Learning Chinese (Mandarin) - how difficult is it?

47 posts in this topic

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

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

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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 ).

1

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

4

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

I studied Chinese in an intensive course (one year of college level Mandarin pushed into a summer), and it was one of the hardest things I have done, but it paid off immensely - not so much for nice conversations but to be able to ask for things in restaurants, greet people, buy train tickets. Here are some thoughts about Chinese as a language (and the country and culture are both great, in my opinion; lots of challenges but lots of rewards too). Obviously without a course it's hard to pull out a whole lot but knowing something about how it's structured in advance should help you pick up things...

 

The grammar is the saving grace of the language. It is super super super easy. There is no conjugating, no declining, no real tenses (you mark past tense by putting a 'le' at the end of the sentence, and I think for future you may just use a time word like "tomorrow"). Also (nearly) no articles.

 

The tones are very hard unless you have a good sense of music. But you can still make yourself understood for simple things. A lot of westerners end up speaking in a very singing manner, which can help a lot. A lot of people also use their fingers to direct their voice up or down. But you have to figure out how to know whether you are giving a rising or a falling tone (the other two are easier - hold your voice high or dip it in the middle); there's also a toneless tone, which just means say it quickly not in any particular direction. The rising tones sound like you are asking a question, the falling tones sound like counting out orders (one! two! three!), the dipping-in-the-middle one sounds like you are repeating something for emphasis (John doesn't drink. Whhhaaa?? He doesn't dree-e-nk?).

 

The writing and reading are very hard, of course, but are some of the most enjoyable parts of the language - you see a lot of cultural or poetic influences in how a character is put together, and there are a lot of repeated parts to the characters that make them easier to assemble after you've done it for a while. I think unless you find some nicely structured web-based or text-based tool to teach you how to write though, that this would be hard to do on your own. There must be some good resources for this, but it is very important to get feedback from someone on how you are doing. 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).

 

Re the beer - it's not German but somehow it does taste nice with the food. I would do my best to avoid bai-jiu (which is literally 'white wine' but actually very hard grain alcohol) as it tastes terrible, and is probably more poisonous that most hard alcohols. Also I hate eating internal organs and cow ears or chicken feet, but if you are into it, there are plenty that may be served to you. Finally, Beijing has great food - northern chinese food was a great surprise to discover - lots of more western tastes and ingredients than Cantonese food (eg potatoes, tomatoes, noodles, breads).

 

Good luck!

8

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

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

Hi Schumann,

 

I'm half-Chinese, grew up in Hong Kong and speak fluent Cantonese, a little basic Mandarin. as well as several Western languages. I think it's fabulous that you want to learn some Chinese before you go. I suggest that you learn as many phrases as you can, but don't worry too much about getting the correct tones - you can either pick it up easily (if you have a good ear for music) or you just won't be able to hear it. If you don't have a partner or teacher to work with, you really cannot tell if you are getting it right. (And, btw, Cantonese and Mandarin are related in the same way that French and Italian are - can't say about Swabian but it's certainly less closely related than Bayerisch and hoch Deutsch.)

 

The most important (and easiest) phrases to learn will be Hello (nǐ hǎo), Thank you (xiè xiè) and I don't understand (wǒ bu dong). If you can learn to count to twenty you will have the numbers down pat and people will applaud you wherever you go when you use them. If you're going to use the Chinese numbers, though, make sure that you really understand them, particularly when buying or ordering things, or you may end up with 20 bowls of soup instead of 2. Do not bother to learn the writing. In order to reach Kindergarden proficiency you must memorize 1,000 characters. Plus, food in every region is different, and very often the same dish will be called something completely different. If you want to have the complete cultural experience, 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.

 

If you get a cd or dvd for beginning mandarin and really work on it, you will be very pleasantly surprised when you go to China. People love it when foreigners try to speak Chinese. And 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. Smile a lot (not smiling can be considered to be extremely aggressive), be as friendly as you can, and you will have a great time there. :)

6

Share this post


Link to post
Share on other sites

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

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

 

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

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