Mastering Mandarin & Shanghainese: Inside The Mind of a Polyglot
Covered head to toe in tattoos and frequently found sporting Oakland Raiders branded clothing, UK-born Jayme Lawman is far from the stereotypical image of a Chinese language polyglot. While he’s now well known for his TV appearances, YouTube cameos and hosting of Shanghai Sharks basketball games in both Mandarin and Shanghainese, it’s easy to forget that when Lawman first stepped off the plane nine years ago he knew next to nothing about the languages that have afforded him so much today. To find out how the former furniture salesman went from only knowing “ni hao” to testing Chinese people on their language ability I sat down with Lawman at a Shanghai restaurant earlier this year following the release of his wildly popular Monkey Abroad video.
One of the first things that immediately stands out about Lawman is his seemingly subconscious ability to shift accents and pronunciation depending on his audience. When co-hosting online videos with Americans, Lawman speaks in a mostly American accent and yet as he sits opposite me, a Brit, he shifts seamlessly from an American lilt into his native British pronunciation. The same thing happens as he turns to the waitress to order his dinner. While most foreigners unwittingly speak Mandarin using their native accent, Lawman is able to throw off this linguistic shackle, pronouncing words as a local would, tones ‘n’ all.
Lawman hosting a Shanghai Sharks game
“If you want to learn Chinese properly you really do have to get the tones,” says Lawman as a plate full of duck arrives at our table. “I struggled at first,” he admits before voicing his frustration at how his classmates would always seem to get the tones exactly right. While many opt to give up on proper pronunciation during their studies, claiming tones are “not important” and that “context is key,” Lawman knuckled down, shifting his approach from memorizing to mimicking. “I just started trying to copy Chinese people instead of memorising which character had what tone,” he says. Through this seemingly minor shift in approach Lawman has been able to consistently improve his pronunciation to the stage where most locals he speaks to on the phone today genuinely believe they’re speaking to another Chinese native.
Lawman later adopted the same mimicking approach when it came to learning Shanghainese. While he admits he was initially reluctant to learn anything about the local dialect, fearing it would get mixed up in his head with Mandarin, he later began to come around to the idea. “I had some friends who would use the odd Shanghainese word in conversation and I’d just repeat and copy whatever they said,” says Lawman. Those same friends would encourage him to take on Shanghainese, telling Lawman “woah, you speak better Shanghainese than you do Mandarin!”
While it’s clear that Lawman has an undeniable talent for mimicking speech, anyone who’s studied a language before will tell you that attaining any level of fluency is a long hard slog, and for Lawman it was no different. Throughout his four years of formal Chinese language education – one year on a Chinese language course, and three years doing a bachelor’s degree in International Business and Trade – Lawman was consistently presented with challenges, be it from the constant repetition of vocabulary, the robotic texts he was expected to read in class or through the courses he was required to sit. “Accounting in Chinese,” says Lawman as he smiles and shakes his head, “there is nothing more boring than that.”
Lawman running the soundboard at a Shanghai Sharks game
Luckily for Lawman, while there were motivational challenges in the classroom, living in China presented him with other opportunities to improve, be it through chatting up girls on QQ or simply watching dubbed Japanese cartoons. “Labixiaoxin (Shin Chan) was one of the first shows I’d watch when I started learning,” admits Lawman. “It was dubbed in Chinese, had Chinese subtitles and because it was for kids it was very simple. I used to sit there and pause the show if I didn’t know a word. I’d look it up, write it down and start again until I found another word that I didn’t know.”
By the time Lawman had graduated into his second year of study, he’d moved on from cartoons to Chinese movies and his passion for classroom study had been reignited by a professor with a penchant for traditional characters. “We had this teacher from Dongbei and he loved traditional Chinese. He taught us the history behind the switch to simplified and I told him I wanted to learn traditional characters. From then on whenever he wrote a character on the board, he’d write it in simplified and then in traditional for me. He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.”
While Lawman had managed to come on leaps and bounds in just a few years of Mandarin study, the UK native didn’t begin to seriously take on Shanghai’s local dialect until he finally managed to secure a sit down meal with his future in-laws.
Lawman coaching his school's basketball team
“When I first had dinner with my wife’s parents all of them started speaking Shanghainese, together. I had no idea what they were saying so would say (in Mandarin) ‘Ayi, I’m sorry but could you speak Mandarin?’ She’d apologise and swap but after speaking two sentences of Mandarin and she’d jump back to Shanghainese. That’s when I realised that they weren’t going to change for me so I’d have to change for them. That’s where I stopped fighting it.”
“Studying Shanghainese was just like learning Mandarin again basically. Trying to guess what people were saying, trying to get involved in the conversation a bit, throwing the odd word out there. My mother-in-law would be arguing with her husband in Shanghainese and I’d just copy it to make her laugh. Just try and practice as much as I could,” says Lawman, smiling. “She speaks Shanghainese to me all the time now. Most of the time I reply in Shanghainese, sometimes in Mandarin.”
Watch Lawman speak Shanghainese in the video below (VPN):
Since teaching himself Shanghainese Lawman has appeared on several TV programs, including the Shanghainese language show 第25小时-寻找上海话. During this appearance, Lawman met a teacher who made him even more grateful for opting to learn traditional Chinese characters back at the start of his university education.
“For that show there was a guy who taught kids Shanghainese and while we were filming I noticed the teachers notes were written in traditional Chinese. I said to him ‘oh you write in traditional Chinese as well?’ he surprised me and said, ‘yeah, if you want to write in Shanghainese you have to write in traditional characters.’" The teacher then went on to teach Lawman how, like Cantonese, Shanghainese has its own written language that relies on traditional characters.
When I push Lawman about why Shanghainese needs to be written in traditional characters his eyes light up as he walks around the table to pull up a seat next to me. He explains that many characters used in Shanghainese were lost during the transition from traditional text to simplified, pointing to Shanghai’s Fuxing Lu as an example. In traditional script the Fu in Fuxing Lu (復興路) is written as 復, it has a completely different meaning to the fu used in a word like fuxi (複習 - to review) and yet in simplified text the two different characters are both written as 复.
Lawman then proceeds to pull up the Shanghainese language section of Wikipedia to show me how the dialect is meant to be written. He explains how today younger Shanghainese speakers who have only learnt the dialect through chatting with their family are changing they way they write Shanghainese, using characters that sound like the spoken form of the language. For example, in Shanghainese, people from Shanghai are referred to as “Shanghai nin”. Traditionally this has always been written as 上海人 (the same way as it’s written in Mandarin), however many of the city’s younger generation are substituting the 人 (pronounced ‘ren’ in Mandarin) for 宁 because it’s pronounced ning in Mandarin and therefore can be read the same way that Shanghainese is spoken.
While Lawman is undoubtedly a traditionalist when it comes to Chinese, it’s clear he’s not afraid to have fun with language as well. Earlier this year he headed out onto Shanghai’s East Nanjing Road to film a video testing Chinese people’s Mandarin pronunciation and writing skills. Since the video was first posted in April it’s been viewed almost a million times. “Those were words that we learnt school,” says Lawman as I ask him about the inspiration for the video. “Our teachers liked to teach us things that Chinese people would get wrong. If they taught us a new word they’d say ‘be careful because Chinese people read this as this but it’s actually pronounced like this.’ I’d go home and test my Chinese friends or wife and if they’d get it wrong I’d have fun correcting them.”
Lawman testing Chinese people in the Monkey Abroad Video (below)
As we begin to wrap up and ask for the bill I ask Lawman if he has any advice for prospective Mandarin or Shanghainese learners. “Just learn basic words, take it in, don’t block it out. It starts with a basic mindset of just taking it in,” he tells me. Also, “if you come to China and think ‘oh I don’t really care about the tones’, a lot of foreigners will use that as an excuse, but it’s a fundamental part of the language and the tones do change the meanings of words.” When I ask about Chinese language movies and tv shows he thinks would be good for learners he struggles a bit, admitting that there are very few movies that he finds interesting from either China or Taiwan. After a while though he suggests 人在囧途, 夜店, and 唐山大地震.
After paying the bill we both walk out into the cold night air and I ask Lawman if he has any plans to do any more videos given the success of April’s Monkey Abroad video. He smiles and tells me, “When I’ve got time I’ll do videos, they’re a lot of fun but I’ve got a kid, I don’t want to do them all the time.”
You can follow Jayme Lawman on Weibo here, and watch the viral Monkey Abroad clip below (VPN).