November 20, 2010

Studying Mandarin - part I.

At the language site I used to post my entries, I also held a Mandarin journal, where I tracked my progress, but I eventually stopped writing it because of several issues, the main reason probably being the fact, that often during the course of learning Chinese I came to a point, where I thought I had come up with a brilliant theory on how to learn this language correctly, thought I had found a suitable technique or had figured out a rule, that I thought I had interpreted correctly (be it phonetics, or just an overall learning strategy) and about a week later I realized I was completely wrong. Then came up with a new brilliant theory that I changed a week later again. I decided that until I would personally be satisfied with the way I speak, understand, read and write Chinese, I would stop making any further conclusions not to mention give people advice on how to learn Chinese because I didn't know how to learn it myself. This post is sort of a summary of my techniques. I am also writing this post now as a record entry to see what I was thinking about Chinese at this point and maybe a read for anyone who would be interested to read about one man's never ending struggles. This is my attempt at speaking Chinese on 20.10.2010:

It is far from perfect, but at least I have a feeling that I am getting somewhere. It was my second recording attempt, I used a part I thought was decent enough to be posted and I edited only the duration. It took me forever to upload this sound file. I couldn’t upload it on this site for some strange reason and it took me a while to find out how to do it elsewhere.

To make a long story short, almost everything I wrote in my log is crap. I don't know what the best way to learn this language is. Every time I thought I had it figured out was probably just some temporary joy which was the result of overcoming something that I thought was a decisive problem back then and I changed my mind two weeks later again.

I know, that I would probably have never advanced with Chinese to the level I am at now, had I not come to Taiwan, so one of the few things I am sure of is that everyone who is serious with Chinese and wants to save time, nerves and preserve self confidence should go to a Chinese speaking country, live there for a while and figure the language out on his own. In my humble opinion and experience of others, this language just cannot be learned outside of a Chinese speaking country and no book or class will teach you this language to a level I think is satisfactory (depending on what your aim is of course) so even in China the most important thing in my opinion is interaction with people, TV, radio and not the language classes. The language is too different and difficult for me and I can only agree with what Steve Kaufman and others said, that you should learn it like a child learns his first language, memorize everything the Chinese say sound by sound along with the hand gestures and facial expressions. I know there will be many many people disagreeing with me but this is my conclusion after 3 years of intense studies.

About three years ago around this time I started studying Chinese and almost gave up several times. To cut myself some slack I have to admit that for the first 6 months I was doing something that can only distantly be called effective language studying, because the classes we had at our university focused predominantly on theory and not practice. After 6 months I started having regular language exchange sessions with 2 of my Chinese friends, but it just wasn't enough. The real difference came when I moved to Taiwan so it took me almost 2 and a half years (1 and a half years in Prague, 1 year in Taiwan) to get to a level in Chinese where I was at least somewhat satisfied.

I've learned some languages before, but compared to Chinese they all seem like dialects of the same language to me. I cannot speak for everyone, maybe there are absolute geniuses out there, who can learn Chinese in 3 months on their own with the help of Skype and satellite television, but based on the experience of my friends and my own, Chinese cannot be learned to what I feel is a satisfactory level under one year and definitely not outside a Chinese speaking country. There are simply way too many things in the language that need a lot of time to develop on its own in the brain and way too many things that have deep roots in the culture that one will not be able to understand unless one sees them.

It's true that people say that Chinese grammar is easy, but it's only easy in a westerner's perception of grammar (tenses, genders, declinations and so on). But were it really so easy, why are there so many people speaking Chinese completely wrong? I'm not really pointing to pronunciation here, but rather to sentence structures.

True, there are no genders or noun declinations, but there are hundreds of sentence constructions with inner systems that need to be memorized, because if you don't use them like you should and try to improvise way too often you will not be understood at all. There are rules on how these constructions are formed, but there are so many of them, that there are almost as many real sentences, so you can just go ahead and memorize every sentence for every situation separately instead of learning the rules for the structures. These structures then have units that can be substituted, so what I personally did was I learned these sentences by heart, got the hang of how to use the substituent parts and then improvised with these sentence blocks.

Of course there are more “universal” rules in the Chinese language like post verbal modifiers, which can make your life easier, but they cover only a very minimal portion of the whole system and so I really think (at this point… might change my mind next month….) that learning a sentence block by a sentence block as they are, is probably best way to go. At least this is my conclusion after trying almost everything else.


  1. Chinese is quite a different language and even Chinese people say the same thing differently influenced by dialects. Only if you merely talk with presenters or hosts working for radio or TV,accounting for a small portion of Chinese speakers can YOU feel this is real mandarin and still there are differences between their personal preference. So please stopping frustrating yourself. The most important point is to be understood and then try to be more authentic.Your Chinese has been great to me. I suggest you write down your feelings and experiences so that people can compare with theirs. They might be very useful.

  2. Dear Xiaxia ye,

    thank you for your comment.

    Simply being understood is not a goal enough for many students of foreign languages, including me :)

    When it comes to Mandarin, I think a lot of people would like to achieve a level, where they are completely free in the language, are rarely restricted by any part of it in their daily lives (whether it is watching movies, talking to people or preparing legal contracts) and would like to be mistaken for native speakers all the time.

    I belong to this group. There are some foreign languages where I manage to do this and the process of getting to that level has been undoubtedly much less stressful and difficult than it has been with Mandarin, simply because there are so many things to learn and understand and this is what the frustration arises from.

    I don't think I will be happy or satisfied until I have achieved that level and I think a lot of students can relate to that.