Getting over the ‘hump’ in Chinese-language learning

Edited version of this article published in Centered on Taipei magazine, Oct 2013.

The best Chinese-language resource on the market: 'Intimate Chinese' is being rolled out by Lone Wolf Press.
Tired of being left in the dark when it comes to learning Chinese, Trista di Genova talks with Michael Hoare about his ground-breaking new resource for wannabe Mandarin speakers, ‘Intimate Chinese: From grammar to fluency: A companion to Chinese studies for intermediate and advanced learners’.

Taipei: Lone Wolf Press, 2012. ISBN 978-986-88302-0-2 PRICE : 600NT/US$20 / e-book US$10

In Taipei, it’s all too possible to live here — for years — without speaking Chinese. At the same time, it’s no wonder the U.S. State Department deems Mandarin as one of the world’s toughest languages; this is probably why many people balk at the laborious process of learning Mandarin the old-fashioned way.

We balk because the Western learner of Chinese encounters enormous obstacles. Chinese teaching methods are unwieldy and ineffective. Second, there’s a dearth of Chinese textbooks to enliven the complicated learning process. At the intermediate level, ‘Far East’ textbooks here in Taiwan leave readers hanging, early on including long passages in Chinese without translation. I hate that! It’s like being left in the dark!

Then, too, ethnic Chinese often don’t like to teach foreigners ‘impolite’ words (though they certainly want to learn the English ones!). In other words, my Taiwanese friends are so eager to learn English that they seldom stop and correct and/or enrich my Chinese. Thus, invariably, most intermediate Chinese learners hit a learning plateau.

I love languages, and I want to speak and understand the common, everyday Mandarin that everyone speaks…

Enter Michael Hoare, an English writer who spent ten years writing Intimate Chinese. This reference book conveniently uses both simplified and traditional Chinese characters, so it’s helpful to get used to reading ‘Mainland’ Chinese while learning the traditional, ‘good stuff’ that purists such as myself prefer. “IC” also features romanized pinyin translation for its useful and relevant passages.

I interviewed Michael Hoare recently about this important new resource in Chinese-language learning, which is available from the publisher’s website,

Michael Hoare has authored the best Mandarin language resource on the market today. Order a copy on
Trista: Why did you write this book? What were your aims?

Michael Hoare: There were several reasons – the major one was the poor quality of teaching material available when I started learning thirty years or so ago. The standard stuff coming out of Beijing was dreadful from the point of view of both content and presentation, and almost useless for class teaching at the time. I have to say that things have now improved enormously, both in terms of printed material and the Internet. And of course I learnt a lot myself during the writing.

Nevertheless, as I improved in the language I began to realise that the standard teaching primer — Lesson 1, Lesson 2, etc. — is easy for teachers, but gets less useful for students at the more advanced level. As it progressed, I also began to see the need to deal with topics that native teachers may think not quite suitable for foreign learners – the concept of ‘face’ for example and of course ‘sex’. I made a point of doing these in plenty of detail.

Trista: Why did you decide on this format?

Michael: The actual page layout more or less chose itself. A previous publisher, Cheng and Tsui in Boston wanted to do a smaller format, but I didn’t like the idea and they dropped it, anyway. As for the presentation on the page, from the start I wanted to have description of cultural aspects and grammatical material more or less integrated with the learning text. One thing I’m quite pleased with is the great density of material packed into its 200 or so pages. So many books on the market have such a spacious layout that you might only get three of four example sentences per page. That isn’t much value for money.

The other thing is that I was determined to use both traditional and simplified characters and to use quite ‘racy’ translations, using both British American forms as necessary. But ‘slang’ was quite deliberately excluded for reasons I explain in the text.

Trista: How long did it take to write a Chinese textbook-like resource like this?

Michael: Well, it ‘just growd’ over twenty-plus years and many visits to Taipei. But I was quite systematic in keeping and ordering notes. I used a wide range of sources, including fiction and strip-cartoons, and in recent years eves-dropping people on their mobile phones. But face-to-face interaction was always the most important. And the emphasis was always on ‘Sayable Chinese’ in the sense of Chao Yuen Ren.

Trista: What things helped you most, when learning Chinese?

Michael: Personal relationships with native speakers of both sexes were most important of all. Being married to a prominent Taiwan writer helps. Devoting equal attention to spoken and written language. Not being afraid to be more academic than my teachers, reading up on linguistics and phonology and using the best dictionaries and grammars, not just the learners’ ones. The improvements in Chinese software during the writing were an enormous aid.

Trista: Do you have plans for expanding ‘Intimate Chinese’? Adding another volume, perhaps?
Not really, though a ‘revised and updated edition’ might be possible after a while. I recently started to write a very different book called How to learn Chinese (and how not to forget it), but this has dropped down the list of priorities.

About Michael Rand Hoare
B.Sc., A.R.C.S., London. Ph.D. (Cambridge). Reader Emeritus, University of London and sometime Honorary Research Fellow of Royal Holloway College. Non-resident member, King’s College Cambridge.
Research Associate, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). Lecturer and Reader in Physics at former Bedford College, London.
Sometime Molecular Physics Correspondent for ‘Nature’. Research papers in Theoretical Physics, Physical Chemistry and Mathematics. Research collaboration, Paris, Yale University, Carleton University, Ottawa.

Recent publications on History of Geodesy, The Quest for the True Figure of the Earth, and Scientific Lexicography for O.E.D. Major work pending: Weighing Fire: European Lives in Literature and Science. Studied Chinese at former Polytechnic of Central London (Now University of Westminster) and the Guoyu Zhong Xin, She Da, Taipei.

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