The Slow Chinese Newsletter and making progress as an advanced learner

Andrew Methven, CEO of the British advisory firm Hampton Group, first picked up Chinese when backpacking around China. After a few years of travelling he completed an MA in Chinese-English Translation and Linguistics at SOAS University of London. While studying there he met the Chinese founders of the company he still works for today.

After embarking on a regular reading regime to keep up his Chinese during lockdown, Andrew realised that others could also benefit from what he was learning. In February 2021 he launched the Slow Chinese newsletter, a resource for advanced learners of Chinese to keep their language skills going and keep in touch with what’s going on in China.

We spoke to Andrew about his Chinese learning journey and how the newsletter came about, as well as digging into some of the cutting-edge news topics and phrases he has been sharing. Advanced learners will identify with the challenges of maintaining a high level of Mandarin and China knowledge, and pick up some helpful tips and recommendations from Andrew’s approach to tackling this problem.

Andrew’s Chinese learning journey

Journey really is the right word here! Andrew embarked on a trip to the East in 2002, travelling over land from Waterloo with plans to stay in China for two or three months.

This became a year, including some time teaching English and a lot of in-depth, adventurous travel around mainland China: “it was me, a backpack and not much else.” Following this he spent time in South East Asia, Australia and Taiwan.

Hitching lifts and staying in people’s houses during his travels meant that Andrew had to learn enough Chinese to get by. At school he “wasn’t a language person at all” (he got a D in French and wasn’t considered good enough to take German at GCSE), but in these practical situations he found his Chinese kept improving.

By the time he found himself back in London he had gained enough confidence in his language skills to experiment with Arabic and Russian, before deciding he wanted to commit to Chinese and spending another stretch of time in the East.

Four years after he first set off on that train from Waterloo, Andrew decided to study Chinese in a formal education setting and completed a Masters in Chinese-English Translation and Linguistics at SOAS.

While at SOAS he met some Chinese entrepreneurs and became the fourth person to join their British-based startup. This was at a time when all the big Chinese companies were investing in the UK.

“We rode the wave of increasing investment into the UK from China.”

The startup became the Hampton Group, where Andrew still works today in his current role of CEO, responsible for providing strategic insights and advice regarding China issues, stakeholder engagement and cross-cultural communication.

The challenge of keeping up with Chinese during lockdown

Even as an advanced learner who uses his Chinese daily with colleagues and clients, Andrew found that his active language was shrinking during the pandemic.

To counteract this, he decided to read every day in Chinese. He started getting up earlier and reading extensively, consuming China news in both English and Chinese.

During lockdown I was not travelling or going into London for meetings, so I used the extra time I had to do more reading and study.

There was always a new word, idiom, colloquial phrase, internet word or concept to learn, and these would often reflect what was going on in China today.

The frustration with English-language China news

When Andrew first began reading more extensively about China he was frustrated at the lack of Chinese-language sources referenced in the English-language coverage. When Jack Ma delivered ‘that speech’ at the Bund Summit in Shanghai in October, Andrew wanted to read about it in Chinese: “My first reaction was, I want to see the speech, I want to see what he said.”

Unfortunately, none of the articles linked to the original text, and it took some searching to find the right link.

It’s easier to scan the news in English but you want the option of also seeing it in Chinese if you want to.

Starting a newsletter to share with other learners

I was learning a lot, and thought it would be quite good to share it.

Already progressing and learning a lot from his daily reading, Andrew pictured the benefits spreading further and thought other learners would value seeing these notes pop up in their inbox every week. He imagined “a resource based around current affairs that keeps you up to speed with what’s going on, and also highlights new words and things that come up in the news.”

He knows that it is so easy to forget what you’ve learned and to keep up with the ever-changing situation in China, even for those who – like him – have spent decades learning Chinese.

After asking around to gauge the reaction to his idea, the Slow Chinese Newsletter was born with an initial list of 50 readers.

Making time to study Chinese and stay on top of news in China

I normally get up at about 5:30am.

Once he decided to commit to his reading regime, and then the newsletter, Andrew made the necessary changes to fit in reading every morning – during what used to be his commute time.

With the newsletter comes additional accountability, and the expectation that he will deliver a new edition ever Saturday morning. Reflecting on whether this made his personal challenge into more of a burden, Andrew concludes, “it is a responsibility – and it’s one that I really enjoy having. It has also really helped me in my job because I feel much more on top of what’s going on in China, and my Chinese is much better too.”

Andrew is learning a lot and enjoying the process. “Once I find a story it’s great – then I can really dig into it and read around it.”

It’s helped me to get my Chinese language back.

Language offers insights into current trends in China

Andrew loves seeking out new topics and expressions that aren’t listed in the dictionary: “when it has no definition yet, that’s what makes it interesting.” In these situations he has to look the phrase up in both English and Chinese, read around it, cross-reference it, and work out a ‘translation’ himself.

He enjoys digging into the nuances and complexity of the language: “I’ve always been very flexible, and I enjoy Chinese for that. It’s so free-flowing”.

Professor Cayley, Head of LCS, discussed linguists’ ability to embrace nuance and be flexible and open-minded in this post.

Andrew gave an example from a recent edition, 坟头蹦迪 (féntóu bèngdí) – tomb mound dancing. After much reading and head-scratching, Andrew understood that this is “a dance performance that you have at a rural funeral in China, which in internet language has come to mean ‘that’s really inappropriate’ – but you cannot find that in a Chinese-English dictionary anywhere”.

内卷 (nèi juǎn) is another new and prevalent term which requires some thought as there is no translation in online dictionaries, other than the ‘official’ translation of “involution”. Andrew translates it as unhealthy competition and writes about it in this edition of the newsletter. This article on What’s On Weibo also discusses where this term comes from and what it means.

When he dives in to work the meaning out, he often discovers interesting origins or references to other aspects of culture. For example, “gaming words very often cross over into internet language”, and expressions that begin on social media often become day to day language as well.

Andrew notes that “when you’re paying deeper attention to what’s going on in China you do pick out trends- stuff you really need to know about”. That’s how he came up with the name, Slow Chinese, because he’s taking the time to understand at a deeper level. When he sees the same phrases popping up again and again that’s an additional sign that it reflects a common concept or mood.

He referred to two recent examples: leek cutting and lifesaving straw.

割韭菜 (gē jiǔcài) – Leek cutting

This a massive theme in China at the moment

Leek cutting refers to big corporates taking advantage of normal consumers. It came up in a story about consumers feeling ripped off by Chinese New Year cinema ticket prices – covered in this edition of the newsletter.

救命稻草 (jiùmìngdàocǎo) – lifesaving straw

I come across this almost every week in my reading

This idiom, which refers to a pointless or futile activity, is an example of the many cross-references that come up in the language. Andrew explains that it’s actually an old American saying that was translated into Chinese a century ago. This appears in the same edition as cutting leeks.

Helping others build their China careers

Along with H-J Colston Andrew was recently named as Co-Chair of the Association for Speakers of Chinese as a Second Language (Chinese-Speakers), which aims to raise awareness about the value of speaking Chinese as a second language and promote opportunities for qualified non-native speakers of Chinese.

He is looking forward to helping members build successful careers around their understanding of China and Chinese – which he recognises is still quite difficult for graduates who want to stay in the UK.

So, what advice would Andrew give to young graduates of Chinese?

I would definitely not do what I did!

Andrew doesn’t mean spending time abroad (he says, “The best thing to do is to go to China”, and ideally for much longer than a year), but he wouldn’t advise focusing just on the language as he did at first.

He believes “anyone graduating from Chinese now has to be good at the language with something else: a ‘China plus’ strategy.”

This might mean becoming an expert in another element of China, a certain area of policy, or a certain region in the world. Alternatively, another skill such as accounting, investment or law makes a powerful combination with Mandarin.

Recommendations

Establishing a regular reading habit and following newsletters like Slow Chinese is one way to develop a well-rounded knowledge of China. We asked Andrew for recommendations, both from his newsletter and other sources he follows.

English-language sources

Chinese sources

The Slow Chinese Newsletter

Try these editions of the Slow Chinese newsletter to continue exploring the Chinese words and phrases behind the news.

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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.