Today I’m joined by one of my oldest friends – James Brock. James has led a very international life: as a child he lived in the UK, France, and Morocco. And as an adult he moved across the world to China, taught English, and eventually graduated top of his class from a Chinese university.
I invited James on to Thinking in English today because I think all of you listening can be inspired by James’ approach to studying languages, his ability to throw himself into foreign cultures, and his dedication to becoming an advanced language speaker! Aside from that, we also discussed the difficulty of attending school in France, accidentally eating duck heads in China, and why the visas prevented him from his dream job at Huawei!
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To spark (v) – to cause the start of something
The government’s proposal has sparked protests across the country
Exclusively (adv) – only
The podcast transcripts are available exclusively on the Thinking in English blog
Thrown into (phrasal v) – to put someone or something suddenly or forcefully into some condition, position, or activity
He was thrown into an unexpected situation
To adjust (v) – to become more familiar with a new situation
I can’t adjust to living on my own
Ahead (adv) – making more progress than someone else
Everyone is doing well in class, but William is way ahead
To bother (v) – to make the effort to do something
He hasn’t even bothered to call me.
Extracurricular (adj) – an extracurricular activity or subject is not part of the usual school or college course
After school, she takes extracurricular English and piano lessons
Clearance (n) – official permission for something or the state of having satisfied the official conditions of something
To visit the prison, you’ll need security clearance
To pick up (phrasal v) – to learn a new skill or language by practising it rather than being taught it
When you live in a country you soon pick up the language
Abbreviation (n) – a short from of a word or phrase
“ITV” is the abbreviation for “Independent Television”
Delicacy (n) – something especially rare or expensive that is good to eat
In some parts of the world, sheep feet are a delicacy
Practicality (n) – quality of being suitable for a particular occasion or use
I bought these shoes for their practicality, not their appearance
To adore (v) – to like something very much
I absolutely adore chocolate
To turn down (phrasal v) – reject something offered or proposed
He was turned down by over 50 different jobs
Etymology (n) – the study of the origin and history of words, or a study of this type relating to one particular word
Dictionaries will sometimes include the etymology of a word as well as its definition
Tonal (adj) – expressing differences in meaning with the use of different intonation
Tonal languages include Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and most sub-Saharan languages
Come down to something (phrasal v) – If a situation or decision comes down to something, that is the thing that influences it most
It all comes down to money in the end
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A Conversation with James Brock! (Podcast Transcript)
Hey James, how are you?
Hi Tom, I’m good. How are you?
I’m not too bad! Some of my regular listeners might notice some similarities between your voice and the first ever guest on Thinking in English. That’s because James, your younger brother was the first ever guest
Oh, was he the 1st guest? We have really similar voices – A lot of people can’t tell us apart.
Once I released that episode, I got a message from you saying that I should have interviewed you instead because you’re the better brother. Can you explain why are you the better brother?
It wasn’t “Instead” at all – it was more, “now you’ve interviewed Tom, you have to interview me!”
Why did you want to come on Thinking in English?
To be honest, when I listened to your podcast with Tom, it was really good, and it sparked a bit of an interest again in languages. ‘Cause since I’ve been back in the United Kingdom, I think that my interest in languages has lessened.
Living in France and Morocco
We both come from the same small town in the English countryside, and we grew up playing rugby together and, as we got older, going to the pub together. While I lived exclusively in our hometown until I was 18, you had a bit more of an international upbringing.
I grew up in our hometown until I was nine, maybe 10, and then we moved to France, near Perpignan, and I went to a French school. I didn’t know any French at all before going, completely zero. I had done French after school lessons in primary school, but I didn’t pick it up. When I got to France, I was really at zero. I knew nothing, and was thrown straight into a French school
Your parents didn’t send you to private lessons before you went. You had afterschool classes, but not intensive private lessons? They just threw you into this new country?
We might have had someone come to help us with our French. I literally just now remembered that. You helped me unlock a memory.
What was it like going to this new school, in a new language, at such a young age?
It was difficult. I remember my teacher writing up on the blackboard. We had to write our names on workbooks and the teacher wrote up nom, which means name. He put one of the students’ names as an example, and obviously I had no idea. So, I just wrote the students name on my workbook.
When the teacher came up to me, he just laughed, but he was a really nice teacher. Really great teacher. And his English was really good as well.
I think it is important to have a nice teacher who can help you rather than shout at you when you make mistakes. So how long did you live in France?
We were there for three years then we moved to Morocco after that – to Marrakesh
In Morocco, what is the mother tongue? What is the main language?
They have two official languages, actually I think it is three official languages. French and Arabic, but it is Moroccan Arabic. It is different to like Saudi Arabian Arabic. And finally, there’s Berber, which is the local traditional language, which has a really interesting writing system.
Were you mainly using French, or did you learn Arabic as well?
We used French. Our school was French. He went to Victor Hugo school, and that was all French. I picked up a couple words of Arabic, but at home and education it was all French.
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Returning to the UK
Do you still speak French now?
No, I haven’t spoken French for 13 years maybe. I was fluent though!
When I first met you, well I’d met you when I was very young – probably 8 or 9, but when I met you again when you were 13/14, I’m sure you could speak French fluently then.
My English was bad. I actually had a French accent in some parts.
How was it adjusting from living in a French environment, going to a French school, to going back to the UK?
Honestly, it was easy. English school was less work than French school. In French school you had you had less time in school, but I felt you probably had more homework and lessons were harder. English schools seemed more relaxed.
At school, were you learning French again?
I did take French classes. I even went on the French exchange, and I learned Spanish. My first Spanish lesson was actually in France. And it was quite funny – when I came back, I did my first Spanish class and I was quite ahead of everyone else, because I’d learned it from a younger age.
It was very strange because we did an oral test, and the teacher just looked to me and said, why do you speak Spanish with a French accent? She couldn’t understand why I’m speaking English normally, but I spoke Spanish with a really strong French accent. I had to explain to her that I lived in France and Morocco for the last three to four years.
I love languages. I’ve always loved. Since coming back from France I loved learning languages. I find them so interesting. The way they work. I just loved it. I just really enjoyed it.
That’s awesome. I think a lot of people who listen to this podcast also just enjoy learning languages as well.
If we fast forward a couple of years to when we were turning 18, most of our friends left school and went to university. You did something a little bit different.
Teaching English in China
Slightly different, yeah! I finished sixth-form with not the best grades. To be fair, I had really good French grades and really good Spanish grades. Even a good Latin grade, but everything else was really bad.
And I didn’t want to go to university. When I was 15 I did a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language Course).
It was actually my mum who said, “James, why don’t you use that TEFL if you don’t want to go to university? Why don’t you try and find a job with TEFL?”
At the time I was going to go to Morocco to live my mum. Instead, we looked for jobs and I found two jobs teaching English. One was in Spain, which I really wanted, and one was in China. The Chinese one got back to me straight away and that was it. A month later I went off to China to be an English teacher.
I landed to Fujian province, Fuzhou city, which is opposite Taiwan. I was meant to work in Fuzhou, but when I got there, they said “look, we really need a teacher in a city called Ningde.” That is a small city north of Fuzhou and that’s where I went.
I was like, “I don’t mind this. I’m not bothered if I’m here or there. It’s all an experience. Go with the flow.”
It was great. I mean, I didn’t know any Chinese before I went. I didn’t bother to learn any!
What was your first impression when you moved to your new home in China?
The first thing that I remember was just, “Oh my God. There’s so many buildings.” I landed in Fuzhou and compared to other cities, it’s not large. It is a fairly well-known city, and it has a good history, but in terms of scale, it is not in the top 10, top 20, probably top 50 cities.
But it was just construction everywhere and when we drove from the airport into the city there were so many buildings. The person who picked me up said “welcome to China.”
You moved to China, and you were teaching English. What kind of English were you teaching? Who were you teaching at this time?
I was in an English language training school – after school extracurricular learning, which is incredibly popular in China. I taught adults as well. They had an adult class which was cool, I met some interesting people there. There was a guy who designed a bar and we’d go out and drink. It was all good fun to be honest, and the kids were great. I loved it. I loved working there.
I got the opportunity about a year in to go and work at a nuclear power station. Ningde has a power station on an island. So, two days a week I got to commute, take train the high-speed train (which is fantastic, and we could do another podcast on the high-speed train in China – It’s brilliant.)
I took the train to the nuclear power station offices and taught there. And then the next day would get the bus to the island. To be honest, still to this day, I don’t know how I got clearance to go into a nuclear power station. It was one of my favourite experiences from China.
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How did you learn Chinese?
How long did it take before you decided that you need to learn Chinese?
I picked it up when I was working. If you have a lot of Chinese listeners, they’ll know that Fujian province has a really strong accent. It has the most dialects in China. Ningde has its own dialects, and it also has other variations within those dialects. They’re called Min languages. Taiwanese is a Min language as well.
Yeah, Taiwanese is! Or if you go to Malaysia, Indonesia, or anywhere in Southeast Asia where there are Chinese people, often their ancestors came from Fujian.
“Min” means Fujian province – each province in China has an abbreviation. You have the Min River which is the biggest river that goes through for Fujian. And then you have Min Nan which means Southern Min; Min Dong which is Eastern Min, and these are all the names of the dialects.
I picked up Chinese when I was in Ningde, but heavily accented Chinese. The sounds are sort of blended, when I went on to study the language formally I had quite a heavy accent already.
How were you studying then? You say you picked it up, but what were you doing to learn when you when you first arrived? Did you have a textbook? Did you have a tutor, or were you just listening?
I was mainly listening. The school I worked at gave me a tutor, but I think we only ended up doing two or three lessons.
I had a really good friend, Roy, who’s a Chinese science teacher. He had really good English and he helped me pick up some Chinese with another friend. They were helping me because their English was at a good enough level.
When I first moved out, I had to go to restaurants that had just pictures. I have this really funny story. I went to a restaurant, and I looked at pictures. “Oh fried rice. Brilliant that looks great. I’ll ordered that.” So, I pointed to the picture. Then there was another one that looked like lamb chops or pork chops. I picked that and the waiter gave me a strange look.
I sat down. He brings out the fried rice – which was really delicious. Then he brings out duck heads. Roasted duck heads. I ate it. They were quite difficult to eat, but you get a lot of meat on the cheek and the brain and the tongue. And to this day they are one of my favourite Chinese dishes
For a boy from England ducks heads is not something that is generally on the menu in in home cooking
It’s not, but when I went out there, I went with the attitude of trying everything. Getting into the culture. Don’t worry about things. I have a strong stomach anyway, and I’ve never been put off by any food, so I just went with the idea of trying anything.
You inspired me! When I moved to Taiwan a few years ago, I’d heard of you eating all these interesting things in China and Taiwanese food probably has some similarities with Fujin, so I wanted to be the same as you.
I went for the same approach. I would try everything. I’d go to a market with my Taiwanese friends, I’d let them order and tell them to order what they want to eat. And then I would try lots of interesting local delicacies.
That’s a really good way to do it. Get other people to suggest stuff to order and just go for it. Just try anything.
Studying for a Degree at a Chinese University
I can’t remember if you’d come back to the UK for a short vacation or something, and I met you in a pub. I thought you’d been teaching English the whole time you were in China, but it turns out that you had done a degree! You had enrolled in a Chinese university! How did that happen?
Yes, I did a degree. I was surprised! I never wanted to do university, but it was to be there in the future. I needed a degree if I wanted a job other than English teaching. At that time, I wanted to live in China. I thought, well, I need a degree.
The reason I did it, to be honest, was practicality. I just needed a degree to live there in the future. I thought, “well, I might as well do it in Chinese and in China; in something I love and in a place that I love as well.”
What was Chinese university like?
It was interesting, certainly. To be honest, it was a bit of a degree farm
China, like America, the UK and probably most of the world, has degree inflation. Too many people have too many degrees. In Europe and America to get a job now you might need a master’s degree.
And in China, most people have their degree. Most people have a master’s degree. And if you didn’t go to a top university abroad or one of maybe 2 universities in China, you might need a PhD to get the job you want.
I went to a school called Fujian Normal University, and it was very relaxed. Even if you did nothing, you’d probably get the degree. But you could put a lot of work in, if you wanted to work, which is what I did Because I had to pay! I didn’t have a scholarship. I wasn’t allowed one because I came from a country that was seen as wealthier.
In China all exchange and international students studied together. We did Chinese language classes, and I loved the content. The content of the classes was just brilliant. I absolutely loved it. I even used to get invited by my ancient Chinese teacher to go and study in the Chinese student class
In terms of the content and what we actually learned was just brilliant – I adored it. But the structure of the school wasn’t really good for international students
As you were studying at university, your Chinese must have got to a really high level!
I did well at university – I got the outstanding thesis award, was top of my class, and I was offered a masters scholarship at a few top universities! But I turned them down.
My thesis was good. I did work really hard there, and I’d won a few awards and things. But I turned it down because I got offered a job at Huawei in their translation department.
How to Move from Intermediate Language to Advanced English!
To be offered a job at such a big Chinese company, you must have had such a very high level of Chinese. Do you have any tips on how to move from intermediate level to advanced level?
To be honest, it depends on what you mean by “advanced.” If you want to speak fluently, I would say consume media! Just consume any kind of language: consume videos, consumer films, books, news, TV, radio, songs, poems. In my opinion, you’ll never get fluent if you are just doing textbooks.
You were going to bars with your Chinese friends and I’m sure you were getting into conversations. Conversations can lead to really interesting topics that you’re discussing.
I used to coach rugby out there, and our team was 90% Chinese. That really helped with my conversational Chinese and instructional language. Also, I think that you need to find something you enjoy.
I loved a type of comedy in China. It’s a comedy acts with two people; one person is the comic, the teaser, and the other person is the more grounded person. I loved it, but that’s something I really enjoyed, and it helped me learn Chinese. Find something you really enjoy and then learn it in the in in your target language.
Definitely! Enjoying what you’re doing is the easiest way to find motivation to keep doing it. If you’re reading a book that you really like, you’ll want to keep reading it. There’s no point reading a book that you hate and you’re bored by, because you’re not going to find any motivation.
When we say, “advanced English”, I do think it depends on what you mean by “advanced.” There’s fluent. And then there’s understanding a language, which I think is the way to truly, truly know languages. Look at its etymology. Where it comes from? How does it work as a language?
The way I pushed my Chinese to a really high level was by studying its history, studying its grammar rules. Now I think, personally I think grammar rules. You can break them. But it is good to study them.
In terms of pronunciation, if you’re a bit of a language nerd like me, you can look at charts that show where your tongue moves in your mouth. You can look at a chart, look where the tongue is positioned in the mouth, and learn the pronunciation that way.
For a language like Chinese, which is tonal and sounds are essential, it’s incredibly important that you get the tones right or at least recognisable. Tongue position is something that I really struggled with when learning Chinese.
Yeah, but it’s so helpful. You can read a sentence, try and get that sentence perfect with tongue placement. Keep going over and over again. Once you get that one sentence perfect, then you’ll notice your pronunciation will just get better and better with other sentences.
Where is James Now?
You’ve were offered the job at Huawei, so you must be working in China right now, right?
Wrong, it all fell through. I couldn’t get the visa. They changed visa regulations. Any foreigner in China right now will understand the annoyance with Chinese visa regulations. After I graduated that year, they changed it – you had to have a masters from a very well-known university or two years’ experience in that field. I tried other jobs, but again it always came down to visa issues
I came back to the UK and then COVID happened and here I am, still in the UK.
I think I remember you saying that you were about to get onto a plane the day that China shut their borders.
In February 2020, I went to the airport. I had my flight booked through Malaysia. Malaysia had announced just the night before that they would stop all transit flight. So, they turned us around at the at the check in.
I’m in the UK now and no longer a teacher. I’m an instructional designer – I design and develop digital learning solutions.
If anyone would like any digital learning solutions or any kind of educational tools designed, I’ll put a link for James is work in in the description of the podcast. And if anyone wants to hire one of the top graduates from a Chinese university, you can reach out to reach out to me and I’ll put you in contact with James.
Oh, don’t get my hopes up!
Thank you so much for coming on James.
I’d like to really thank you, Tom. I remember you coming to me about a year and a half ago about this podcast. I said I think I said straight away that it was good. This was different. Being a language learner, I’ve listened to lot of language podcasts – and this is a good one. It is really an honour to be to be a guest!
That was my conversation with James Brock! I have to say a big thank you to James – he has supported Thinking in English for nearly 2 years. In fact, I asked him for some feedback in November/December 2020 when I was only getting 40 or 50 streams a week (and most of them were me checking that the episode was uploaded).
Unlike some of my other guests, James didn’t really have anything to promote or a reason to come on the show, other than that he loves learning language! And I think we can all learn something from James’s approach to studying and to living in another country. As well as throwing himself into the local culture, James also threw himself into in depth study of Chinese. In doing so, he was able to have a deep understanding of the language and its use!
James also inspired me to learn languages. I remember going to his house one New Year’s Eve, James had returned to the UK for a vacation, and noticing a book of ancient Chinese characters. If James could learn Chinese, then there was no reason why I couldn’t learn Japanese or Chinese or any other language. And the same is true for you!
Have you studied the history of English in depth? Do you know why certain English grammar rules, pronunciation patterns, and word meanings developed? How do you study English?
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Do you want to Think in English?
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