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05 January 2015

The Hardest Part of Learning Mandarin

I've been learning Mandarin, in one way or another, for nearly forever, it seems (since 2008). It's my 2nd best language. Whenever you claim that your foreign language study of choice is Mandarin Chinese, you tend to get a lot of comments along the lines of "Whoa! That's, like, crazy hard to learn!"

I don't think Mandarin entirely deserves it's "crazy hard" reputation, though fluency in any foreign language requires more time and devotion that the typical beginner learner would even like to fathom. Today, I wanted to talk about what the most difficult aspect of Mandarin Chinese has been for me in this recent era of learning a language in the country where it's spoken.

My pride demands that I point out that all of the purple underlines denote names, not words I don't know. Sometimes distinguishing names of characters is difficult, so I've been underlining them to set them apart.
Characters

These are what most people are thinking of when they write off Mandarin as an exceedingly difficult language. And I'd never be one to claim that characters are easy! I'd say that I know between 1,000-2,000 characters. I need to get a good bit more than 2,000 characters to be fully literate in the language, but I can understand bus signs and advertisements and I can get the gist of most things I casually read. I'm currently, as practice, reading through the translation of Around the World in 80 Days and am marking up my copy by underlining words that I don't know and writing their translations in the margin. It's very slow going, and as you can see, I look up a lot of words--possibly in part because a book written by Jules Verne in the 1870s doesn't use the most commonplace of vocabulary. I don't think, though, that characters are necessarily the most difficult feature of this language. Once you get the hang of them, and what different parts are repeated and combined to make different words, they aren't bad at all. When I was taking Japanese courses in college, my classmates all groaned when kanji were introduced, but to me, kanji were the easiest part of the Japanese language because I was advanced enough in my Chinese study that I already knew the kanji that were being introduced (don't get me started on Japanese grammar, though!).

Really, the only trouble with Chinese characters is that there's so many of them!

Homonyms. 

Now these are problems. You think English is tricky with its to, too, and two? Or their, there, and they're? No. That's child's play.

Mandarin Chinese, as you most likely already know, is a tonal language. There are 4 tones (plus toneless, so 5 all together), and these tones affect how you say different words. A syllable, let's say shi, for example, can mean totally different things if you say it with a rising tone, a high tone, a falling tone, or a low tone. But because the tones are different, those are just near-homonyms, though they sound pretty close to identical to us foreigners who don't come from a background of tonal languages. The trouble is, sometimes words are pronounced exactly the same way, tones and all, only they mean completely different things, and as such, are represented by different characters--but in spoken Chinese, because you can't see the different characters, you can only tell which word is meant by context.

Synonyms

This isn't a Mandarin-specific difficulty, but a really tricky part of learning any language. Angel especially has been frustrated by synonyms  lately--when you're in the early stages of learning and using a language, there's nothing so mind-boggling as the fact that you can express the concept "happy" or "teacher" using multiple different words in the foreign language, despite the fact that we effortless use synonyms and understand their accompanying connotations and the appropriate situations under which to use different words that have similar meanings in our native languages.


 My copy of the Chinese translation of the hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy." Practice is a good thing, right?

Accents/Slang/Colloquialisms 

In other words, the way real, normal people talk.

This is what is by far the hardest for me in my journey towards fluency in Mandarin. In the classroom, we're usually taught standard "Beijing Pronunciation." In the real world, people do not sound the way our ever-patient professors or our language learning recordings sound. ShenZhen is a city of immigrants from many different provinces--they speak their own native dialects of Chinese in addition to Mandarin, and plenty of times, words don't sound exactly the same as they did when I first learned them. Being able to make the connection that the word I learned to say long is the same as the word that my friend happens to pronounce nong takes a quick mental leap--one that tricky for me to make successfully. Then there's the matter that just like native English speakers, native Mandarin speakers talk fast, skip entire words that are implied by context, and use colloquialisms, slang terms, and local proverbs that aren't too easy to find in a dictionary.

Yes, my most unhelpful conclusion is that the most challenging obstacle in achieving Mandarin fluency is the very nature of language itself--the fact that in practice, much that you studied so carefully in your grammar textbook kinda flies out the window and you just have try to keep up with the conversation around you, because I can guarantee, the times when you'll actually be called upon to use your foreign language are never going to sound much like:

A: "Excuse me, can you please tell me the way to the post office?"

(Dramatic Pause)

B: "Yes. Keep walking straight in this direction until you come to a bank. Then, turn left at the corner. The post office is on that street, you can't miss it!"

(Dramatic Pause)

A: "Thank you for your assistance. Goodbye!"

(Dramatic Pause)

B: "You're welcome. Goodbye!"

........................................................................

P.S. This postscript has absolutely nothing to do with linguistics, but remember the eBook I published a few weeks ago?  I'm pretty proud of it. Anyway, if you haven't laid your hands on a copy of it yet (and, by "lay your hands on" I clearly mean "download"...because it's an eBook), there's a giveaway going on here today!

32 comments :

  1. This looks so hard!!! I'm impresses you can comprehend any of it!
    Melanie @ meandmr.com

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  2. I need some of your dedication to language learning for my Icelandic studies!

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  3. I've always wondered if learning English is as hard as people say it is. Like my 4 year old says sometimes, "it's hard to remember the right things to say all the time!"

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  4. Loved this post! Even though I can't speak from your years of experience and living in immersion, right off the bat, having taken 101, I agree that it's not as difficult as people might suggest. Any language has its difficulties. So far, as a beginner, it's not the vocabulary, tones or syntax that trips me up -- I'm just slow on memorizing Hanzi.

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    1. Oh, and I forgot to add -- I'm completely enamored of your color-coded note taking system!

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  5. Your Chinese handwriting is beautiful! Enjoyed learning about your language learning experience!

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  6. Wow this truly looks difficult. You need good eyesight just to distinguish the different characters.

    bisous
    Suzanne

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  7. I agree with Bethany above your handwriting is very beautiful! :) I can't even fathom beginning to learn this language :P Jeez I can't imagine dealing with tones and such - I guess we kind of deal with that in the English language but it's not as hard-coded as Mandarin. Best of luck learning I know you got this chicka :) Happy Monday Rachel! -Iva

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  8. The hardest thing about Welsh is all the long words and multiple vowels, but really, once you get the hang of the language, it isn't too bad because Welsh is known for being a very rhythmic language.

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  9. I think the homonym/synonym part of this definitely looks the hardest. When I was learning Japanese, I didn't find the kanji to be too entirely difficult - the hardest part of the whole thing was, like you mentioned, learning the grammar! And the fact that by year 3, our teacher pretty much just gave us workbooks and stuck us in a separate little side room to the classroom so he could focus on the year 1 students. Not very helpful. No wonder I can barely remember anything...haha.

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  10. Wowza! You are amazing. Just looking at the page you have underlined makes my head hurt. But I love your note taking color coded system! I might have to steal it. :)

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  11. i am one of those people that hears someone is learning mandarin and am like "whoaaaa that's crazy impressive!"

    when we were in china, i remember someone telling us about the tonal difference you mentioned-so intense and really hard to distinguish between them!

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  12. you're a gorgeous girl with big brains. just looking at those letters gives me a bit of a headache! i studied italian and spanish (and lived in italy and mexico), and it feels like i cheated by sticking with verrry similar romance languages!

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  13. Man, this does look really hard! What an amazing language to learn, though! Way to go!

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  14. I think the lack of alphabet makes it somewhat daunting when you're initially learning the language, because if you don't know the character, you're usually kinda screwed-ish. ._. And ohhhh, the homonyms! Just because you mentioned "shi," I need to share this with you in case you haven't seen it yet! <3 http://www.themarysue.com/chinese-riddle-every-syllable-shi/

    My calligraphy/penmanship is horrrrible. I'm rather envious of yours. <3 It's way prettier! I grew up speaking Cantonese, which I think has 9 tones, so I think it was easier for me to learn Mandarin than it was for someone who knew Mandarin to learn Cantonese. The slang is my favorite! :p

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  15. Holy cow! Mad props to you for being so dedicated to learning Chinese! I know tonal languages tend to be difficult to get a hang of but the end result of learning another language is amazing! One day I hope to learn Chinese, but I'm not sure if I will get the chance anytime soon unfortunately :/

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  16. That's awesome that you're learning Mandarin!! I hear it's crazy hard and it looks like a bunch of pictures on a page to me haha Great handwriting though!

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  17. How inspiring you are! You make it look so easy! Keep up the hard work!!!

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  18. Second language is an important aspect for any person to improve job career significantly.

    TOEFL reading questions

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  19. Your handwriting in Chinese characters looks more neat than my regular handwriting. Oh hey, congrats on the ebook :)

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  20. Dang girl, I have mad respect for you. Seriously, reading through all of this just floored me! You're incredible and incredibly intelligent and your abilities never cease to amaze. To remember at least 2,000 characters is mind-bending. I can't even fathom that--I know a good deal of Spanish and can read it fairly well, though speaking it is difficult for me sometimes (carrying conversations, ACK!). And that's with letters we're familiar with and pronunciations we can understand with our own alphabet!

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  21. Goodness! That translation of Holy, Holy, Holy! Makes my head hurt just looking at it.

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  22. Looking at your hymn translation blows my tiny brain just a little bit. Don't those letters/characters? take a long time to write out? What if someone has really bad handwriting? Is it a similar concept to any language, where it's just harder to read?

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  23. What an intriguing post. Languages, beyond my mother tongue of English, have never been my strong point and French was the only subject aside from (high school level) math that I struggled with in school (though, thankfully, it was still much easier for me than calculus!) and I have the utmost of respect for those who succeed at becoming bilingual .

    ♥ Jessica

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  24. Your Chinese handwriting is really beautiful and cute. Hahaha... I'm bilingual in English and Mandarin so I know what you are talking about. Even though we could speak Mandarin, the Mandarin in various parts of China and the Mandarin in Malaysia, Taiwan and Singapore all sond slightly different with different lingo that sometime I as a Singaporean Chinese cannot even discern much less for a foreign speaker.

    Jo
    Jo's Jumbled Jardinière

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  25. Holy crappola! Props to you for sticking with it and learning a truly useful language. I studied French for years and went to school in my second language, in an Immersion program. I found immersing myself really helped.

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  26. Nice blog post. Totally agree with you. The hardest part is that there are SO many characters. Just when I think I have learned them all I see one I don't know. Yikes. (I tried to comment as wordpress but it wouldn't work. Here is my link though....http://samdfb0.wordpress.com/

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  27. Umm, I think I'll stick to my native English. But I do think it's pretty visually.

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  28. I'm very impressed. We have three children learning Mandarin. 2 have been taking immersion for the last 3 years and one has been taking it as a foreign language option in school for 2 1/2 years. It is very difficult indeed and I can't even begin to understand any of what they are learning. Kudos to you! Learning another language is difficult, but the results are definitely worth all the effort! (I speak Spanish fluently, learned it in school and studied abroad, and I am so glad I did)

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  29. The characters made learning Japanese and Chinese harder for me. Listening is my weakest point, and reading is the strongest - to the point where I sometimes can't understand vocabulary (that I know) when I hear it if I forget how to spell it. So relying on pinyin and romaji in the beginning as per my university courses didn't help in the long run. How people teach languages with different alphabets really makes a difference, I think. And wow, I didn't know you had been studying Mandarin that long! Kudos :) As for me, I've been trying to get back to Italian for like six years. . .

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