Initial stages of learning Mandarin

After having lived in Taiwan for a year (and planning many more) I decided that it’s high time I made a serious attempt to learn Mandarin.  It’s impossible to integrate into society or REALLY have an understanding and appreciation for the culture without being able to speak the language. 

This is a step I was not really looking forward to because it was going to involve work.  A lot of work, and I don’t like work.  I was hoping that by now, someone would have invented a Matrix type learning apparatus, but no go on that, so with a heavy heart I (reluctantly) handed over my enrollment form and (even more reluctantly) my fee.

Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in Taiwan.  Second is Hokkien Taiwanese (simply called Taiwanese) which comes from the Fujian people of China.  Other languages include Hakka and the various languages spoken by the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan. 

It is interesting to note that while the rest of the world calls the language Chinese, the Taiwanese refer to it as Mandarin, never Chinese.

My first introduction to Mandarin was in the form of an intensive (5 days a week, 3 hrs a day), 6 week course.  I figured that since I am so awesome, I will easily be able to put my nose to the grindstone and absorb all the material.  Also, since I had no prior experience with the language, I wanted to be thrown in head first and be forced to gulp down huge quantities of information.  In retrospect this was a good desicion because it forced me to really concentrate and speed up the learning process.

For those of you as uninformed as I was, here is a little about Mandarin:

  • It is the most spoken language in the world (yeah, more people speak Mandarin than English)
  • It’s a tonal language. Meaning of words is derived from the tone with which you say it
  • Madarin has 4 main tones. High-Level, Rising, Falling-Rising, Falling.
  • There are no tenses as English speakers recognize them.  Time references are made with other words (today, tomorrow etc.)
  • He, she, it are all the same word. Meaning is taken from context. (Although the written character for each is different.)

Learning Mandarin  (as I found out) is a real bitch. 


The sounds that one has to make in Mandarin are completely alien to a native English speaker.  Learning most romance languages, while difficult, have mostly familiar sounds since they are all derived from Latin.  There are many words across these languages that sound similar and have the same meaning. 

Mandarin does not have any of this, so I have to re-train my tongue and my ear.  It’s very hard to properly pronounce some of the sounds because I have never made them before (except maybe when talking gibberish or dreaming).  I now have a much better idea why Oriental people say “flied lice” instead of  “fried rice”.  They almost never say or hear a hard “r”.  I wonder what my strange attempts at words sound like to them.

Besides the pronunciation, there are the tones.  Oh the tones…how I hate them.  Using the wrong tone completely changes the meaning of a word.  For example, if you use the wrong tone, “That is my mother” becomes “That is my horse”.

I think that tones are the hardest part of learning how to speak well.  Mandarin grammar is not as intense and varied as English and with some practice, you get used to saying the new sounds, but getting the tones right is a horribly difficult task.  To truly be able to do this well, one has to be in a Mandarin speaking environment for a long time.

This aspect of learning is frustrating because you may know the words but if you don’t know the proper tones, people have a tough time understanding you, even given context. 

It also leads to awkward situations.  I have a friend who, when learning Mandarin, went to a restaurant and said “Can f**** a menu please?” instead of “Can I see a menu please?”.

So, for those who need quick results to maintain interest in learning a subject, this is a real kick in the nuts.  Or ovaries.

Reading and Writing

While (in Taiwan) a sort of alphabet used to be taught (it’s called b-p-m-f; you say it by pronouncing each of the alphabets), I have been taught Pinyin.  Pinyin is a system of romanticizing Mandarin.  It uses the alphabet to form characters and tone marks to indicate which tone accompanies the word. 

For example:

加拿大 = Jiānádà = Canada.

Jia is said with a high, level tone.

Na with a rising tone.

Da with a falling tone.  Canada.

This would be helpful, if everything was written in Pinyin.  Unfortunately it’s not, so I have to learn the characters.  There are over 10 000 characters, but to function on a day to day basis, I only need to know 3000 – 4000. 

Since Mandarin characters are based on pictograms, not phonetics, there is no way for me to be able to learn them except by rote memorization.  By that I mean:

English:  Cat = C + a + t.  Once I hear a word, I can firgure out how to write it by sounding out the individual sounds.

Mandarin: 貓 = Māo = Cat.  I have no way of knowing how to write Māo in Chinese characters.  Even with the b-p-m-f alphabet I mentioned, it’s difficult because the alphabet only gives you the root radical.  More strokes are added to the root to create the finished character.

I have had to write out numerous sheets of characters repeatedly to internalize the few characters that I now know.  The letter recognition comes faster than the written ability, so I am currently able to read more characters than I can write.

It’s going to be a long (painful) process, but the rewards will be worth the current misery. 

Sometimes I think of Mandarin as my abusive girlfriend.  She overloads me with work, makes me stay up late at night, makes me all depressed and contributes to a general sense of pain in my life.  Nevertheless,  I keep going back for those rare but sweet moments when I “get it”  (internalize writing a new character or learn to say something new).  For all the beat down she gives me, it will eventually be worth it.  The more you suffer, the more it shows you really care…right??


2 Responses to “Initial stages of learning Mandarin”

  1. 1 The Dude November 26, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Haha she’s a cruel mistress!

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