M A N D A R I N   S U P E R S T A R



David Robertson

University of Auckland


Age: 22

Based: Auckland

Level: HSK 5 (Upper Intermediate)

David started learning Mandarin Chinese eight years ago in high school. Today, he is an undergraduate studying Chinese and Spanish at the University of Auckland. He is a dedicated language learner who also speaks Spanish.

David practices Mandarin listening by watching TV dramas and speeches. He has created his own Anki vocabulary set and loves to talk with native speakers, which has helped him make many Chinese friends.


In 2017 David studied Chinese at Yunnan University for several weeks on the Prime Minister's Scholarship for Asia.


When did you start learning Chinese? What inspired you to take up the Language?

I began learning Chinese roughly eight years ago in high school. I had already learned French as a child which made me want to branch out into more languages. Given how widespread Chinese is, it seemed like a practical choice.

Tell us about your Chinese language learning journey? What has been the most unexpected or rewarding part of the experience?

I had an enjoyable experience learning it in high school, before picking up the pace in university and rising from an intermediate level to an advanced one. After receiving the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for Asia, I spent several weeks at Yunnan University in Kunming city in 2017 studying Chinese. Otherwise I have spent three years at the University of Auckland learning it.

What opportunities have opened up for you as a result of your Chinese speaking ability?

When it comes to understanding how Chinese natives truly feel about their homelands, cultures, and societies, my Chinese has given me unprecedented access, without the barriers of translation apps and so on. When I worked at a private music school in Auckland, my proficiency meant I could better connect with my students and their parents, many of whom were of Mandarin-speaking backgrounds. More recently, working as a volunteer English teacher, I have been able to teach English through Mandarin to my Chinese students, immensely accelerating their learning (and my own).

What are the most striking differences between Chinese and Kiwi culture?

In New Zealand, we generally assess the value of each food from a scientific basis. However, foods in Chinese culture are traditionally grouped into certain categories of

“hot” and “cold”. Eating too many mandarins might make your body’s internal “heat” rise too high, while similar items like oranges can cause the opposite. Both cases are said to lead to their own respective illnesses. More broadly, this concept has links to Yin and Yang, which encourages personal cultivation through moderation, particularly in diet.

Another difference is the more distinct social hierarchy in Chinese culture. Everyone, from the restaurant owner to your boss to your teachers, has a specific term in which they are to be politely addressed. Indeed, as a student you would always yield to your teacher, who would always follow their boss’ lead. In New Zealand, in contrast, we might be more inclined to call many strangers simply “mate”.

What do you like most about Chinese culture?

I like the cultural significance of inviting others out for a meal. In Chinese tradition, asking others out to eat is an indication that you will cover their bills. Then, when they next invite you out, they will reciprocate the favour. This custom is a great approach to avoid any confusion or awkwardness around expenses, and a kind way to show your appreciation for those you consider close.

Why do you think other New Zealanders should learn Chinese? Do you have any tips for those thinking of taking up the language?

“​If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Just as Nelson Mandela once said, knowing another’s native tongue allows a unique relationship to blossom between them and us.


The Sino-New Zealand relationship has already flourished thanks to trade, cultural exchange, and immigration. Kiwis learning Chinese is the vehicle for cementing these ties and establishing new and meaningful social connections with Mandarin-speakers. Finally, in the west we hold the expectation that foreigners who come to our nation should be able to speak English. Perhaps it’s time we applied that same principle to ourselves when it comes to Mandarin.

As for New Zealanders interested in the language: now is the best time to begin learning. Us Kiwis are blessed to be surrounded by Chinese speakers and universities and institutions offering Mandarin. Never before have there been as many opportunities and resources in this country to study it. At the end of the day, no one looks back and regretfully says, “darn, I really regret knowing Mandarin.”