5 Things I Learned From Studying Mandarin Chinese


It has been 8 months since I landed in Beijing disoriented, confused, and wrongly believing that “Hello” translated to “Ni hoe“, instead of the actual pronunciation of “Ni hao” — an embarrassing mistake to say the least. With no phrasebook in hand, I arrived in a city notorious for it’s lack of English with a firm belief that everything would somehow be okay; unless I desperately needed to find a squat toilet.

Recalling my first 20 minutes outside of the airport is easy. It consisted of a driver with a Selena Gomez ringtone, manic traffic, and zero comprehension of anything that was going on around me. The billboards, oh the billboards, those gigantic rectangular reminders that from now on I would be consumed by a life that didn’t include those 26 letters of an alphabet I had become so dependent on.

It bewildered me how a bunch of squiggly lines (soon after I would learn they were called characters) could translate a message to your brain, whereupon informing your mouth to produce a sound.

“Pictures and words are two separate things,” my cerebrum protested.

I had never heard of tones (there are four of them), I couldn’t comprehend how a language could just act as though tenses weren’t a necessary thing, I still don’t really grasp the point of measure words, and for the first few months I sure as hell didn’t understand how anyone could understand each other when it all sounded like “shiieeeeawwwbuuuuqahhsuuiddhh.”  It was exhausting, frustrating, and I often caught myself wondering why — out of everywhere on earth — I had voluntarily chosen to build a life here.

Yet, while riding bus 696 a few hours ago (my usual route home from the migrant school where I teach) I struck up a conversation with an old Chinese man. After offering him my seat (so selfless) and his realization that I had addressed him in his native language, he started to ask me questions. Lots and lots of them. Fast-forward 35 minutes, when I finally arrived at my destination, we concluded our little chat and I disembarked the bus undeniably happy. It wasn’t my first long conversation in Chinese, I have them everyday, but it was the first time it felt completely natural. I wasn’t pulling at my brain strands for each and every word, repeating sentences over again to get the word order right, or fumbling around on my phone for definitions. I was zonked, yet could still pull off a conversation.

A couple of days ago I started tackling reading my first Chinese newspaper, last week I was translating Chinese Elle, and I couldn’t help but think…this is it. This is progress. All that misunderstanding, the discombobulation, the constant feeling of being submerged has diminished (not totally gone) to where conversations on buses about life and death can be typical daily events.

Upon reflecting on the process of how I got to this point (and I still have miles and miles and miles to go) I realized that not only have I learnt how to say, “I would like a big bowl of spicy Sichuan noodles” (我要了一大腕川辣面), but I also have learnt some vital life lessons. Some of them are true of all language learning, others more specific to Mandarin; some have come about as a result of cultural experiences only feasible from using the language. Whatever the way it has all been positive, even when it was negative, and I am sharing them here with you so that you too may decide to learn Mandarin…just kidding, no one is that crazy.

1. Things are never as difficult as people like to say they are.

Upon mentioning to people that I am studying Chinese, 99% of the time I am received with a look of shock and undoubtedly asked, “Isn’t that like really really hard?”  While I would love to reply, “Yes it is hard, but I am simply just a genius,” the truth is that it really isn’t that hard. I mean it is hard, but not that hard. Ya follow? Any type of language learning is difficult and awkward and strange and weird, and most of the difficulties stem from being afraid to sound stupid; Chinese is definitely no different. But if I had listened to everyone’s prior-to-arriving cries that it is OH MY GOD THE HARDEST THING IN THE WORLD, there is no way I would be here right now conversing, thinking, and occasionally dreaming in Chinese.

If I were to go back and ask all those who claim that Mandarin is “difficult” what they actually know about the language, the answer would be a resounding “nothing,” leading me to believe that most of the time people have no idea what they are talking about. Pursuing the study of Mandarin has made me realize that there is almost nothing I can’t do, if I put my mind to it; apart from finding a pair of jeans I like, that continues to prove an immense problem.

2. Practice doesn’t equal perfection, but it sure as hell gets you close.

Perfection is the devil. I know that, you know that, your grandmother definitely knows that. Yet, overcoming perfectionist tendencies is hard (re: my point above, I actually know far too much about it). Speaking/writing/reading Mandarin has forced me to let go of the idea that I can be perfect. It’s just not going to happen. But, that doesn’t mean I (or you) should quit the pursuit.

For the first 50 times I mispronounce a word, the 51st time I will get it, and it will feel good. Practice, practice, practice; not with the goal of being perfect, for that will automatically scare your mind from trying, but merely for being better — and in this case more fluent — than you were yesterday.

3. Dedicating a small amount of time daily, adds up.

For years I wasted 15 minutes here, 5 minutes there, because I didn’t think it was “worth” starting something if I couldn’t completely finish it in said amount of time (hello perfectionist tendencies #456789). However, with the immense amounts of characters I have to learn a week, 10 minutes on a short subway ride is better than 0 minutes on a short subway ride. Yes, it may only be one new character, but that is one more than before the subway ride. And you know what? All those one-character subway rides add up to… one day reading an entire newspaper in the course of the same subway ride.

4. Prioritizing what you want now, with the overall picture.

One of the (many) benefits of learning a language in the native land is the instant gratification that comes from learning new material.

In the same day that I learn new words or grammar concepts, I am eager to try them out to literally any native speaker who will spare me a few minutes. Instant gratification is cool; I like to be rewarded for my time ASAP. You know what is also cool? Going out to party with your friends every night and speaking English. A much different type of instant gratification, and one that I also happen to very much enjoy. But, sometimes (read: every week night) I force myself to stay home with my flashcards. It’s hard, and I occasionally slip up when the idea of a good night out is too much for my mediocre self-control, but ultimately I remind myself that if I want to be fluent in a language as complex (not difficult) as Mandarin a lot of hours need to be put in. Putting the bigger picture before the instant gratification of a perfectly made Gin and Tonic. God it’s hard.

5. Rewarding myself over small things.

Remembering a word I always forget? Pat on the back. Finally writing a character correctly? Pat on the back. Having a thirty-five minute conversation with an old man on bus 696? Pat on the back and  a post about it.

In general, I think human beings tend to be far too hard on themselves and while it helps immensely to feed our motivation, it also tends to burn us out and makes tasks such as learning Mandarin absolutely miserable. I can eavesdrop on conversations and literally not understand a single word. I can read signs and not recognize a single character. I look at Chinese novels and want to curl up in a ball and die. Do I yell at myself and tell myself I suck? Well, yes sometimes, but what does that result in? How does that help literally anything? Apart from the amount of chocolate sold in my building’s convenience store, nothing. It feels overwhelming when I think about how far I still have to go, so I blatantly try not to think about it. Instead, choosing to focus on where I am right now and rewarding the small achievements; choosing the correct “or” to use in a particular grammatical structure, remembering the difference in tone between “cunt” (bī: 1st tone) and “pen” (bǐ: 3rd tone), and finally placing the duration words at the end of my sentence.

I congratulate myself for dodging another awkward encounter (the cunt one always gets me), and then keep on studying.