My Mandarin mindset

I don’t always get things right as an educator. I make daily mistakes and I have many weaknesses that I’m working on. However, I do pride myself on being a lifelong learner. A willingness to learn is an essential quality of any teacher in order to be a positive role model and to keep up with the ever-evolving field of education. On several occasions, I have written about my own risk-taking and growth mindset. Now, it’s confession time: actually, I am not always the shining example of a lifelong learner. There is one area where I hold a somewhat fixed mindset: learning languages.

Cdu7oF8VAAAihO1I teach at Victoria Shanghai Academy, a unique PYP school in Hong Kong. We offer bilingual teaching and learning (English and Mandarin) through our co-teaching model. For more information, visit our school website. It’s a tongue-in-cheek stereotype that English people do not learn other languages and that we expect everybody else to speak English. This stereotype is, sadly, one that I enforce. When I first moved to Hong Kong, I was determined to be different. I very much admire my colleagues who have taken the time to learn and I wanted to do the same. In a school that places such importance on bilingualism, I felt it was my duty to model this.  I never expected to speak Mandarin fluently, but I wanted to make an effort. I regularly talk with students about the wonderful opportunity they have as bilingual learners. How can I say this without embracing the opportunity myself? As an educator, I am in a position of influence and I take this responsibility very seriously (you might be interested in my guest post for The Learning Scientists on this topic). Keen to practise what I preach, I attended weekly Mandarin lessons for over a year.

But then I gave up. It was too hard. My progress was minimal and I embarrassed myself every time I tried to speak. I used my blog to justify giving it up because I struggled to balance both activities. I stopped going to Mandarin class around the same time that I started blogging. Being honest, this wasn’t really the reason at all. I gave up because my fixed mindset told me that I couldn’t get any better. To my shame, the same grit and determination that I promote in my students were lacking in my own learning. What example does this set?

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

Henry Ford

I think it’s hugely important to promote a growth mindset in the classroom. One way I do this is by making reference to the stretch zone. Being in your stretch zone (as opposed to your comfort zone or panic zone) means that you are learning and that your brain is ‘stretching’. This is the zone of appropriate challenge, so it’s essential to hold a positive attitude towards struggle and inevitable mistakes. Going back to my Mandarin journey, I now realise that I was in my stretch zone every lesson. My progress was slow in comparison to others, but I actually came a long way on my own journey (comparing ourselves to others is another student sin that teachers are guilty of).

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place but nothing ever grows there.”


It’s true that I can barely speak Mandarin, despite months of lessons. Mandarin is a tonal language which adds another layer of challenge. It’s these tones that usually cause me problems and result in confusion and misunderstanding. But focusing on my weaknesses distracts from the progress that I did make. I can understand significantly more than I can speak. Whenever Mandarin discussions take place in school with my teaching partner, my students or the parents, I can often follow them even if I can’t contribute to them. I like surprising my students by writing short messages on the board in pinyin. I like seeing the shocked faces of the parents when they realise that I can understand some of their discussions. I am proud of the little Mandarin that I do know and I often wonder how much further I would have come if I had stuck with it.

I am therefore setting myself a challenge. Please keep me accountable for it. I’m getting back in the game! Before, I was moving forward on my own journey and, like anyone, I am capable of moving forward further as long as I adopt the right attitude.

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”


Here are the steps that I will immediately take:

  • Use my daily commute to revise using books and videos
  • Find a weekly Mandarin tutor
  • Use pinyin when messaging my girlfriend, my Chinese colleagues and anyone else who understands
  • Speak Mandarin to my students at least once per day
  • Speak Mandarin next week when I visit Xi’an

I see this as a professional goal rather than a personal one. It’s not even about speaking Mandarin (it isn’t even the local dialect in Hong Kong). It’s about setting an example and modelling the learning attitudes that I expect my students to adopt. Wish me luck as I get back on the road and continue my journey! If you are aware of any apps, YouTube channels or other resources that might help, please leave details in the comments section. Thanks a lot!






To receive blog updates, find the ‘Follow’ icon (below or in the sidebar) or ‘Like’ my Facebook page. Your ongoing support and encouragement are very much appreciated.


  1. When I first started to learn German I found it very useful to surround myself with the language in informal ways of learning I.e. listening to the radio. I wasn’t massively paying attention but was subliminally able to pick up bits and bobs along the way. I supplemented this with watching films that I’ve seen times and times before in German with German subtitles. Again I knew the film so it was a fun way to concentrate on the language rather than sitting down for an hour and learning from a book.

    Also you shouldn’t have unachievable goals – my first goal was to be understood. Grammatically wrong but understood and I was happy. Then when I saw small progress I was motivated to start with the more mundane aspects of learning a language.

    How have you been with it in the last two months since the blog post?


    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for your comment and for keeping me accountable. I need that! You offer some great advice here. I love the idea of watching movies in Chinese. I also love the goal of being understood. I have focused too long on being perfect and this is a hindrance because I lose the confidence to just have a go! I have been studying again since this post and my kids are helping me, but I still haven’t found a tutor. I certainly will do though and I’ll keep you updated.



  2. It is funny how we tend to focus on the wrong things. You were seeing your weakness and your “non progress” over the strides. We do this with difficult parents or students. When we stop and reflect, it is usually one parent or student out of the 100 Or so we have, yet that one or two consume our focus and thought. I am glad you realized this and came to the point where you are going to hold yourself accountable and take the challenge head on. I would be willing to bet the shock and excitement of your students when you speak to them will give you the energy to keep going. Students are the resource we need as teachers to persue being life long learners. Great blog Adam.

    1. Hi Shawn,

      Good points. I totally agree. Even after the shock and excitement have died down, I’m sure I’ll be able to count on their ongoing encouragement. It’s a nice thought that even the students who struggle with Chinese compared to their peers will be in a position to help me.



  3. Great idea,
    Maybe a facebook post with a video of basic words for me and others ‘the beginners’.
    Maybe we can learn the language whilst you over learn the basics to start you off…
    I’m more interested in speaking & pronunciation than the written version just yet!

    1. Hi Vicky,

      Great idea! Actually I should have made this clear in the article. I am not attempting to learn how to read and write traditional Chinese characters. My aim is to speak Chinese and communicate it using pinyin. I think learning the characters would be a step too far for me and would push me into the panic zone. Having said that, my deputy principal (who I think you met on Lamma) knows many of the characters. He says this actually helped with his understanding. Interesting. Maybe one day. For now I’m just focusing on conversations.

      Thanks for the encouragement!


  4. Hi Adam,

    I have spoke about this exact thing in the past. My previous school was a dual language PYP school but the emphasis was on the Japanese staff to communicate in English and never the other way around. I used this as an excuse to stop my classes, allowed myself to be shy and try English first and gave up.
    Good to hear you’re back on the horse, how do you plan on telling students and sharing your learning?

    I would recommend a Seesaw blog just for your Mandarin learning. Take pictures of your books, videos of practising pronunciation, labelling diagrams with Pinyin! I know you’re more of a techy guy than a hand writer and having an audience could be great to keep you going!

    Best of luck on your journey,


    1. Hi Lee,

      I absolutely love this idea and I will absolutely put it into action. I will add my name to my Seesaw class as a student and use the platform to share and communicate my Chinese learning. My students will love this and I will benefit from “the audience effect”.

      Fab idea! Thanks!


    1. Xiè xie, wǒ de péngyǒu!

      I have downloaded this app and look forward to giving it a try. It’s great that you’re learning as well. I look forward to many Chinese conversations with you in the future! Nǐ huì lái Xiānggăng ma?



Share your thoughts