Despite the Chinese government’s concerns that not enough foreigners are learning Chinese, more and more of us are cracking out the textbooks (if only once or twice a week) and struggling with the crazy tones and characters of the Chinese language.
Having spent, I’m embarrassed to say, over three years (which is really just six semesters, and since semesters are only 3-4 months, really more like two years?) studying Mandarin in the US and in China, I’m no longer convinced that learning Chinese as an adult is practical.
If you have children, however, bring them to China so their tiny developing brains can soak up one of the world’s hardest languages like a sponge. A sponge that will thank you later in life, and you in turn will thank, as you sit in the cushy nursing home your child is paying for with their high-powered global job.
However, as much as I find learning Chinese extremely hard, if you’re living in China or planning on living in China for a decent period of time, you should study Chinese. Here are eight reasons why.
If you can’t buy food, you will die. If you can’t find the bathroom when you really really need to, you’ll wish you were dead. If you can pick numbers out of a conversation between a real estate agent and your landlord you’re less likely to have to pay a super-inflated price. You’ll perhaps get away with just plain old inflated.
Learning Chinese is of course a great way of getting far more familiar with the natives. If you’re really interested in someone, surely you want to be able to understand them better. It will also come in mighty handy when your significant other’s family comes to stay, which at some point they will. If you can’t speak any Chinese, communication won’t be so much strained as non-existent.
Sometimes Mandarin seems relatively benign: there are no conjugations and barely any tenses; verbs don’t change depending on who you’re talking to. You don’t have to agonise over the politics of how to conjugate a verb when you’re talking to a group of 10 women and one man, for example.
So why is Chinese so hard? Mandarin has four tones (really four plus a neutral tone, so more like 5, and when you put certain tone combinations together the tones switch or one gets cut in half…) but they’re hard. Few foreigners ever nail even spoken Mandarin, and those that do are usually silently loathed by other foreigners (Canadian freak Da Shan being the most extreme example).
Some of the time, however, learning Chinese is good pain. When you workout on the treadmill, your shins ache, the machine shocks you when you try to lower the pace, your sweat splatters around you like a Pollock painting and you wish for a quick death to end it all (maybe that’s just me). But when you’re done you feel amazing: euphoric, overflowing with warmth and energy. Learning Chinese is pretty much the same, albeit with less actual sweat.
The lessons hurt, the homework hurts, you’re frustrated almost to tears with how stupid you are, but when you successfully communicate – even if it’s only a few words – you feel like you’ve just finished the New York Marathon and are ready to run it again without shoes.
If you stay in China, speaking some Chinese will make your professional life much easier. It’ll allow you to better communicate with your Chinese colleagues, which will in turn enable you to better understand what’s going on around you (the company’s being audited and you won’t get paid for three months, etc.).
As you’ve probably realised by now - your attempts at saying even the most basic of Chinese phrases will crack up everyone within earshot. Chinese people are very friendly and helpful to Chinese learners, but your fumbling attempts at the dreaded ‘cèsuǒ’ (bathroom) are even more entertaining than a fender bender. No-one likes having their hours of blood, sweat and tears result in laughter, but at least someone is enjoying themselves.
Learning Mandarin will give you insight into your mother tongue and the struggles others face trying to learn English. Those who teach English in China will no doubt appreciate the good parts of Mandarin – limited sounds and very simple grammar. Learning Chinese will make you grateful you never had to learn inflectional morphology, derivational suffixes, modal verbs or puzzle over why “move”, “love” and “rove” are all spelled similarly but pronounced differently.
The most important word in a China expat’s lexicon is not “xièxiè” (thank you) or even “píjiǔ” (beer). It is “zhège”, which means “this”. This word plays a pivotal role in day-to-day China survival.
Most foreigners are limited to eating at restaurants with picture menus, and luckily for us most restaurants here have them. When the fuwuyuan comes around to take your order, jab a finger at a picture and say “zhège”. I know foreigners who have lived in China for years and have managed to survive on zhège and píjiǔ alone.
As mentioned above, most restaurants in Chinese cities conveniently have picture menus but some -- the smaller ones or the roadside stands -- do not. At many noodle and xiǎochī (snack) restaurants there’s just a sheet of paper covered with characters and prices. Learn something practical – how many times can you really ask a Chinese person how many people are in their family (it’s always 3) or what their hobbies are (they have no time for hobbies) – and memorize the characters for your favorite food stuff.
When you try something new and it’s good, copy down the characters and learn them too. It will feel amazing when you slalom around the donkey meat and successfully score a huge steaming bowl of freshly made noodles for five kuai. That’s what makes it all worth it.
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Keywords: learning Chinese
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some of the advice what you write is applicable but the opening statement is interesting. If China is concerned that not enough foreigners are learning the language then they need to take a look at themselves. China grudgingly allows 'foreigners' to live and work here but would rather it be an all Chinese affair. Second, like Japanese in the 80s, it might be cool to say you can speak Mandarin but it is and will never be a world language in the same way English, French and Spanish are. Just because the most amount of people in the world speak it - 1.1 billion Chinese - it does not mean it is a world language. It never will be. Some of the other things in the article are classic occurances but what annoys me the most is having lived here longer than you have, speaking Mandarin even now gets either ignored, or ting bu dong or a comment that I am a laowai (which I find extremely offensive) or as you say people laughing when attempting to speak with them. Even PSB officials have displayed this kind of behaviour when have been there for a serious issue. It defeats the object and eventually I am of a mindset that people just like me think what is the point of trying to speak to Chinese in their own language? As for the difficulty, yeah agreed but with reason. Like so many things in China it is made difficult on purpose so outsiders cannot do them. Pinyin form of Mandarin is not that hard to learn if you get the structure right but as I said already when you try it for real and get ting bu donged all day what is the point. The reason for the Chinese pretence at not understanding is at best a fear of taking responsibility at worst racism. However the good side to learning Chinese is you will impress many people back home ordering food in a Chinese restaurant.
May 04, 2018 12:06 Report Abuse