Stories from our Readers: From Flash Cards to Martial Arts -Jonathan’s Story

Stories from our Readers: From Flash Cards to Martial Arts -Jonathan’s Story

We are excited to share the inspiring story of Jonathan Coveney! His story is one of a kind. Drop us a note if you want to share your story! – Jared

I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas…a stark contrast to my adult life. My father is a network engineer, my mother worked in non-profits, and that combined with my younger sister and I make our family of 4. Although my mother is Venezuelan, I never learned Spanish because I rebelled at the age of 4, an opportunity I felt I missed!

After studying Business and Computer Science at the University of Pennsylvania, I spent a year in Uruguay living with relatives. That year was very formational for me…I had studied Spanish for a long time but in a very halfhearted way as I had always felt that Spanish was a birth-right that had been denied to me…and I guess I felt ashamed about it. However, being there forced me to get over that and just dive into the language, something that helped me lay the groundwork for tackling Mandarin. After my time in Uruguay, which was beautiful, difficult, challenging and transformational, I went off to join the work force!

I’ve since worked and moved around among a number of companies. My first job was at Credit Suisse, went to comScore as a data analyst, got a job at Twitter, then my quarter life crisis found me working for Spotify in Sweden, then back to Twitter in San Francisco, then a relationship with a Chinese American woman (FORESHADOWING) led me New York also working for Twitter, then for the hedge fund Two Sigma, next onto Stripe where many of my friends from Twitter had gone to, and then onto Google, after which I up and moved to China! I guess by personality I just sort of…I do things 100% or 0%. It’s a blessing and a curse. I’m bad at balance. But when I focus, I just can’t do something half-heartedly.

I started learning because of my ex-girlfriend who I moved to New York to be with. She is a New Yorker through and through, but grew up in China till the age of 5. Although her mom could speak fairly basic English, her dad didn’t. We would go to her parent’s house fairly regularly for meals, but my girlfriend was not inclined to translate what they said. Usually after some long-heated exchange between her and her parents, I’d ask what they said and she would say, “oh, nothing, nothing important.” Me and that girlfriend were fairly serious, so I wanted to be able to have my own relationship with her parents. My father never learned Spanish, and after having learned Spanish as an adult and finally being able to have my own relationship with my maternal extended family, I basically resolved I would never have such important people in my life that I couldn’t talk to. It always saddens me to think that my father has extended family through my mother for over 35 years that he doesn’t know. Although at times they have lived in close proximity, he just does not know them. I’ve oft times reflected on my grandfather from my mother’s side who was sort of the patriarch of the family. We never had much of a close relationship as a child because I didn’t speak Spanish. He has since passed away and while I lived with relatives in Uruguay learning Spanish, I heard all of these stories about his sense of humor, his good, his bad, and I resolved to never let that happen again.

My girlfriends’ parents were very touched that they were a big reason for me learning Chinese and were always very, very nice to me! While this was a major motivating factor, there were also many others that provided me with the fuel to study. Perhaps an understated factor at that time was the fact that I currently didn’t have any big obsession! Work was steady but frustrating and I wanted an intellectual outlet I could pour myself into. I had also made many Chinese-American friends in college and had many Chinese coworkers at my job.

My apartment in New York at the time had a pretty big living room and you could usually find me on the couch, studying while my girlfriend would work on her various crafts. I had been studying a textbook and flashcards for maybe 8-9 months

At this time, I was feeling a bit burnt out on Chinese…I was sticking with it, but I had been studying with a textbook and flashcards for about 9 months, however I would frequently study 30-40 hours per week on top of my full-time job. You could say I had really gotten “into” studying Chinese. I was using flashcard programs to study a boatload of lists with random vocab. I would use the Chinese Text Analyzer to add vocab from novels I wanted to read. I made a lot of mistakes and I spent a LOT of time doing data entry in Anki. A LOT of time.

However, I felt like I would never be able to read anything of value. The characters are a huge challenge and, as someone who loves reading, it felt really sad that it would take so long to read anything worth reading. One day I was reading an article that mentioned the Mandarin Companion series while I was looking for graded readers in Chinese. My first impression, if I’m being honest, was “Dear god I hope these are better than Chinese Breeze!” Graded readers seemed to fill in a nice niche, and as I looked more into Mandarin Companion, it felt like…graded readers done right. Graded readers done by someone who cared about making them fun and interesting and compelling. Someone who didn’t just want to make a study tool, but making something someone would actually want to read!

That night I decided I would try and read Great Expectations. I started reading…and I felt something entirely familiar and yet entirely new: I was hooked. I love to read and that familiar call was alluring me to abandon myself to a new story, yet this feeling was different because I had never felt it before in Chinese. And yet as the story unfolded, I found myself caring…caring in a way I hadn’t had the chance to care about Chinese before. I had never read Great Expectations in English and even though it has been the source of inspiration for thousands of tropes that have been riffed in countless stories in popular culture, it gave the story a timeless appeal, an experience that became all my own.

I don’t want to spoil the story, of course, but through the ups and downs of following Pip 小毛 through his life, I found myself emotionally engaged and connected. This is perhaps where the presence of my girlfriend matters, as she was used to me studying in peace on the sofa, but she was not use to me getting increasingly excited when I would continue blurting out “I’m reading! This story is good!”

I finished parts 1 and 2 that night, staying up far past my normal bed-time. It’d been a long time since I had done that in any language, and it felt so amazing to tap into that universal joy of reading in this language I was putting so much blood and sweat into learning.

During the most dramatic moments, I found myself on the verge of tears. Partly because it is just a really great story, but it was also because I was moved by this new experience in Chinese! I felt like a child filled with the wonder of learning a new language; this wonder that gives you a chance to explore yourself in an entirely new context. You’re still you, but your experiences, your identity, all have to be constructed and retold using new words, new phrases, and new cultural references. Many people say they feel like a different person in each language they speak, but that night, I was filled with joy knowing that whoever I was in Chinese, I would also be a reader.

When I finished reading Great Expectations, I had this feeling of a whole new world unfolding to me. I felt like I could cry. The simple fact that I could read something in Chinese and that I didn’t have to wait 5 years and 5000 characters to get there AND actually be moved by it filled me with such intense joy! I was completely overwhelmed!

A short while after this, I decided to take a break from the grind of character memorization. Grinding so much flash cards rocketed me into reading fluency, but I think I could have done it in a much less stressful and more interesting way if I had engaged with the various forms of content that’s out there, even if there is not as much as I would like. But with this much grind, I eventually burned out, however I laid the foundation for the breath of vocabulary to read things and I eventually moved onto reading native level books in a meaningful way. The point is that I did what I think no person should ever have to do. Plus I had sustained a repetitive strain injury from writing so many characters.

I broke up with my girlfriend near the end of 2016 but less than six months later I decided that I wanted to move to China so I picked up reading characters again. I went to the Chinese Language Institute (CLI) in Guilin to continue my Chinese studies. When I got to CLI, I didn’t meet anyone who had gotten as fluent as I had as quickly. I met a lot of people who had a more solid foundation in the language, but few of them could talk to anyone. Ultimately, in my opinion, if you want to really master the language, engaging in native media can give you such a broader view into the culture, the history, and the range of life experiences in China.

Regardless, I have now gone on to read many native Chinese novels and comic books. Overall, I read more slowly than I’d like, but I can read most anything contemporary and use the dictionary maybe once or twice per page. Specifically, I really like martial arts (武侠) a lot and am just a big fan of reading in general…in fact, if anything, perhaps I read TOO much, and probably should prioritize watching more TV. I’d also say reading is very helpful from a grammar perspective…it’s very, very helpful to see how all sorts of different authors describe all sorts of different situations. Reading 武侠 helped a lot with my understanding of how to describe action, because they have to describe these complex fight scenes…especially the author Jin Yong 金庸, he really gets into it. So I’d pay extra attention to the various ways one could describe swords flying around.

Classic Wuxia style

I should mention that I’m not the type of person who reads “just to get the gist” of something. I know a lot of language learners will read to try and understand as much as they can and sort of cement the words they do know, but I always read for 100%. This slows me down a lot as I can usually guess the meanings of new words and chengyu and whatnot, but I want to be 100% sure! I have the soul of a translator…

I’d say my views on language learning have evolved a lot. I think people should be honest about their goals, and then construct a plan to achieve those goals. I think tools like Mandarin Companion are absolutely essential, and like I said, I loved reading Great Expectations and really wish I had spent more time with the earlier ones earlier on. I think basically people should buy more or less every graded reader out there and read them as soon as they can, and while I think flashcards are an invaluable tool, mass reading is so much more fun AND is quite effective in helping to cement so much of what is important in studying a language! I think if I had spent more time reading mandarin companion and other graded readers early on — and I do mean study… one can read them, but I think can also study them in more depth — I would have had a lot more examples to learn from and I think I could have avoided a lot of grammar issues that plague me to these days. I believe that mass exposure to vocabulary and grammar in context is an absolutely critical tool to not just build one’s vocabulary, but their knowledge of the language.

In total, I’ve been studying about 3.5 years, and although I believe conversation is the lifeblood of language and without that, it would be hard to motivate myself, but reading offers a billion windows into billions of different stories and lives…that’s true in English as well, but exploring that in Chinese is just too much fun! And you know what? I really wouldn’t be able to explore any of that if I couldn’t read! Thanks to you guys, as you publish more and more books, this will be less of a problem for all of us learning Chinese! Keep it up!

1 Comment

  • Eva Posted March 13, 2019 4:00 pm

    It is very moving and touched story, thank you for sharing and this definitely give my private students lots encouragement, thank You Mandarin Companion.

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