I’ll be Chewbacca, Hǎo bù hǎo?

Even though I live in China, it’s sometimes hard to find someone to speak Chinese with me.

I’m not talking about all the “duōshao qián” 多少钱 and “yes, I’ve eaten” exchanges. I mean someone I can really stretch my vocabulary muscles with and speak with for a long period of time about some subject other than buying/eating stuff.

One of the challenges is that I’m always aware of problem 2: many of my Chinese friends want to practice English. I don’t mean that I think my friends are only hanging out with me to use me. But I still feel bad asking them to “waste” their chance to speak to a real live foreigner and improve their command of the lingua franca, the tool for future success.

So now I’m using what I call the “Chewbacca Method” that puts us in a shuāngyíng 双赢 situation: I speak only Chinese, you speak only English. If we want to practice listening comprehension, we switch roles.

If you’ve never seen Star Wars, Chewbacca is that “walking carpet” that growls and yodels at Harrison Ford for the whole movie. Ford has (miraculously) learned to understand Chewie’s language, but can’t (or won’t) speak it himself, so he just replies in English. Chewie (for some reason) has no trouble understanding English but is (perhaps anatomically) hard pressed to utter an English phoneme himself.

This is very much what the Chewbacca method would sound like to an outside observer. Here’s a little snatch of a conversation between me and one of my Chinese friends. For some reason we were just talking about pizza (which he pronounces like the Chinese word bǐsà 比萨).


(transcript for Chinese only)

nà nǐ xiànzài qù gànmǎ?
So what are you going to do now?

chī shénme?
Eat what?

nǐ zìjǐ zuò háishì nǐ chūqù chī?
Will you make your own (lunch) or go out to eat?

hǎo, zǒu ba.
, 走吧.
Ok, let’s go.

I’ve got a few friends now who have agreed to be in Chewie mode pretty much all the time and we love it.

I have a feeling this is especially useful if you’re at an advanced level. If you’ve found you’re default language with informants and friends really should be Chinese, but you know they still want to speak English, it’s an excellent middle road.

Oh, and if anyone has a sound clip of Han Solo and Chewbacca interracting, I’d love to add that to this post.

22 Replies to “I’ll be Chewbacca, Hǎo bù hǎo?”

  1. So I’m a huge Star Wars nerd, and the reason Chewbacca can’t speak English (or Galaxy Basic, as it’s referred to in the movies) is because he lacks the correct vocal cords to pronounce some of the sounds needed. Although, English is the de facto language of the galaxy, so it’s important that he at least knows how to understand it.

    Alright, enough of the geek talk. I’ve never heard of this method of conversing in both languages, but it’s brilliant! I’ll make sure I try to use it next time I get the chance! Thanks!

  2. I TOTALLY identify with everything you wrote. I have the EXACT same problems as you in Beijing. Sometimes Chinese people think foreigners – especially Americans – are crazy for wanting to learn Chinese since they are all killing themselves learning English. I will try your tips!

    By the way, I was just reading this article about how your brain literally morphs when you learn Chinese. Now I know why I keep getting headaches! Check it out:


  3. Another method (for intermediates?) is a language tandem: 1 hour Chinese only, 1 hour English only. Switch next time. The one for which the current language is foreign, is responsible for content (brings a book or sth). Very slow for learning new stuff, but very good for practising.

  4. I did this in Sichuan too. The thing is my Chinese is advanced enough that sometimes people forgot I was a native English speaker, so a lot of the time I just spoke Chinese with everyone all the time. It was great practice!

  5. Ironically finding people to speak to in Chinese can be easier outside of China. I had the same situation in Taiwan, and found it frustrating. You’re nice to be understanding though about the motivation and need for people to practice English. In Taiwan they were known as “English Pirates” and to tell you the truth I began to avoid them after a while. You can always to do the “all right then, you speak in English and I speak in Chinese” method but you won’t have the benefit of learning nuance from hearing a native speaker interact with you. I can understand if the person’s level of English is much higher and it just makes more sense for communication. But your Chinese sounds advanced. I think the default language should be the local one. So, if someone here in the U.S. switches the conversation to English to practice (I work in a language school) I always stick to English because I know they came a long way to learn. I have a section in my book about this (and will rewrite because I think the English Pirate thing comes off sounding mean). I think it is one of the biggest barriers to getting beyond the beginner or lower intermediate levels in Mandarin. The only solution: keep some friends who want/need to practice their English but mostly foster friendships with people who don’t mind speaking their native language. (By the way, I had the same problem in Spain, until I reached a higher level in the language… It made me think “everyone complains that Americans only speak English, but then you go abroad to learn another language and they won’t let you learn it from them – the only exception, in my experience, being France, they LOVE to speak their language, and I never had anyone switch to English if the conversation began in French)

  6. I LOVE it – English Pirate. That’s a keeper!!! No offense, but I’m so happy I’m not in this boat alone. For a long time I kept thinking it was just me or that I was doing something wrong. As much as I love them, Chinese people can be really selfish.

  7. The “Chewbacca Method” is actually quite the opposite of the Star Wars characters. For it to truly mimic the characters, you would have to speak in your native tongue (English) and your partner speak in his/hers (Chinese).

    One of my professors is an American man married to a Taiwanese woman. Interestingly, when asked, he told that his home life consists of this very thing. His wife speaks in Chinese, and he responds in English. He has even admitted that his spoken Chinese is not as good as it used to be simply because he doesn’t use it; his Chinese listening ability is second-nature to him.

    I’m wary of using the Reverse Chewbacca Method (the method you’ve described) in my own practices because it seems to show a great disparity in the level of ability. In your clip, it is clear that you are anticipating his words while he is struggling to phrase his own English properly. To put it another way: you respond immediately while your partner uses many delay-“words” such as Errr, Really, Maybe, Yeah.

    The clip sounds like it is in a classroom setting, and your partner is actually a student. His English is quite good (which may or may not be a testament to your teaching ability), but from this small clip I get the impression that he is not confident in his Yingwen de fayin 英文的发音. While it helps to hear his idea repeated in his native tongue (signalling a correct meaning), it may further help to repeat back in English, similar to your Parrot People blog entry ( http://laowaichinese.net/parrot-people-help-my-tones.htm ). “So you think you will go eat? What will you eat?” Being at the level he is, he should recognize the subtle differences in the way you’ve spoken and in the way he’s spoken, and use that to further improve.

  8. This also reminds me of the Chinese guy in Ocean’s 11 (the new one). He speaks in Chinese and everyone else talks to him in English.

    I used to have a clip of Chewie laughing and Han saying “Laugh it up, fuzzball.” Classic!

  9. With regards to this method, I have to say that I disagree. While you may indeed be practising your spoken skills, you most certainly will not be practising your listening skills, which are more important.

    As for the English Pirates, I either ignore them, or get angry and tell them that I am French. That usually shuts them up.

  10. I’ve found that casually throwing in a “I think Tai**n should be independent” in Chinese normally gets the Chinese language flowing no matter where you are in the mainland.
    Same with “Ti**t.”

    If you are actually IN Ti**t or inner Mongolia or Xi****ng, you can even actually find someone who agrees with you. If not, brace yourself for a lively evening!

    [edited to keep my site from being blocked]

  11. It’s pretty natural for people to switch to their best shared language. Why put on fetters by insisting on speaking a particular language.

    It really doesn’t take a lot of time focusing on a language to make significant improvements. I’d suggest watching half an hour of television a day, or sticking on a podcast while working out, or doing an HSK test once a day. That is usually enough to get constant exposure to new language if you don’t get it at work/school/wherever.



  12. Damn! Forgot you people are actually IN China and there are so many words you are not allowed to write, even in a blog comment. Another reason to live in Hong Kong.

    Well about the language thing; if you can get onto 面書

    please watch this film which shows my trouble learning Cantonese over the last … at least 16 years. The film is in two parts.


  13. Hang on … can you even get on Y**Tu** in China? Or should I say Ch***. I’ve been at it for about 15 years now. Lived in HK for almost 20 years. I still have people applauding as if I’m a poodle which can ride a bicycle, every time I say “你好。。。。

  14. Albert, I love the Chewbacca concept – very memorable.

    In terms of my conversations, I find that I tend to start speaking Mandarin with my Chinese friends as long as I can … and when I run out of vocab, we switch naturally into English and carry on from there.

    What would you call that??

  15. I think this method is pretty much useless. You just speak to a person who cares only about the “correctness” of the next thing he/she is going to reply in english, so basically is like talking to a wall. No correction = no improvement

  16. AAC! (attention all commenters): mass response below to make up for going on vacation.
    (This will also double as a test of whether WordPress has a limit to how long a single comment can be.)

    Thanks for the tips about Star Wars. Nice to know that English is just going to be called “Basic” in the future (seems more appropriate since so many people outside England speak it now)

    Thanks for the link. I would have liked a LITTLE more detail and explanation as to what the change really is. If more grey matter means my brain is more tired when speaking Chinese because I’ve got to keep track of those darn tones, then yes, I agree. My brain has changed.

    Yep. That’s a good one too.

    Erick Garia,
    You’re living the dream man. If anyone wants to contact him and find out where he is, that’s the place to go to learn Chinese (although…it seems Sichuan might be a listening comprehension nightmare).

    I hope that’s not mean. I call them “Yingwen Bandits” in my book. Yikes! Better wake up the legal department.

    You’re right about native languages being reversed. I called myself Chewbacca because I’m just imagining my mom or someone listening in on this, i.e. I’m the one saying gibberish. And it’s very kind of you to be concerned about my friend’s English, but I should say that was not a very good representative sample of his English ability. I just did a “quick ‘n’ dirty” recording on the spur of the moment because I just wanted to show an example of the two languages interacting. I’ve got a few other friends who I use the Chewbacca method with as well but I couldn’t get recordings of them in time for this post (you know what a hurry I’m always in to post new things) 😉

    Obviously, just speaking and listening Chinese all the time is better. I’m just looking for a solution to when that’s not possible (or preferable) with your Chinese friends/associates. There’s no ignoring the fact that when most Chinese people see a foreigner they think: “now THERE’S a chance to practice English.” That’s why kids get shoved at us and told to “Speak English! Go!”

    Hahaha! Yes! Brad Pit (amazingly) uses the Chewbacca method in that movie.

    trevelyan (David),
    Your right. If communication is the goal, the language used should be the best shared one. But if language practice is the goal, you can artificially “put fetters on” for the sake of improvement. But that’ll be hard work (or at least boring) for the one who’s a higher level in that language (i.e. the native speaker) so some compensation is in order (see here for more about compensation).

    Hahaha! Yes! Censor every**ing! (YouTube is not a “bad” word as far as I know.) Too bad we can’t see that film. In reference to the Poodle Phenomenon, I’m constantly amazed at HOW LONG I can speak with someone in Chinese and then still, at the end of the conversation, it will dawn on them and they’ll exclaim with genuine surprise and delight, “You speak Chinese!” not “you’re Chinese is really good” or anything like that.

    William Fitzgerald,
    I guess I’m up to 4 years this month. How shijian flies!

    I love that you’d like a name for that. Um…ok, since you put me on the spot, how about the “I swim as long as I can and when I get tired I climb into the boat with everyone else” method? I’m sure someone else can come up with a better name.

    Who said Chewbacca and Han can’t correct each other? When I do this with my friends, I’m constantly correcting their English and they’re correcting my Chinese. It’s never 100% avoiding speaking your own native language (at least when I’ve done it it hasn’t been). I’m big on accuracy too and I suppose it’s up to each speaker how much accuracy correction they want to incorporate in this (and really every) language practice activity.

    Whew! If you read all those comments and you were really just looking for a reply to you, sorry about that, but you deserve a T-shirt or gold star or something.

  17. Just got onto this webpage and have to say I quite like it!

    Now on the topic:
    It’s a cute name, but I think from a learning perspective it’s not a good idea. I have/had a couple of language partners with whom I will proceed the way Ingo suggested: one hour Chinese, one hour German. I even do this with my best Chinese friend whenever we agree on having a proper lesson. And I think it’s much better to be immersed in just one language at a time. I find myself picking up new phrases from other people’s talk all the time and I would really miss these opportunities to learn vocabulary in its context.

    Besides, my best discussions with my Chinese friends are always in Chinese because they are more comfortable speaking their language, I can completely understand their ideas and express mine with a little help. I haven’t met any English pirates until now, in fact, for me it’s the other way round: I accompanied some friends to an English corner and met another girl there. After the lesson, when she heard me talking Chinese, she’d happily switch to Chinese instead of using the “real foreinger live” opportunity.

  18. I’ve heard A LOT about this phenomenon but have honestly never really experienced it in the 12 or so years I’ve been learning Chinese. But then again in that period I was only in China for a short time. The rest of the time I’ve been in various cities in Australia which are abundant in Mandarin speakers. In these cities I find Chinese people are almost TOO eager to speak in Chinese and it can be a little exhausting. 😛 When I eventually go back to China I’ll see if this phenomenon happens to me as well. Worst comes to worst though I can just hire a tutor at very cheap rates. (Unlike here!)

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