Why You Should Use Pop Culture to Practice Chinese (From a Bilingual School Alumni)
Updated: Nov 3
I attended the first Chinese-English bilingual immersion school in the USA. Founded in 1981 and located in San Francisco, it is called Chinese American International School (CAIS for short). CAIS is only an elementary and middle school, so students graduate at age 14. Below are my thoughts, originally written for other CAIS Alumni, on how they can maintain their Chinese proficiency after leaving the classroom.
Why is it so hard to learn Chinese and even harder to maintain fluency? I believe there are two factors: Exposure and interest. For CAIS alumni, most of us lose exposure to Chinese after graduating from CAIS. For current CAIS students, Chinese learning ends when they step out of the classroom. This is a big issue, but it’s really just a product of our environment. We live in America, and most of us don’t speak Chinese with family or friends. How then, can we engage with Chinese in our daily lives? My answer is pop culture.
My Story: I graduated from CAIS in 2010. Like many CAIS alumni, there were a few years after graduating where I forgot much of my Chinese. It was extremely frustrating. I asked myself, what’s the best way to re-engage with Chinese? I eventually did so in 3 ways: continuing Chinese classes in college, studying abroad in Taiwan, and immersing myself in Chinese-language pop culture. Pop culture is the most accessible of those 3 ways, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on in this piece.
Why Pop Culture Works: When learning any foreign language, you need to have strong enough ties to the language, the culture, and the people. That’s what pop culture does so well: it makes us feel connected with other speakers of that language and keeps us wanting more. Engaging in foreign language pop culture, almost becoming obsessed with it, has been proven to be a great way to learn language. I’ve met people in China who learned near perfect English just from watching American TV. They watched “Friends” hundreds of times and could probably recite every line. Another example is Korean language, which has prompted thousands of dedicated Kpop stans to learn the language of their favorite idols. Jungshook.
Where to Begin: Many young people looking to engage with Chinese pop culture may not know where to begin. Chinese pop culture was previously not very popular in the West, even among Chinese Americans. But that’s all changing. Recently, there’s been a huge rise in Chinese artists trying to bring their music and culture worldwide, and I couldn’t be more excited.
My Tips: My trick to studying Chinese through pop culture is to just have fun with it. Find content that you truly love; it won’t work if you force it. Furthermore, engaging with pop culture is a social activity, so get your friends into it so you can talk about it with them. When Chinese becomes a fun part of our daily lives, that’s when we become truly immersed in the language.
Below are my top recommendations of music and video content to get you started.
My Top 5 Music Artists
Check out my the corresponding Spotify Playlist.
LAY (张艺兴). I linked his song ‘莲 (Lit)’, which does a great job at blending Chinese elements with modern hip-hop appeal.
Kris Wu (吴亦凡). I linked a song where he sings about his affection for noodles. What’s not to love?
VAVA. Her upbeat song “My New Swag” was featured in the movie “Crazy Rich Asians”.
ZTAO (黄子韬). I linked his song “Stay Open”, which is a very catchy remix of the original Diplo song.
Jackson Wang (王嘉尔). His song “Okay” will have you feeling good by the end!
My Top 5 TV Shows and YouTubers
Rap of China. A competition show of rising Chinese-language rappers. This is my personal favorite.
Hot Blood Dance Crew. A competition show for China’s hip-hop dance groups.
MYBY. An American and a Brit living in China share comedic perspectives on life.
Jared. A Canadian living in China makes fun of himself and other “lao wai” in China.
Kevin in Shanghai. A former English teacher in China makes comedic videos to bridge understanding between the East and West.
About the Author
Bonnie Young is a member of the CAIS Alumni Council and graduated CAIS in 2010. She went on to attend San Leandro High School then UC Berkeley, where she majored in Economics with a Minor in Chinese. During college, she studied abroad at the University of Hong Kong and National Taiwan University. Currently as a finance professional, she uses spoken and written Chinese to communicate with partners in Greater China.
Bonnie writes translations and commentaries of top Chinese tech news on her blog, Amplified. She is currently looking for a growth equity or VC role in the Bay Area. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover photo taken by Bonnie at the Taoyuan International Baseball Stadium in Taiwan.