Learning Chinese (Mandarin) - how difficult is it?

47 posts in this topic

Posted

Has anyone got experience with learning Chinese (Mandarin)?

I am travelling to China soon and wonder whether it is possible to pick up a basic grasp of Chinese beforehand (and maybe continue learning later on).

So far I am not yet interested in getting to know any potential teacher nor setting up a language exchange, but simply want to get some experience from other Europeans or Americans who have started learning Chinese. How long does it take to be able to start simple conversations? I am not really a very gifted language-learner, however, I have already learnt two other Western languages. What is the effort of learning Mandarin compared to learning a Western language? How long does it take to master the four different tones? What about the grammar? Please excuse my naive questions. :)

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

http://thelinguafranca.wordpress.com/2007/08/18/learning-chinese-how-difficult-is-it/

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Schumann: you´re a wierdo! I like wierdos! You´ve learnt two other Western languages ( but don´t consider yourself a gifted language learner ) and want advice on how to learn the four different tones in Mandarin? So, on an English-language forum in Germany, you´re asking people to compare learning Mandarin to learning a Western tongue and differentiating between tones. How many people here do you think know what a tone is? Why do you need all four? Why are you going to China? Is it for a holiday? Why don´t you want a teacher? Anecdotes: flight to Boston mid-80s, sat next to a Chinese non-smoker and vegetarian ( at a time when smoking and meat were ok on flights to Boston..he lectured me ): he was a Cantonese speaker and told me of a business meeting in Mandarin-speaking North China..where the meeting had been in English because they didn´t understand each other...second anectode: bus in Canton area (late 80s)..wanted to see a real panda bear in a zoo..on a bus as the only kwailo..where do I get off? I make panda bear noises ( not sure how accurate ) and general panda non-verbal communication and everybody on the bus slung out their arm to say "here", smiling toothlessly and enjoying the kwailo´s ignorance..I digress: enjoy your time there, man, be yourself, play around with the language and smile.Ít´s not your language but it´s your life! Don´t take it seriously there but have a good time! I like wierdos, I really do!! ( disclaimer: intelligent ones like yourself ).

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Thank you MrNosey for the perfect link and thank you, john g., for the encouragement. :)

I am just going on an extended holiday, kind of a sabbatical leave. Unfortunately, however, I am getting older and don't trust myself so much anymore with picking up new knowledge.

Just another anecdote: When I was ca. 15 years old I visited my auntie in a rural area in Swabia and got to know a peasant boy from a neighbouring farm. Unfortunately, however, his dialect was so bad and he could hardly speak understandable high German: So, albeit both of us were native German speakers, we started talking English with each other in the midst of provincial Germany. :)

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

hmmm

I used this litte online site to get some basics (chinese for beginners)

(german/chinese only though - sorry)

http://www.nsonic.de/chinesisch/

The lessons are laid out for 15 days.

It did help me to get around Beijing in 2005 (before they told cab drivers to learn some english for the tourists that where expected to come for the olympics).

Especially getting used to reading chinese numbers was really helpful - it even made me able to understand some dates in museums without somebody to translate around :ph34r:

They do have sound samples for words or phrases too on that site so you can listen to mandarin.

I don't think you'll get the tones correctly any time soon though (actually 5 for mandarin and up to 9 for cantonese but that s another question).

The concept is just too different from western languages.

Unfortunately I don't know an equivalent to that site in english...

but maybe that 'll do?

Enjoy your trip

Bine

edit

just saw that you found your solution ;)

Have fun

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

my brother has learnt mandarin and we were comparing notes* on learning a second language for a relationship and he said it was easy for him because anytime he spoke in mandarin everyone clapped. talk about positive reinforcement!

nutshell according to him: the four tones are a nightmare and the grammar fantastic because it, for him as native english speaker, is simpler than english grammar.

enjoy the trip!

gidget.

*so it really was more a competition of who had it worse: german vs mandarin

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Schumann: we have the perfect solution! Speak either Swabian or English in China! Try Japanese on the flight or Farsi if travelling overland.More importantly: use your personality if you don´t understand people there.It´s such a cliché about hands and feet but it´s true...and a smile is even better than hands and feet! A real smile, ok! None of this dental toothpaste super-smile..REAL smile! You´ll be ok and don´t worry about the tones..you think they care? :D Good luck!

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

I tried it, in vain. Maybe I gave up too fast, but somehow Chinese is not a language I'd take on easily.

Had a Chinese friend, a very pretty one, several years ago, so I got myself some course to get acquainted with her language. But it never gained traction. Three years ago I finally made it to China, first time. So I definitely tried to explain to the curious people that I'd be from Germany, but they kept staring at me as if I had appeared straight from some galaxy yet unknown. I know my pronunciation is not that far off, as I have some experience with other languages in other countries. Got myself understood, more or less, in Russia and in Japan, but China was hopeless. Even after four or five weeks inside the country I was unable to have a single word of mine understood. So I resorted to having important expressions written down, in English and Chinese, and each time I needed communication, I pulled out the clever sheets. Quite frustrating, though.

If you are really interested in China, get yourself an attractive teacher and dig in. Maybe some months of focussed studying will pave your way through China. The country is very interesting and I yearn to go back, however if Japan could be an (expensive) alternative for you, Nihon-go is about ten times more easy to study for a Western brain.

When I was ca. 15 years old I visited my auntie in a rural area in Swabia and got to know a peasant boy from a neighbouring farm. Unfortunately, however, his dialect was so bad and he could hardly speak understandable high German...

Swabians in no way talk some bad dialect, but feel a pronounced sense of cultural identity. Verschdahosch ezt? :)

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Lived in Taiwan for a year... Good luck, that is a language that takes months to get to a survival level and years to perfect... My wife ( a chinese Linguest) has studied for over 15 years, over they phone native speakers dont know she is not native and even she is stil learning... the same word said with any of 4 tones could mean 4 dif things and sometimes there oppistes and evan insulting... I was able to order food, shop and use taxies but that was after 3 months of prep and a year of living there and even then they would laugh before trying to figure out what i just said... also if your going to be in southern china than Manderin wont do you much good either. It was a great country to live in and visit but thats one tough language!

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Thank you so much everybody for your good comments and perfect links; your experiences are a good help for me. I am sorry, Postmann, however I did not intend to denigrate the Swabian language - in comparison with China one can even say that it is more or less the German equivalent of Cantonese. :)

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

If it's anything like learning Japanese, it'll be the writing system that's the major blocking point in learning, rather than grammar and tones.

Even though Japanese is grammatically a lot easier than German, it's taking me a much longer time to pick up. Not being able to quickly look up words in a dictionary, or write them down in a list, makes it very difficult to build up vocabulary.

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

if you can eat using chopsticks, then you are half way through.

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Something that has not been mentioned yet...the people.

Obviously it is a bloody difficult lingo for the western brain to get the hang of, but what I always found really fucking irritating was chinese people laughing at you. Cover the mouth with one hand, point with the other, and laugh. Totally unhelpful.

I gave up, accepted my position as dominus, and just barked and growled at them in English - being tall and lording 3 feet above every single person also helped.

First phrase I learnt was how to get a beer. Once you have drunk chinese beer though, you never bother using that phrase ever again. Pointless. Like being able to ask for a roast pork sandwich in arabic.

Did not even pay a thought to reading and writing. Screw that. Life is far, far too short. I could probably make more sense of the scrawl that an ink-covered drunken spider would leave on a sheet of paper.

3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Thank you so much all. :)

Special thanks to the Cheese for his extensive outline of Chinese language and culture. :)

Now I can really assess the difficulty of learning Mandarin.

I shall probably merely attempt to learn a few decisive words or phrases for travelling. If I cannot make myself understood due to the problem with the tones, I could at least try to recognize names of cities and food on menues.

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Nice to see there are more of us who are interested in Chinese. The points the_cheese made about Mandarin Chinese are very valid.

I have also studied Mandarin in an intensive course for one year and have continued ever since. During intensive studies we got from the beginners to early advanced both in spoken and written Mandarin. Learning was hard, but not because the language itself is especially difficult but due to the plain number of hours one has to dedicate to learning the language. There wasn't a day I didn't study at least 6 hours and those days were the short ones when I took it easy. Endless repetitions of character writing, tone- and pronouncing drills require more self discipline than an exceptional brain. It is possible for non-Chinese to learn to speak, read and write Mandarin and to be understood by natives. During my visits to China I've been better understood than my Cantonese friend. As a language skill a good command of Mandarin is not only a huge advantage in the job market but it also opens a door to the old and poetic Chinese culture. I simply love it.

2

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

LaDiv - is 'wo ding bu dong' wrong? I was told it meant 'I don't understand', albeit as a phrase literally meaning 'I hear you but cannot understand you.'

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Cheese, Great info but... Chinese beer infact is VERY german. LOL, Most chinese beers are based on german recipes. Try Taiwan Beer it is by far my fav beer to this day but Tsingdao isnt bad. and yea stay away from the Rice Wine... Looks, smells, tastes and BURNS like pure grain alchol.

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

LaDiv - is 'wo ding bu dong' wrong? I was told it meant 'I don't understand', albeit as a phrase literally meaning 'I hear you but cannot understand you.'

Yes, that is correct, but it's much better to say "wo bu dong" if you don't have any experience with tones. Otherwise you can end up saying "I understand but I don't understand" or even worse "I drunken don't understand" or "I freeze don't understand". I once spent 45 minutes trying to understand someone who wanted to say "You have a big heart" (he was testing his Chinese) and what I heard was "You oil skin sweets".

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Bugger it, I wrote a long response which was eaten by ny computer, so now for the shorter version without regard for typos etc.

I started learning Chinese when I was 15, from a refugee kid at my high school, switched schools and took it as a school subject, then as a university subject. Ended up spending time in China, and have taught Chinese at high school and later at university.

When I studied at university I also took Japanese, French, and German. IF you do not include reading and writing CHinese, then I found Chinese the easiest of all those. The grammar is dead easy compared to any other language I can think of.

If you are thinking of learning, get hold of "Colloquial Chinese" published by Routledge.

Just to make life easy (not),Routledge has two different books with the same title. You want the book written by T'ung and Pollard, NOT the other one.

Cassettes (no CD, I think?, the book is fairly old) are available with it - DEFINITELY buy this too. The characters come in a separate book, which I'd also recommend. Get the book with simplified characters (simplified characters = mainland China, unsimplified characters = Taiwan).

Although officially a "teach-yourself" book, this book is also used as a university textbook in quite a few universities in the UK. Lots of Chinese textbooks are pretty lousy. This one is far better than most of them out there.

Contrary to the horror stories people are telling you, if you bugger up the tones but the rest of your pronunciation and word order is okay, people will (usually) understand what you say.

And, finally, I've met a few English-speaking tourists in China who managed to pick up enough reading and speaking to get by compeletely on their own. So it's not impossible, and they were not even using a textbook.

To UrbanAngel:

The phrase is: wo ting bu dong (not, wo ding bu dong), used for not understanding if you are listening (as you said). If unable to undertand something you read, it would be: wo kan bu dong (kan = read, look)

However: "wo bu dong" just plain means " I don't understand" and will be understood in all contexts and is perfectly grammatical.

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

I did not intend to denigrate the Swabian language...

No offense accepted nor taken. Just wanted to point out that you may run into those Swabians about everywhere, even in China. :)

It is worth learning a few simple characters - man, woman, tian-an-men, bei-jing, north-south-east-west. Even learning just the names of the cities you will be in will be fun, since you'll see those characters everywhere in that city (or on the train when you want to go there).

Excellent idea. Add the easy characters for 'Entry' and 'Exit' and maybe 'water' or 'river' and 'mountain' as they appear very often.

...look around in the restaurant and ask the waiter for whatever everyone else is eating - you don't need to know the name, just point and smile.

That's how I once almost landed a frog soup on my table... :)

...do not be surprised if people stare at you as if you were from Mars when you speak whatever phrases you have learned. They don't expect foreigners to learn any Chinese and often even if it's perfect they won't understand it because it's so unexpected. Be prepared to be stared at, but know that it's not because people don't like you, it's because they are curious.

Guess that was the point: nobody expected me to (be able to) speak those few words of Chinese. However even multiple repetitions did not make my explanations understood. Only when some younger kids commanding more or less good English showed up, a short conversation developed and consequently an 'Aaaah!' full of relief was heard. The people are definitely very friendly and very interested in us tourists, especially in areas off the beaten track. The staring is by no means hostile, however being so limited in means of communication was highly frustrating to me.

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

Contrary to the horror stories people are telling you, if you bugger up the tones but the rest of your pronunciation and word order is okay, people will (usually) understand what you say.

Didn't mean to tell a horror story - just meant, keep it simple, then your chances of being understood are exponentially greater. It's true that in Mandarin, if you totally miss the tones, you will probably still be understood when using basic sentences. In Cantonese, a single wrong tone - well, that's the 45 minute story.

That's how I once almost landed a frog soup on my table...

What, you were actually able to identify that it was frog? I'm impressed. :) But if you always limit yourself to tried and true foods, you could end up eating noodles with ketchup on them (happened to a friend of mine).

Guess that was the point: nobody expected me to (be able to) speak those few words of Chinese. However even multiple repetitions did not make my explanations understood. Only when some younger kids commanding more or less good English showed up, a short conversation developed and consequently an 'Aaaah!' full of relief was heard. The people are definitely very friendly and very interested in us tourists, especially in areas off the beaten track. The staring is by no means hostile, however being so limited in means of communication was highly frustrating to me.

It's all about expectations - I get the blank staring we-don't-understand-you look here in Germany whenever I get a der/die/das wrong, particularly when the rest of the sentence is correct. Sigh.

0

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Posted

... what I always found really fucking irritating was chinese people laughing at you. Cover the mouth with one hand, point with the other, and laugh. Totally unhelpful...

In "Riding the Iron Rooster", Paul Theroux says the following about Chinese laughter:

"By now I was able to differentiate between the various Chinese laughs. There were about twenty. None of them had the slightest suggestion of humor. Some were nervous, some were respectful, many were warnings. The loud honking one was a sort of Chinese anxiety attack. Another brisk titter meant something had gone badly wrong. Mr Fang's laugh this morning resembled the bark of a seal. It meant Hold on there! and it stopped me in my tracks."

3

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!


Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.


Sign In Now