Learning Mandarin Chinese Is Hard

Have I mentioned Chinese is hard to learn? Tens of thousands of words made up from thousands of characters. Once you know how to say the characters, now form complete thoughts with them. Otherwise, Chinese sounds like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

I formally began last year and did it, formally, for two months at National Taiwan Normal University. I’ve been self-learning, since then. Why? My uni has free classes for foreigners. But I’m a dual national, so I can’t enroll. Bogus, since anyone knows my country-music-listening-self understands I’m American > Asian.

Learning Chinese is hard, but it pays off. Here's me, surviving an hour-long radio interview in Chinese, about sustainability trends amongst corporates. Thankfully, it was pre-recorded.

Survived an hour-long interview in Chinese about corporate sustainability trends. Learning Chinese is hard, but speaking is easier if the program is pre-recorded.

Anyway, nine months in, I’ve come to realize a few things about how people learn Chinese. I have, to varying degrees, personal experience with all of the below.

1. Many foreign guys studying Chinese in Taiwan develop a quasi-feminine accent. A) Taiwan Chinese is softer and lighter on tones than mainland Chinese, and B) Most teachers are women, so you pick up feminine speech patterns — just another reason learning Chinese is hard.

2. If you learn Chinese in China, you’ll pick up the feminine speech patterns, anyway, from your female Chinese teacher. And if you have a Chinese girlfriend, you might inadvertently double down on these ladyboy habits. You need to learn Chinese outside the classroom.

3. Learning Chinese outside Asia might be toughest. There are great advantages to being here. Even if you earn a masters degree in the U.S. and learn 3,000 characters, you might not know the correct pronunciation or use case. Vocabulary is only the beginning! Comprehension is the goal.

3,000 Pictograms, I Mean, Characters

Why 3,000 characters? There’s actually many more. “An educated Chinese person will know about 8,000 characters,” says the BBC.  Just a subset of the 80,000+ that are out there, if you ask Stanford University. Hang on while I delete some files from my brain to make room for more Chinese.

3,000 just puts you at the middle school level. So after you learn 3,000 Chinese wingdings, congratulate yourself for finishing 8th grade. Here’s the first 100.

100 Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

100 Simplified Chinese Characters Every Beginner Needs to Remember

Then, you smash them together to form terms and learn how that changes context. Each character is just a building block for a word you want to say. So the combinations are, well… According to research by Ashwin Purohit, there are 41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters. Skeptical or need a data project for a statistics class? Here are Ashwin’s data files.


41,513 common words made up from 3,848 unique characters.


These evaluations are just for simplified Chinese, the kind that mainland China uses. Some of the people I’ve spoken to, and myself, believe 6,000 words should be the target for traditional Chinese speakers.

What’s the difference? Well, the Chinese speaking world outside mainland China, including Hong Kong, uses traditional Chinese. The Simplified creation was a Chinese government initiative to improve literacy rates, because well, Chinese is hard. Simplified Chinese uses fewer strokes to write characters, merging many that sound similar. Traditional Chinese forms are more numerous, require more strokes, and easier to recognize.

Rote Memorization

Growing up, I wondered why the emphasis on rote memorization in all forms of learning. Then I realized, this is exactly how people learn Chinese. One. Character. At. A. Time. And since language is one of the first high functioning tasks you learn how to do — it just catches on.

Sadly, I didn’t learn enough Chinese as a kid to pick up the magic ability of memorizing facts just so I can repeat them on tests. Which, by the way, isn’t really magic at all. Just habits. Because it’s the same way everyone else learns. Chinese, and tests, is difficult for everybody.

Placing memorization in perspective, many Western adults know somewhere between “20,000 and 35,000 words,” according to The Economist. Memorizing 3,000 characters doesn’t so sound bad. Still…

System Learning

Is there a better way to learn Chinese? Yes, and all of them suck. David Moser at the Beijing Capital Normal University tells a joke: “One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.”

Bopomofo (also known as Zhuyin). Local school children use bopomofo, a phonetic system, to learn words, but you still have to learn the 37 symbols and 4 tones. Also, you won’t see these symbols in public. Courtesy of Omniglot:

Chinese Bopomofo Pronunciation Chart

Radicals. Most systems incorporate learning a few of the 214 radicals. These are parts of characters that give you a clue what the word is about. These diagrams do a good job of explaining the concept. On top, you see how these radicals form characters.

Chinese Radicals Construction

The downside of radicals is that they won’t help you remember how to pronounce characters, but they help you recognize them. That’s a good start. Below, the radical for fire at the left, 火, is used to indicate fry (8), blast (9), grill (10), roast (16), and I haven’t learned 19 yet.

Chinese Radicals Example

Phonetics Are Hard

When you start to recognize characters, you need to learn how to pronounce them correctly. It’s what to say, vs. how to say it.

Pinyin. Most Westerners use pinyin to learn Chinese (the alternative is The Wade-Giles Romanization Atrocity), because it uses the Western alphabet. A fantastic learning tool. But again, you won’t see learning aides in public – just Chinese characters.

Also, learners tend to read off pinyin like they’re English words. Even after learning the four different accent sounds, or tones, people naturally go back to what they usually do. So, it kind of lulls you into a false sense of learning the language, because you end up remembering everything except the tones. You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out. The Hutong School explains.

Four Tones, Four Words — Mother, Marijuana, Horse, Insult

1.”mā”  usually means “mother”, but in spoken language the Chinese will usually say “māma” or “wŏ mā” (My mother) or “nĭ mā” (your mother)

2. “má”  could mean “hemp” (plant), but the only common usage in spoken language would be  “dàmá”, literally “big-hemp” referring to marihuana

3. “mă”  usually means horse

4. “mà”  usually means “to scold, to insult” and is a verb, meaning it will be preceded by a subject and followed by an object.

You probably get the point. Here’s where it gets tricky. Because Chinese joins characters to form words, if you screw up the pronunciations of one character, you quickly end up saying something you didn’t intend to. Exhibit A assumes you pronounced the first character correctly, but not the second:

Chinese Pronunciation Mistake

On the left, what you meant to say. On the right, what she heard.

Lord help you if you manage to screw up the pronunciations of both characters. The pronunciations can also change, depending on what characters are put next to each other. The reason Why, most of the time, is because it sounds more pleasing.

As if it weren’t difficult enough for most Westerners to think about what they say before they speak. How you speak is even more important when you’re in Greater China. In English, grammar matters. In Chinese, tones count.


You need a bit of a musical ear to sort it out.


Cognates Are Hard

Cognates, in Chinese, are words that mean and sound like the English translation. Typhoon, for instance, is 颱風 – tái fēng. You mostly encounter these with brand names, like McDonald’s (麥當勞). Mài dāng láo. Exactly how it sounds.

McDonald's in Taiwan

麥當勞 in 臺灣 (Courtesy: Pinterest)

Cognates are exceptions, but many made their way into modern Chinese. Some fully, some in part. For example, England is 英國 – yīng guó.

  • The first character, 英, is chosen because it sounds like the Eng in England, ˈiNG(g).
  • 國, the second character, means nation.

Chinese is hard, for me, because of this. During my one-hour radio interview, I was trying to figure out what the interviewer was asking us. One half of my brain is trying to recall the Chinese terms being used. The other half is listening to the sounds to see if they resemble an English word.

Moser has a better example which you’ve already seen. Imagine if English was written like this:

If English Were Written Like Chinese

What’s going on in my mind when I hear next-level Chinese (apparently, there’s a look on my face that makes it very clear when this is going on)

Chinese is Hard

In defense of foreigners, locals require 13 years of living and practicing Chinese on a full-time basis to get to understanding 3,000 characters and the words they form. But, visitors can definitely be more structured about learning. Work on writing — not just speaking. Oh, and tones.

Learning Chinese means having reasonable expectations, and treating it both as a process and a journey. I do think the amount of Chinese a foreigner learns here is proof they’ve learned a few lessons in resilience. And humility.

Coming up with a personal system, I’ve found, is helpful. But there are limits.


One of the first signs of senility in a China scholar is the compulsion to come up with a new romanization method.


The learning environment you create for yourself is probably more important. So much of that depends. Do you already know some Chinese? Do you have a Chinese girlfriend? The physical location is ideal, if not forgiving. What you surround yourself with makes it a plus or a negative.

If you’re Caucasian, people are most likely to compliment you on the Chinese you’ve learned so far, and then practice their own English with you. It’s the kind of compliment that isn’t kind, because your own Chinese isn’t going anywhere. You’re going to have to work harder at creating opportunities to practice.

If you’re an American-Born Chinese like me, locals generally won’t simplify or slow down their speech. If you look like you speak Chinese, locals will speak Chinese to you. Even though to them, you’re practically another species. The advantage I have is this isn’t the first time I’ve heard many phrases. But, I’m forced to learn Chinese more quickly.

National Taiwan Normal University

If you want to learn Chinese in Taiwan, I highly recommend National Taiwan Normal University’s (NTNU) Mandarin Training Center.

Learning Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University Mandarin Training Center

NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is the site of its old library. They kept the entrance, but put up a new building in the 1980s. (Courtesy: NTNU)

Yes, there are outstanding teachers at other language academies and universities. Many of them are like free agents — they actually work at several schools, and I’ve met some who freelance as translators for businesses.

There’s also National Taiwan University (my uni), which is internationally recognized for scholarly Chinese. But classical Chinese probably isn’t your goal, and NTNU has the local reputation for practical Chinese. It’s a trust mark.

National Taiwan Normal is also known for training primary and secondary school language teachers in its College of Education, and it’s considered a top 5 university in Taiwan. They know how to teach. I personally think there are more quality opportunities for language exchange and tutoring at NTNU.

Also, without getting into so many details, my personal experience (and of others I know) is that NTNU is way better equipped to help foreigners. This is important when it comes to legal paperwork like the forms you need in order to stay in Taiwan, who you need to talk to, and where you need to go. I’ve met the friendliest people in Taiwan at NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center.

And as a stranger in a strange land, having people who will help you is everything. Learning Chinese is hard enough.

I’m very lucky to have gotten to study at several of the top universities in Taiwan. Don’t hesitate to Contact Me if there are any questions I can answer for you.

 

I’m New to Taiwan. Can You Tell?

Even though I’m Taiwanese – both my mother and father were born on this island – figuring out I’m new to Taiwan doesn’t take much.

Where Is Taiwan

I walked into the Shin Kong Mitsukoshi department store in Taipei’s Xinyi district – famous for drawing foreign tourists – and before I said a Chinese word, the young lady knew I’m not from these parts. It’s pretty obvious to the locals. At least I think so. I believe so. It’s partly the way I dress. The way I walk. And the way I speak Chinese.

Yes, for most people, it’s the way I speak Chinese — the mother language around here. I can make my way around just fine (thank you very much), communicate needs, and feelings. It’s pretty good for someone who’s lived in the West their larger life. It’s good enough for an occasional visitor or a tourist. It’s not good for someone who looks like they might be Taiwanese and is living in Taiwan.

Sometimes, this is a positive. Sometimes, I run into someone who is genuinely curious about American Born Chinese (or Taiwanese). But I largely get the sense that when people see me, they don’t see a foreigner, they see, “There’s definitely something strange about that Taiwanese person.”


Looks matter. The tyranny of that statement demands I speak Chinese like a native.


If you’re a Taiwanese person living in Taiwan, knowing the Chinese language is an all-or-nothing kind of affair. If you’re not Asian, it’s another story. There’s little expectation that a Caucasian should know the language. But if you’re Asian, there’s every expectation. Looks matter. The tyranny of that statement demands I speak Chinese like a native when I’m in Taiwan.

Is that fair? Being white in America means people expect you to speak English. Being Taiwanese in Taiwan means people expect you to speak Chinese. Sucks for me, but yes, it’s fair.

Intense Training

"Begin Anywhere" - John Cage

“Begin Anywhere” – John Cage

To level up my Chinese skill, I spent two months at National Taiwan Normal University (NTNU) with other visitors and expats. People who are also new to Taiwan.

NTNU’s Mandarin Training Center is one of the better language learning programs in Taiwan. Maybe even the best. Primarily because it focuses on practical Chinese like speaking and reading. Writing is important also but it’s not the number one priority. What I most appreciated about NTNU is it’s a very supportive environment for foreigners. But when it comes to my own goals, being at NTNU gave me two months to learn how to teach myself Chinese.

I put the Chinese to use in more than my daily life. For instance, I came here for my MBA from National Taiwan University. I put a lot of thought into this decision and it makes sense for my outputs. More about why in another post.

Adaptation

Meanwhile, I’m making my way around Taipei, learning about and from Greater China while living here. There’s been a lot of frustrating moments. Still are. It’s equal parts “Why did I come” mixed with “Let’s do this.” The balance is shifting, but at the expense of the magic that comes with being in a foreign country.


A lot of frustrating moments. Still are.


It’s not like being an exchange student. Exchange students and those who look like foreigners are treated as guests and are given that leeway to figure Taiwan out. They should be, and they should have. I’m here and expected to be a local in more ways than several. People don’t know I’m new to Taiwan. Being an American Born Chinese with a language gimp means starting from behind. There’s not going to be a pillow behind every experience.

Adaptation is a survival skill and right now, everything is about adaptation. Either courageously or foolishly, I came here without a support network – against the advice of my peers – and have to build my own, person-by-person.

There’s so much I want to write about, though I promised myself it has to come from a place where I’ve developed a sense of the way things work around here. Very little comes easy to me in Taiwan, and I’m really having to effort my way out of a lot of things. But perhaps that means I’ll have something meaningful to share once I’m through Round 1 of my Asian-fication. For sure, I’ve got the American side of Asian-American locked in.

Until the next time, I’m the guy walking around Taipei like he’s got a deck of can’t lose cards in his pocket. Hello, I’m Philip Chang, and I’m new to Taiwan.