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Language Learning Stories
interview with
Erin Blackman


Language Learning Stories
interview with
Erin Blackman

Welcome back to Language Learning Stories.

Language Learning Stories interview with Chinese speaker Erin Blackman

My guest today is Chinese speaker Erin Blackman. I was introduced to Erin by a friend of mine and I’m so grateful – we could have chatted for hours! We sat down to record this interview and I’ve transcribed it for you below. I hope I’ve managed to capture all the gold that Erin shared with me!

Erin has been learning Chinese on and off since the mid-1990s and now works promoting Australia-China cross-cultural communication and understanding at the Museum of Chinese Australian History in Melbourne.

Erin started studying Mandarin as a first year Uni student at Monash University and loved it so much she soon travelled to Tianjin, China to study Mandarin full time. After graduating from uni, Erin returned to China, working at Cadbury China in Marketing & Sales. Erin lived and worked in Beijing for 4 years and then moved on to an Asia Pacific Strategy role within Cadbury Schweppes. In 2004, Erin returned to Melbourne and specialised in Marketing.

I loved my interview with Erin, mostly because of her valuable insights into self-studying Chinese in Australia, about setting achievable goals and learning words and phrases that are unique to your situation.

I’m grateful to Erin for her time with me chatting all things Chinese!

Read my other Language Learning Stories with Louise (Chinese), Suzie (Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese), Jen (Japanese and Chinese) and Jack (Chinese) here!

Why did you first start learning Chinese?

I didn’t seek Chinese out specifically and I kind of stumbled upon Chinese. I always wanted to learn a second language as a young child and was fascinated by it and thought of it as a super power! Even though, growing up second languages were not part of my English heritage world

I chose to do a double degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia and as part of my International trade degree, it was compulsory to study a language in the first year. The faculty recommended to either study Japanese or Chinese. Two-thirds of my university cohort chose Japanese, and I went with Chinese.

At this time in the mid-late 1990s, Chinese was still very much in its infancy and I liked being in the minority and a little bit different.

Things have dramatically changed since that time and demand for Chinese skills has increased a lot since then.

You moved to Tianjin to continue studying Chinese when you were at uni, how was this experience? 

I moved to Tianjin off my own bat, as there were no scholarship programs offered at the time through Monash Uni. I wrote to the university in Tianjin (using snail mail!) and was accepted. I hadn’t heard of Tianjin before applying, and after reading through the Lonely Planet and I thought it sounded like a pretty good option – and it was only a couple of hours from Beijing (now it’s more like 30 minutes by fast train!).

I spent a year in Tianjin at Nankai University.

Have you done any other language learning trips? 

After graduating from Monash and spending a year in the workforce in Melbourne, I returned to Tianjin for more Chinese study, this time at Tianjin Normal University.

The aim was to keep advancing my skills and improving my Chinese.  TNU fees were lower than Nankai, but the teaching was just as good. This second time learning in-country was really about improving my skills and experiencing life in China. It was also a great opportunity to network, meet new people and decide where I wanted to live in China. Studying also helps get a visa!

As a beginner it is slow going – my 1- 1.5 years at Monash – equated to almost nothing in China. People speak so fast in ‘real life’ but when I was in China, my speed of improvement was so much faster than studying from Australia.

I ended up spending 4 years in China.

Learning a second language has changed my life deeply and extensively.

How would you classify your current level of Chinese?

All over the place! My listening is far more advanced than speaking. My grammar is a train wreck!

I did start learning Chinese again last year and I’ve seen lots of improvement, so I would classify my level as advanced intermediate, with a working proficiency.

Lingo Mama’s note – I asked Erin how she copes with differing accents in Chinese 

I’ve had exposure to different accents – with living in China and this has really helped. You can overcome this with a lot of exposure to a variety of accents. Taiwanese accent used to throw me a lot – pronouncing “sh” sound as “s”.  The Beijing accent is a great one to learn though, as it is really known as the standard or “pure” form of Mandarin Chinese. Speakers can often tell that I learnt in Beijing, from my accent.

Backpacking through different provinces has also really helped my exposure to different accents, as has speaking Mandarin Chinese with Guangdong people, Singaporeans and Malaysians.

How has speaking a second language changed your life and career?

Learning a second language has changed my life deeply and extensively.

Speaking Chinese enabled me to fast track my career and get a position in Beijing at Cadbury, working on commercial strategy. The position required Chinese language skills as at the time there were a number of Australian expats who couldn’t speak Chinese.  I worked on bigger projects and reported to senior management in a way I couldn’t have done in Australia.

Knowing Chinese, and spending time in China has allowed me to meet and make many friends. The cities in China are global cities and I’ve made friends from all over the world, not to mention my Chinese friends.

Chinese language skills has allowed me to navigate China as a backpacker and helped friends and family travel throughout the country.

Chinese language skills continue to enable me to make friends and break the ice. Making chit-chat in Chinese means it is very easy to build rapport and relationships.

I think it is important to have well-rounded skills. Speaking Chinese is not enough, you have to have a technical expertise.

Do you speak a lot of Chinese now you are based in Melbourne?

I purposely sought out a position that would allow me to leverage my Chinese skills. I currently work at the Museum of Chinese Australia History in Melbourne where I get to work with Chinese people on a daily basis.

There are so many Mandarin Chinese speakers in Melbourne, and people are speaking Chinese everywhere!  On the streets, shops and on public transport!

The part of Melbourne I live in, there are many Chinese speakers, with approximately half of my kids’school population having Chinese background. This gives me ample opportunity to practice, including chatting to my children’s friends and their parents in Chinese.

What are the opportunities for people to learn Chinese who don’t have the chance to travel to China?

There are no barriers to learning Chinese these days, as there are so many opportunities in Australia to speak and practice. Plus apps, the internet, youtube videos, library etc. There are so many resources out there now.

Lingo Mama – this is such a good point. We are so blessed with all the resources at our fingertips in Australia.

There are no barriers to learning Chinese these days. There are so many opportunities in Australia to speak and practice and so many resources out there now.

What’s one of the best or most worthwhile investments you have made to do with your language learning?

Going to China is the obvious investment. If you’re not in a position to go – (I’m not) – the best investment is in time by committing a couple of hours a week consistently – you will see enormous improvement and momentum.

Are you doing self-study or attending classes?

With limited time – two kids and with work and hardly any classes at the intermediate or advanced level offered during the day, I now do classes online. I’ve linked up with a teacher in Qingdao and have lessons over Skype. It’s super flexible with time and place.

I also do translations for fun, watch TV shows and I still look at flashcards.

 WeChat as a language tool

WeChat has been such a good tool for me. I use WeChat to text language partners – texting in Chinese is a great way to reinforce learning by using new words, characters and phrases.

Lingo Mama – if you hadn’t ever been to China, you may not have the chance to use WeChat now! Download it! It’s life changing!!

Language Learning Stories interview by Lingo Mama with Erin Blackman Chinese speaker

Has your motivation for learning gone up and down over the years? How do you keep motivated?

My motivation has totally fluctuated over the (20+) years of my Chinese language journey. I even lost motivation completely for a ten year period after I came back from China.

Professionally I was off doing other things, which wasn’t a bad thing. I went and learned a trade marketing, which means now I can combine my marketing expertise with my Chinese language skills and in-country skills.

I think it is important to have well-rounded skills. Speaking Chinese is not enough, you have to have a technical expertise.

It is hard to keep motivated whilst learning Chinese from abroad, as none of my family speaks Chinese, so I’m not getting the language environment around me. I find action motivates me – using the language successfully motivates me and spurs me on.

Setting achievable goals is important, if you say I want to get fluent in two years, you will get burnt out. Even the thought of saying “I want to have coffee with my Chinese friend and speak Chinese the whole time”, even that can be a tiring prospect. You have to set small and achievable goals.

One strategy that has worked for me is learning a phrase or word that is really topical for me at that time. My son broke his arm recently, and how many times have I said: “broke his arm”? I must have said it 100 times in the past few weeks in English!

If you learn this phrase in Chinese, I will use this phrase repeatedly, and reinforcing that learning and you get an absolute buzz and you can converse in a topic you couldn’t before. That to me is super motivating and I can feel the tangible improvement I’ve made.

I’ve found that strategy really helpful.

Lingo Mama – this is the first time I’ve heard someone talk about this strategy, and it really makes so much sense to me. And this really appeals to me as a strategy to help focus my learning.

During my kouyu 口语 (speaking) practice with my Skype teacher, we would just gas bag about all kinds of topics and often end up talking about stories to do with my kids. We repeat the same stories and use the same words in our native language all the time. You would be surprised how narrow our vocabulary and topics of speaking actually are.

Learn the dialogue that is unique to you.

It enables you to put it into practice straight away, repeat it and use it and experience the sense of achievement in talking about new things in a real-life situation.

I’ve discovered my passion is to lean into other cultural backgrounds, learn about them and find common ground. That is what I really love to do.

What have you learnt about yourself through learning Chinese?

I realised for me where I struggled with Mandarin, is in spoken language. I realised that I can be really lazy. I’m not gifted with languages and learning Mandarin has not come easily.  Even now I don’t use my language as much as I should and I often revert to English in a conversation at work, because it’s easier. I have to constantly remind myself and push myself to not do it.

The other thing about learning Chinese, is I’ve discovered my passion is to lean into other cultural backgrounds, learn about them and find common ground. That is what I really love to do. I love to promote cross-cultural understanding and harmony, particularly amongst younger Australians and through learning Chinese I’ve discovered that about myself. That what makes me tick, that’s when I really feel happy and that’s my passion.

What’s the hardest/most challenging thing about learning Chinese?

This will come as no surprise, for me it is learning the characters. Compared with 26 letters in the English alphabet, learning Chinese characters is so hard and writing them is the toughest. Having to create them yourself with your own hand, but it is also when you can show off your super hero powers. It is so amazing when a western/Caucasian person is able to read and write Chinese characters it is the coolest thing ever. It might be really hard, but it gives me the enormous sense of satisfaction.

What has been surprisingly easy about your language learning journey? (If anything?!)

What has surprised me and easier than I expected is how easy it is in Melbourne now to speak Mandarin.

I used to think if you weren’t in-country, there was no point in learning the language. But with Mandarin now in Australia that is definitely not the case.

What advice would you give to aspiring Chinese language learners?

Setting achievable and realistic goals, don’t over commit. You will burn out.

Learn specific vocab to your situation.  You will be surprised how often you say the same things day in and day out.

If you learn in Mandarin “I used to love my free time during the day, but now my baby is not taking her day naps” – I bet you would say that over and over again.

No textbook is going to teach you that!

Lingo Mama – great advice and very topical! 

One strategy that has worked for me is learning a phrase or word that is really topical for me at that time. It enables you to put it into practice straight away and experience the sense of achievement in talking about new things in a real-life situation.

You’ve got kids now. Do you want them to learn a language?

They don’t currently learn a language. I always thought I’d make them speak Mandarin. Pre-kids I’d say it’s the most valuable skill they could have.

They go to their local primary school which teaches French. People have suggested they do Saturday Mandarin Chinese school. They have friends who do it, but I just feel they would hate it.

I spoke to me ex-Mandarin teacher from Monash University, and he was saying that it would be a mistake -because kids in Australia don’t do that – they don’t go to school on a Saturday- they’d end up resenting it.

What I do now is the passive approach – where I teach them a phrase here and there. They see me learning and conversing – and that way I hope I am setting an example of what you can choose to do. So they don’t grow up resenting it and dropping out as soon as they’re able.

Most high schools in my area teach Mandarin so hopefully, they can start in high school if they want to. But I didn’t start until I was an adult and many of my peers didn’t start until they were in Uni.

Children that are born into a bilingual environment re really lucky. But we’re not that in this home. It’s hard if it’s not reinforced at home and they’re only learning one hour a week.

If you had your time again, would you learn Chinese, another language or no language at all?

OMG! YES! I would always study a second language. Why wouldn’t you??! Besides opening your world, there are so many studies that show the mental benefits to learning a second language – you become smarter, it helps your memory, staves off dementia, and alziemers and helps you improve your mother tongue language.

I would definitely choose Chinese again – especially because of the connections between Australia and China. And because of how vast and diverse China is as a country. It’s a massive kingdom – there is always something to learn.

I’ve often thought about learning Italian or Spanish or Korean. I’ve always said I’ve wanted to spend my time to get better at Mandarin.  There are lots of languages out there that are beautiful to me.

LM – it’s so tempting isn’t it !

I was never particularly taken by Asia, I was way more taken by French or Italian or Spanish. When I thought of overseas, I thought of green rolling hills, and someone wearing clogs in the Netherlands. I still find the idea of speaking a western European language as really romantic and cool, but I am not talented enough I don’t think. I need to put all my energy into the one thing to move the dial.

What are your language plans for the future?

I don’t have any set plans, except for plugging away and keep on improving. Learning Mandarin is a hobby. I want to quietly keep improving it. I want to keep making new Chinese friends in Melbourne. Keep broadening my horizons and getting involved in my community.

I wouldn’t mind teaching one day. But I have some way to go with my own proficiency before I put my hand up for that.

Thanks for joining me for another Language Learning Stories. And a huge thank you to Erin for this interview.

Do you have a question for Erin? Please pop your questions in the comments below.

You can read more interviews here! So far I have interviewed Chinese, Japanese, Spanish and Portuguese speakers.

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,

Lingo Mama


Penelope Wilson

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