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Mischa Wilmers on the evolution of his Mandarin-learning approach

Mandarin Aspirations

Mischa Wilmers started learning Chinese in our evening classes as a way to meet people when he first moved to Leeds. Six years on he is now living in Taiwan, speaking Chinese every day, and working to help as many other learners as possible through his blog and podcast (I’m Learning Mandarin) and business start-up (Mandarin Retreats).

In this post he shares three pivotal moments that have shaped his Mandarin learning journey since he wrote his last blog post for the Business Confucius Institute.

Over to Mischa!

Learning Chinese as an adult has shaped my life in a way I could never have imagined when I started out six years ago.

However, the process to get to a high level of confidence communicating in this beautiful language has been long and difficult. Knowing the right techniques to use and finding opportunities to immerse in the language can be tough – and the things you think may help the most (such as living abroad), don’t necessarily provide the results you expect.

A harsh wake up call

In the final paragraph of my previous blog I summarised my level of Chinese and goals for the future:

Although I regularly have long phone conversations with Chinese friends…my tones are imperfect…However, none of this bothers me in the way that it once did. I am in no rush and know that by spending time with the language every day I am steadily progressing towards these goals.

However, shortly after I wrote those words I began to realise my bad tones were causing communication issues and that spending more time with the language wasn’t going to fix the problem on its own.

The more complex the topic the more accurate I needed to be in order to be fully understood. But by regularly butchering the tones native speakers could often only understand the gist of what I was trying to say. As I began using the language in a professional environment, hosting webinars in Mandarin for international students, this became more of a concern.

One day a language exchange partner broke the news to me in an unusually direct manner. My tones often made it hard for her to understand what I was saying, she said.  I reacted defensively but deep down knew she was just being honest.

This experience sent me down a rabbit hole of focusing intensively on tones and pronunciation for a period of about six months between July 2021 and January 2022. I recently charting my progress on my blog using four recordings taken over the years to chart my progress.

I hope documenting my journey and explaining how I was able to crack tones might help the large proportion of intermediate and advanced learners who still struggle with them. As I discovered, it is possible to change this at any stage of your learning with the right techniques and enough determination.

Rethinking immersion

A second experience that played a pivotal role in changing my learning approach was meeting and collaborating with YouTuber Will Hart, the winner of the 2022 UK Chinese Bridge competition.

I first came across Will’s YouTube channel in the autumn of 2021. In his first ever video Will explained how he’d been able to reach a remarkable level of Mandarin fluency with near native pronunciation in little over a year. Like most people who watch Will’s videos for the first time, I was astonished.

After four years my Chinese was nowhere near as fluent and I was curious to find out how he’d done it. I reached out to Will to interview him for my podcast. He explained how he’d created a social environment for himself in which he was surrounded by the Chinese language almost constantly. As a medicine student at the University of Manchester, most of his friends were international students from China and he spent his spare time socialising with them.

This got me thinking. One of the main issues me and my friends learning Chinese from abroad faced was that we didn’t live our day to day lives in a Mandarin language environment. We worked in English. Our close friends and family members were all native English speakers. Sure, we might speak to our tutor or a language exchange partner once or twice a week. But that was a far cry from the immersive environment Will described.

I wanted to taste what it was like to constantly engage with Chinese for days on end. So I got together a few friends, including Will, several other Chinese learners and a few of our Chinese friends. We spent a whole weekend together at my friend (and now business partner) Karl Baker’s house with only one rule: no English allowed.

Between 6pm on Friday when we met up after work until Sunday evening we spoke only Chinese. We ate, cooked, went hiking and watched Chinese movies together. Each time I learned a new piece of vocabulary or expression I’d immediately have a chance to use it. By the end of the weekend I felt I’d learned more Chinese than in the previous few months combined. Many words and phrases I learned that weekend are still etched in my memory a year later.

All of us left exhausted but thrilled at how much the experience had boosted our oral skills. We began organising more immersive Chinese weekends and decided to open them up so other Chinese learners could join us and experience full language immersion. That’s how Mandarin Retreat was born.

Over the past year we’ve organised seven weekend retreats and an extended summer camp in several locations around the UK. Each retreat includes cultural sessions led by our experienced Chinese tutors, such as dumpling making, calligraphy and tai-chi.

We’ve been blown away by the global interest we’ve received and the enthusiasm of our participants. In total our retreats have been attended by over 40 Chinese learners of all levels and from countries all around Europe, including Germany, Switzerland, Hungary, Holland, Ireland and France.

It’s been amazing to be able to connect with so many like-minded people, all learning Mandarin from outside Chinese speaking countries and hungry to experience full language immersion.

View upcoming Mandarin Retreat trips

Moving to Taiwan

Earlier this year I travelled to Taiwan to study an  advanced Mandarin course for a semester at National Taiwan University. This was my first experience of living in a Chinese speaking environment for months on end.

Coming into the course I was already pretty confident with my spoken Mandarin after self studying for six years and gaining mass exposure through the retreats. However, the course focussed on formal Mandarin used in news reports, which was very useful for expanding my knowledge of the language.

Living and studying in Taiwan for several months has certainly given my Mandarin a boost. I speak Mandarin every day and am surrounded by the language, using it for work purposes as well as socially. A couple of months ago I went on Will’s YouTube channel to chat with him in Chinese about my Mandarin learning journey, something I might not have had the confidence to do in the past.

However, I no longer see living abroad as the key to becoming fluent in the language.

Most of the expats I meet here - including those who’ve lived here for several years - barely speak a word of Chinese. It’s very easy for people to get stuck in an English speaking bubble.

Conversely some of the best Chinese speakers I’ve met became fluent entirely from abroad. I would say that 90% of my learning look place before I set foot in Taiwan. Overall I’m very glad I was already pretty confident in the language before I arrived as this enabled me to make the most of my time here and hit the ground running.

If you have enough motivation I’m convinced it doesn’t matter where in the world you’re based. The key is to set clear goals, establish a regular study habit and create an immersive environment for yourself where you’re surrounded by the language every day.

So what does the future hold?

As well as continuing to organise retreats, I’ve also collaborated with Will Hart to offer online masterclasses, designed to equip learners with the techniques I wish I’d known at the start of my learning journey.

After going through the struggle ourselves and meeting hundreds of other Chinese learners we’ve noticed several recurring issues many people face. Two of the main one are tones and sentence structure.

Our masterclasses cover how to train yourself to master Chinese tones. We’re also delivering sessions on sentence mining - a technique involving collecting and drilling hundreds of whole sentences in order to internalise common structures and patterns needed to attain spoken fluency.

My ambition now is to continue to gradually enrich my understanding of the Chinese language, particularly focusing on my reading. Meanwhile I aim to help as many learners as possible navigate the obstacles we all face when trying to get fluent so more people can experience the joy of communicating in this beautiful language.