but I just… like, because I’d never read a whole book before, when I finished my first kind of graded read a book, it was just like a sense of achievement. And also you’re exposed to all the grammar patterns over and over again. So it was my first sense of like, after kind of reading a few of them, I started to get real sense of like the, the real benefits of mass immersion compared to what I was previously doing.
Kind of got the ball rolling.
What, uh, what did you move on to after graded readers? What kind of content?
Mischa: So after graded readers, then that’s pretty much when I discovered and started using LingQ more. So I mentioned, I discovered Steve Kaufmann’s videos, but I didn’t immediately make the transition to LingQ. That was a bit later. Um, so after graded readers, I decided I got to a point where a lot of people get to with graded readers where you’ve read like the highest level of graded readers, which is maybe like set at 1,500 characters or something like that.
But that’s not quite enough to, um, read newspapers or novels. So there’s, uh, there’s kind of a, a small gap there, a bit of a gap that you have to bridge somehow. So I wanted to make a concerted effort to start tackling native content. Um, that’s where I discovered LingQ. And, um, the rest is history, as they say.
I mean, since then, LingQ has basically been my main tool for learning. I import lots of stuff into it and that kind of thing. Initially, I was working a lot on native dialogues.
Um, so there’s, um, Wolf and Wawa. I don’t know if anyone’s heard of that, um, on LingQ, there’s a really good podcast, which is two Chinese friends discussing, uh, natural, more or less natural speed. I think they’re designing it for learners, but it’s, it’s, um, they’re using like everyday Chinese, um, and. It’s kind of, because it’s like a transcript of daily conversation, a lot of the words and phrases they’re using a very common, um, so that’s kind of the first kind of more or less native content that I started tackling.
And then from there I started moving on to radio transcripts of SBS, um, SBS, which is, um, the Australia’s like Mandarin channel, which has like, uh, short broadcasts on lots of different topics and radio phone ins where Chinese people living in Australia phone in to chat about everything that’s going on in terms of politics and other things. So, so yeah, basically from that, um, so that, that’s what I was doing at first with LingQ.
And then after that I started doing more novels and, um, and things like that, which, um, which I’m still doing now. Elle: Excellent. And to go back to something you said about newspapers there, so you said 1000 to 500 characters isn’t enough to read like a regular, um, newspaper article in Mandarin? Mischa: Yeah, I’d say that’s right. I mean, the thing is there’s, there’s different… people put different figures on the number of characters that you need in order to be literate in terms of reading a newspaper and there’s no set number.
Um, but I think to be comfortable, I would probably put it above 1,500.
I don’t know what I put it at specifically, but maybe more like 2000 to 3000. Um, at 3000 probably you start feeling fairly comfortable, but there’d still be characters that come up in the news that you don’t know. But, um, but yeah, I’d say I’d put it around more like that, but certainly after the graded readers, um, which was set at something like one between 1000, 1,500, I still found reading the news very, very challenging.
Elle: So how many… so many characters, how many characters would you, do you think you have committed to memory at this point four years in, right?
Mischa: Yeah. Um, it’s very difficult to say, actually, but I recently did um, there’s a website you can go on, which is, I forget the name of the website, but it, it asks you a series of, it’s like you take a quiz and it basically tells you the vocabulary level that you’re at. But it doesn’t tell you like specifically how many characters in terms of vocabulary level.
It put me at 11,000 words, LingQ puts me at 15,000, but I think that’s inflated. Uh, Steve, Steve has talked about how it gets inflated for various reasons for Chinese, but, um, 11,000 probably for wording in terms of characters, maybe 3000, but that’s just a guess. Elle: Um, how about writing? Are you into the writing out of characters?
Mischa: So initially I was, um, um, when I first started out, I did spend quite a lot of time writing them out by hand.
Eventually I had to make a choice because I have a full-time job. I have other commitments. So it’s kind of a, um, a choice about what you’re going to commit your time to. And I just didn’t have enough time if I wanted to commit all the time that I have to reading and listening, like using LingQ and other tools. Yeah.
Um, I just didn’t have enough time to basically on top of that, like write them out by hand.
So I got to about, I think 500, which I’ve probably forgotten a lot of them by now, but I found that without writing them out by hand, you can still quite, I wouldn’t say I don’t want to say easily, but there’s, there’s no problem committing them to memory in terms of visual memory. So you don’t need to learn to write them out by hand in order to recognize them visually. Elle: Right.
Mischa: So, so yeah, I got, um, I got about 500 eventually, but then I decided to just focus purely on listening and reading.
And I think at some point in the future, I may go back particularly because I’m told if I want to pass a proficiency test in the future, uh, which is not a priority for me, but it may be something I want to do in the future that the new system they’re talking about, which hasn’t been confirmed yet, but the new system may involve uh, writing by hand component. Whereas at the moment they allow you to take the proficiency tests by writing Chinese using a computer, but in the future, maybe they may make you write it out by hand.
So I, so anyway, I may, I may go back to it in future.
That’s interesting that they would as it, add it, sorry, to the test, as opposed to it being there and them taking it away with our modern world, but okay. Mischa: They, um, initially, I mean, there’s always been a writing component. Elle: Right.
Mischa: But what they’d done in the past last few years is they’d introduced us some test centers, HSK test centers. They started allowing people to, um, take the test using a computer.
And like, as you say, that makes perfect sense because the, I mean, that’s how everyone writes nowadays. Uh, if you can communicate using a computer, then there’s really no problem in terms of communicating. But I think, um, the new system hasn’t been confirmed, but if they do end up bringing back the writing component, I suspect it’s because there’s, um, a case to be made about preserving the, the art of writing by hand and that kind of thing, and preserving the tradition of that. Elle: That makes sense. That makes sense.
I mean, the characters are so beautiful and I know you’re not writing them out like a calligrapher would, but it’s an art, for sure I can see that. Mischa: Absolutely.
Elle: So what does, and I know days are different, you know, some days you work, weekends maybe you don’t, but what does a day of a Mandarin study look like for you?
Mischa: Yeah, it’s interesting because I don’t really see it as study anymore because, because it’s kind of transitioned to it phase where, um, a lot of things that I would previously have done in terms of leisure in English now I do in Chinese. So for example, I spend, um, most of the stuff I, if I’m reading for pleasure, like in terms of novels, um, I do that in Chinese now instead. So that’s kind of study time.
So the typical, if I were to like set out like a day, uh, just for studying Chinese, it would probably involve spending some time reading my novel. And then, um, listening to, uh, for listening, like I’m watching you, there’s a lot of like YouTube channels that I follow. Um, like talking about politics.
Um, there’s some cartoons that I quite like because they’re slightly, so, um, so sorry I say easier, but they’re still, I mean, um, yeah, so like there’s a cartoon called … uh and it’s, um, about, uh, a girl going about her daily life. It’s actually dubbed from Japanese, but that’s sort of what I use for like easier stuff is like cartoons like that. And then for harder stuff, like things like sitcoms and political channels where people talk about politics and stuff, a lot of stuff on YouTube basically. So I do that.
And then, um, one thing that in the past few months I’ve started doing a lot more of particularly during the lockdown and then coming out of lockdown was because I couldn’t meet up with Chinese friends, doing a lot more Zoom calls and that kind of thing. So I usually most days actually I’ll spend some time half an hour or an hour even calling or doing like a, a call with a Chinese friend and doing conversation exchange. Elle: Excellent. I like that. It doesn’t feel like study anymore.
What, at what point do you remember when it started to feel that way when it was less of, like you said, some things were slog, of course, the beginning period in any language is a slog, do you remember when you went “huh, I’m replacing english or Spanish or whatever, TV time, book, time with Chinese and it’s like it’s entertainment now? Mischa: Yeah, I think that, I don’t know if it was a single moment. I think it happened quite gradually and it was quite, um, a slog to get there.
I mean, the, the, um, first lockdown a year ago, um, I basically started like stepping up quite a lot.
So previous to that, because, uh, like, as I say, I was working, I still am working full-time. But with, with when there wasn’t locked down, there was less time in the day. So previous to that, I was maybe doing Chinese for like half an hour a day. And then when lockdown happened, I started taking it more seriously.
So then I started like spending several hours a day.
Um, and then gradually through doing that, I think I started to get more of a sense of like, that I could, I could do this for enjoyment and purely pleasure at the beginning during that lockdown, like I still felt it was a slog. I was trying to grapple with native materials on LingQ that were above my level, that I still found very challenging, both to read and to listen to, and actually like, um, something I’ve blogged about as well.
But like, because I was spending so much time and because sometimes I was using materials which didn’t interest me that much, I did feel sort of after three or four months when the first lockdown ended, I think in like June last year, um, I started feeling a bit burned out and I took it, I took quite a bit of time off Chinese at that point. And I think I actually took like probably three months, the whole summer off Chinese. I just couldn’t couldn’t face looking at any, um, Chinese at that time.
Um, when I got back to it, I think maybe that’s kind of a moment worth talking about, because although I’d been away from, from it for three to four months, I think within a week of getting back to it, I felt like I was at my previous level or slightly better than my previous level. So the three months off hadn’t done me any harm at all.
And I started to feel from then because I had some distance, um, when you’re actually like working really hard, I think a lot of the time you can’t really see the progress that you’re making, because I had that distance of a couple of months coming back to it and I started to feel, this is slightly easier. I’m starting to get more pleasure. I’m starting to like reading like novels and stuff like that. Isn’t so much of a slog anymore. Elle: Excellent. So there’s hope for anyone listening who is maybe in that situation Mischa mentioned before.
You can get to the point where it’s, it’s more fun and less of a slog for sure. Mischa: Um, absolutely. Yeah.
I mean, cause when you’re in that moment, like sometimes I think particularly if you’re a first time language learner, as I consider myself a first time language learner, because I don’t really count learning French at school or being bilingual in Spanish and English. So being a first time language learner, I think if you, um, I think that like it’s something that you can lose sight of.
Like it’s, you know, because you, you see people out there polyglots like Steve and others that have done it. So, you know, it’s possible to do, but you don’t, you haven’t yet internalized that because you’ve never done it. Is is very, it’s a very difficult thing to kind of internalize those it’s possible to do when you’re in that moment. And you don’t feel you’re making any progress. Elle: Yeah. For sure.
And you think too, okay, well, yeah, that person’s done it, but they have some special talent or skill that I clearly don’t have It’s so easy to convince yourself of that. Mischa: And I think on that point, like, because that’s definitely something I think, I I’ve thought in the past, well, they must just be talented. That kinda thing. Cause you see the end-product of them speaking fluently.
Um, I think the main talent is the ability to spend several hours like on end, like the way Steve describes spending eight hours when he learned Chinese in his twenties, spending eight hours a day concentrated, like just doing Chinese and like from a beginner level, I think there’s talent involved in, in that level of concentration. And, um, I personally like haven’t reached that level. Maybe in future I’ll be able to, but like, like, um, yeah, I I’m, if I can get like, um, a few hours in a couple of hours, then that’s okay.
A good day for me.
Elle: Yeah. Such discipline, right? You just have to be so persistent. Yeah, for sure. Has there been anything that’s surprised you on your, on your Mandarin learning journey so far? Mischa: Um, I think lots of things have surprised me. I think one, I think they’ve mostly being positive surprises because I mean the initial surprise of learning Mandarin I would say was slightly negative because I went into it very naively. And so I had no idea what learning Mandarin involved.
So the initial surprise was, oh, this is actually like quite hard.
This is like, not… this, this is the amount of work that this is going to require is like an order of magnitude above anything I’ve done before if I want to become like properly fluent in Mandarin. So I, as a completely naive language learner, that was my initial surprise. Once you get over that surprise…
and once I got over that surprise, the surprise, the surprises after that were all positive in the sense that after that initial surprise, you start to wonder, is this possible?
Am I ever going to be able to do this? Is learning characters possible? Particularly characters, I would say. Um, and, and the surprises that no, if you, if you stick at it, do it every day, um, spaced repetition, flashcards, they will stick. And particularly because one of my concerns was you hear a lot about some people are visual learners, some people are audio learners or whatever. And, um, in my case I’m definitely not a visual learner, in my opinion.
I don’t know if there’s any, if that’s meaningful or not like whether these categories are meaningful or not, but yeah. Um, never considered myself to be a visual learner or to like have a visual memory, anything like that. So I was concerned maybe that that would be an impediment to learning characters and yeah, the surprising thing, the positive surprise was that no, if you stick at it every day, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a visual learner or not like you will, they will stick, you’ll be able to pick up characters. So, so that was positive.
Um, so what does the future hold? As you say, four years, And you have your website I’m learning mandarin.com. Is the next year or two just Mandarin focussed? Do you, are you hoping to move on to another language?
Mischa: So I think for the time being, I’m definitely quite committed to Mandarin because I’ve reached a level, which for me personally is fairly gratifying. I mean, I’m able to have like long conversations about lots of different topics with my friends and that kind of thing.
Um, there are still things that I want to achieve in Mandarin personally, that I haven’t yet achieved. And particularly in terms of listening fluency, um, just general fluency as well. Being able to express myself. I don’t want to get to an, a native level. I’m not so sure interested in that. Like some people are, but, um, I do want to get to a slightly higher level of fluency than I am at the moment. Um, and just general improvement across, across the board in terms of listening and, and reading as well.
Um, because for example, in reading with characters, Um, I know enough that like reading novels on LingQ is generally very comfortable, but if, if they’re on paper, it’s a lot more difficult because you need to look up every word in the dictionary. And, um, although I may recognize 95%, that 5% is still very difficult to cope with on papers, not so much on LingQ.
So there are still those areas that I really want to improve. And in terms of, uh, blogging and that kind of thing, definitely want to continue blogging.
Um, my insights about my experience and I’m, I’m interested in maybe getting more into YouTube, this kind of stuff, which I’ve never done before, this is my first time. Maybe start like joining the ranks of the kind of YouTube exhibitionists who like speak different languages, which is another thing, um, I wouldn’t mind trying in the future, but so there’s a few things I’m interested in, but generally just, um, continuing, improving my Chinese and learning and blogging about the learning. Elle: Excellent. Sounds good.
I just wanna apologize if anyone can hear banging my adorable and very lively nephews are right above me. It’s kind of stomping. I don’t know if that’s going to carry through, but maybe. The joys of working from home. Um, excellent. I was going to say to you actually, yeah, you should start a YouTube channel.
Definitely. I mean, that’s where everyone’s at and you, I think it’d be great.
So, and you know, people love, you know, when you’re learning a language, you love to see, like you said that it can be done, you know, someone’s progress week by week or every other week whenever you post something. Um, yeah.
Mischa: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
I mean, those YouTube channels have really helped me. Um, particularly people like Steve Kaufmann, there’s also Luke Truman.
Yeah, but people like that, like you watch the videos and you, you can, if you’re a beginner, particularly you can see what’s possible, um, that they really can speak Chinese fluently that, um, they’ve done it in adulthood. So why can’t you? Um, and often like very insightful. So, so yeah, I’m open to contributing to that kind of thing. Elle: Perfect. Well, best of luck. We’ll be following along. I’ll pop the link to your website I’m learning mandarin.com.
I’ll also pop the link to the blog post that you wrote for the LingQ blog about learning Chinese on LingQ which is excellent. And yeah, any other. Uh, content that you mentioned, um, to, for anyone listening, watching, we’ll also be in the description. So, uh, Mischa, thank you so much. That was a really great chat and I wish you all the best luck with your blogging and maybe YouTubing in the future.
Mischa: Perfect. Thank you for having me on.
Elle: Cheers. Bye-bye.
Mischa: Thanks, bye.