Richard Barnard: from painter and decorator to HSK 6 and beyond

Richard Barnard’s Mandarin learning journey has seen him transform from a shy young man who feared learning new things to a fluent Mandarin speaker with a full set of Chinese Proficiency Exams under his belt. Richard now inspires the next generation of learners in his teaching role at our Harrogate Grammar School Confucius Classroom.  

Learn how he developed his confidence and found an approach that worked for him, while making the most of six years living, working and studying in China.  

Getting started with Mandarin-learning podcasts 

Richard Barnard was working as a painter and decorator when he began his Mandarin learning journey by listening to podcasts as he worked. This was the start of his efforts to change the mindset that he wasn’t smart enough to learn new things, which had come about through a lack of engagement with the teaching he got at school. He wanted to learn something new and bravely picked the hardest thing he could think of! 

This focus on language-learning also helped him to manage his anxiety and had a positive effect on his mental health, allowing him to channel annegative energy and emotions into his study.   

Teaching English in China: language-learning in everyday life 

In 2011, Richard decided to go to Changzhou to teach English, knowing not much more than numbers and a few basic phrases in Mandarin. 

Going from listening to podcasts at home in England to being out in China was a big jump. Richard remembers going to order food in McDonald’s and being really nervous that he might get it wrong. Building up confidence was essential to improving his Mandarin, and so Richard became very resilient, making an effort to practice speaking Chinese when he could. 

Although he was not studying Chinese formally in Changzhou, Richard learned a lot from unexpected teachers – cleaners. 

The ayis (阿姨 – ‘auntie’, also used to address women who are of a similar age to your mother, as well as cleaners or women in similar roles), were very mothering to Richard, and would chat to him and challenge him to sunflower seed eating contests. He would pick up new words from them and practice using his gradually expanding vocabulary in conversation. Even though the cleaners were not qualified teachers, Richard credits them as having taught him a lot of Chinese during his time in Changzhou. 

Motivation and structure from HSK exams 

In addition to this informal learning, Richard benefitted from the structure provided by working through the HSK Chinese Proficiency Exams 

Each exam has a list of vocabulary and grammar to learn, and he enjoyed having goals to reach by moving up each level following those lists. 

Working through the HSK tests and achieving his goals one step at a time kept Richard’s motivation high and he quickly worked his way through HSK levels 1-4 whilst working in Changzhou. 

Studying Chinese at University in Tianjin 

After spending a year and a half in a city with very few foreigners, Richard enrolled on a Chinese Language and Literature degree at Tianjin Normal University and found himself in a classroom with people from all over the world 

Richard had to quickly adjust to studying Chinese in a classroom. His teacher would often speak for a while, really quicklybefore asking ‘mingbai le ma?’ 明白了吗?- Do you understand?) 

Studying at university empowered Richard to have discussions in Chinese about topics he was interested in, such as philosophy. His enthusiasm for Chinese met his passions in other field and he eventually did his thesis comparing Socrates and Laozi. 

With this extensive study of Chinese language and culture behind him Richard had no difficulty in coming up with a Chinese proverb that reflects his experience

三人行,必有我师 (san ren xing, bi you wo shi)

This saying, from the Analects of Confucius, means that you have something to learn from everyone; or, more literally, that if three people walk together there must be one of them who can be my teacher. 

It was this understanding that allowed him to find many ‘teachers’ in China, such as the ayis at his first teaching job in Changzhou. 

Richard also met his Chinese wife in China, and she gave him even more support and opportunities to practise.

Exams: completing the set 

Richard continued progressing through the HSK levels and, despite finding the grammar particularly difficult, he passed HSK 5. He had heard from friends that the HSK 6 was especially challenging, with one of his friends failing several times. Richard was so nervous for this exam that he brought four or five sharpened pencils so that he could write quickly!  

As well as flying through the written HSK exams, Richard also took the BCT (Business Chinese Test) and the HSKK speaking exam. He remembers the HSKK being a strange experience and quite different to the French or German speaking exams we’re all used to from school. Rather than speaking to a person, you’re speaking to a machine, and you are surrounded by people doing different levels of the same exam. He could hear one person talking about whether they preferred cats or dogs, one describing their hobbies and another talking in depth about the environment!   

After China

Richard returned to the UK with much more confidence, a whole host of stories (including an appearance on a televised competition for Mandarin-speaking foreigners), and enduring friendships with people from China, Korea, Thailand and Russia. 

He discovered that translation and interpreting didn’t suit him and eventually found a role teaching Chinese at Harrogate Grammar School, where he can continue to expand his knowledge while encouraging a new generation of Mandarin learners. Alongside our BCI teachers he also supports Mandarin classes at Co-op Academy Leeds. 

While he relishes this opportunity to help these students with their Mandarin, he always remembers how he got started on his own using little more than a notepad and pencil: 

If you’ve got the will to learn a language, it doesn’t matter how good the teacher is – if the student is really focused, you can learn anything.

The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.