Welcome back to Language Learning Stories.
Language Learning Stories interview with Chinese speaker Jack Maher
It’s another great language learning interview – this time with Jack Maher, a successful corporate lawyer and Chinese speaker. Jack’s best Chinese learning practice happens over food and drinks with friends or during conversations with cab drivers.
Jack’s advice is to be willing to sound stupid and that no one faults you for giving it a go! Such great advice and something we can all remember when we are slogging away at our language learning.
Jack is also the recipient of the prestigious Prime Minster’s Australia Asia award which he used to further his legal studies in China.
Thank you to Jack for being part of Language Learning Stories!
1. Why did you decide to start learning Chinese?
Broadly, it started from an interest in Asia and a notion (I’m not sure where it came from) that you should be able to speak a language other than your own.
My parents worked in film and television. I shared a love of film with them and become very interested in Asian cinema in my early teenage years. My local video store (back in the days of VHS) had an excellent foreign cinema section and I particularly enjoyed making my way through their Chinese and Japanese titles. Cinema was a way for me to experience a culture that was very different from my own. When I was 13/14 dial up modem internet connections were just starting to become something a household might consider getting so cinema for me was still the best way to communicate with someone on the other side of the world.
When I was 15 I was pretty high up at Nandos – working on the front grill. I had started to save a bit of money and told Dad I wanted to go somewhere in Asia during a term break. He liked the idea and before I could think of where in Asia to go he was offered and accepted a job directing a TV series in China which made the choice for me. I spent a couple of months in China (Beijing and Shanghai) in 2001 and came back with a strong interest to learn the language which would happen once I got to university.
2. How long have you been learning for?
Probably around 2 – 2.5 years of in-country language classes plus informally for another year or two by living in China.
3. What level would you say you are currently?
At my peak when I was working in a Chinese language office, I would have said vaguely “business proficiency”. By that I meant I could (I was working in a law firm) interact with colleges as you would in your home country. I could make my way through legislation at a slow pace and was becoming familiar with drafting Chinese legal documents. That was 4 years ago and my skills are certainly not at that level currently. They are there hiding somewhere in my mind, so I would say they are a “dormant business proficiency” that needs another in-country immersion to get them going again.
4. Where have you studied? Have you done any language learning trips?
I started at university in Melbourne but after adjusting to university life and missing the first few classes I was continually behind in class for the rest of the semester and found it very stressful participating in the tutorials and seminars. I dropped it in my first year.
Although it wasn’t a great experience I was still really keen to learn so after I finished my undergraduate studies I went to Taiwan twice for a total period of 18 months studying from scratch at Taiwan Normal University in Taipei which was brilliant. I’ve also done 6 months at Nanjing Normal University and some casual classes at Tsinghua University while I was studying Chinese Law there.
5. What awards have you received?
I’ve been really fortunate to receive some fantastic support to pursue Chinese language and legal studies. I received the Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Award to undertake my legal studies in China and the Hamer Scholarship to complete some further language study in Nanjing just before that.
6. What tools and resources do you use/have you relied on?
Starting out I had really good texts books in Taiwan. Vocab and grammar were always well explained and used in helpful example sentences. As my ability increased I started to listen to podcasts, read newspapers, Taiwan just started publishing its own the Big Issue when I was there so that was a really cool resource to use. I never breezed through those materials when I saw them but even just translating and understanding a few paragraphs here or there was beneficial and enjoyable. Right now when I have the time (which is a big issue) I will try SBS on Demand Mandarin Radio and Netflix is securing the rights to more and more Chinese TV series which I’m getting onto.
The other big “resource” is friends I’ve made studying overseas – there is only so much practice you can do by yourself in your own head. Best practice is over food or drinks with friends or having a convo with your cab driver.
7. What’s one of the best or most worthwhile investments you have made to do with your language learning?
Learning in-county. No other environment can replicate what is by far the most enjoyable, exciting and rewarding way to learn the language. Go do it. You’ve got around 40 years to ruin your life with fulltime work, don’t live all of them in that routine – it will make you dumb and boring.
8. You’ve been in a relationship with a Chinese speaker before, did you converse in Chinese or English or a combo?
A combo, but mainly Chinese. I think if the relationship was in Australia it would have been reversed though.
9. Has your motivation for learning gone up and down over the years? How do you keep motivated?
Urgh. This is a bit of a sore point. I wouldn’t say my motivation has necessarily gone down, I still think a lot about China and living there again as well as lament how my language skills have deteriorated since living there. The reality is that working a very time demanding job coupled with other commitments (exercising, family & friends etc) has left me pretty tired when I do get some time to myself. I’ve attempted to do a bit of study during that down time by unfortunately find that I just need to relax and zone out. I do the odd bit of study and am sometimes called to use it in my work but improvement or just retention requires continuity and that has been hard. It’s a huge challenge and to be honest it’s not one that I have solved yet.
For me I think need to tangible reasons to study back home eg I need to put myself in positions at work where my language skills will be needed – basically a situation that if I know my skills will not be up to scratch I’m “motivated” (scared) into getting them to where they need to be.
10. How have you been able to use your Chinese language skills in your career?
I have. It’s been great when I’ve had the opportunity. I worked at a large corporate law firm that had many offices in China. So there was a stream of China related work that came through the firm. I worked in the technology team and advised on China cyber security law which required getting my head around a lot of legislation and regulations that are coming out in this area.
11. What have you learnt about yourself through learning Chinese?
I’m not sure if a necessarily learnt anything about myself. However, it is really satisfying to notice gradual and continual improvements in your Chinese ability that validates the work you’re doing. I think this is really good for your confidence generally and definitely increased my confidence in approaching and leaning new things.
12. What’s the hardest/most challenging thing about learning Chinese?
Definitely finding time/opportunities to maintain what you’re leant, and even more so, improve when you’re not in a Chinese speaking environment.
When I was learning, the concept and application of a tonal language was something that was totally foreign to me. As far as the technical mastery of the language this was and still is the most challenging aspect I find.
13. What has been surprisingly easy about your Chinese language learning journey? (If anything?!)
Improving. If you’re in-country and you have some form of interest in learning your work can really pay off.
14. What advice would you give to aspiring Chinese language learners?
Be willing to sound stupid. Despite fear of embarrassment of poor pronunciation or limited vocab I really pushed myself to always converse with native speakers in Chinese. No one faults someone for giving it a go – this was especially true in Taiwan and China. I think this was the reason I was able to progress at the pace I did.
15. If you had your time again, would you learn Chinese, another language or no language at all?
Very happy with Chinese. But would love to sit in many other countries for a year or two learning the language – doing the same with Chinese has been the most fun I’ve had.
16. What are your language plans for the future?
Another stint living and working in China I hope.
Thanks for joining me for another Language Learning Stories. And a huge thank you to Jack for this interview.
Please leave your questions and comments for Jack below.
You can read more interviews here! If you have a question you’d love me to ask a language learner, please get in touch! Also if you or someone you know would be a perfect interviewee, please contact me!
Until next time,