Gabriel is from Vienna, Austria, and is a native German speaker, currently teaching the language at a university in Taiwan. In addition to English, Gabriel is also a fluent speaker of Mandarin and Spanish. He runs a YouTube Channel named "Gabriel teilt Sachen," which means "Gabriel shares things/stuff" in German, and is coming up on 70,000 subscribers.
In this interview, Gabriel speaks with Glossika founder, Michael Campbell, about his seventeen-year journey through Chinese and his experience with other languages.
Learning German vs. Learning English
Although German's strict word order and complex sentence structure proves to be a headache for many learners, Gabriel thinks it can be quite helpful. While German grammar is complex, it is also very regular. Once a learner grasps the patterns of the language, it becomes easy to produce a grammatically correct sentence—more so than in a highly idiomatic language like English.
Traditional Chinese vs. Simplified Chinese
Michael: As we know, Mainland China and Taiwan have different systems of Chinese. Mainland China uses the system we call "Simplified," and Taiwan uses "Traditional." For the absolute beginners out there, what's the difference between these two systems? And why did you choose to learn one over the other? Is Simplified Chinese really more simple or easier to learn?
Gabriel: In terms of writing scripts, there are two different systems. As the name suggests, Traditional Chinese uses the traditional Chinese characters, and the Simplified version used in China uses a slightly different set of characters.
Neither of these two scripts are "made up." Both have historical roots and there are, in fact, similarities between them. The difference is that as the writing script evolved over time from its ancient form to the current one, different changes were made in different regions, resulting in the situation we see today: Mainland China (People's Republic of China) uses Simplified Chinese, Taiwan and Hong Kong use Traditional Chinese.
In terms of which system to learn, "Simplified" Chinese isn't necessarily easier. It really depends on what that person wants to learn and what they are interested in. In my case, I was very interested in the history of Chinese characters, so I learned traditional Chinese. Also, I was interested in Taiwan, because most people went to Mainland China to learn Chinese. I wanted to do something different. I was also just curious and interested about what life was like on this little island in the middle of the ocean.
Michael: When was your first visit to Taiwan?
Gabriel: I was 21 at the time, so I already had a few years of exposure to Chinese before I came to Taiwan. During the first few days and months, people always told me, "Wow! Your Chinese is so good!" But actually I already had spent years learning Chinese back in Vienna. So my experience is probably a bit different than that of people who arrive and start learning from scratch.
Michael: So have you spent any time in Mainland China? How did your communication function when you were there?
Gabriel: I've been to the bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, etc. The interesting thing is, originally my accent was more like that of the Mainland. When I learned Chinese in university, most of our teachers were from Mainland China. But over time, because I was so happy and content living in Taiwan, I began wanting to learn to speak Chinese like the people here. In a sense, I just subconsciously changed my accent and assimilated.
Michael: I actually had a similar experience. Because I've spent so much time in Taiwan, I just assimilated, but I think I can code-switch and turn my Mainland accent back on if I need to. But I think for most people learning Chinese, these accents are just like British and American accents to English speakers. A few words here and there might be different, but for the most part, it's the same.
Michael: How much time do you think one needs to spend learning Chinese characters in order to read most documents with ease?
Gabriel: For me it was a more subtle, gradual shift. It was a really long time ago, but I would say it took me about 3 to 4 years. But it really depends on the context. If it's a topic you're familiar with, then there isn't too much problem. But if it's like a very difficult novel or a topic you are not familiar with, then it's a completely different story. It just takes a lot of dedication and the right mindset. Above all, try not to stress yourself out.
Michael: A lot of people discuss whether Chinese has grammar or not. What do you think?
Gabriel: Of course Chinese has grammar! It has a lot of grammar! The grammatical structure and logic is just different than ours. I actually made a ten minute long video on my channel just talking about this topic. While German grammar is very obvious and straightforward, Chinese grammar is more opaque. For example, is this word a verb? Is it the subject? Or what does it actually mean in this sentence?
Because the structure is so different, and of course because of the cultural context, it is really difficult to nail down the real meanings of sentences, especially in everyday speech. These things can't be learned in textbooks, or even movies sometimes. It just takes an immense amount of time and exposure to really understand.
Michael: What was your biggest obstacle in learning Chinese? Were there different obstacles in the different stages of learning Chinese?
Gabriel: There never has been one "biggest" obstacle, it changes over time. In my opinion, it depends on the stage of language learning you're at.
For example, in the beginning, I struggled with tones. In small amounts, say one or two syllables, my pronunciation was fine. But for maybe the first two years, it was basically impossible to say an entire sentence correctly. Tones are very difficult in Chinese, especially because tones in Chinese don't only show emotion (curiosity, anger, contentment, etc.) like in English or German. They affect the meaning of each word. So that was hard, especially in the beginning stages.
Reading was another big obstacle for me. I still remember, I would sit down to read, and after one sentence I would already had a headache. It was strange and difficult to get these characters into my brain, they were so different. But at the same time I was also fascinated by the language. It was exciting.
I think different stages have different obstacles. When you start learning a language, the beginning stages can sometimes be a bit easier, as the most common 500 or 1,000 words can be learned in a relatively short amount of time. But if you want to go beyond that and cover 99% of the vocabulary, it takes a very long time. This is not just for Chinese. The same principle applies to any other language.
Glossika: On the other hand, I've also met learners who feel that the beginning stages of a language are the most difficult! Or at least the most confusing. When you're just starting out it can be difficult to figure out how you should be spending time and to determine what is or isn't important at your current level. Plus, there are tons of textbooks, apps and resources available for most languages. Which ones should you use, you know?
Glossika utilizes AI to deal with these concerns by constantly assessing a user's level and then providing them with content that it is slightly above that, many times with only one "new" word or grammar point introduced per sentence. Our goal was to create a single resource that could take learners from near-zero to a point of independence, where they could focus on learning by consuming content they enjoy.
Funny Stories in Your Chinese Learning Journey
Michael: Any interesting stories or anecdotes in your Chinese learning experience?
Gabriel: There are several, but a simple one is this. For a long time, I would mix up "蜜蜂" (mi4 feng1; "bee") and "蜂蜜" (feng1 mi4; "honey"). A lot of times I'd say "honey" when I really wanted to say "bee." I don't know why this, of all things, took me so many years to remember. Even to this day, I sometimes have to think for a tenth of a second to remember which one is which.
Michael discusses the connection between 蜜 (honey) and ancient European languages later on in the interview, and Gabriel voices his thoughts on how to learn a language to a level of fluency that matches a native speaker.
Watch the full interview here: