As part of the Beijinger’s daily Mandarin Month series ahead of our June 25 Mandarin Mixer, we are profiling some of the capital's most fluently bilingual laowai. The star of today's installment: Eric Abrahamsen, literary translator and founder of Paper Republic, who shares his love of poring over Chinese script below.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to prepare before their first Mandarin class and hit the ground running?
I don't think there's much preparation you can do! If you haven't seen a character before, or heard a tone, you'll have a hard time really preparing yourself. I guess ... "empty your mind?"

What prompted you to buckle down and study Mandarin seriously?
There are some who love learning languages, and will throw themselves into study for study's sake. But I think most of us are using it as a means to an end – a career, an interest, a relationship.

I really began working at Chinese when I started trying to read books. Literature is my main interest, and now my main job, and it bothered me when I couldn't understand what I was reading. Now I'm a professional translator and publisher, so Mandarin fluency pretty much is my career. All in all, I think reading books for pleasure is one of the best methods of learning a language. Later on, conversations with the authors of those books was the next level! 

Which Chinese authors have you enjoyed talking to the most?
I've enjoyed talking to A Yi, Xu Xing, Han Dong, Zhu WenZhang Yueran, and Yan Lianke. It was a pleasure to meet them mostly because they are relaxed and easy to talk to, while also being curious, and willing to chat with a foreigner about Chinese culture.

What was the biggest challenge of learning Mandarin, and how did you overcome it?
Obviously there are the characters, and there isn't much you can do to avoid that difficulty. You just have to buckle down and learn them. I'm ashamed to say that after years as a so-called expert on Chinese literature, my reading speed in Chinese is awful. I'm still gradually getting faster, but very gradually. There's just something about the characters that won't fit in my eye  I can't skim well at all.

Then there's the tonality of the language. I think what I did correctly here was to not get too hung up on the tones of the individual characters, but instead learn phrase by phrase. There were five years or so in the beginning where I spent a lot of time just repeating phrases I'd heard under my breath, like a lunatic. The result was not only a more natural intonation, but more "naturally Chinese" speech in general. It was slower this way, though.

Early on, the relative lack of grammar rules was also baffling. I think if you're moving into a more grammatically structured language, it can be easier. Granted there are more rules to learn, and that's a pain, but at least it's obvious what you're supposed to do. I found it pretty baffling to be "unlearning" grammar while studying Chinese. In many cases, you just put the words next to each other, and you're done. And it's amazing how much you can leave out, even then. That was hard to wrap my head around in the beginning.

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What have been the biggest benefits of Mandarin fluency?
I think my Mandarin has steadily improved over the 15 years I've been here, and I think the main benefit is an increasing level of engagement with Chinese society. Every three or four years, it's like I'm in a new country – I discover stories and cultural background I didn't know before, and people treat me very differently. That has helped keep my life here fresh and interesting.

Don't miss out on TBJ's free June 25 Mandarin Month event. Pre-registration is required; click here to do so, in order to take advantage of free booze and other goodies.

In the mean time, follow our month-long Mandarin Month series here.

This post is brought to you by Pleco, Project Pengyou, and Ninchanese.

Photo courtesy of Eric Abrahamsen

Visit the original source and full text: the Beijinger Blog