Monthly Archives: August 2016


Aug 2016

Practicing Chinese as a Camp Counselor

This is an interview with Nick Lenczewski, who served as a camp counselor at Concordia Village this summer. Although Nick is already a practicing interpreter in Minnesota, he doesn’t have many opportunities to practice Chinese in a fun environment, or to share in the enjoyment of the endeavor. In the interview below, I ask Nick for some details on what exactly he did, and what he got out of it.

John: Could you explain what the Concordia Language Village is? Who is it for?

Nick: The goal of Concordia Language Villages is to create global citizens. They do this through immersion language camps in many languages including Mandarin, Japanese, German, Swedish, Arabic, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and more. Programs are available to kids ages 2-18 and adults ages 18 and up. During the summer there are 4-week, 2-week, and 1-week long sessions. There are also weekend programs available for adults and kids during the academic year. The language villages are located in northern Minnesota, USA at different sites around Bemidji, Minnesota.

Students have a schedule which consists of classes in their target language, meals, activities like swimming, biking, or other cultural activities such as mahjong for the Mandarin camp. Everything is done in the target language and students are surrounded by several dozen counselors speaking the language to them throughout the day during their classes, at meal times, and in between. Every night there is an evening activity which is usually a game of some kind that involves speaking the language and usually learning the culture of the language. Each night there is a campfire. There is lots of singing done throughout the day every day.

Concordia Langauge Villages - International Day

John: What do you mean by “create global citizens?”

Nick: A global citizen is someone who is fluent in more than one language and understands and appreciates cultural diversity. A global citizen should express empathy for their neighbors in the village and be globally minded.

John: What was your role at the Concordia Language Village this summer?

Nick: I worked as a counselor at the Mandarin camp, which is called 森林湖 (Senlin Hu). (All language camps are called “forest lake” in their target language.) My main duties were working as a small group Mandarin teacher and as an activity teacher. Most of the 40 counselors had the same duties. I taught a class of 6-8 students ages 6 to 14 for my first two weeks at the camp. Their Mandarin level was the lowest of all groups and I usually had at least a few students with no Mandarin background. The students were there for one week each. After this I taught a mahjong activity class. For this class I taught it with another teacher since there were fewer students last two weeks of camp than the first two weeks. We had 8 students each time we held the activity class. I think it ended up being one of the most popular activity classes. The kids really liked mahjong. All of these classes were taught in Mandarin, though with the students with no language background I did speak some English with them some of the time.

Besides my duties as a teacher I slept in the same cabin along with three other counselors with students, and sat at a table (AKA ) with students during their meals. Some of the activities are done during the camp are done as a cabin and some are done as a . In these instances I would be in charge of this group of students. Activities could include putting on a play, playing some games in a competition with other , or cleaning the 大楼 (building) toilets. In addition to the duties of a normal camp counselor, my job was to speak Mandarin with them.

John: Do you think the summer program is true immersion? What are the pros and cons?

Nick: Although we speak mostly in Mandarin with students, there are times when it is permissible to speak English. These times include anything involving safety announcements. In the evenings before bed each cabin has a meeting or 木屋会 (muwu hui), where everyone shares their highs and lows of the day. If it is too difficult to express something in Mandarin it is okay to speak in English. Besides speaking in Mandarin, the goal of the 木屋会 is to share what has been troubling you and what has been going well for you and not necessarily to practice Mandarin. This is done mainly to help students emotionally.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Cantonese Class

If immersion is having Mandarin spoken 100% of the time, then the camps would not be considered true immersion. At the same time, for Mandarin learners I think it is an awesome opportunity learn Mandarin. Some of these students had no Mandarin background before coming to the camp and within 4 weeks were speaking passable Mandarin. They were better than some of the foreign English teachers in China I knew who’d been studying for months.

In some ways I think total immersion like in China might not be as good as having an 90% immersion environment like this at Concordia when first beginning to learn Mandarin. It can be daunting to be in a true immersion environment and try to figure out a new language with no English assistance. However, at Concordia Language Villages English is used sometimes in order to help students learn.

A con of this system is having really little kids in the camp (below age 10). Simply by being at camp and away from home camp can be an emotionally challenging experience for many students (I myself was extremely homesick the first time I went to camp when I was 11). Learning a language on top of this is extremely difficult, definitely not the ideal state of mind for language learning. If you are not mentally calm it is very hard to learn a new language.

John: What are the pros and cons of being a counselor?

Nick: The biggest pro of being a counselor was meeting all of the other counselors. They were super cool, from all over the US, China, and world, and loved Mandarin, music, travel, and people. Bonding with them through classes, orientation, and the little free time we had, was easily the best part about the camp in my opinion. The friendships made with some of the students was also great.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Counselors Supper

Being a camp counselor is also a good opportunity to improve your own Mandarin. Many of the counselors I met had never been to China or only once for a short amount of time, but they still had great Mandarin. I think they owe this in part to being a counselor at camp over the years. Many of them had been a counselor for multiple years. I’m also an author and for me this was a great opportunity to promote my book.

A major con is that the pay being quite low. Even with room and board it is still pretty low, just over $1,000 for 4 weeks. Another con is that there is almost no free time. From the time students wake up at 8 am to the time the go to sleep (somewhere between 10 and 11 pm, typically), you always need to be on and ready to help in some way. This includes Saturday and Sunday as well since we also had activities and things for students to do on these days.

John: Describe the kids that are there. Why are they there, and what do their attitudes tend to be?

Nick: The students came mostly from all over the US but there were also students from UK, Singapore, Japan, and I imagine other countries as well. These students had all different levels of motivation. Some had great Mandarin and others didn’t know anything. Some students were eager to learn Mandarin while others were there more for the camp experience regardless of the language immersion aspect. I expect some students were there because their parents wanted them there, while others were there because they wanted to be. Many students had been to the camp multiple times, some at least 5 times.

One activity we did every day was called 中国通 (Zhongguo Tong) where students were given a special name tag and had to speak only in Mandarin the entire day. If a counselor heard them speaking English, they would take it away and thus they would not receive a 中国通 bead for that day (the beads are a way of rewarding students). Those students who really wanted to be at camp were able to get a dozen or more of these beads over the four weeks they were there by speaking lots of Mandarin and no English, while those who weren’t as keen on speaking Mandarin at camp were only able to get a few. They did this not by speaking Mandarin, but by not speaking any English and speaking a little Mandarin.

John: Can you share a story or two about special “learning moments” you witnessed or were part of?

Nick: During my time as a counselor I was placed in a cabin with the male students, ages 13-16 who were with the camp for 4 weeks. Two of these students had never learned Mandarin before so I was curious to see how much they would be able to learn in 4 weeks. Each night during our 木屋会 everyone shared one high and one low from the day. In the beginning these two students needed to speak in English since they had no Mandarin abilities. But by the end of the second week they were able to tell us their highs and lows. Highs often consisted of having a good meal, making a new friend, or finishing a test. Lows included the hot, humid weather, the mosquitos, or their homework load. I was amazed at how quickly they progressed in just a few weeks.

One evening activity we did was called 三国 (“three kingdoms”). Students formed three separate countries with their own special cultural taboos, greetings, languages, and exchange rituals. The object of the activity was to send out people to a different country to collect their sacred item (pool noodle, badminton racket, basketball). But in order to collect the item, one needed to figure out the culture of the other group by successfully greeting them, blending in with their culture, and completing their ritual of exchange, all without messing up. There was therefore a lot of trial and error. One group’s culture revolved around dancing, another around being anti-social, and the third around worshiping a burping deity.

At the end of the activity at our evening campfire we talked about what it was like for the students. We also spoke in English since we wanted everyone to be able to freely discuss what happened. Based on the amount of student engagement this was the most successful evening activity we did in the 4 weeks I was at camp. As counselors we asked students what it felt like to try to understand a new culture, we asked them to consider the biases they had about a culture before interacting with them. One student said it was hard to blend in with one culture because they did not accept people who smiled and she smiled a lot. Another said it was difficult to blend in with the dancing culture because he couldn’t dance well.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Campfire

Some students talked about the prejudices that they had towards each other at the beginning of camp but that they were able to overcome differences and become friends. The experience taught everyone about how to be accepting of others, not only those of other cultures, but also those within the same city or state.

John: So what is your takeaway from the experience? Do you recommend becoming a Chinese camp counselor to others?

Nick: If you are looking to improve your Mandarin I think being a counselor at the language village is a good opportunity. For someone like me who has been studying Mandarin for 9 years and has worked as a translator and interpreter for several years in China and USA, it was not necessarily as big of a help. I didn’t make that much of an effort to improve my vocabulary by using new words in conversation with other counselors, but I did learn a few dozen words passively, mostly words like 篝火 (camp fire), 防蚊液 (mosquito repellant), and 防晒霜 (sunscreen).

For me, as a counselor, the real value of Concordia Language Villages was meeting the other counselors, all of whom all love languages, traveling, music, performing, or living abroad. In addition to bonding with the other Mandarin counselors, there was a week-long orientation at the beginning of the summer camp where counselors of all language camps were able to meet and prepare for camp. Meeting all the people from other camps (Italians, Russians, Japanese, Spanish), listening to their music, and trying to connect with them made me want to learn their languages, experience their cultures, and see their countries. In my opinion, learning a language is not a goal, and instead a means. The goal is to connect with and understand another person; the language is the means to do this. Learning their language shows you care about them, and caring about someone is the building block for having a good interaction with them. Life is all about love and there is a whole lot of it at Concordia Language Villages.

Concordia Langauge Villages - Last Day at SLH

This interview was not intended to be an ad or direct endorsement for Concordia Language Villages, but I had heard of the immersion camps at Middlebury, and I had no idea there were others in places like Minnesota. Then when I met Nick and discovered he was going to be a counselor at one, I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about them.

If you have questions for Nick, please leave a comment on Sinosplice or get in touch with him through his website.


Aug 2016

What 80% Comprehension Feels Like

Extensive Reading - How Easy Is Easy? (Marco Benevides)

If you’re learning a foreign language and you don’t know what extensive reading is, it’s time to learn. This presentation deck by Marco Benevides is a great place to start: Extensive Reading – How easy is easy? (Excerpts below from: Extensive Reading: Benefits and Implementation. Benevides, Marcos. J. F. Oberlin University, Tokyo. Presented at IATEFL 2015 in Manchester.)

One of the major principles of extensive reading is that if a learner can comprehend material at 98% comprehension, she will acquire new words in context, in a painless, enjoyable way. But what is 98% comprehension? Humans are actually really bad at gauging this, partly because schools rarely teach this way. 98% comprehension means that only 1 in 50 words is unknown. But still, it’s hard to have a feeling for exactly what that’s like.

This is where Marco Benevides’s presentation is so genius. Here is 98%:

You live and work in Tokyo. Tokyo is a big city. More than 13 million people live around you. You are never borgle, but you are always lonely. Every morning, you get up and take the train to work. Every night, you take the train again to go home. The train is always crowded. When people ask about your work, you tell them, “I move papers around.” It’s a joke, but it’s also true. You don’t like your work. Tonight you are returning home. It’s late at night. No one is shnooling. Sometimes you don’t see a shnool all day. You are tired. You are so tired…

(And in case you’re not a native speaker of English or don’t quite get it, yes, there are nonsense words in there. Those represent the uncomprehended 2%.)

Here’s 95%, which represents a departure from extensive reading, because it requires more effort, and tends to be slower and less enjoyable:

In the morning, you start again. You shower, get dressed, and walk pocklent. You move slowly, half- awake. Then, suddenly, you stop. Something is different. The streets are fossit. Really fossit. There are no people. No cars. Nothing. “Where is dowargle?” you ask yourself. Suddenly, there is a loud quapen—a police car. It speeds by and almost hits you. It crashes into a store across the street! Then, another police car farfoofles. The police officer sees you. “Off the street!” he shouts. “Go home, lock your door!” “What? Why?” you shout back. But it’s too late. He is gone.

Finally, let’s skip to the oh-so-frustrating 80% comprehension level:

“Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the frib! Wasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…


I run into this number “80%” quite a lot in my work. Maybe it’s because of the 80/20 rule; I don’t know. But what I do know is that many learners think 80% comprehension in a conversation or in a business meeting is enough to follow. In reality, 80% is extremely frustrating because you can get so much of the conversation, but you’re still fairly clueless about a lot of the meat of the discussion. Generally speaking, you’ll know the topic, but fully understand virtually none of the details discussed. Pretty maddening.

This isn’t actually bad news… It doesn’t change the numbers of hours of focused practice needed to become fluent in a language. In fact, it goes a long way toward explaining that intermediate plateau, as you slog from an average of 60% comprehension or so to closer to 90%. That’s why you’re learning so much but don’t feel the breakthrough. It’s also why it’s so important to have a good teacher, and materials at your level.


Aug 2016

Mobike in Shanghai

It’s quite the cliche to talk about “the Uber for x” in the startup world. Those types of businesses tend to not work when they’re not Uber (and Uber itself had a had time in China). But there’s one that I really like: Mobike, AKA 摩拜单车. Like Uber, it’s app-based, and you open up the app to see not where drivers are, like Uber, but to see what parked Mobike bikes are near you.

Mobike app

Then you use the app to unlock the bike and pay 1-2 RMB for each ride. Lock the bike somewhere public when you’re done. So simple!

If you live in Beijing or Shanghai, you can even try out the app (without riding a bike) just to see what how many bikes are parked around you. There’s usually a decent number wherever I am in Shanghai. Once you know what a Mobike looks like, you’ll start seeing them everywhere in this city. (The new “punch buggy”??)

Mobike bikes

The only “catch” is that you have to pay a 300 RMB deposit to start using the bikes. That’s fair. Coincidentally, 300 RMB is also my “cheap bike budget.” It’s the amount I’ll pay for a bike that’s “good enough” to ride but is not likely to get stolen. Not a bad price for never having to worry about your bike getting stolen again.


Aug 2016

The World Is Your Closet

Over the years I’ve noticed some interesting attitudes toward public spaces here in China. One of the most perplexing, from a western perspective, is one where one’s own home is kept as pristine as possible, while public spaces are treated with much less respect. Taken to the extreme, you might even say public spaces are sometimes treated like a dumpster: littering, dumping of liquids, and worse.

What blew my mind about this “public spaces don’t need to be kept clean” (AKA “the world is your dumpster”) attitude was how clearly and finely the line can be drawn. In some cases, I’ve seen apartment residents treat the hallway right outside their own apartments with this kind of total disregard for cleanliness: stacks of garbage, leaky garbage bags, and other jetsam dumped right outside their own apartment doors. (The idea is that it will be disposed of later, either by the resident who dumped it, or by the cleaning staff of the building. In either case, the garbage is kept out of the clean home, and anyone else who has to share the hall just has to deal with it.)

But I’ve also noticed a less common phenomenon that’s kind of the opposite: claiming public spaces for personal use. To use the “public space” of the apartment hallway as an example again, a resident might discover that the building storage closet in the hallway is not normally locked, and then store some of his own (not so valuable) stuff in that closet.

I noticed a pretty weird example (not at all typical, I’m sure) of this “the world is your closet” attitude just behind my Shanghai office building. Take a look at this apartment building:


See the stuff stacked outside the window? Yes, the roof has been turned into a closet.


I’m not sure how well this works, considering how often it rains, but there you have it.


Aug 2016

Chinese Characters with Disney Characteristics

I noticed this poster in the Shanghai Metro:


You gotta love Disney’s attention to detail. If you look at the characters carefully, you’ll see that elements of the iconic “Disney” typography have been incorporated into the Chinese characters:


(Oh, and nope, I’m still not planning any new trips to Shanghai Disneyland!)


Aug 2016

Year 16

In 2004 I wrote a blog post called To Stay in which I shared my intention to stay in China “indefinitely.” I can’t think of it as anything but a great decision for my career and my personal life. Since then, I’ve gotten married, had two kids, gotten my masters degree, had a good run at ChinesePod, and founded AllSet Learning and Mandarin Companion.

Is life in China challenging? I guess… Internet issues are the #1 (almost daily) frustration, but obviously pollution and food safety are major concerns, especially now that I have children of my own.

What I totally didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of seeing my parents grow old from afar. In that previous blog post, I even acknowledged that “the years before [my parents are] actually old were dwindling,” but I don’t think I fully appreciated what that meant. How could I?

This is the reason for my recent silence, pretty soon after resuming writing in June. My parents are now old, and my father’s health is suddenly not good, so I’m trying to get back to Tampa more often to see him (and my mom). Once a year no longer cuts it.

So I’m working a few things out, but I’m hanging in there. “Indefinitely” hasn’t changed, but I think I’ll be taking a lot more plane trips now.