OMG! American English

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The star of this popular Voice of America program is Jessica Beinecke (Bái Jié 白洁).  Her Mandarin is quite amazing; indeed, I would say that it is nothing short of phenomenal. Here's a sample:

The title of that particular video is "OMG! 美语 Pick-up Line Do's & Don'ts!"  The Mandarin term in question that she is illustrating is dāshàn 搭讪, which means "strike up a conversation; smooth over an awkward situation; etc."

Before discussing Jessica's incredibly good Mandarin and how it got that way, a couple more notes on the clever title of her show.  Měiyǔ 美语 means both "American English" and "beautiful language".  As for "OMG", she pronounces it "oh em gee", which surprised me a bit, because I've actually never heard it pronounced that way before, though I've certainly seen it written as "OMG" countless times.  Perhaps it's common for people to say "oh em gee", but I myself have not been exposed to it being spoken that way before Jessica's videos.  It makes sense, though, to pronounce "OMG" as "oh em gee", since it doesn't just stand for "Oh My God", but can also mean "Oh my goodness", "Oh my gosh", "Oh my golly", or "Oh my gracious", and saying "oh em gee" preserves the ambiguity of the referent.

Here's the rather sketchy Wikipedia article on Jessica (since she's so young and operating in a niche environment, we're lucky to have this much):

Jessica Beinecke [Chinese: 白洁 (Bai Jie)] (born about 1987) is an American educator entertainer and journalist. She works for the Mandarin Chinese broadcast of Voice of America. Her program is OMG! 美语 (OMG! Meiyu or OMG! American English) which achieved widespread popularity in China and Taiwan. Her personality and program have been covered in both American and Chinese media. She is a graduate of the E. W. Scripps School of Journalism of Ohio University and received a graduate degree at Middlebury College in Vermont.

The Washington Post reports that in 2011 her video explaining sleep gunk that can be in your eyes when you wake up in the morning went viral.

In the introduction to her pick-up lines video, she says that her program runs daily from Monday to Friday.  If she and her support staff (mostly the show is produced by Jessica herself) can come up with a quality video like this one five days a week, that's all the more impressive, since it means she's versatile and spontaneous, and not restricted to a few well-rehearsed skits.

The big question for me is how Jessica's Mandarin got to be so good.  I do not know Jessica, but just judging from the nature of her near native fluency, I would guess that she — in learning Mandarin — paid far more attention to speaking and listening than to reading and writing.  In fact, she can probably say a lot more than she can read or write.  Learners of Mandarin tend to fixate on the characters, and they are often encouraged in this mistaken approach by their teachers, as though the number of characters one has memorized were some sort of index of the level of one's ability in the language.  Quite the contrary, paying undue attention to the characters, especially during the first months of the learning process, often cripples one's ability to learn the language.  It is far more important to master the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar first, and then worry about the characters later (or never, if reading and writing is not what you're after).  Learn Mandarin like a baby, like a native — without reference to the characters until you are fluent.

Here are a couple of Language Log posts advocating that method:

And here are a couple more videos from Jessica:

OMG! 美语 Yucky GUNK!

Note that, in English, she refers to the stuff that comes out of your eyes overnight as "sleepies", and in Mandarin as yǎnshǐ 眼屎 (lit., "eye poop"), which my Shandong in-laws always referred to as yǎnshǐ baba, where the "baba" (which I'm not sure how to write in characters) I think refers to the crusty nature of this dried mucosal discharge.  Other English terms for it are rheum and perhaps gum and gound.  Sometimes it is just referred to as having "sleep" in your eyes.  Slang terms for this substance include "eye boogers", "eye mattering", "eye gunk" (as in the title of the video), and "eye pus".

OMG! 美语 Bai Jie TOAST!

This is Jessica's bilingual paean to bagels, baguettes, and bread in general.

According to this Washington Post article of September 14, 2011, when Jessica was already completely fluent and famous in China for her Mandarin ability, this Ohio girl had only been studying the language for five years by that time:

"‘OMG Meiyu,’ a breakout hit Web show, schools Chinese in American slang ".

With the right methods, it can be achieved; with the wrong methods, it will never happen.


  1. Jongseong Park said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 5:54 pm

    If you have never heard OMG pronounced as "oh em gee", I guess we don't hang around in the same circles… I'll bet you've never heard BTW pronounced as "bee tee dubs" either.

    I've had similar experiences when I returned to Korea after finishing my studies abroad and heard Koreans using acronym-style slang like 흠좀무 heumjommu (=흠 이게 사실이라면 좀 무섭군요 Heum ige sasil-iramyeon jom museopgunnyo "Hmm, if that's true, it's a little scary") in speech, which I'd only been familiar with in written form on the internet. It was pretty jarring to hear them spoken out loud.

  2. Saurs said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 7:09 pm

    Here Beinecke explains how her Mandarin "got to be so good."

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 7:59 pm

    Thanks very much for that, Saurs. It seems as though she had an enlightened teacher and some dedicated friends, not to mention that she herself was obviously very conscientious how she went about learning. Note that she stresses conversational skills, fluency, and cadence. The only characters she mentions are those in her dialogues.

  4. Ulrich said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:18 pm

    I hope all the people who claim teachers are no longer needed because of advances in software and web-based collaborative learning will take notice: She attributes basically everything to one or two great teachers she had!

  5. Xiao Shi said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:25 pm

    Yet, there are others such as Brendan O'Kane who are quite logocentric yet have equally good Chinese… I don't really see how studying characters would necessarily degrade one's ability in oral Mandarin.

  6. Sanna said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    "As for "OMG", she pronounces it "oh em gee", which surprised me a bit, because I've actually never heard it pronounced that way before"

    Just FYI, this is reasonably common these days. Of all the people I know between 15 and 40 or so, they either all say this or don't bat an eye if they hear it. As the above commenter notes, 'bee tee dubs' is also common, as is pronouncing 'afk' (as in, to be away from keyboard, which has come to mean any sort of 'I need to cease being in this text-based communication because real life needs my attention' thing), 'irl', or 'tee ell dee ar' (tldr, 'too long didn't read', used in place of saying 'to summarize everything I just said').

    On the flip side of that coin, 'lol' has become acceptable as a single syllable word, and can be used in a sentence ("I lolled so hard at that funny line in the movie") or just as an interjection, if something is just funny enough to be worth vocalizing one's amusement but not so funny as to warrant actual laughter. I never hear just 'ell oh ell' spoken anymore.

    Subject switch. You mentioned the word 'gunk'. Once I was driving my Russian friend somewhere and was trying to merge lanes, which wasn't going so well thanks to idiots on the road. I muttered to myself, 'crud crud crud crud' several times, and she asked what 'crud' meant, if it was a really bad word or just a mild one. I thought about how to explain 'crud' and the first thing that came to mind was 'it's like, dried gunk.' She looked at me and said, 'yes, because I know what gunk is.' Explaining one semi-slang word using another semi-slang word: clearly I should be getting paid to teach ESL. Lol.

  7. Xiao Shi said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 8:39 pm

    * scratch the bit about "logocentrism". Apparently it means the exact opposite of what I thought/intended it to mean lol.

  8. maidhc said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

    A friend of mine used to called that stuff "tuh", but I think it was a word she made up for her son.

    That's where the term "Mr. Sandman" comes from, isn't it? So do people call it "sand" also?

  9. GretchenJoanna said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 9:10 pm

    I know little of Chinese culture and nothing of Mandarin, but I find Jessica completely entrancing. What you say about the best way to learn the language is very interesting to me, because for languages with the Latin alphabet a visual learner already familiar with the alphabet from his language of birth might learn most efficiently with attention to listening and reading both, from the start. But what you say about Mandarin makes sense – to focus on the auditory aspect, which I understand to be most important in a language in which tones are so crucial – would give the best foundation from which to accelerate. Jessica has certainly found a perfect niche for her talents.

  10. David Moser said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 9:58 pm

    The Sinica Podcast did a nice episode on Jessica in the studio, a breezy conversation that gives insight into her method and her fan base in China:

    And by the way, Victor himself has been on the podcast, one of our favorite episodes:

  11. shubert said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 11:21 pm

    "Listening and speaking first" is advocated…; For complete learning, "reading and writing (should) catch up".

  12. Brendan said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 11:21 pm

    Hi Xiao Shi — thanks for the compliment!
    I think that Jessica and Prof. Mair and I probably have the same take on characters — which is that they're necessary for any serious student of Chinese, but will not be immediately helpful for speaking. In my ideal Chinese-teaching curriculum, I would probably put off characters for the first semester or so, in favor of working on pronunciation, tones and tone sandhi, and other things that tend to be given short shrift in most Chinese programs. The practical reason for this is that bad habits in these areas are very hard to break; the personal reason is that I did things the wrong way the first time around, and then had to go back and relearn my tones a few years into my study of Chinese, which was a massive bummer.

  13. Brendan said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 11:28 pm

    …and back on the character-centric side of things, I suspect that the "baba" of "yǎnshǐ baba" in the post is probably the word usually written as 㞎㞎 bǎba, "poop," following on from the 屎 of 眼屎. But this is one of the many words that's spoken far more often than it's written — in fact, when I tried to type it just now, my IME (Sogou Pinyin for Mac) couldn't find the character.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2015 @ 11:58 pm

    I know well Brendan O'Kane's exceptional talents, for he's a student here at Penn.

    As for bǎba 㞎㞎, I think Brendan is right that it follows on from shǐ 屎 ("excrement"), extending and colloquializing the same meaning. Wiktionary has shǐbǎba 屎㞎㞎.

    Bǎba 㞎㞎 is a children's term for feces. It reminds me of "caca", cf.

    "Ikea: Peppered Caca for the holidays" (10/27/14)

  15. Xiao Shi said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 4:10 am

    Yeah, I think I was mainly skeptical of the idea that paying too much attention to characters "cripples" one's ability to learn the language; which seems a somewhat exaggerated and unidimensional perspective. It would be interesting to consider the converse issue – whether competence in oral Mandarin has any relevance at all to proficiency in the textual components of the language. Did you find that problems w/ *producing* tones were having an adverse effect on progress in the written language? Given how important a sense of 抑扬顿挫 is in writing good Chinese prose (classical/modern), and its obvious connections to tonality, I'm genuinely curious whether this sense requires an active production capability as opposed to a more abstract awareness of how the tones "work".

  16. VanyaJosefstadt said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 4:48 am

    @ Brendan In my ideal Chinese-teaching curriculum, I would probably put off characters for the first semester or so, in favor of working on pronunciation, tones and tone sandhi, and other things that tend to be given short shrift in most Chinese programs.

    But that is exactly the way Mandarin was taught both at Yale and Connecticut College over 30 years ago. I still have my old Speak Mandarin textbooks – in the first year everything was taught with the Yale romanization with a focus on listening and speaking and very little attention to characters. And a lot of graduates of those programs had excellent spoken Chinese. Has Chinese language pedagogy moved backwards or were those programs simply exceptions?

  17. J. Random Hacker said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 6:36 am

    抑扬顿挫 is a mostly rhythmic feature, not really tonal.

  18. Xiao Shi said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    @JRH – disagree, for example see : 对音韵而言,平仄声的规律变化,能让音律和谐,产生抑扬顿挫的诵读功效。

  19. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 10:33 am


    Chinese Language Studies at Yale

    In those days, Yale and Connecticut College were renowned for their outstanding, progressive Chinese language programs. This was due in large measure to the positive influence of the Sinological genius, George A. Kennedy (professor of Chinese at Yale), and the legendary Chinese language pedagogical maven, John DeFrancis, who was born in New Haven, studied under Kennedy, and was related to him by marriage.

    Other members of the formidable Yale Chinese language program team at that time were H[enry]. C[ourtenay]. Fenn, Gardner Tewksbury, and Fred Fangyu Wang. If you want to get an idea of the scope of the Chinese side of the Institute of Far Eastern Languages at Yale in the early 60s, take a look at the Acknowledgements in the front of the monumental Dictionary of Spoken Chinese compiled by the staff of the Institute. They read like a Who's Who of Chinese linguistics and Chinese language teaching during that period, but they also include people like my good friend Elena Speidel, who saw the dictionary through to completion. Incidentally, the Acknowledgements were written by another Yale genius, the late Roy Andrew Miller.

    Note that this is a Dictionary of Spoken Chinese, but it is a sublime example of how due attention to the primacy of speech need not eliminate or diminish the importance of reading and writing for those who wish to pursue them — the wedding of philology and linguistics. You just have to do them in the right sequence and with the requisite emphases.

    Yes, there were many fine speakers of Mandarin who graduated from Yale and Connecticut College three decades ago, and there are good reasons for that.

    Some references:

  20. Brendan said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 11:01 am

    @VanyaJosefstadt – The old Yale textbooks were great! When I was starting to learn Chinese, I picked up all the second-hand Chinese textbooks I could find, and was lucky enough to get my hands on a couple of those. I think the Yale romanization system probably helped me with pronunciation, too, since unlike Pinyin it was designed for learners. Unfortunately, most of the newer textbooks I'm aware of now introduce characters from the outset, which is just a lousy idea.

    @Xiao Shi –
    It would be interesting to consider the converse issue – whether competence in oral Mandarin has any relevance at all to proficiency in the textual components of the language. Did you find that problems w/ *producing* tones were having an adverse effect on progress in the written language?

    Pretty much the opposite, really. The written and spoken languages aren't completely separate, of course, but knowledge of one doesn't necessarily imply knowledge of another, and skills in one will not necessarily transfer to the other. (Years spent working as a literary translator make me highly skeptical of the suggestion that euphony plays much of a role in contemporary writing, and of course the tonal categories that that article goes on about don't exist in Mandarin — but that's neither here nor there.) My written Chinese was far, far ahead of my spoken Chinese when I started going back and relearning the tones, and probably still is.

    "Cripples" may be a strong way of putting it, but I think there are major drawbacks to emphasizing characters at the beginning of one's study. It accustoms the student to the idea that Chinese is made of characters, which gets people into the habit of thinking of the language as being made up of dis-crete-syl-la-bles, each one meaningful. (This, combined with a generally inadequate focus on tone production, is a large part of why so many non-native speakers of Chinese sound robotic and unnatural when we talk.) It also saps away time and energy that would be better spent working on the less sexy but way more important 基本功 of speaking, listening, and tone reproduction. These are a lot less glamorous — nobody gets tattoos of Pinyin — but they're a lot more important to get right at the beginning, starting from tone reproduction on individual syllables, progressing to tone pair drills, and then culminating in drills for entire sentences. It takes a lot of time and effort for native speakers of English to retrain themselves to put the emphasis in the right places when they're speaking a tonal language, and it's hard to put in that time and effort if students are also expected to write out character flashcards, study for 聽寫 quizzes, and that sort of thing. The latter can (and should, I think) come later, once there's a foundation in place.

  21. E Bruce Brooks said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 11:05 am

    Victor, Thanks for the note on Chinese at Yale, and thus inevitably on Kennedy at Yale. I add two points: (1) Yale to this day has drastically disacknowledged the role of Kennedy in creating that program and in building up that library; he is recalled only as a drunk. Something more balanced is urgently to be desired. (2) The Air Force program itself was a model operation, and much credit for its effectiveness should go to its day-to-day teachers, among whom (in the early postwar years) I especially remember Linda Ong, P L Sun, and Alice Wang. They were a fine team, and to have assembled and trained them should count as an administrative achievement of a high order.


  22. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    From a superb speaker, reader, and writer of Mandarin:


    I never used the DeFrancis textbooks, but was lucky enough to find used copies of the Speak Chinese books out at the old second-hand bookstore in Bryn Mawr (The Owl — now gone and much lamented) when I was starting out. The Yale "sy-" was what made the Pinyin "x-" comprehensible to me.


  23. shubert said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    Because homonyms, learning Chinese by l-s (listen and speak) only might be a confinement.

  24. TonyK said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 12:50 pm

    "With the right methods, it can be achieved; with the wrong methods, it will never happen."
    Where did that come from?! We don't know how Ms Beinecke learnt Mandarin! You are saying , in effect:

    1. In my opinion, the only way to learn Mandarin well is [my way].
    2. Ms Beinecke has learnt Mandarin well.
    3. Therefore, she has obviously learnt it [my way]. So I was right!

    I hope you can see the gap in the logic here.

  25. Brendan said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

    The question of homophones comes up a lot in these contexts — but if homophones really were as much of a problem as the question implies, it'd be impossible to hold a conversation in Mandarin. Since Chinese people can and do speak to one another, it's probably safe to assume that homophones are not actually all that much of a problem in day to day speech.

    Also, I don't think anybody here is advocating never learning to read and write. It's a question of at what point reading and writing would be most usefully introduced in a non-native speaker's study of Chinese.

  26. shubert said,

    May 2, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    Homonyms are the major shortcoming of Chinese, but are less considered by some Chinese scholars in the last century who regarded characters as a total failure.

  27. Dean Barrett said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 2:06 am

    When I was going for an M.A. in 1969/70, SF State was in riot mode, so I transferred to U. of Hawaii. I was told to go see Prof. deFrancis to see what level I was on. I was shaking in my boots, figuring no way I could follow him in Chinese conversation. Much to my relief, he discussed the books we had used at SF State, the teachers, the subjects, etc., and never spoke in Chinese. He just ended the discussion by saying that I was as high a level as they were at the U. of Hawaii. Happy was I when I walked out of his office, knowing all would be well.

  28. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 6:42 am

    From Bob Bauer:

    It's genuinely heartening to know about this young American who has acquired fluency in Putonghua.

    She could/should be a walking testimonial about how this can be achieved.

    On the matter of Chinese terms for "sleep in the eye":

    It just so happens that my favorite Chinese word (if such a thing is possible) is 眵目糊 chi1 mu4 hu1 (or 眵目糊兒 chi1 mu4 hur1) which I learned some decades ago and which DeFrancis (2003:116) has noted is "topolectal" and has defined as "gum from the eyes". I think this word may be from the Beijing topolect, and that it is not originally Chinese, but was borrowed from some Altaic language.

  29. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 8:10 am


    "Where did that come from?!"


    1. over the past half century and more observing thousands of students striving to learn Chinese, with varying degrees of success, and with a wide variety of pedagogical methods

    2. my experience teaching Mandarin and Classical Chinese at all levels during the past five decades

    3. Saurs, the second commenter to this thread, who gave us primary material about how Jessica's Mandarin "got to be so good"; as I pointed out in a previous comment — "she stresses conversational skills, fluency, and cadence."

    4. the episode of Sinica Podcast featuring Jessica, which was highlighted in an earlier comment to this thread; I'm grateful to one of my students who recorded these pertinent aspects of the episode after a quick browse on his phone:


    There are brief mentions of Jessica's history at around 19:40 — where she says she went to the (speech-heavy, language pledge-requiring) Middlebury program — and then around 21:20, where she talks about the importance of learning language in a natural spoken context.

    At 22:15, David [Moser] and the others make the related point that the overall quality of spoken English in China has skyrocketed over the past decade or so, with the easy availability of US TV shows and movies on VCD and DVD, and that the Chinese people they meet with natural, idiomatic English are getting it from TV series, not from textbooks.


    5. observing the teaching methods of my wife, Chang Li-ching, one of the best Mandarin language teachers who ever walked the face of the earth, for more than four decades.

    6. watching the career of my brother, Denis, one of the best readers and translators of Chinese who ever walked the face of the earth, for more than four decades.

    7. paying attention to the language skills of my colleagues and students, many of whom read Chinese extremely well (though some of them can barely speak any Sinitic language), and some of whom speak Mandarin very well (though many of the latter read Mandarin poorly, if at all).

    8. analyzing the learning strategies of the best speakers of Mandarin I know, of whom there are many that are completely fluent

    9. scrutinizing the failure of nearly all foreigners who attempt to learn to write Chinese; I have never met one who writes as well as native Chinese who are more or less fully literate

    10. these remarks of David Moser, Academic Director of CET Beijing (CET is one of the oldest and best language teaching programs in China), who has met Jessica several times:


    I'd like to say that one reason her Chinese is good is because she did our CET-Middlebury program in Hangzhou in 2007 (I think), so her fundamentals were good. But from talking with her, I think one big reason her Chinese is good is because she knew from the very start that she simply wanted to learn to speak well, and especially to master very colloquial forms. Reading and writing were secondary, and once she began her VOA work, it no longer even made sense to worry about the written language.
    She's also a born performer/actress, and I think that's also a secret to speaking a foreign language well. You have to be willing to "throw yourself into the part" and put all the emotion and intonation into your voice. She's really great at that.


    David himself, incidentally, is one of the best foreign speakers of Mandarin in the business, who even hosted his own program on CCTV.

    11. conversations with John McWhorter, who lamented that he was getting nowhere with years of flashcards and counting characters that he had memorized (I'm happy to report that I've converted John to more effective methods and that he is making better progress now)

    12. the precepts presented in this post, "The future of Chinese language learning is now" (4/5/14), which embody many of the pathbreaking methods for learning Chinese described in the items above.

    What does this all boil down to? There is no single method or track for learning Chinese languages. The method you choose should depend upon what your goals are — whether you mainly want to emphasize speaking and listening (oral fluency) or precision in reading. I am very proud of the fact that, at Penn, we have a Pinyin-only track for those who — at least in the initial stages — are concerned primarily with speaking and listening, and it is taught by Shen Maiheng, scion of one of the most famous modern Chinese writers. We also have extensive offerings for those who want to learn to read Chinese at the highest possible levels. And we offer Cantonese, Taiwanese, and Shanghainese, all of which are taught in Romanization, as is the practice elsewhere. In general, however, for those who want to develop all four skills (speaking, listening, reading, writing) in Mandarin — based on everything mentioned above and all that I've been saying on Language Log and elsewhere for years — it is advisable to de-emphasize rote memorization of characters at the beginning and concentrate on pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary (words, not monosyllables), syntax, patterns, structures, rhythms, cadences, and so forth of the living, spoken language — as was advocated by the great Yale program that I described in this comment:

    Finally, I do not take responsibility for your silly syllogism (or whatever it was you were trying to construct). It's nothing I have ever said or would say.


    Other than that you think homonyms are "the major shortcoming of Chinese", I'm not sure what you're getting at in your last two comments. Listening and speaking could hardly have been a "confinement" for the billions of Chinese who became fluent in one of the Sinitic languages during the past four millennia, because that's how they all did it.

  30. shubert said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 8:20 am

    "borrowed from some Altaic language." You are right, professor.
    Mandarin is much pleasing to the ear, for Manchuria is the easy way for the western connection, while southern dialects remain ancient tones more, mostly are not pleasing. Maybe because travel by the sea in China is limited.

  31. January First-of-May said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 9:35 am

    "The question of homophones comes up a lot in these contexts — but if homophones really were as much of a problem as the question implies, it'd be impossible to hold a conversation in French. Since French people can and do speak to one another, it's probably safe to assume that homophones are not actually all that much of a problem in day to day speech."
    I'm kidding, slightly, but I was still just as surprised by the sheer numbers of French homophones as Chinese ones; if anything, French seems to have even more of them than Chinese (at least as long as we include the tones in the latter), and yet somehow French people have no problem talking to each other.
    (The problem with Chinese is, of course, somewhat exaggerated by both the tonal system and the unusual – from a European perspective – phonemic differences, which make many syllables that are very different to a Chinese native almost indistinguishable to a European student.)

    On the eye stuff – I've been told that it's exactly the same kind of pus as the one in pimples (this usually went with a comment along the lines of "this is why it's unhealthy to eat that").

  32. trevelyan said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 10:01 am

    I only met Jessica once. Her Chinese was good, but not better than other foreigners in Beijing so what struck me about her at the time was her speed of acquisition. My guess is that the format of her show (rapid editing and deliberate tonal exaggeration) helped at the start, and it was the hard work of doing it repeatedly and striving to improve that created a positive feedback loop.

    The problem is that if that is the case, I'm not sure how generalizable Jessica's experience is. Since most learners aren't going to be funded by government agencies, what we really need to help people follower her example is more demand from the private sector for recent graduates. And that is going to require significant policy and cultural changes in China.

    On the pedagogical front, just judging from our own users, listening and speaking are far more important than reading up to the intermediate level, after which point people don't make progress without being character literate. I'm less negative than Brendan about teaching characters right at the start, but character fetishization is a real problem when it leads people to learn Chinese over-analytically and insist on knowing all the rules and "hidden meanings" instead of treating it like a spoken language with all of the irregularities that implies. You are in good company through Victor — even Robert Hart considered it better to absorb mandarin "through the skin" than obsess about the written text.

  33. Eric said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 10:45 am

    A general (but often unpopular) truth for adult language learners is that you get good at what you practice. In this sense language learning is a lot like learning a sport or an instrument. One thing we know about practice is that skill learning is fairly specific, that is, you get good specifically at the skills you practice. If I practice dribbling a basketball, that doesn't make me good at shooting a basketball. Also, it's easier to learn a skill 'correctly' from the start than to change later on. if I practice shooting a basketball with a poor technique, it's much harder to change than if I had just done it right from the beginning.

    These same things apply to language learning in a pretty direct fashion. Practicing listening does not automatically confer benefits for speaking. Practicing reading/writing will not automatically result in good speaking/listening**. In so far as these skills overlap, practicing one will benefit the other, but much of what is involved is skill-specific. This all helps motivate the basic position Prof. Mair and others are advocating: The reason to delay character reading (not to mention handwriting) in Chinese is that it takes a ton of practice to learn those skills and that leaves little time for working on spoken language skills. Bad habits developed with spoken skills will be much harder to change later.

    Practice sounds like a dreadful word, but it doesn't have to be boring repetition and memorization. Watching movies, talking to friends, reading comic books, etc. are all forms of language practice. The important point is to engage in the activity often and intensively.

    **The 'four skills' of speaking, listening, reading, writing are probably much too broad to really describe what's being learned.

  34. Eric said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 11:29 am


    What you say rings true to me. Whatever is good about my tones (and much still isn't) came largely from transitioning into the role of Chinese teacher when I had to be sure I wasn't providing a lousy model for my students. On a daily basis, I spent lots of time rehearsing and carefully attending to my own production. A big challenge is to find good motivators for learners to push through the sometimes dull work of practicing pronunciation—or ways to make that work not dull.

    I also think there's something increasingly important about literacy as learners move into more advanced levels, but exactly what is important isn't obvious to me. On the one hand, as learners become more advanced, the task becomes more like that of native speakers—becoming 'good' at the language means becoming educated in the language and that's hard to do if you can't read. Reading also provides an opportunity for regular exposure to less frequent vocabulary. At the same time, I think there are likely to be important benefits for vocabulary building that come somewhat indirectly from morpheme knowledge, which is bolstered by characters. This is where the 'homophones' in Chinese may actually come into play as there are so many homophonic monosyllabic morphemes that often (not always) help to parse the meaning of multisyllabic words. My hunch is that, without literacy, the task of parsing those less frequent words is harder in a way that makes vocabulary learning less effective.

    In short, I think literacy is likely vital for advanced proficiency—but what level of literacy is needed is still up for grabs.

  35. shubert said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    I just talked with a student in Defense Language Institute, where learning characters starts a week after the basic phonetics.

  36. Xiao Shi said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 1:00 pm

    @Eric: "I think there are likely to be important benefits for vocabulary building that come somewhat indirectly from morpheme knowledge, which is bolstered by characters…My hunch is that, without literacy, the task of parsing those less frequent words is harder in a way that makes vocabulary learning less effective."

    100% agree.

  37. Tanner said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

    It is far more important to master the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar first, and then worry about the characters later (or never, if reading and writing is not what you're after). Learn Mandarin like a baby, like a native — without reference to the characters until you are fluent.

    Wouldn't that be a good way to learn any language?

    It's funny how she acts more cutesy when speaking Chinese. I've noticed that that happens a lot when girls speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean. She's older than me, BTW, before I get put on some FBI list.

  38. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 2:38 pm

    The following may be of interest in terms of the evolving means for learning foreign languages and the different emphases that individual learners place on diverse aspects of language learning.

    Stretching back forty and more years, I have had students from many countries around the world. I recall clearly a Russian woman and a Uyghur man who both spoke English well and confidently, so much so that — just by listening to them — you'd almost think they were native speakers of English. Yet, when they put things down on paper, it was much harder for them to express themselves clearly and accurately.

    Conversely, I have had students from China, Korea, Japan, and elsewhere who could barely utter a sentence or two in English, and when they did, it was awkward, halting, and hard to understand. Yet, several of them could write passable English, written English that was much better than their spoken English.

    To be sure, I have had students from a wide variety of backgrounds who possessed all sorts of combinations of linguistic abilities and levels. What this indicates, I believe, and as other commenters have pointed out, is that skill in one aspect of language usage is not always reflected in a comparable level for different aspects of language usage. Furthermore, individual students have different aptitudes for the various aspects of language competence. Above all, individual students have different aims and emphases for why they are learning a second language after all. Consequently, we should not try to force them all to fall in the same mold, but should offer them the opportunity to maximize their own talents and goals.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 3:39 pm

    @Xiao Shi

    @Eric: "I think there are likely to be important benefits for vocabulary building that come somewhat indirectly from morpheme knowledge, which is bolstered by characters…My hunch is that, without literacy, the task of parsing those less frequent words is harder in a way that makes vocabulary learning less effective."

    "100% agree."

    So do I, for advanced levels –4th year and beyond.

  40. Elessorn said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    I think it's important to resist the urge to debate language teaching methods in absolute terms– not only because the needs and skills of individuals are different, but because courses of instruction simply must be designed to work under hard institutional constraints. There's no reason learning characters should be anything but a plus, given adequate time to teach them as part of a *balanced* curriculum, and sufficient student motivation. This is possible at Middlebury, where Jessica studied, and the results are clear.

    But it is simply not viable at a mere five-plus hours per week of language instruction, where even the most motivated students will struggle to make much time for study in a busy schedule. Under such constraints, characters can easily become a sink for scarce teaching/study time and a sap to motivated effort, since their benefits take so long in coming. If push comes to shove, anyone who would sacrifice speaking skills and vocabulary acquisition to character practice is crazy. Especially since it's the former that makes the latter stick.

    That said, I think discourse that talks down characters as a kind of regrettable "problem" that the Chinese language needs to "solve" is also likely to hurt down the line, where it can tamper motivation to learn characters just when they're most needed to progress. But that's another problem entirely. Either way it's infinitely preferable to have shoddy writing skills than to have shoddy speech.

  41. Dave Cragin said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 8:31 pm

    Brenden’s comment on robotic Chinese by non-native speakers fits with my experience with an on-line Chinese lesson site, Chinesepod. I found the lessons with American’s speaking Chinese generally weren’t engaging, even when they covered a topic of interest to me.

    My sense was this was due to fact that the speakers were focused on getting their tones right and they lacked the natural emotions of native speakers (the exception to this was John Pasden – he was interesting). In contrast, I found most of their native speakers very engaging, even when I didn’t understand what they were saying.

    As an adult learner, I also agree with learning speaking 1st, pinyin 2nd and characters 3rd . One issue with trying to learn characters from the beginning is the “low” return for the investment, i.e., it takes a long-time before one can develop functional reading skills (as David Moser’s classic article on why Chinese is so dammed hard describes). You get little satisfaction for the effort invested.

    In contrast, even limited spoken skills are greeted with incredible warmth by Chinese; and the deeper one’s skills, the stronger the reaction. It’s hugely rewarding. It makes the investment of time in learning to speak well worth it. Hence to Eric’s point, you get good at what you practice, but speaking skills emerge much more quickly than writing will (even with equivalent practice).

    Learning characters when one is an “intermediate” learner helps because it allows you to see the connections between words. It becomes a good adjunct to speaking skills.

  42. JS said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 9:34 pm

    The foreign Chinese speaker's law of the conservation of pride holds that the individual guilty pleasure we take from Chinese folks' positive reactions to encountering the still relatively rare competent foreign speaker is equal and opposite to the indignity we experience due to the natural larger-scale effects of this relative rarity — the persistent idea of Chinese as peculiarly rarified and inaccessible to foreigners; the related "you are great [but if THAT is 'great' then Chinese is really hard]" thing; the Chinese-speaking-foreigner-as-novelty-act phenomenon; etc.

    The law presumably extends to other tongues… can't remember his name, but recall reading a short article in Japanese by a well-known Western Japanologist that was a great illustration of basically the same phenomenon — writer butters up self and natives ("my fascination with Japanese is due to its profound hardness"), reader reciprocates by buttering up self and foreign expert ("his/her still-imperfect competence with our profoundly hard language is profoundly impressive.")

    Maybe the day will come when pretty-good-Chinese-for-a-blonde, like the above, will be only a little more remarkable than pretty-good-English-for-a-Chinese… if likely never as unremarkable as pretty-good-Chinese-for-a-Tibetan/Zhuang/Miao/etc. I suppose this will in fact make it a less attractive object of study for certain kinds of people… like me. :/

  43. Chas Belov said,

    May 3, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

    @maidhc: That is likely how we get the sandman in reference to sleep. When I was a kid, my parents and I referred to it as sand. When I search Google on "sand out of my eyes" it offers "sand in eyes when waking up" and "sand in eyes after sleep" as related searches.

    @Shubert: Actually, since I started learning Cantonese many years ago (a process I never got very far on), Mandarin has sounded less attractive to me, and I think of the "lilt" of Cantonese. The most attractive language I've heard, imo (which I pronounce "im-oh") is Shanghainese.

  44. Jason said,

    May 4, 2015 @ 1:17 am


    "It's funny how she acts more cutesy when speaking Chinese. I've noticed that that happens a lot when girls speak Chinese, Japanese and Korean."

    Yeah, that's the observation I was going to make. Which is odd, because I associate the "cult of cutesiness" with Korean and Japanese women, but not really Chinese women. Might be related, however, to the phenomenon of how some female Youtube vloggers are engaged in an arms race of kawaii cutesy clickbaiting.

    "She's older than me, BTW, before I get put on some FBI list."

    Oh god, has it come to that? I suppose Bogart and Bacall would get Bogart arrested, these days.

    Victor Mair said,

  45. Stan Carey said,

    May 4, 2015 @ 7:21 am

    Re. pronouncing OMG as 'oh em gee' and BTW as 'bee tee dubs': In a recent Strong Language post on sweary abbreviations I mention WTF being spoken as 'dub(s) tee eff' and OMFG as 'ohm fog'. In my mind's ear I tend to convert both of these into the full phrases, but I suspect there's a lot of variation.

  46. Noel Hunt said,

    May 5, 2015 @ 12:56 am

    There is no doubt that this young girl's Chinese is superbly fluent, but I feel that her articulation lacks the 'setting' that a true native Chinese speaker has. Perhaps it is simply that the audio is not clear enough, but experience suggests that native speakers have an aticulatory setting which involves spread lips and the tongue raised towards the palate. I am much more familiar with the articulatory setting of Japanese—there are many fluent non-native speakers of Japanese who appear on television in Japan but their voice quality is simply different from that of native speakers and it is clearly a result of a different articulatory setting. (For Japanese, c.f. Timothy Vance, Introduction to Japanese Phonology.)

    I would be interested to know what Professor Mair thinks about this, since I have never seen any literature on articulatory setting in Chinese.

  47. Victor Mair said,

    May 5, 2015 @ 9:36 am

    @Noel Hunt

    Although I've never heard of "articulatory setting" before you brought it up, this concept — so far as I understand it — does make sense as a metric for the nativeness in L1 and L2 speech. It is probably inevitable that L2 speech will always be an approximation of native articulation, simply because the muscular and pulmonary movements of the vocal tract are so deeply determined by one's L1 speech habits. On the other hand, it is possible — for example — for a very good L2 speaker to fool native speakers into believing that he or she is a native speaker, as say, when talking over the telephone or in other circumstances where the face is not visible (though this would not be a factor among speakers of different languages whose physical appearance is similar). I've done this myself on many occasions, and it is quite a thrill to carry it off for minutes on end.

  48. Mark F. said,

    May 6, 2015 @ 10:17 am

    I'm late to the party, but I have two questions: How good is her accent (or how much of an American accent does she have), and how unusual is it considered to be these days for a Westerner to speak Chinese well?

  49. Guy said,

    May 8, 2015 @ 9:47 am

    Her Chinese sounds almost native to my ears.

    There is the occasional pronunciation which sounds too "ABC" (American born Chinese) but even that accent is common enough in the media that I associate that accent with Chinese people.

    Her manner of speaking is also similar to the way young people talk. She must be watching a lot of Taiwanese dramas and talk shows. A lot of younger foreigners, even when they speak fluent Chinese, sound old fashioned (like those Caucasian comedians you see on TV).

    For an English language comparison, I would say similar to French actress Eva Green's or Canadian actor Francois Arnaud's native-like accents in English.

  50. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:11 am

    Her Mandarin is indeed excellent. There's just a SLIGHT hint of an accent that I would have chalked up to "dialect". She picked up the "contemporary" mannerisms quite well. The consonants are, maybe… slightly… clipped? 5% off? I'm not a linguist, so I can't give you the term. But she's very VERY close to "native".

    I sort of have that effect on Latino strangers when I try out my Spanish. :D But then, I lived in South American for many years. :D

  51. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 3:19 am

    Regarding characters… I am somewhat ambivalent about my Chinese abilities. I retain full ability to read Chinese, traditional too. In fact, I can't read simplified Chinese at all. However, I've lost the ability to write, and my pinyin is horrendous, as often I write in one window and have Google translate open in the other. :D But I speak fully fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, English, and nearly accentless Spanish (from what my Latino friends told me).

    I agree that SPEAKING Chinese does not require you to know the symbols in written Chinese, esp. when the characters bears absolutely NO relations to how the word's pronounced. In the Latin languages the words at least sound somewhat related to the characters. In the Chinese (and most Eastern languages) that's simply not the case, so studying the characters is really of little use unless reading comprehension is desired, and in no way helps the conversational skills.

    Not that I'm a linguist or anything. :D

  52. John Cowan said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 12:42 pm

    For the record, rheum (sand or sleepies to me) is definitely not pus. It is essentially dried mucus, like snot but thinner, and it dries out because we don't blink while we sleep. Pus consists mostly of dead white blood cells, and is present only if you have an eye infection.

    Bogart met The Divine Lauren when she was 19, firmly legal these days.

  53. Bathrobe said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 4:23 pm

    I've heard OMG pronounced in China (it's used fairly often), but I can't remember hearing oh em jee. I think it was more like omaga, although that's just my impression.

  54. Bathrobe said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 6:03 pm

    Of course, I was writing about Oh my God, not OMG. But I think that most Chinese pronounce OMG as 'Oh my God!'

  55. K. Chang said,

    May 10, 2015 @ 9:45 pm

    @Bathrobe — technically they would have said 哎呀,我的天啊!(Aiya, my Sky/Deity!)

    I can see how some of them would have pronounced OMG phonetically. Remember, supposedly atheist socialist society! :D

  56. Bathrobe said,

    May 11, 2015 @ 12:19 am

    Well, yes, of course they say 我的天呢!

    But OMG is also heard nowadays.

  57. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2015 @ 10:33 am

    Interesting/distressing sidenote in the Washington Post piece linked from the wikipedia article about her that the Mandarin name she adopted (or that was suggested to her?) turns out to have a pornographic subtext, which is a hazard of doing something other than straight phonetic transliteration that hopefully yields something nonsensical-but-not-comical in the target language. (FWIW the Mandarin wikipedia article on the Beinecke rare books library renders Beinecke as 拜内克, although I'm not competent to tell if that's completely free from comical or inappropriate subtexts.)

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