Matt Sheehan was raised in California, the United States with an Irish and Italian ancestry, now living in Oakland California. Apart from English and Chinese, Matt also speaks Spanish. Used to be at a very proficient level but now very basic. Matt has studied Chinese on and off for 7 years. He spent much of the last 5 years in China, the last two as the China correspondent for the Huffington Post. Matt is 29 years old, now writing a book about the budding relationship between China and California, titled “Chinafornia”. One interesting fact about Matt is that he co-founded the first ever ultimate frisbee team in Xi’an China.

Time Stamped Show Notes

  • [2:01] – Matt started his journey as a camp counsellor and assistant teacher at a summer camp in Beijing and went to China for 8 weeks
  • [2:34] – Matt moved to China in 2010 after he graduated from college
  • [2:42] – Matt took two-quarters of Chinese in Stanford before he went
  • [2:46] – Matt spent a few years in China teaching English and studying Chinese
  • [2:54] – Matt went into journalism and ended up writing for Huffington post for a couple of years
  • [3:02] – Matt didn’t know any Chinese when he first travelled to China
  • [3:35] – Matt understood how important the Chinese tones were since the beginning
  • [3:57] – Why did Matt learn Chinese?
    • [4:03] – Matt realised that the Chinese language is the key to unlocking the country and the people
  • [4:54] – What’s Matt’s biggest motivation in learning Chinese?
    • [4:58] – Long-term motivation: to understand the country and pay respect to the Chinese people by speaking Chinese in China
    • [5:31] – Short-term motivation: receive so much encouragement from Chinese when learning Chinese
      • [6:29] – The expectation from the Chinese people of a non-Chinese looking person speaking Chinese is much lower than a Chinese-looking person
  • [7:10] – Matt spent most of the time learning Chinese inside China
  • [7:31] – How did Matt learn Chinese?
    • [7:40]The single most effective technique for Matt is imitation and repetition
    • [8:03] – Matt tried to make up his own sentences at the beginning but realised that often times the way he phrased things are not how native speakers would phrase them
    • [8:27] – It’s far more effective to just imitate native speakers on their sentence structure, pacing, tones, accent, etc.
    • [9:13]You have to decide if you want to learn how to hand-write Chinese characters as it is getting less and less valuable because everything is typed in present-day
    • [9:35]There is no substitute for repetition and flash card in learning Chinese characters
    • [9:56] – Matt created his own flash card system and encourages everyone to do so
      • [10:09] – One side was English, the other side is the Chinese character and folded the top down over the Pinyin with the tone marks
      • [10:26] – Matt ran through the flashcards to look at the English to get the Chinese and the Pinyin or look at the character to get the Pinyin and English
      • [10:34] – At the bottom, the card Matt tally up how many he got right, how many he got wrong
    • [11:00] – To read/write paragraphs at length, Matt suggests finding the right medium (newspaper, poem, movie script, novel, text messages, social media posts) that’s most important to you
    • [12:33] – Matt used different ways to learn Chinese each year.
      • First year – one-on-one tutor
      • The second year – classroom at 北(běi)外(wài) Beijing Foreign Studies University
      • The third year to the fifth year – using Chinese at home and at work
    • [13:00] – Matt studied with a tutor 5 days a week for 30 minutes each time
      • [13:29] – Matt talks about a subject with the tutor for the first 5 minutes
      • [13:38] – Then Matt would read a paragraph of Chinese and have the tutor correcting his pronunciation
      • [13:46] – Finally Matt would go over some sample sentences and grammar points
    • [14:05] – One of the most useful ways for Matt to learn Chinese outside the structured learning hours was to go for walks and endlessly repeat single Chinese words with tricky tones until he was sure he got them right
    • [14:52]Matt suggests Chinese learners to learn by repetition and being very hard on yourself especially when it comes to tones. It’s important to get the tones exactly right
    • [15:28] – Matt was very focused on the tones and pronunciations in the first year because it’s hard to correct yourself later
    • [16:07] – Matt points out that Chinese people around you will perceive you as smarter and speak to you in more complicated ways if you speak with good pronunciation
      • [17:29] – People using more complicated languages to you will “pull you up” instead of “keeping you down”
    • [18:06]It took Matt 2 years to realise how important it is to imitate entire sentences of native Chinese
      • [18:40] – Matt repeated everything the teacher said in his classroom when he was studying at Beijing Foreign Studies University
        • [18:55] – Even you don’t understand the meaning, you get to practice the words coming out of your mouth and the sentence patterns will come to you naturally
      • [19:18] – Matt thinks that anything requires you to listen closely to a Chinese person and speaking exactly what the Chinese person said is very useful
      • [19:31] – Memorising dialogues is the more structured way to do this
      • [19:39]The single most effective method to learn Chinese amongst all the techniques Matt used in China was memorising and imitating prewritten natural dialogues
  • [19:57] – What had been Matt’s biggest challenge in learning Chinese?
    • [20:05] – Mental challenge was Matt’s biggest challenge especially in the first year
    • [20:16] – Everyday Matt spent in Xi’an felt like an emotional rollercoaster. There were days where he felt that his Chinese is getting better and days where he felt totally discouraged because he couldn’t understand things
    • [21:56] – Anytime Matt felt bad about something he would just go and learn 10 new words and become 10 new words better
    • [22:35] – Matt thinks that Chineses is like a mountain to climb and there is no shortcut to climb faster or slower. Every amount of effort you spent will make you better
  • [23:39] – How did Matt deal with accents?
    • [23:45] – Matt lived in Shan Xi where the Shan Xi accent has more 4th tones than the standard Mandarin. For example, 起飞 (take off) is pronounced as qì fěi instead of qǐ fēi.
    • [24:38] – In the first year Matt was there he had trouble knowing if it was because of people’s accent or his Chinese that he couldn’t understand things
    • [25:10] – Matt thinks Shan Xi accent is not too difficult to understand
    • [26:04] – Victor shares his experience in dealing with the Wuhan dialect, where his father-in-law always speaks Wuhan dialect to him. It was quite difficult for him to understand at the beginning but now he can pretty much understand everything after hearing to a lot
  • [27:25] – Embarrassing moment: Matt learnt the word 鞋(xié)子(zi) as shoes but did not know 鞋 on its own means shoes too and embarrassed himself when offering help to a Chinese who was looking for a shoe
  • [31:34] – Most rewarding moment: Matt had the realisation that being the captain he could express himself freely with a group of young Chinese frisbee players after spending 48 hours with them. This includes explaining strategies, cheering people on, motivating people on the moment, making jokes at the costume party.
  • [33:50] – Matt shares his story of founding the ultimate frisbee team in Xi’an
  • [39:32] – How is Matt putting his Chinese to use after getting back to California in 2016?
    • [39:38] – Matt wrote a book called Chinafornia in 2016. It’s a book about the new relationship between China and California
    • [40:17] – Matt does communication consulting for companies that are doing work between China and California
    • [40:28] – Matt is creating an online video series in Chinese called California spirit that introduces people to California culture through different places
    • [40:53] – Matt takes Chinese tour groups around in California
  • [41:18] – Life before learning Chinese vs. life after learning Chinese
    • [41:24] – Life in China: opens up doors, opens up people, opens up the country and make Matt’s life much more comfortable, confident and interesting in exploring China
    • [41:57] – Life outside China: life has become more interesting. There is a mental shift in thinking about things and actions and Matt is now able to see things in the Chinese perspective.
  • [43:14] – A difference between the Chinese culture and Matt’s own culture
    • [43:31] – Matt talks about 吃(chī)苦(kǔ), literally means to eat the bitterness, which is the Chinese culture of working hard for the economic benefits of their kids especially the repetitive and boring tasks.
    • [44:29] – On the other hand, Californians will have a hard time persevering through those tasks
    • [45:17] – Victor thinks the hard working Chinese is a good reason for China’s rapidly growing economy
  • [46:01] – Matt’s favourite cities in China: Xi’an and Beijing

Matt’s Favourite Chinese Quote

  • [50:53] – 塞翁失马焉知非福 – The Chinese herdsman 塞翁 lost his horse, how do you know if it is not a blessing.
    • 塞(sài)翁(wēng) – The name of a Chinese herdsman
    • 失(shī) – lost
    • 马(mǎ) – horse
    • 焉(yān) – how
    • 知(zhī) – know
    • 非(fēi) – not
    • 福 (fú) – blessing

Matt’s Advice for Chinese Learners

  • [53:18] – Imitate and balance between the period of time of intensive learning and period of time of intensive using Chinese

Connect with Matt

Resources Mentioned:

  • [47:14]Chinesepod – Podcast that teaches you Chinese dialogues. Matt found memorising those dialogues are the most useful thing to do.
  • [50:04]Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip – A book about Chinese people’s life that changed Matt’s life and perspective on the Chinese culture.

Did you enjoy the show? Leave us a review!

  1. Click here
  2. View in iTunes
  3. Leave us a review

How to Subscribe to the Podcast (free!)

A podcast is a free downloadable audio show that enables you to learn while you’re on the go.  To subscribe to my podcast for free, you’ll need an app to listen to the show from.

For iPhone/iPad/iPod listeners – Grab your phone or device and go to the iTunes store and search “Journey to Chinese Fluency”  This will help you to download the free Podcasts App (produced by Apple) and then subscribe to the show from within that app.  Every time I produce a new episode, you’ll get it downloaded right on your iDevice.

For Android listeners – Download the Stitcher Radio app (free) and search for “Journey to Chinese Fluency”.  Or, if you have already downloaded a podcasting client, follow the directions in the next sentence.

For podcast enthusiasts – If you already listen to podcasts and have a podcatcher that you prefer, the feed you’ll need to add is

For those who don’t have a mobile device – You can always listen to the show by clicking the audio file at the top of this page.  You can see all episodes by clicking this link.