Ciyi Li 李慈一

Interview with a language exchange partner

Tell us about yourself

Hello. My name is Ciyi Li. I am in my mid – 20s. I was born in Nanjing, where I still live. My family also live this city. Nanjing is an incredibly beautiful city, and it has a 5000-year-old history. It used to be the capital of China under the Ming Dynasty (the ruling dynasty from 1368 to 1644). There are lots of old walls and canals around the city. I love my city because I had a sweet and warm childhood in it.

I have been working as a teacher of autistic children since I graduated from university three years ago. I like teaching, I feel that I am good at it. The job is demanding because it takes a lot of patience. There is a sense of achievement when the children learn something. They learn very differently from other children. I have to constantly repeat the same thing – a behaviour that they need to learn, or a content of a subject such as maths.

My main hobby at the moment is making clay figures. It’s called – 泥人, ní rén in Chinese. It’s an ancient tradition of making clay figures representing people. But nowadays the figures represent family members or friends, like taking a photo – but made of clay – and giving these figures as a gift to them. The process is very relaxing, especially when I touch the clay, it gives me the feeling of being in contact with nature. I can use different colours of clay to create different figures and effects. I would like to become a master of this art form.

My plans are to go to the United Kingdom to do a master’s degree in 2021. I had intended to go there in 2020 but with the Covid pandemic I postponed it. This will be an opportunity to improve my professional education as well my English. I am excited about going there!

Ciyi Li explains in English what makes for a great language exchange

Tell us something about your English

I have been learning English since 3rd grade at primary school, so since I was 10 years old, that’s almost 16 years. We used have to 6 hours a week of English at primary and high school. At university, where I studied Public Health Management at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, I had roughly the same hours per week for 3 years. We had English speaking classes for two years there. Since then, there has never been much opportunity to speak to English native speakers.

I had big ambitions for my English, but they were destroyed by the examinations system. I have always studied English through learning grammar, reading and listening but the school system didn’t make the process stimulating or interesting, it is very scholastic. So, I lost a lot of interest.

My spoken English has become more fluent, mainly a result of speaking with my English language exchange partner, but I need to learn and find more vocabulary to improve my fluency. 

Why did you begin a language exchange?

I looked for a language exchange partner because I thought it would be fun. It’s an opportunity to commuicate with an English speaker, and especially share ideas. If two people share similar ideas, it is more interesting and fun in the learning process. This has inspired me to express more and to learn from my partner.

I found my current partner with an app called Tandem, a language exchange app. However, it’s difficult to find serious language exchange partners.  Even if you find a person, most people talk about superficial things . But if you want to learn higher level English you need talk about more serious things, which a lot of people find difficult. So, in reality, you have to build relationship, and maybe become friends even, to talk about different things, at various levels of complexity. Therefore, you can see why it is difficult to find a good language exchange partner.

What has been your experience of the language exchange?

My general experience has been interesting. We started it at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, in March 2020. I have gained a friendship from the process, not just learning English. I never expected this. During the COVID 19 pandemic in China I quit my job and was also preparing for examinations to enter a course in England. I felt lonely and, at times, anxious. I was nervous. So, the language exchange become a way to socialise and also connect to the outside world. 

My language exchange partner he is very patient – listening to my ideas and continually correcting my errors. This is particularly important to improve. He also gives me lots of good learning advice. For example, that I should listen to BBC World Service podcasts. Also, he shares his experience of learning other languages. He told me to continue and keep at it and I will master the language. I used to think the process was hard and that you needed a lot of intelligence. But not now.

My language partner created a very safe environment for me to learn English – especially with my spoken English. At first, I kept judging my own spoken English, but then after a few sessions I began to be more comfortable because he supported and encouraged me. He pushed me to speak. He made me believe in myself – that I could improve and get better. He constantly gives me feedback. So for example, he tries to understand my idea even though the English isn’t clear or perfect – and he then would help me to express it better.

We also talk about bigger ideas like what’s going in society. Previously, we talked about why. generally, people feel more isolated in society – that it is not just about social media but also about the way society has changed. He also explained why he felt that people have more in common than they have differences. This inspired me because despite the differences between cultures and people we all share the same aspirations in life. We are all human and we all suffer – therefore we have  to support and encourage each other.

So you can see, we compare experiences between our lives in the UK and in China. Even though I cannot travel the world during this pandemic nevertheless my world can be expanded by talking and sharing ideas.

I never taught Chinese to a foreign person before, so it was something very new to me. It was like teaching a big kid, but he was more curious and happier to learn Chinese!

My language partner helped a lot because he was willing to put in the effort into learning and explore different ways to learn Chinese. He makes the same mistakes constantly, mainly because he didn’t have references and was getting accustomed to the Chinese system. We focussed on correcting these mistakes. He is good at imitating mouth movements for the pronunciation. He needs to review more what we have done. I am patient and repeat the same thing often and give him feedback. I also give him a lot of encouragement. He learns fast!

Ciyi Li tell us in Chinese what makes for a great language exchange experience

How would you improve the language exchange experience?

You must cherish your language exchange partner if they are good. I therefore take my time in the sessions seriously. I try to prepare and organise myself well for the session. I appreciate that I am getting exposure to natural English. We don’t need to find many language partners – our time is limited so we need to find the right person. My partner always says: learn more study less!

To really improve my English, I think I need to find time to read more books in English.

And for my language partner to improve he needs to constantly review what we have already done.

My final advice is: find a good person and keep doing your sessions with them.

There is a famous saying in Chinese


jiān chí jìu shì shèng lì

Perseverance is victory

articles to read

Amelia Li
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us a little …
Four Chinese tones
The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin The challenge …
My first Mandarin character
Accidents in learning 人 The beauty of the character This …
The perfect partner
How to find a language partner and make it work …

Thanks for reading my article

Please leave a comment below

Amelia Li

Interview with a language exchange partner

Tell us a little bit about yourself

Hello. My name is Amelia Li. I had my birthday recently, now I am 28 years old.

I’ve lived and worked in Shanghai for the last four years. I am an operations manager in a financial education company. All the clients are Chinese, and I don’t get a chance to use my English. I like my job because I can help people to decide how to make financial investments in the various Chinese stock markets.

Before being an operations manager in the financial sector I was working as a nuclear physicist. I decided to change because I didn’t want to be a nuclear physicist any more; also the nuclear plant, where I worked, was very far from any town.

My ambition is to travel to England to study a Masters Degree in Marketing. I can also practice my English there, and meet people from all over the world.

Tell us something about your English

I have been learning English for over 20 years. It was at primary school when I was 6 years old that I started learning English. There have been times when I didn’t study English, so there have been big breaks in my learning. I feel that I didn’t form a good habit in speaking English.

Over this period I learnt English in state schools and at university. We concentrated mainly on learning grammar and reading but not on speaking. In the first couple of years of university, where I studied nuclear technology, we had some native English language teachers so we had the opportunity to speak English in the class. We only had 1 or 2 hours per week of actually speaking English. We never really took the opportunity to speak English outside these classes. When we got to the latter years of study at university we didn’t have any English speaking classes.

I feel my spoken English is not so bad but I need to improve it a lot to become fluent. There isn’t much opportunity to use it. I like English very much because it’s exciting. It has opened a new and different world to me. Many of my friends who were learning English with me have given up; they have now forgotten a lot of their English. I don’t want that to happen to me. I am pushing myself continuously to learn and to improve my English.

My ambition for English is to improve and speak it well. I would like to study abroad in an English speaking country or working in an English speaking environment. Learning English will open up new horizons and can create greater possibilities for my future, not just in China but internationally.

Amelia explains in English why she enjoys language exchanges

Why did you begin a language exchange?

For many years I felt that my spoken English wasn’t improving so I decided to look for native speakers to help. I had already tried many courses and apps but the progress had been very slow. To find a native English to speak to directly, I considered, would help me much more. I wanted to find a person who was patient. They could help me improve my spoken English. In return I would help them with learning Chinese. I wanted to try something completely new and not study in a classroom anymore.

I asked some friends how I could to find native English speakers. They told me about a language exchange website – I put an advert on it for free. Over several months I looked for people and found a few. I had many responses but I refused most because they didn’t say much about themselves, or never really showed much interest in learning Chinese.

What has been your experience of the language exchange?

Generally, my experience of the language exchange has been very positive. I feel so lucky to have found a person who can help me – I have learnt a lot from him. In the first sessions I felt that I wasn’t fluent in speaking but after several months I started to become fluent. Therefore, I hope very much that we can continue the exchanges.

I have also learnt much more than English. Sometimes, I talk about my life in English. It has helped me deal with problems in my life. We have also become friends. My current language partner has become a 良师益友 – liáng shī yì yǒu – which is the Chinese name for a kind of mentor. It can literally be translated as good teacher good friend.

We have developed a style of learning that changes and evolves. This is based on making the sessions interesting and supportive. For example, when I speak a sentence my partner waits for me to finish and then he corrects me. He does not interrupt me while I am speaking. Some people interrupt and also they would never correct me. And when we read a text he gets me to guess the meaning of the word or sentence from the context and to figure it out – with a little help from him. With this process I have to take responsibility for my own learning – which means having patience and finding my own solutions. You have to persist in doing the sessions and with time you will have results.

In teaching Chinese to my language exchange partner I tried to understand what he wanted to learn and determine his level, which was easy, because it was zero! I prepared many things before we started the sessions. I wanted my exchange partner to learn well and to make it a positive experience. I tried to make it relaxed and as well as serious.

I thought first it would be easy to teach someone with zero Mandarin but it has not been so easy. So I changed the teaching speed, and slowed down. We review everything repeatedly after teaching Chinese language points to him. The most important thing is to get to know your language exchange partner. Find out their level and their gaols. This will take some time. And you need a lot of patience!

Amelia explains in Chinese why she enjoys language exchanges

How would you improve the language exchange sessions?

As far as my English is concerned we need to constantly find new things to talk about – change topics to make them interesting and relevant. It is important to have the right level for the sessions. I have intermediate English so it is not so complicated to find the right materials for me and speaking subjects. I need sessions that are not too easy but also not too hard, but somewhere in the middle. In this way I can improve.

As for teaching Chinese to my language partner, I have encouraged him a lot by showing him how to pronounce the sounds of the characters and sentences accurately – so I made him learn Pinyin. We do basic Chinese language structures; we repeat and review the same points a lot. Progress is slow but sure.

There is an old saying in Chinese


wàn shì kāi tóu nán


Articles to read

Ciyi Li 李慈一
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us about yourself …
Four Chinese tones
The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin The challenge …
My first Mandarin character
Accidents in learning 人 The beauty of the character This …
The perfect partner
How to find a language partner and make it work …

Thanks for reading my article

Please leaves comments below

Four Chinese tones

The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin

The challenge of the tones

Pronunciation has been my biggest challenge in learning Mandarin. Nothing prepared me for what was involved in learning a language that uses a tonal system. Ironically, I have found learning Chinese characters easier than the four tones that the language uses to communicate meanings verbally.

None of the four other languages that I speak, including my native tongue, English, use a tonal system. After six months of studying Mandarin seriously, I understand why other native English speakers say they find learning it hard. It may seem strange but this is one of the reasons I chose to study Mandarin: it is simply so different – I find it fascinating. In sharing my experience of tackling Mandarin’s tones I hope that I can help others in this difficult journey.

First, I should explain what is a tonal language is. Any particular sound or syllable can take a tone. In music, this would be associated with the sound’s pitch, its rate of vibration. In linguistics, giving the same sound different qualities changes it, and thereby changes its meaning. Some languages have a fully developed system for doing this, including Chinese, Thai, Zulu and Yoruba, to name but a few.

Chinese employs four tones that can completely change the meaning of a word, according to the tone used. The first tone starts high and stays level; the second tone starts at the middle pitch and rises; the third tone goes down from mid level and then rises to a higher level; the fourth tone starts high and falls (surprisingly sharply, to my ears). To pronounce a syllable, which is the basic unit of spoken language, correctly in Mandarin involves three components: a consonant, a vowel and a tone. These form the sound of the syllable and give it a particular meaning. Each character, written representation, in Chinese is one syllable with its own tone.

The life saver: Pinyin

In modern China, Pinyin is used to indicate, understand and learn tones. Pinyin expresses Mandarin using the Latin script. The system uses marks above the vowel to show which tone is being used in that word.

Teachers often start with the Mandarin word ma to explain tones. Using the wrong tone means that you will confuse the word for mother, (first tone), with horse, (third tone), . You wouldn’t want to call your mother a horse! So getting the tones right are essential in spoken Chinese. The graphic below demonstrates the four tones of the syllable ma, and changes in the meaning: mother, , horse, , fibre, má, curse, mà, .

Getting the tone wrong in a word could lead to anything from an awkward situation to complete incomprehension. When there is no tone on ma, , this indicates a question mark. That makes five possible forms of the sound ma – four modified by tones and one without a tone.

Chinese characters have no tone markings, they simply have to be learnt and understood with a given tone: the character takes the first tone and the character takes the third tone. This is where Pinyin is a life saver – and not just for non-Mandarin speakers learning the language. Most Chinese children learn Pinyin at school before they systematically learn Chinese characters.

Impossible to learn?

So, how difficult do the four tones make it to learn Chinese? Let me tell you my experience. I started learning Mandarin with an audio course and did not worry about the different forms of written Chinese – the characters and Pinyin. However, when I started to have language exchanges with native speakers from China, I had to learn Pinyin so that I could grasp which tone each word/character took. Pinyin not only makes it clear which tone to use, but which vowel it modifies: when there is more than one vowel in a word, you put it in on the first vowel in the order of A E I O U. Pinyin has made learning tones so much easier.

Typing the tone marks is often difficult on computers. Fortunately, Pinyin supports an alternative way of marking tones: numbers can be used after the vowel to indicate the tone. For example, takes the first tone and can be written ma1. Likewise, mà can be written ma4. This is enormously helpful when using a standard computer keyboard or smartphone, especially for new learners such as me. And even if you know characters well, it provides a quick way to communicate.

Learning about tones is one thing, but articulating them correctly is another matter. I have found it harder than I anticipated and some are consistently more difficult than others. The fourth tone, for example, still sounds too abrupt to me.

This raises a fundamental question about how I go about reproducing what I am learning. Let me give you an example of learning to pronounce words in Spanish, Italian and Mandarin. The Spanish and Italian word for beautiful is bello, though the pronunciation varies slightly. The Italian is easier for English speakers: it is literally bel-lo. In Spanish, the double ll changes to a y sound, so comes out as beh-yoh. But English speakers find both words relatively easy to understand since they are close to our experience of the letters of our own alphabet and to the sounds of our language.

Now, let’s take Mandarin. What does 美丽 mean? Unless you already know these Mandarin characters, you would not recognise that this word means beautiful; that it is composed of two characters; that, in Pinyin, it is written měi lì; and that it is pronounced using the third and fourth tones.

To be able to verbally articulate měi lì, and do it adequately, means not only that you have learnt it as a reference – that it is in your head as an idea – but that you have learnt it through constant practice and have internalised it. In reality, what you would be learning and developing is the very system of sounds that Mandarin consists of. This is, of course, something that native Chinese speakers have been learning and internalising since babyhood. It will take me years do, too, since the learning takes place through constant imitation and repetition.

The human factor

My language partners have been critical in developing my sensitivity to tones – they have constantly modelled them for me and corrected my pronunciation. They have helped me understand how important tones are even for basic communication in Mandarin. My partners provide me with the mirror and standard against which I can measure myself, so that I can develop my use of the tonal system: these four tones are at the centre of a system and are much more than just four individual sounds.

Without my language partners, I would not really be able to ‘hear’ myself, and thereby be able to correct myself. They have a very different ‘ear’ to me and, until I develop a minimum level of tonal expression in Mandarin, I will very much depend on them. I am fortunate to have them.

With time and a lot of work, and frankly, a lot of help, I will get to the point where I can adequately reproduce sounds that are closer and closer to standard Mandarin. The tonal system will become real inside me. It will provide me with a benchmark against which I will be able to judge how independent I become in communicating in Mandarin, and the incredible sounds that it has. That is my desire and my ambition. I still have a long way to go. I will get there step by step, syllable by syllable.


Ciyi Li 李慈一
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us about …
Amelia Li
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us a …
My first Mandarin character
Accidents in learning 人 The beauty of the character …
The perfect partner
How to find a language partner and make it …

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Leave your comments below

My first Mandarin character

Accidents in learning

The beauty of the character

This character, 人, opened up a world. It is the Mandarin symbol for person/people – written as rén, generally pronounced jhen, with the sound rising on the e. These two lines, or strokes, have now come to mean people to me. This picture of what looks like someone walking – two legs in motion – has found its way into the depths of my brain. This image is now stuck there. It is the first Chinese character that I really learnt. It is visually simple and, in my eyes, elegant.

I never wanted to learn the Chinese script, at least not so soon. It was too difficult, or so I thought. By script, I mean Chinese as represented by characters, whether traditional or simplified, not Pinyin. Let me explain. Chinese has three written scripts to represent the language. The script using Chinese characters has two versions: a simplified version, which is easier to understand and therefore to learn; and a traditional script, more complex and ancient. And, thirdly, there is the Pinyin script, which uses the Latin alphabet. This makes it vastly easier for many new learners, especially those who already use a Latin script, such as English speakers.

I have been learning spoken Chinese and Pinyin for some months now. My original plan had been to learn the script only after I was able to converse in the new language. And I expected that achieving conversational Mandarin would probably take at least a year of intense study, and practice with my language exchange partners China.

The script was intimidating because it appeared incomprehensible. The Latin-script languages that I have learned, Italian and Spanish, share so much with English. But for most Westerners, Mandarin seems utterly different, dishearteningly distant; the idea of learning it conjures an image of climbing Mount Everest.

Simply characters: People – Big – Sky 人大天

To explain how I ‘discovered’ the simplicity of the Mandarin script, let me go back to the first character I mentioned , people. It will illustrate my approach so far – which seems to be working.

But I need to emphasise that, when I use the words like ‘discovered’ and ‘simplicity’, I am talking about my personal experience at a specific stage in my own learning process. My language journey may continue in the same vein, or get easier, or, as I anticipate, become much more complicated. Using the analogy of climbing a mountain, some sections will be easy to climb – but then you can hit a part that challenges you severely.

Our character is one of the simplest: two strokes, two neat lines. It is also one of the most common characters in Mandarin, just as some words are very common in English. We can construct additional, and different, characters by adding strokes. When we put a stroke around the middle of , people, we make , which means big. In Pinyin, it is written as , pronounced with long tone on a. Then, we can add another line at the top of to get , which means sky, heaven or day, and, in Pinyin, tiān. The new word grows by transmuting from one idea, , rén, people to another idea, , , big, and then continues to another, , tiān, day/heaven. Traditionally, the line added to the top of , big, represented the spiritual level above humans and earth.

Different languages, different horizons

By rising from human, , rén to , tiān, heaven, the process enlarges the space in my imagination. At the same time, it makes the connection between human and heaven intimate – the concepts are no longer separate and impossibly distant from one another. Their relationship redirects my way of seeing the world, as though my sense of feeling the world, experiencing it, is moving outwards, in different directions, as if I am at the centre of an expanding bubble. The sensation is strange, but magical.

In English, the word people has absolutely no connection to the word heaven – they are separate things linguistically, and very separate conceptually. Indeed, we would often think of them as things in opposition, alien to each other. But the way the ideas are expressed in Mandarin, through the characters and , seems to suggest an organic connection, an association that stems from each to the other. I am not sure which way to think about it – that people are derived from sky/heaven, or the other way around, that sky/heaven is derived from people. The mechanism by which meaning is created in Mandarin characters suggests to me that heaven is derived from people.

Now, let’s extend the use of the , , characters. We can use these individual ‘bricks’ to create compound characters: two or more characters placed together to form new words or expressions, and thereby create new ‘units of meaning’. Let’s take a concrete example by starting with the character , rén, people. By doubling up the character we get 人人, rén rén, meaning everyone. Placing the two characters together creates a completely new character, with a new, and different, meaning.

Let’s try another combination: if we add , , big to , rén, person, we have adult (大人, rén). Here, again, two different characters (with their own independent meanings) come together to create a compound character with a different meaning to either of the separate characters.

This mechanism can be also applied to , tiān, sky and , , big. Together, they form the compound character 天大, tiān , which means extremely big. And if we double up it will give us 天天, tiān tiān, meaning every day.

Characters into another world, the space within

Chinese characters suggest connotations to me – some more than others – and incite my imagination, forming visual and symbolic connections. It has been a revelation: characters build on other characters, simple ideas combine to express more complex ideas, compound characters add new meanings.

Mandarin characters are graphically and visually beautiful – they are enlarging my inner world. Each character I get to know extends, ever so slowly, this new space. That’s how this exciting journey – which has really only just begun – is proceeding, step by step, character by character. It is more than climbing Mount Everest, just going up, but more like a centre, myself, expanding constantly outwards, in every direction.


Ciyi Li 李慈一
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us about yourself Hello. My name is …
Amelia Li
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us a little bit about yourself Hello. …
Four Chinese tones
The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin The challenge of the tones Pronunciation …
The perfect partner
How to find a language partner and make it work for you. An important …
Time to be serious
What pushed me into learning Chinese. Welcome to my first article for my blog …

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Please leave comments below

The perfect partner

How to find a language partner and make it work for you.

An important person

My first big step in learning Mandarin was to find a language partner. Only then did it become, for me, a serious commitment. I don’t think I would have continued Chinese if I hadn’t found someone to help me learn. They have become by language friend. In this difficult journey they have nourished and sustained me.

So, what is a language partner or language buddy? It is someone who helps you learn and improve your use of the language that you are studying – normally, it is someone who is native to that language, but not always. In my case, my language partners are native Chinese. I help them with their English in exchange. I started at zero in Mandarin, they already had intermediate English.

Such partnerships usually don’t involve professionals or the exchange of money. This is what makes them so positive and interesting, but this can also be their greatest problem. Simply having a language partner does not indicate how you go about organising the exchange itself – what you do specifically in the shared time that you both commit to. Nor does it set the kind of relationship you have or develop with the other person. In the beginning, expectations can vary enormously – and, usually, they are left unsaid.

Very human reasons

People are fascinating. Cultures are different worlds. These are my two main reasons for having a language partner. First, through my interest in the person – as a specific and unique individual – I enter their language and start to learn it. Second, these individuals are also doorways into other worlds, other cultures, which fascinates me.

Let me say more about the first reason. It arises from my natural curiosity in other human beings. This not only motivates me in learning a language but raises something crucial to the learning process.

It may be obvious, but I am going to say it anyway: language is human communication. Humans embody the language and, therefore, the culture that it expresses. Developing communication with them in the new language (in my case, Chinese) makes it as real as it can get, including all the imperfections involved in communication generally, which is only too human.

Learning the four tones used in Mandarin provides a very clear example of how humans can make all the difference. These tones are central to Mandarin, as is its unique form of writing. Distinguishing and making the tones work in Mandarin is essential to understanding others and making yourself understood. I would argue that, without human feedback about your use of the tones in the spoken language, you can’t really get them right. If you don’t already speak a tonal language then you have no real reference point or benchmark by which to judge yourself. Only another human can really give you that feedback – become a ‘living mirror’ for you. Apps can’t do this. (I will devote my next blog post to the topic of the four tones since it is so important.)

My current language partners constantly correct my tones and also keep telling me that they are very important. I didn’t realise how important until I started learning with them. Even though I had read about the importance of tones for Mandarin it never really sunk in how important they were – I had no reference for this kind of situation from previous experiences of learning other languages. Sometimes they say that they can understand me but that my tones are not right. I think that they are also very strict with me and that in real, spoken Chinese it is more flexible with the tones, but I can’t be really sure until I get better at the language. So at the moment I follow their advice on the whole, and they are right to be strict with me.

Find the right person

It’s easy to find people who want to learn English; there are plenty of people in China who want to practice their conversation in English. Communicating via Zoom, Skype or messaging apps (such as WhatsApp or WeChat) is cheap and reliable. You can find potential partners through social media, apps or language-exchange websites set up for this very purpose.

Some people prefer to use social-media sites to find language partners, while others go to specific language-exchange sites to find their partners. There are people who are serious about language learning, while there are those who are far more interested in socialising. Some, like me, are drawn to both.

Whichever route you choose, it not easy to find the right person. I have studied several languages over the course of several decades and encountered many different people through language exchanges – for Italian, for Spanish and now Chinese.

Frankly, relationships are difficult to sustain. While there are many factors at work here, the most serious is the confidence of your partner in their own abilities to develop in the language. Lets start with some of the pitfalls to avoid that stem from this lack of confidence.

There is an enormous range of people wanting exchange partners in a particular language; they may genuinely want to learn a language or they may not. Screen out immediately those who don’t really want to learn. How do you identify them? Some of the most obvious are males trying to find female romantic partners. Some have no interest in the language. My personal opinion is that, if people are clear about their intentions, then there will be no problem about this – the issue here is respect. And if a problem arises, just disconnect from them – this is something that the internet makes easy.

As for finding those people who are serious about learning a language, this largely depends on expectations and experience. Expectations vary enormously, so it is not easy to negotiate in these informal situations. These are, after all, voluntary and non-professional commitments. Moreover, because the process is very informal, this can result in a lack of focus or direction in the exchange sessions, or they can run thin after a few sessions. While this brings problems it also generates opportunities to find your own way, and create your own structure. For me, it is all about creating a relationship, and that involves identifying expectations and working towards fulfilling those expectations. Then it is a matter to time to see what you both develop as your own unique method.

Success in sessions

I believe that I have learnt how to build a relationship that promotes language learning. It took some time. Many years’ experience in teaching and learning languages has taught me that, if there is respect, you can develop a connection that supports and facilitates the learning of language.

One of the things that almost all native speakers find difficult is explaining their own language: few know the rules of their own language; even fewer can explain why something is right or wrong. A friend once told me that he didn’t know that prepositions existed in English until he started learning Arabic.

I am fortunate that I have taught English for many years, so I know how to explain it to my partners, and can also suggest how they should go about learning it. I can also, to an extent, anticipate and avoid some problems because I have taught and lived in different countries, and also taught many different nationalities.

Some language learners may not seem serious, but this is usually due to lack of confidence, which may be related to the culture they come from. In front of a native English speaker I found that many Mexican learners of English became deeply embarrassed when speaking in English. They desperately wanted to speak and become fluent, but they had to fight these impediments. My experience with Chinese exchange partners has been more positive – despite feeling unsure about their spoken English, they simply push through and try to deal with the embarrassing moments. A sense of modesty and shame are very important in both these cultures, but they deal with them differently, and it leads to difference outcomes.

I feel strongly that native English speakers need to put people learning English at ease. As a teacher, I have always sought to develop students’ confidence in their abilities. This is more than simply being sensitive to grammar, vocabulary and level, it is about adopting a supportive, encouraging attitude towards those learning my native language.

On top of this, you need to determine how you are going to fill the sessions and manage them, both from session to session and over a longer time frame.

This could be planned well ahead or it could be spontaneous – and it will almost certainly evolve as the relationship develops. You certainly don’t need to be a professional language teacher, you just need to have a concept of what you are going to do in the sessions. Individual ideas may or may not work – the important thing is that you are you constantly finding new ways to learn. There are many ways to do language exchange sessions – and most of them should be interesting and fun as well.

Keep it simple, be constant

My Chinese language partners have consented to teaching me the basics of Mandarin. They are diligent and patient. I know very well that it is not easy for them – it can get boring teaching the same thing over and over again. They teach me in English, so their level had to be sufficient to do this – it wouldn’t have been possible with just a basic level of English. We have been doing this for nearly six months now. To keep it going we make a conscious effort to make our sessions fresh and interesting: like any relationship, it needs to be worked on and there will always be ups and downs. Constantly, I am searching to keep things interesting so that our relationships can continue, and both sides can keep learning.

The progress that I am making in Chinese feels slow and limited. Nevertheless, I am happy with it. The speed with which a native English speaker can learn Italian is different to the speed with which they can learn Mandarin – English and Italian just have so much more in common.

My language partners have been important for my progress and, crucially, for my persistence. I thank them very much. And, without setting out to, I feel that we have also gifted each other with friendship. That is one of greatest prizes for learning a new language – new people, a new culture and a new world.


Ciyi Li 李慈一
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us about yourself Hello. My …
Amelia Li
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The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin The challenge of the …
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Time to be serious

What pushed me into learning Chinese.

Welcome to my first article for my blog chinese

Climbing the mountain

I am now learning Chinese seriously. Finally. It has taken a pandemic to give me the push I really needed to climb this enormous mountain.

Why are you learning Chinese? Without fail, people ask the question with an intonation that the written form doesn’t quite communicate. Superficially, it is an expression of innocent surprise but, simmering just underneath, it hides genuine confusion.

It is a very important question. The ‘why’ of doing something has a direct impact on the movement towards the final result. This blog is my response: it will be a kind of Chinese-language travelogue. Not only will I be sharing with you the journey of ‘why’ but also, and maybe more importantly, the ‘how’ of learning Chinese. It will be a continuous movement from one destination to another, and, as I travel, a record of growing through and in the language. This will be my journey – already, in just a short period, it has been an arduous climb, but also an amazing one. This first article will concentrate on what pushed me into my journey of learning Chinese.

I arrived in Mexico City on 29 February 2020, with a plan to return to Havana, Cuba, four weeks later. Then the COVID 19 pandemic knocked the world sideways, and turned it upside down.

My flight to Cuba was cancelled as the country closed itself off to international travel. I made the decision to stay in Mexico in the hope that Cuba would open up by early June, since I had a flight booked then from Havana to London. That flight, too, was cancelled.

I chose not to rush back to the UK, since Covid-19 was ravaging its population even more than Mexico’s (though, sadly, Mexico has overtaken the UK). Having made that decision, I now had plenty of time to focus on learning Chinese; I would actually begin this new journey, and stop pretending to climb the mountain.

I had already been trying to learn Mandarin for six months, spending 30 minutes a day using an audio method: listen, relax and learn. I hadn’t made any progress. None. The possibility of speaking Chinese at all seemed so distant, perhaps beyond reach. I had become deeply disheartened.

Teachers don’t know any better

Being an English language teacher for 26 years didn’t seem to have helped me much. Or that I spoke four languages. Chinese was so different, so much more difficult than those languages that I already knew.

Chinese is considered one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. But also perspective is very important here. I am someone who is at the initial stages of learning a new language that is very different from Latin-based scripts (English, Italian and Spanish) or Sanskrit-based scripts (Bengali and Hindi). So this perspective may change. It may turn out to be true: Chinese is hard. Or it may not be true: Chinese is easy. What is more certain is that every serious journey has its ups and downs. At the moment, it is like moving through thick fog – you can’t see very far ahead.

As a teacher, I have come to understand how not to learn; I have comprehended that learning is something personal, even intimate. And it is in this intimacy that the power, and the beauty, of learning lies. It makes you into the world, it extends you, enlarges you. It should never diminish you – though education frequently does.

I realised that what I lacked was time. So I constructed it, ‘brick by brick’, to build up an arena in which to learn. There is some drama inherent to this process because it is ‘ongoing’ and there is a continual risk of it collapsing: one day you wake up late and you lose the whole session you planned, and those ‘bricks’ of time crumble to dust. You feel like a little part of you inside has been washed away by the waves forever.

The desire to communicate

My greatest motivation in learning Chinese is my desire to communicate with people. They also provide the best tool for helping you to learn.

I like people – talking with them, understanding them and, most of all, discovering their beauty. I also love books – the sound of their pages, the learning that they proffer, the worlds that they conjure up. And the internet embraces the wildest treasures. But nothing compares to the shape and softness of the human soul, and how it can enlarge and deepen who you are.

Language is deeply human, but frequently we seem to forget this. We learn with others and through others: they help us become more than we already are. Language shouldn’t be approached as something dry and technical (grammar and lists of words) but something vital and engaging – something human.

I found three incredible people in China – language exchange partners – to help me learn. I managed to find them quickly – one of the many benefits of internet. They are patient, serious and funny. Their English is intermediate and my Mandarin is, effectively, zero. Fortunately, we have connected (which is not always the case), and we have organised a regular routine that continues to this day.

I have since added learning tools and materials (apps, podcasts, films and books, for example) to the ‘foundation’ of people, and I now have a decent infrastructure for my learning. Once it was in place, the real work could start. Of course, I still have to push myself along, maintaining a weekly rhythm. I am making progress.

Step by step – up the mountain

In this journey, this climb up the mountain in the fog, something unexpected has happened: I have fallen in love with the Chinese script. My original plan was to learn it once I had some conversational Mandarin, which I reckoned would take at least a year. To my surprise, I found Chinese characters much more compelling and easier to learn than I had anticipated. This has made the whole process more interesting, inspiring, and even, now, truly exciting.

As with any serious and meaningful journey, you need to have a plan, to be ready to adapt it and, more than anything else, to be always moving forward, constantly climbing. Oh – and to expect the unexpected. This is the drama of learning a new language – the reason why I am learning Mandarin: making a journey into the unknown, and, maybe, a new world.


Ciyi Li 李慈一
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us about yourself Hello. My …
Amelia Li
Interview with a language exchange partner Tell us a little bit about …
Four Chinese tones
The battle to learn the sounds of Mandarin The challenge of the …
My first Mandarin character
Accidents in learning 人 The beauty of the character This character, 人, …

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