3. The Language, School Culture and Apps of Your New Country

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8 Tips for Learning a New Language While Abroad

1. Learn the Correct Pronunciation

Starting with pronunciation first does a few things—because I’m first and foremost learning how to hear that language’s sounds, my listening comprehension gets an immediate boost before I even start traditional language learning. Once I start vocabulary training, I retain it better because I’m familiar with how words should sound. If you’re learning a language with a different alphabet, this is where you learn the phonetic alphabet(s) (Pinyin for Chinese, for example).

How do you learn pronunciation? There are a few routes here, and a lot of excellent online and in-print resources. I love listening to audio language courses downloadable from http://audible.com. Also, it may be worth your time learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for the English language first (Wikipedia),

2. Live with native speakers

They don’t have to be your new best friends, so whether you’re looking for a family with a spare room or a student house share, having a native speaker living under the same roof does wonders for your fluency, as you’ll easily spend a minimum of half an hour a day using your language skills. This is especially effective if they don’t speak any English because if you need something, you’ll learn pretty quickly how to ask for it, and it’s a great way to practise speaking a language even when you don’t feel like it. This sounds scary but you’ll soon find that the benefits of living with locals hugely outweigh any doubts you might have had.

3. Do say ‘yes’

You’ve been invited to your friend’s niece’s birthday meal? Why not? As long as you feel safe and not under pressure, even the strangest suggestions are great opportunities for language practice. And you never know, you could end up having a great time. Even if you’re being pushed into karaoke, just think of the great stories you’ll have to tell when you get back.

4. Use Apps

Even before you go overseas, start learning your new language through the abundant language-learning resources online such as italki and Duolingo.

5. Watch Their TV Shows and Sing Along

While a new Netflix series is a good way to pass the hours, it might be time to opt for something a bit more local. Even if you can’t get TV shows with subtitles, listening to as much as you can and making a note of any new vocabulary is a great way to tune into the local dialect.

We pick up foreign vocabulary through music for the same reason that we remember the lyrics of English songs: music is catchy. Choose songs that you enjoy listening to and you’ve got a useful listening exercise that won’t be a total chore.

The hardest part can be finding music that you like and that’s the right level for you. There’s no point starting out listening to a rap so fast that you can’t pick out even a single word. Try ballads or pop songs which tend to be slower and make it easier to distinguish individual words. Even practice with children’s music. Also, lots of YouTube videos have lyrics written in pinyin (Chinese spelled with English), and a good exercise is to try to sing along with the music, karaoke style.

6. Use Their Social Media

If looking at a page of Chinese characters fills you with a sense of panic and the conviction that you would never be able to decipher these characters, then I have good news and bad news. The good news? The characters aren’t as alien as they might seem, and after a few months you will start to scan them as you do English. The bad news? It will be a challenge. Learning takes time, and the only real way to learn is frequent exposure. Remember, learning a language is not just showing up to a class once a week, but it is about taking initiative and doing all the small things you possibly can between classes.

7. How do you say?

Besides common greetings, the one phrase you should memorize and always have at the ready is the phrase is “How do you say that / what is that called?”

By being an inquisitive traveler, one who is always asking questions, you befriend the local people. You’ll find that over time they’ll open up to you, making it easier to initiate conversations. These daily interactions with the locals are your best teachers: set a daily goal for yourself of having X number of conversations each day–asking people about things you’re interested in, but don’t know the words for. Even if you can’t finish the conversation, you’re on the way.

8. Write it

After having conversations, jot down the things you remembered hearing but didn’t quite understand. Then go back and use your dictionary. Look up the words, piece the conversation back together in your mind. Then, next time you have a conversation, use what you learned.


Pronouncing Pinyin

If you don’t intend to teach Chinese students, you can skip this section and the following sections.

Chinese is a difficult language and it will take a while for you to learn basic Chinese so you don’t have to rely on Baidu Translate for everything. However, you definitely should learn how to pronounce Chinese written in Pinyin, the way of writing Chinese with western characters. If you don’t learn the basic differences between English and Pinyin letter sounds, you’ll mispronounce lots of words and sound less intelligent.


Make sure you know how to pronounce the following words shown below in pinyin as you will be asked some on the following quiz. 1. Zhang (name) 2. Chongqing (city) 3. Xi’an (city) 4. Xiexie (“thanks”) 5. Shenzhen (city) 6. Cao (name)

Differences Between Teaching Chinese Kids and American Kids




Many teachers are moving from America to China as a way to make ends meet as teaching opportunities decrease in their home country, while other new graduates are making the move with the aim of gaining some teaching experience for a few years before they go back to their home country.

To help those who are planning to teach in China for the first time or those who are planning to go back to the United States and teach, we have asked a number of teachers who have taught both in the United States and China to compare the differences between teaching Chinese kids and American kids.

Let’s start with the things that are similar. Kids will be kids no matter what their race or where they are from. There will be kids in the class who are always very active and energetic and there will be kids who prefer to sit quietly. There will be those who excel in one or more subjects and there will be those who learn a bit slower. Scientific studies prove that race and ethnicity don’t produce humans that are innately smarter compared with others. The difference according to Rex Ray is in nurture, not in nature. Our teachers noticed that the difference is in their study habits rather than their learning abilities.

1. Strive for perfection

Chinese kids receive a lot of pressure from their parents and teachers to focus on perfectionism. When they receive a grade of 98%, instead of receiving praise on how well they did, their parents will often focus on the 2% that the child failed to answer correctly. Americans tend to focus less on scores. The American grading systems convey a more general message on how to judge academic progress.

2. Self-esteem

The Confucian mindset teaches Chinese kids to work hard, persevere and respect authority. These are the keys to succeeding in life, with feeling good about yourself given less of a priority. Over 40 years ago, it was introduced to Americans that a young learner’s self-esteem plays a significant role in developing their social and psychological skills. Less pressure is exerted on achieving 100% in every test and success is linked to a wider range of things beyond just test scores such as effort, social skills and sports.

3. Respect for Teachers

According to an international study reported on by the BBC based on surveys of 1,000 adults from different countries, Chinese teachers have the highest level of public respect. The cultural difference in how the teaching role is perceived plays an important part on how the students behave inside the class and how they value education. In China, parents are more likely to take the side of the teachers instead of going against them, while in America, teachers are not seen by both parents and students as the last word in authority. These differences have implications for classroom management techniques required in the Chinese and American classrooms.

4. Level of dependence

Chinese parents and teachers are not generally inclined to develop their children to be as independent as their American counterparts. Instead of training the students to think and find the answers on their own, in the Chinese education system, the answers are spoon-fed to them. They focus a lot on rote-learning and a lot of repetition. American kids are generally better at thinking on their own. American schools put strong emphasis on critical thinking and questioning things while Chinese kids are not expected to learn this in school; they have to learn this on their own.

5. Creativity

Chinese kids do a lot more homework than American kids. After their regular school, most of them still have to go to after school programs which give them less opportunity to do extracurricular activities and sports compared to American kids. As a result, it gives them less time to imagine, think, create and play. American kids have a lot of time to do other things outside school which gives them a wider perspective on life and allows them to explore other things on their own.

6. Personal happiness

This is where Chinese kids are far behind American kids. Chinese people believe that education can push their economic status forward and can fuel social mobility. Chinese kids focus too much on education as they receive a lot of pressure from their parents, teachers and even their peers, while their personal happiness is not considered nearly as important. Studies have shown that the most common emotional health concern for Chinese kids is stress especially from academic pressure. American kids are more likely to have leisure activities, do sports and devote time to doing things they enjoy which releases them from the pressures of school and allows them to experience a more varied and happy life outside of school.

The influence of culture, society and family plays a strong part on the differences between American kids and Chinese kids inside the classroom. There are a lot of other factors that could affect a student’s behavior inside the classroom like socio-economic status, parental background and a lot more. It is best if the teacher spends time to find out more about each students’ individual needs, learning styles and personality and teaches to them as best as they can.



6 Must-Have Apps for Travelers in China

Smartphones have totally changed the way people obtain information, almost rendering paperback dictionaries and travel books obsolete. This is great news for the non-Chinese-speaking travelers, who no longer have to lug around heavy dictionaries and guide books, rely on charades to get by, or risk ordering the wrong dishes by mistake. Here is a list of the top-needed phone apps that will make a stay in China much easier and relatively hassle-free.

Language Apps

1. Pleco Chinese Dictionary

Pleco is one of the best Chinese-English language-learning apps as well as an offline dictionary. It is of great use when trying to read menus, signs, or tourist attraction names in Chinese. Users can input characters using pinyin (the romanization system of Mandarin), drawing them out, or scanning them (with the OCR reader installed) in order to translate them into English. The dictionary is also very reliable. Below is a pictorial guide on how to download, install, and use this app on an Android mobile phone (click to enlarge):


2. Baidu Translate 

Baidu Translate is an online translation service for 16 popular languages. One of its key features is voice translation among English, Mandarin and Cantonese, which is quite accurate. It also has a function that uses image recognition, which lets the users take a picture of something and circle it. The app then attempts to identify the object in Chinese and English.  Below is a pictorial guide on how to download, install and use this app on an Android mobile phone:


3. WeChat 

WeChat (in Mandarin, “weixin”) is the most popular messaging service in China. Users can use it to send text and voice messages, or make phone or video calls for free if there is a internet connection. WeChat is great for staying in touch with new acquaintances. In cases where, for example, one meets a friendly taxi driver and wants to add his contact information in order to hire him again the next day, WeChat provides a non-invasive way to do this. People of all age groups and background have this app, and some even rely on it to communicate with co-workers and business contacts. Below is a pictorial guide on how to download, install and use this app on an Android mobile phone:


4. Baidu Maps 

Baidu Maps is the Chinese version of Google Maps. Although the user interface only has a Chinese-language version, it is more accurate and up-to-date than Google Maps when it comes to local places. If one searches for a place with an English name, Baidu will still usually return relevant results. It also does fairly well with pinyin for those who don’t have Chinese input installed on their phones. For owners of Iphones, Apple Maps is another good alternative map app that provides directions and routes in pinyin. Below is a pictorial guide on how to download, install and use this app on an Android mobile phone:



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