Santiago is dual Australian and British citizen. His hometown is Sydney Australia. He has lived, studied and worked in Australia, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan.  Apart from English and Chinese, Santiago also speaks fluent Japanese, intermediate Spanish and used to be able to speak French at an advanced level. Santiago is now 35 years old, he owns and manages a boutique China consultancy and digital agency, which is also incubating a tech startup. He now lives between Beijing, Shanghai and Sydney.

Interesting fact: Santiago’s Chinese name is 马云驰. Which is very similar to Jack Ma’s Chinese name 马云. The name was given to Santiago at Beijing Language and Culture University in 2009 before Alibaba had become a global powerhouse.

Language learning is not just about the language… it’s a way to communicate, build relationships, and learn about the world. Any investment towards that is worthwhile.

– Santiago Mateos

Time Stamped Show Notes

  • [3:04] – Santiago spent a number of years growing up in Hong Kong and taking bi-lingual classes in English and Mandarin
  • [3:20] – Santiago’s exposure to Asian cultures and languages from a young age helped him understand the significance of Asia’s rise in the world
  • [3:55] – Santiago moved to Hong Kong because his step-father did business there
  • [4:23] – It was a major culture shock at first to go from Australia to China and adjust to the different schooling
  • [5:18] – Santiago took bi-lingual classes from ages 8-12, but didn’t have any opportunities to study Mandarin for years afterwards and ended up going 15 years before he picked it up again
  • [6:34] – Santiago moved back to Australia for high school
    • [7:15] – Australia now has over 1 million Chinese residents and 150 thousand Chinese students, so it might make sense for some Chinese study to become compulsory in the future
    • [7:42] – Santiago studied French and Japanese in high school, and found that his Chinese knowledge helped a lot with Japanese
      • [8:48] – As a result, Santiago got scholarships and later job opportunities in Japan throughout his 20’s
  • [9:17] – As he got into his late 20’s Santiago’s interest in China and the Chinese language was sparked again as he saw the growth going on there
  • [10:20] – Even though he lived in Hong Kong, Santiago learned Mandarin instead of Cantonese because his parents had a lot of foresight and saw how useful it could be
  • [12:09] – Santiago took French to an advanced level in high school, but was more interested in continuing Japanese in university
  • [12:46] – Santiago went to Japan on exchange and got some immersion, which makes a huge difference for language learning
  • [13:47] – Santiago spent many years wanting to get back to Chinese, but didn’t commit to it until he had already been working in Japanese related roles for years (around 2009)
    • [14:49] – Santiago had a great experience with Japan, but he knew he would have to shift his focus and spend some time in China if he was going to be successful learning Mandarin again
  • [15:18] – What has been Santiago’s biggest motivation in learning Chinese?
    • [15:30] – When Santiago started taking trips back to China, he was thinking his opportunity might be related to practising law
      • [16:17] – When he interviewed at law firms, Santiago got some disheartening advice that he would need to build a client base for a few years before he was hirable
      • [17:06] – Santiago had a lot of friends doing well in the digital space, and ended up getting into China through online businesses instead
    • [17:26] – Santiago still has an interest in all Asian countries and wants to understand them and how they relate to Australia
    • [17:48] – The big catalyst Santiago had to get serious about Chinese was in 2009 while talking with a friend in Shanghai who helped him get in touch with his father, who ended up being a very well-known and successful Hong Kong real estate developer
      • [19:38] – The big takeaway Santiago got from this meeting was that there would be no substitute for actually spending time in China if he was to seriously learn about its culture and modern society
        • [20:04] – Despite how simple the advice was, it was really influential guidance that has stuck with Santiago ever since
      • [20:35] – Santiago shares some great advice for young professionals who are interested in starting careers in Asia
  • [21:28] – How did Santiago learn Chinese?
    • [21:36] – Having been exposed to the characters at a young age, Santiago got a private tutor and sped through the beginner curriculum when he began studying again in 2009 so that he could get into intermediate classes quickly
    • [22:35] – What’s worked best for Santiago is working with private tutors and learning materials related to his personal interests
      • [23:00] – He would develop paragraphs of Chinese text and focus on learning them well with help from the tutors
    • [24:16] – Besides that, Santiago also benefits from just having unstructured conversations with his tutors
    • [24:38] – Now Santiago listens to a Mandarin podcast to keep up his language skills while learning about interesting, relevant topics
    • [25:24] – Santiago compares the methods he learns with vs. more structured programs
      • [26:24] – Santiago talks about practical/productive language learning vs. learning language from textbooks to pass exams in school
    • [27:20] – It took several years of studying before Santiago was able to start getting work in China
    • [28:53] – Language educators do a good job to give people the tools and skills to learn a language, but it makes a big difference to escape the structure and incorporate material that is actually interesting to you
    • [29:26] – You don’t really get to experience the benefits of all your hard work studying and practising until you progress from the beginner to intermediate and advanced levels and can really connect with people conversationally
      • [29:56] – The most important thing is building relationships, and being able to talk to people in their native language makes that much easier
    • [31:01] – Santiago consciously focuses on language learning in areas that will benefit him and avoids spending any effort on non-relevant subjects
  • [31:55] – What has been Santiago’s biggest challenge in learning Chinese?
    • [32:03] – The biggest challenge was overcoming long gaps between language learning – first the 15-year gap between living in Hong Kong and starting again in 2009 at the BLCU 北京语言大学 (Beijing language and culture university), and then again between 2009 and pivoting his career to China in 2012
      • [32:26] – It’s really frustrating to have to re-learn things that you already spent so much time learning before
    • [33:03] – Having confidence and not worrying about making mistakes is really important for learning languages
  • [33:35] – If Santiago were to start learning Chinese again from scratch, how would he do it?
    • [33:42] – Santiago describes how Tim Ferris has broken down his practical approach to language learning and the benefits of having a structured approach
    • [34:43] – Santiago discusses how technology has changed the language learning process, specifically making handwriting less important for learning Chinese because of smartphones and computers
    • [35:50] – You lose so much by not learning the characters because knowing the history behind them and the understanding the radicals that constitute each character is extremely beneficial
    • [37:06] – Santiago talks about finding the most efficient way to learn a language as an adult who has limited time and other responsibilities
    • [37:51] – Be skeptical of programs that tell you that you can become fluent without working really hard, there’s no substitute for consistent focused effort towards learning
    • [38:26] – Santiago discusses the interest level for Australians in Asian countries and Asian languages and how many people become quickly discouraged by the difficulty of learning the languages or simply aren’t interested to begin with
    • [40:58] – Santiago has observed that the people who use language skills successfully in their careers had a fundamental interest/hobby that motivated them to learn the language
  • [42:21] – Most rewarding moment: Following through on the commitment to learn Chinese again after 15 years away from it
    • [42:30] – Santiago really benefited from making such a strong initial effort to begin learning Chinese again after a 15-year gap because it gave him the belief in himself that he could do it
    • [43:05] – Santiago has had so many amazing and rewarding experiences in China as a result
  • [45:39] – If you’re involved in business in China it’s hard to get the most accurate and up to date information if you can’t understand Chinese
  • [46:32] – A difference between Chinese culture and Santiago’s own culture
    • [46:38] – The importance of family is really emphasised in China and the younger generations take care of the elderly more than in many other countries

Santiago’s Favourite Chinese Quote

  • [50:31] – 马到成功 – to get instant success
    • 马(mǎ) – horse
    • 到(dào) – go to, arrive
    • 成(chéng) – complete, finish
    • 功(gong) – achievement

Santiago’s Advice for Chinese Learners

  • [52:17] – The world is changing fast and the more we can understand the perspective of others, the more it will help our understanding of the world and make for peaceful relationships and profitable business strategies
  • [52:50] – Language learning has so many benefits, and any investment you make towards that – no matter the size – is going to be worthwhile

Connect with Santiago

  • Linkedin: Santiago James Mateos

Resources Mentioned:

  • [47:48]Pleco – Santiago likes looking through the history of words he has looked up so that he doesn’t automatically forget the ones that he doesn’t use frequently after learning them
  • [48:58] – Textbooks published by the BLCU 北京语言大学 (Beijing language and culture university) were helpful for getting started

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