In the Garage

The Inevitable Post about Learning Chinese

May 23, 2015 | 7 Minute Read

I've now been living in Shanghai for six months, and it's inevitable that I write about learning the language. Even before coming to China, I knew that not being able to really speak Mandarin but looking Chinese would be a hurdle, and I was right -- every day is a challenge when I communicate with people who look at me as if I have ten heads. People really just don't seem to understand that it's possible to be Chinese but not speak the language. I posted this video in a post I wrote before actually arriving in Shanghai, and it can't be stressed enough how true it is (except substitute Japanese for Chinese), even if the video presents the situation in an amusing light:

After starting my job, I immediately signed up for private Mandarin classes. It might seem a bit decadent, but I've realized why I never improved. Back in Germany, I took a beginner's class at the university while doing my master's. It was a great opportunity to dust off what I had learned in Chinese school as a kid, but the class was only once a week for an hour and a half; the other twelve students in the class were true beginners, whereas I wasn't really. A few years later, I decided to sign up for lessons at the Confucius Institute, the Chinese equivalent of the Goethe Institute, Instituto Cervantes, or Institut Français. However, I wasn't advanced enough to get into the intermediate class, so I was put into the beginner's class. Again. It came down to the fact that I could tell you basic information like my name and where I'm from, could count to 999, and could do basic haggling. Beyond that, I hadn't learned anything else like colors or talking about the weather because I continually got put into the beginner's class, where it was starting from the very beginning -- learning what the hell pinyin is (the romanization of Chinese), the four different tones, and how to introduce yourself with the most basic information. Hence choosing to take a private class where I could just tell the teacher, "I know how to say all this," and learn at my own pace.

Currently, I'm almost halfway through my first class of 100 hours. I go to class twice a week before work for two hours at a time. Doing a private class was a really good decision because I'm already done with the first book, for which some people need a whole year. Moreover, my teacher is actually teaching me the actual characters and not just pinyin. This means rather than learning, "Xiànzài wǒ xuéxí hànyǔ" where the weird little strokes indicate the tone, I'm learning it as "现在我学习汉语" ("I'm studying Chinese now").

Being able to read or recognize characters (which I had had from Chinese school way back when) has been a distinct advantage learning the language. There are so many characters that have the same pronunciation, like "ma" could be 吗 (question particle) or 妈 (mother) or 马 (horse), all with different tones, but then you also see that they all have 马 in the characters themselves. This means that I've actually been able to make connections between words, which makes it much easier to remember rather than just a single tone ("ma") that is meaningless on its own.

My Chinese homework

Interestingly, my pronunciation is also influenced by the fact that my family speaks Cantonese. There are certain common words that I just can't say properly in Mandarin, like péngyǒu (朋友 friend), dàngāo (蛋糕 cake), kāfēi (咖啡 coffee), and niú (牛 cow) and I struggle every time I need to say them. I've had people actually assume that I'm from Hong Kong based on my pronunciation, which I find hilarious, especially because the last time I was in Hong Kong, I talked to the cab driver in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English.

It's also been amusing to see where and what kind of vocabulary I've been learning. In class, I learn everyday words: colors, business-related stuff, sports, foods, numbers over 999*. At work, I've learned a lot of technical words, like task, upload, update, database, website, webpage. And then there's slang I pick up randomly from people or by being able to read ads, stuff on WeChat, and watching TV. This last bit is actually the most hilarious because when I tell my coworkers what I know, they end up laughing their asses off and wondering why I know that, which then prompts them to teach me even more. It's as if I'm a child that amuses them greatly, which is fine by me because at least I'm trying to use what I learn. More importantly, they see that I'm making the effort to communicate with them in their language, which then makes them more comfortable trying to use English when talking to me. It's one big learning group, people!

Qibao, a watertown

But to return to the point about being Chinese and not being able to speak Chinese, it's mostly frustrating, can be challenging, but at the same time, motivating. It's frustrating because people really just do not understand why my Chinese is not fluent (especially when I'm with people who are white and speak perfectly fluently) and challenging because getting looks like there's something wrong with me is something I just need to get over. It should be their problem and not mine that they don't understand that. But even with being exasperated the majority of the time, this attitude is actually motivating because of the fact that there is an expectation that I can speak the language. For Christian, he's white, and there's no expectation that he can speak the language, so people readily accept the fact that they will have difficulty understanding him. He can just smile and try to communicate, and if he doesn't learn Chinese, he's a laowai 老外 (foreigner), so it doesn't matter. I guess it's kind of the opposite of learning German, where it was motivating to pleasantly surprise people that I can speak it. It's motivating to learn Chinese because of that expectation, if that makes any sense whatsoever.

Six months in, I'm now able to search online for things, book flights and hotels online, can communicate what I want to order better in a restaurant, tell the developers very basically what I need them to do, do a daily scrum, and have a basic conversation in Chinese. My goal in another six months is to be able to have more than a basic conversation, be able to read more advertisements in the subway, and to order what I want not just by saying, "I'd like to have one portion of this," and pointing to it on the menu. And now that I've basically announced my goal to everyone, I need to hold myself to it.

*As a small tangent, wtf, Chinese, you win for weirdest way to say numbers when they're really large. The number 14,050,910 is basically said "one thousand four hundred zero five ten-thousand, nine hundred ten" so that it's broken down as such: 14050 910 Yīqiān sìbǎi líng wǔ wàn jiǔbǎi yīshí 一千四百零五万九百一十. Even if German is weird and says "nine-and-twenty"/"neunundzwanzig" for 29, at least it still breaks down numbers in groups of threes so that's still vierzehnmillionenfünfzigtausendneunhundertzehn (basically how we say it in English).

**I'd also just like to mention, this is apparently my 100th post.