Why You Shouldn’t Learn Chinese

Update from April 2010: When I published this article a few years ago in a now defunct magazine, it generated a lot of discussion among readers. Some people were angered: “Who does he think he is, telling us not to learn Chinese! Arrogant wanker!” Others, about 2/3 of the total, understood my point and agreed with most of what I wrote.

The comments I get on this blog from readers are also split about 1/3 against, and 2/3 in favor.

Quite a few of the responses I get from those who are opposed are nasty and insulting. While I don’t feel hurt by anonymous attacks on my character and intelligence sent through cyberspace, I won’t post these comments, because a collection of insults adds nothing to the discussion. I will, however, post any comment that disagrees with my thesis which also displays a bit of reasoning and doesn’t contain a bunch of profanity or “You’re an idiot!” type comments. So, before you send your comment in, filter out the insults, and I’ll be happy to post it.

And here’s a hint for those of you are more sensitive: A lot of this was meant to be funny, and it was written for an audience that knows what it’s like to try to learn fluent Mandarin. So if you’re offended by challenging writing, you should probably move on, lest you get upset at Uncle True, who has no intention of upsetting you.

Okay, back to the original post…

Obviously, I don’t think people who want to learn Chinese should give up before they get started. My thesis, which should be abundantly clear after reading the article, is that people should embark on the process of learning Chinese with full knowledge of what they are getting in to.

And remember, if you’re serious about learning Chinese, I’m happy to offer you whatever advice you need.

Here’s the article:

Why You Shouldn’t Learn Chinese

The cover of the June 26, 2006 issue of the Asian edition of Time Magazine reads, “Get Ahead! Learn Mandarin!” The feature article narrates the tale of three Japanese businessmen who have given up nights at their favorite drinking spot for evening Mandarin classes. When asked why they’ve decided to study Mandarin, one of the salarymen vaguely replies, “We sort of unanimously agreed that Chinese would be a useful skill to acquire.” This sentiment mirrors a widely held view among up and comers in South Korea, Japan, and the West—the next twenty to thirty years belongs to China, and those who master Mandarin will be well positioned to participate in the Chinese economic juggernaut. If you’re thinking along the same lines, there are a few questions you need to consider.

First, when will you be able to move to Taiwan or China? Or, if you already live in Taiwan or China, when will you be able to quit your job so that you can spend most of your time learning Mandarin? According to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, Mandarin is one of the five most difficult languages in the world for native English speakers to learn[1]. The Institute quotes 2,200 hours as the minimum number of class hours required for attaining fluency in Mandarin[2]. By that calculation, if you attend classes 10 hours a week, you’ll be fluent in four and a half years. Of course, the idea of learning Mandarin solely by taking classes is a pipe dream. You might be able to delay moving to Taiwan or China for a year, taking classes in your home country first, but you won’t make much progress. And after the first year, you’ll quickly reach the point of diminishing returns. Learning Mandarin in a classroom outside of Taiwan or China is about as efficient as learning to sail in a helicopter.

Second, are you a gifted mimic? Can you imitate, with precision, the voices and accents of your friends and co-workers? If you don’t have the voice control to mimic very foreign sounds with great accuracy, plan on always sounding like a foreigner when you speak Mandarin. Most people who learn Mandarin discover to their frustration that their mouths just won’t work that way, and they end up sounding like a foreigner speaking bad English on a television sitcom—more laughable than funny. The effort involved in crisply spouting off mouthfuls of Mandarin with accurate tones typically results in serious oral cramping. Many foreign speakers of Mandarin end up pronouncing entire sentences in the elongated first tone, ending abruptly with an overly loud fourth tone, intoning sentences that sound like song versus sung by a demented member of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. Fluency in Mandarin isn’t defined by having perfectly accented vocal tones, but if you do achieve a level of fluency that allows you to converse freely, you probably won’t sound much like a Chinese person.

Third, what’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever done that you didn’t really have to do? Run a marathon? Learn to use CAD to design a home? Rebuild a car engine? Well, compared to learning to speak and read Mandarin (forget about writing—at best, you’ll learn to type in Mandarin using a phonemic alphabet called BoPoMoFo or some other type of shorthand), it was a cakewalk. To become fluent in Mandarin in under two years, you’ll need iron discipline, endless perseverance, and a high resistance to tension headaches. During the first year I studied Mandarin in Taiwan, I ended each day in a state of mental exhaustion. It was like swimming in a powerful, four-foot deep whirlpool—I never drowned, but I never felt in control either.

People who come to Taiwan and China as missionaries, language students, or diplomats are either required to learn Mandarin or want to learn Mandarin. Then there are those who come as executives, as specialists, or to teach English. When they are fresh off the boat, most of them have grand dreams of mastering Mandarin in between meetings or classes. Time passes and you meet one of them in a pub one night. After a few beers, the story is usually the same, “I’ve been here for two years and haven’t really learned Mandarin yet,” as if not learning Mandarin is something to be ashamed of.

The truth is, if you’re in Taiwan or China as a teacher, a businessperson on an expatriate package, or a specialist, there no need to learn Mandarin beyond the few simple phrases that will get you from office to home in a taxi or help you figure out how much a vendor wants you to pay for something. Rare is the China-based expatriate who has the wisdom to recognize this and say: “I’m not going to learn Mandarin. I can’t take the time away from work to learn it well, and frankly, I don’t see the need to learn it.” Bravo to these sensible souls.

Having said that, I’ll offer some advice to those who are sitting on the fence. Advice based on more than twenty years of studying and teaching Mandarin. If you think you’d like to learn Mandarin, but you’re not sure if you’ve got the discipline, the free time, and an adequate amount of headache medicine to get the job done, give learning Mandarin a three month trial period. Sign up for Mandarin classes, make time in your schedule to study. Work hard for ninety days and then give the whole project an honest assessment. If you don’t enjoy learning Mandarin, or feel that it isn’t worth the struggle, then give it up and proudly accept your status as a non-speaker of Mandarin. Go and learn Spanish—after six months of classes and a two-month sabbatical in Mexico you’ll be fluent. But don’t feel guilty about the fact that you don’t speak Mandarin. How many people do you know who can free climb up an inverted cliff face? Well, about the same number of Westerners can speak Mandarin with a high level of fluency.


[1] Austin Ramzy, “Get Ahead, Learn Mandarin,”Time Asia Edition, June 26, 2006, page 22

[2] Ibid

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65 Comments

Filed under Language

65 responses to “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Chinese

  1. chinacomment

    I’ll agree that it’s extremely frustrating to pick up the language. I’m at the point of intermediate fluency- I can have involved conversations, and can read emails and things that don’t have any slang, but it took me 3+ years to get to this point, and a lot of that was extremely hard work and slogging. (Still, I took several month breaks in between classes and time in China…which probably set me back- but hey, life intervenes.)

    The job opportunities though, for a Westerner who can speak Chinese, are great and as the number of Westerners who speak Chinese rise, it will be increasingly difficult for non-Mandarin-speakers to get a good job in certain China-based fields.

    chinacomment.wordpress.com

  2. truettblack

    Thanks for the comment. I think anyone who has the discipline, and a deep, abiding interest should give Mandarin a try. There are two prerequisites for success.

    I think talent is another issue–most foreign Mandarin speakers sound pretty foreign. That is okay if your goal is to use Mandarin as a communication tool, but if you really want to sound like a native, you have to have a strong talent for mimicry of the sounds and the flow of Mandarin, and many just don’t.

    I’m glad to hear that you have made the progress you have. Add oil!

  3. Lou

    I hope no one reads this and takes it in verbatim. How can anyone learn a language in a year and expect to speak it with fluency as though they were born in the country where the language is spoken. Has some sense…Think about how long it took for you to be able to sit in front of your t.v. and listen to the news with no doubt as to what was broadcasted. The only bit of truth is the bit about mimicing. Truth be told, everyone has an accent, and everyone is makes fun of others about their accent. But, if you are not one of these types of close-minded douchebags, you give much respect for those that can communicate beyond their meanings and don’t submit to the thinking that foreign languages are impossible to learn.

  4. truettblack

    Sigh. I share your hope that people have the ability to read beyond the title to the article.

    I’m not sure what you disagree with, because my article actually supports most of what you’ve written here. Fluency after one year? Where did I write that?

    For those who have trouble with lateral thinking, let me repost the introduction to this post, where I clearly state my thesis and then offer to help anyone who wants to learn Mandarin:

    “Obviously, I don’t think people who want to learn Chinese should give up before they get started. My thesis, which should be abundantly clear after reading the article, is that people should embark on the process of learning Chinese with full knowledge of what they are getting in to.

    And remember, if you’re serious about learning Chinese, I’m happy to offer you whatever advice you need.”

    For those who are unhappy with what I’ve written, thinking that I’m telling people they can’t learn Mandarin, PLEASE reread the article, this time with a bit of objectivity and open-mindedness. And if you need a bit of guidance in your learning process, feel free to ask Uncle True.

  5. It comes down to time and motivation. Despite their best intentions, most people if they are completely honest don’t have enough of either to really make any headway with Mandarin. Another point I would add is that learning Mandarin is especially difficult for the first year but once you’ve got the ball rolling it’s not all that hard to learn (not counting writing!)

  6. truettblack

    Ding ding ding! Absolutely my point, Naruwan. Thank you.

    And very true about year two–If you’ve spent the first year learning to listen and speak, and have learned some characters, you’ll find that things get much easier in year two.

    Add Oil, ye Mandarin learners, Add Oil!

  7. anonymoose

    I always thought this article made allot of sense. It’s damn difficult to learn Mandarin after a full 8+ hrs working and a bit of supplemental job study on the side. I used to sit in language class half asleep.

  8. truettblack

    Thanks for the comment, anonymoose. Did you start learning Mandarin and then have to give up? If so, you’ve joined a group that is growing by the thousands every week.

    Get yourself off to Mexico for a few months. You’ll come home fluent in Spanish!

  9. Jay2K

    I’m a few weeks away from beginning my senior year in college. I have decided to enroll in Mandarin, and complete a full year of study to complement my degree in Economics.

    Can anyone give some insight into what employment opportunities with respect to working in Mandarin speaking countries with an American company.
    I’ll have a bachelors degree in Economics, and also be eligible to sit for the CPA exam, along with some Mandarin.

  10. truettblack

    You know what Uncle True would say about taking Mandarin courses, right? If you’re really interested and view the challenge of learning Mandarin as something exciting rather than misery-inducing, then go for it. Just make sure you have a very, very good reason for learning, or you’ll poop out halfway through.

    As for employment opportunities for Americans in China or Taiwan, that depends largely on what industry you’re interested in. In general, nobody’s going to hire you on an expat package if you don’t come with a track record of success in your chosen field. It is just too expensive.

    I do know of some younger types who work in research for banks like UBS and Citibank who are Americans or Europeans. I imagine they get at least 3-5 years of experience before moving overseas.

    You might try posting your question at http://www.forumosa.com. There are some posters there who work in China. I know recently there was a thread that discussed breaking into the financial services industry overseas.

    Good luck.

  11. Christophe Strobbe

    This article reminds me of David Moser’s “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard”. I finished my second year of Chinese in May and look forward to the beginning of the third year. After eight years of studying Chinese I will have roughly the proficiency one would have after three years of French, English, German or Spanish (but probably a smaller vocabulary), a level that is known as “Threshold” or B1 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/linguistic/cadre_EN.asp?) .
    At the end of his article, David Moser quotes someone who said that learning Chinese is “a five-year lesson in humility”. I suppose you can learn humility in five years, but I think that learning Chinese will take a bit longer.

  12. I must be odd. I have found Chinese easier than German, Latin, and Spanish. (nobody sells $30 books offering 501 different verb variations for Chinese). I learned German as a child while we lived in a small village in Austria. Having learned it as a child, I speak it well and with little accent (okay, an Austrian accent) at 57. I had to take Latin in high school, and that was good for my English vocabulary. At age 47, I took up Spanish and maintain it to this day. I read Spanish every day and can hear a bit daily on TV and radio here in North Carolina. Even after ten years’ study and a trip to Spain, I still do not understand it well, nor do I speak it well.
    With Chinese, I find it is simply a matter of learning vocabulary and some grammar rules. I do NOT bother with learning to read beyond PinYin. At my age, I take the attitude that billions of Chinese have lived and died illiterate but able to speak.
    I do agree with the bit about being a good mimic. I found early on that speaking another language required one to sort of “hold your mouth different.” Nobody will mistake me for a native, but after three trips to Taiwan, I can get around a bit and understand more than people think. Learning a non Western language has certainly made me more aware of how hard learning English must be for Chinese and I vastly respect those Chinese who speak English reasonably well. They have had to jia you as much as I have!

    • sjmanniex

      I have to agree with Joel. I’m British, lived in China for four years, studied Mandarin for two of those years, then was hired by an international company mainly on the strength of my Mandarin skills. I’m definitely no linguist, but the relative simplicity of the grammar was what helped me the most when learning Mandarin. I studied French, German, Spanish and Latin at school, speak barely any of them, and I found that the most off-putting part of learning those languages was the tedious and complex grammar structures.

  13. Beetle

    Interesting article! Although I am not by any means a fluent speaker of Mandarin, I do have some smug self-satisfaction of being the only white person I know of in my town who knows any Chinese at all. With only about 350 Han Yu (read & write) committed to memory so far and probably 500 spoken words, my knowledge is quite laughable, but it totally amazes my Caucasian peers considering I have never taken a class. It completely dumbfounds Chinese people as well at the restaurant when I speak as they are always excited to know how I learned what little I know. Most Chinese people I have come across are very delighted to hear a Westerner make an effort.

    Which brings me to a little advice, if I may, to any potential learners of Mandarin. You see, I have never sat down and seriously studied the language full-time. For the past 2 years I have become obsessed with Chinese pop-music (C-Pop) and related media. What little I know has come about by “osmosis”. Listening to C-Pop, watching lots of Taiwanese dramas (fan-subbed in English), and a couple good Chinese dictionaries have accelerated my passive learning of the language.

    Also, I have always been musically and artistically inclined, which I think helps. Whenever I see a Chinese character several times in print, it sort-of burns itself into my memory like an unique image rather than a word. The concept of a “tonal language” was embraced by comparing it to my musical background. And yes, mimicry is a crucial skill, as I was always that kid in school who made my friends laugh by impersonating our teachers and various cartoon characters with reasonable accuracy.

    So, if you are even just a little bit interested in learning Mandarin, I say go for it! Just relax if you have no time restraints and learn gradually by osmosis by surrounding yourself with Chinese media. The internet is teeming with music and television from Mainland and Taiwan. Remember, more Chinese speaking people use the internet than any other language speaking people!

  14. gabriel

    I am a foreigner who lives in China. I have been here for one year, but my Chinese still isn’t fluent.

    I would like to take issue with the idea that not being able to speak Chinese sounding like a native is a reason not to learn it. How many Chinese people do you know who learnt English as adults and sound like a native? probably none. In fact, how many non-English speaking people learn English as adults and don’t have a strong foreign accent? It’s normal for any language. If you are a foreigner then you sound like one.

    Furthermore, I realize that learning Chinese is very difficult indeed (I am trying it at the moment), however I think that for foreigners living in China for extended periods of time, giving it a try does pay off, not least because of the appreciation which Chinese people will show if you even try to speak their language.

    • truettblack

      Gabriel, I don’t know how you got the impression that I was implying that having accented Chinese is a reason not to learn it. That is not at I wrote, so I’m not sure what there is to “take issue with.” Most foreigners will indeed sound like foreigners even after they become fluent. That is simply a fact that I hope people realize going in.

      I also never stated that learning Chinese isn’t worth the investment. Quite the opposite, in fact.

      • “The truth is, if you’re in Taiwan or China as a teacher, a businessperson on an expatriate package, or a specialist, there no need to learn Mandarin beyond the few simple phrases that will get you from office to home in a taxi or help you figure out how much a vendor wants you to pay for something. Rare is the China-based expatriate who has the wisdom to recognize this and say: “I’m not going to learn Mandarin. I can’t take the time away from work to learn it well, and frankly, I don’t see the need to learn it.” Bravo to these sensible souls.”

        This was the part I was taking issue with. I think that even if you are working in China and have no time to study full time, it’s still a good idea to try and learn some Chinese. Any little bit you learn will be useful, impress people, and enrich your time in China. So you are not going to sound like Da Shan. Does it matter? Plus, even just being able to communicate basic needs in daily situations, like explaining the way to your taxi driver, involves quite a bit of study. I don’t think encouraging expats not to make any effort at all to learn Chinese is a good idea. Many of them already don’t anyway.

      • truettblack

        Ah, so you read the entire article and then chose to highlight the part you take issue with? You must be a lot of fun at dinner parties.

        I’m just teasing you. Don’t get upset.

        I don’t think you understand my point. I’m not encouraging expats not to learn Chinese. I’m encouraging people to either learn it, or stop fretting about the fact that they aren’t learning it. There’s quite a difference, no? Of course I agree that expats in China or Taiwan should learn as much as they can.

  15. David

    I am a graduating 8th grade student. I have already taken two years if spanish, and find myself at a crossroads. Do I continue on my path and finish spanish, or follow the advice of some and opt for learning mandarin? Foreign language has always come easire to me as the fact that I was raised in a bilingual home (my parents immigrated from Russia) In my family, learning chinese is seen as something that will not only help me with acceptance into college, it will help me greatly in my career beyond college. I think I have the work ethic and intelligence to becoe acquainted with this language, and hopefully fluent. So I gues my question is, should I continue in spanish or switch to Mandarin?

    • truettblack

      David,

      Since you are good at learning languages and have the discipline to do it, is there any way you can continue to study Spanish while adding Mandarin to your class schedule? If not, then I would advise you to go with your instincts. What do they tell you to do? At the age of 14, it is really hard to know what you’ll be doing in 10-15 years. It is best to go with what you feel strongly about.

      One thing you might do is attend a Mandarin learning workshop somewhere first, and see if you feel any affinity for learning the language. With some people, Mandarin comes easily. With others, not so much. It just depends on the person. If you have a little exposure to the language before you make a commitment to learning it, it will help you make the right decision.

  16. Michael

    I totally agree with the point that you should learn Chinese at least one year in your own country then move to China to continue your study. The point is that you can pick up something in Chinese, for instance, Chinese characters , Pinyin, basic daily expressions etc.

    If you come to China without any foundations of mandarin, it tends to get frustrated when you feel like you’re a deaf when people talk and laugh around you.

  17. John

    Hey,
    I am starting to learn Mandarin but I also totally get your point. I actually lived in Taiwan for a year and a half but due to the work schedule I never had time to take a course. Sure I learned a lot of the writing system and can read menus, some newspaper stuff, but I still had no grasp of the tones. After a year and a half I decided to make a change to do this.

    I actually took a new job in Singapore which is giving me time to take advanced classes and actually get the instruction I need. I picked my apartment based on proximity to chinese communities and will be immersing myself as much as possible. My plan is to get to that “diminishing return” point ASAP so I can build on my foundation when I head back up north.

  18. Erica

    My kid has been learning Mandarin for almost a decade. She is far from fluent. I have found that only some with Mandarin speaking homes are able to speak Mandarin well. However, my kid’s writing level is equivalent to theirs. I know many children who are studying Mandarin in California. The non speaking Chinese parents are in the dark. In the magazine that this article appeared, there was a recipe for Oyster Omlette. Would be be kind enough to e-mail me the recipe or post it.
    Thank you.

  19. Proofmonk4

    I am a sophmore in college thinking about picking up Chinese as a minor so I am coming from a slightly different direction than learning it in my free time. I took three years of spanish in high school but did the minimal amount of work and as a result I would say I have no foreign language experience. I have changed a lot since high school though and now as a pre med student I have a very good work ethic and I am trying to broaden my resume for med school applications anyways. Assuming that I will be putting in a ton of out of class study along side homework, is it worth it? Honestly I don’t care about sounding fluent but I would want to be able to at least take something out of the 50 credit hours spent on the minor.

    Thanks

    • truettblack

      When are you going to China? That’s the key to getting fluent. 50 credit hours + 6 months in China, and you’ll be able to converse, even if you’re not very fluent.

      You may also be one of the few who has a natural ability to speak Mandarin.

      The fact that you are asking me if it is worth it to learn Chinese is probably your biggest problem. My advice? Take a semester of classes, see if you feel a burning passion to learn. If you don’t, dump it. This is not a zero sum game, right?

  20. wenkai

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. Very well done…this is refreshingly realistic advice. As someone who has slogged thru several years of hard-core mandarin training at the defense language institute, I am fully convinced that Chinese is essentially unlearnable…at least, the only way to be fluent in the language is to grow up in China. The rest of us are just pretenders…sure, we can read newspapers, watch a movie, talk about politics in Chinese, etc, but that’s only scratching the surface of the monstrosity that is Chinese. If I only knew what I was getting myself into when I requested Mandarin. After the first year of DLI training, I still had confidence, only because the teachers understandably shielded us from the crazy parts of Chinese: the endless, non-intuitive idioms and fixed expressions, the dizzying array of vocab, the horrible, ugly-sounding regional Mandarin dialects. Now I know though, all too well. The work-to-results ratio is appalling, absolutely appalling. Classical Chinese – wenyanwen – is an impossibility. Ancient philosophical texts in wenyanwen is a locked box inaccessible to the learner. So I read articles about Confucius, but can’t even touch his original texts. I remember spending countless hours copying and re-copying characters in an attempt to write them fluently. A laughable, naive goal…I’m comfortable now with recognition, and just type them all out now. If I can read it and recognize it, I pat myself on the back. Writing it? Forget about it. Too painful. If the native speakers forget how to write their characters, then I too can be satisfied with a word processor…accumulated Chinese characters are so very perishable. I just accept the fact that I will forget some, until I stumble upon them again. Chinese only gets worse the deeper you slog into it, and by then you realize the folly of choosing Chinese in the first place, but by then you can only keep trudging forward…it’s hard to throw it all away. I can’t turn my back on all the tears, frustration, successes and setbacks in my 7 year process of learning Chinese. But I see old companions who took different tracks, like Spanish, and am mortified by their fluency compared to mine, and I know they put in less work. As such, I always council people to not choose Chinese without thinking of consequences. Only the hard-core soul with a hermit mentality could really get good in the language (though ‘good’ is very relative compared to the native speaker). Most students break like water as they try to scale this wall. It requires so much of your life…if I only I picked Russian…

    • Once again, I must disagree with this sort of attitude. Yes, classical Chinese is unlearnable. So what? That is not what you have studied. So there is a “dizzying array of vocab”. Even English has a dizzying array of currently used vocab which most native speakers only know some of. There are dialects (whether they are ugly is a matter of opinion). But again you are not learning the dialects, but the standard. Other languages have dialects too by the way. Most Chinese people who have learned English for years and put great effort into it would not even understand a Scottish accent, let alone the proper Scottish dialect. Yes there are masses of idioms, but they are not essential for communication, and other languages have lots of them as well. It is difficult to remember how to write the characters, but thanks to modern technology, writing by hand is not that necessary anyway.

      If you can discuss politics or read a newspaper in Chinese, you are not a pretender, you are fluent in Chinese. Clearly being able to read ancient texts or understanding dialects doesn’t fall under the definition of fluency. Yes one can learn Spanish much more easily, but it isn’t as impressive or as useful if you know Spanish, exactly because so many people learn it.

      Then again, Chinese is indeed a very difficult language to tackle (just like any language totally unrelated to your own), and learning is a long and frustrating experience.

      • truettblack

        Gabriel is right here. Chinese is learn-able. It just takes a lot of effort. Most people don’t have what it takes (i.e. tremendous fortitude and perseverance) to pull it off.

        The point of my article is not the people shouldn’t learn Mandarin. It is that people should understand what’s involved before they get into it.

      • wenkai

        Jixiang: your points are well-taken. Yes, English, as well as any other language, indeed has its dialects. We all speak one. What is especially difficult with Mandarin, however, is that so many native speakers in China grew up speaking another language in the home – Minnan, Yue, Wu, Gan, etc – and they naturally juxtapose those respective pronunciations onto Mandarin (ie. /sh/ nad /zh/ becomes non-existent, and so on). This makes listening comprehension a unique problem. Pronunciation in any tonal language is critical, esp. for the student. Therefore most students are dumbfounded when they listen to someone from Hunan or Sichuan, or they hear Taiwan Mandarin with its endless stream of /s/. Regarding the classical language question, I do see it as important, though you’re right in that it’s not crucial to fluency. Learning a language like Chinese naturally makes one want to know its civilization and philosophies. But Chinese definitely isn’t French. One year of work with a beat-up college text book enables one to read Voltaire. Not so in Chinese. We just have to settle for secondary sources on Kongzi and Laozi. Regarding idioms: do you read and listen to much Mandarin? (I assume you do). Mandarin teems with idioms and fixed expressions, though many lump them together. It’s absolutely crucial to Chinese vocab. Progressing into intermediate Mandarin requires one to get these down, or else the student’s reading and listening comp will be stunted, and they’ll never sound natural in speaking if they can’t squeeze a few in. And I find it interesting when people say one can read the news with a bank of 2 or 3000 basic characters. Not true. They don’t mention that often Chinese words are made of 2 characters, and they combine in an endless array. And often the meanings are not intuitive – we just have to memorize them. The richness & vastness of Chinese vocab truly represents its 5,000 years of uninterrupted development. From my 7 years of learning Mandarin with many others, i believe its huge vocab, its idioms & fixed expressions, and its many dialects cause the greatest of difficulties. And many students just quit after wasting several years on it. But thank goodness the grammar isn’t so bad!

  21. I see your points. When it comes to dialects though, I do believe you are not comparing Chinese fairly with other languages. Yes, most speakers of Chinese grew up speaking a different language at home, and so their pronunciations can diverge from the standard. The same applies in many major languages, for instance Italian, a language which I speak. Italy is full of dialects, which do influence people’s pronunciation when they speak standard Italian. Plus, a Chinese person who learns English for business will probably have to listen to a lot of non-native speakers of English from France, Russia or wherever who speak the language with a strange accent and gets certain sounds wrong. Isn’t that the same?

    As for the ancient texts, I agree that learning Chinese does not enable one to read the original Confucius, but he did after all live over 2000 years ago. In how many countries can a student of the modern language understand original texts written over 2000 years previously? Excellent students of modern English will find it hard to even read Shakespeare in the original.
    Just a thought.

    I totally agree about the fact that saying you only need 3000 characters to read a newspaper is a misrepresentation. And you are right that when you get into learning Chinese you should realize the difficulties.

    • wenkai

      Jixiang,
      I have to say, you make an excellent point on the dialect issue. I hadn’t actually thought of it from the angle you presented, e.g. that learners of English have to deal with many other non-native English speakers from other countries. I have to imagine that is a bit of a nightmare; someone speaking English with semi-French pronunciation would be a challenge to listening comp. I’ll have to keep this concept in mind and not get so frustrated when I have to listen to, say, someone from Zhejiang. I swear sometimes I want to have a struggle session with some of the people and force them to make a /zh/ or a /sh/ sound. It’s amazing to think how so many Chinese people actually start life not speaking Mandarin, and that really has a big influence on the regional dialects. It makes listening comp an interesting challenge. We did choose an interesting road, didn’t we? Cheers,

  22. Zod

    I think it really comes down to expectations. If you want to obtain fluency then you might as well pack your bags and move there since it takes non-stop exposure to the language and culture. If you’re wanting to take a class and be fluent after a few years it simply won’t happen.

    However if you want to learn it with the goal of being able to survive (order dinner, ask for directions, give information during an emergency, talk about your business, etc.) without expecting to hide the fact that you’re a foreigner then I think that’s reasonable and possibly worthwhile.

  23. Spike

    I agree with your article from a practical perspective. I am an English teacher here, (Taiwan) but the sole purpose of me coming here is to learn Chinese. (Have fun along the way of course). But the more Chinese I learn the more fun I have…

    I know what you mean about when some foreigners speak mandarin it just sounds… strange. I know a few foreigners who’s vocabulary is quite a bit larger than mine, (been studying longer than I) but when they talk they sound like they are speaking English… It’s like they forget the tones, and forget to differentiate the “x” and “sh” sounds. Not to put them down or anything, just an observation. I know I sometimes forget the tones… Sometimes even forget the “x” “sh”

    But I have been told by Taiwanese that my Mandarin sounds very local, and it is scary that I sound like a Taiwanese. Perhaps I have this miming gift you speak of. I don’t want to sound too Taiwanese though, because that just means my Mandarin is lazy without any retro-flexes… So I try to differentiate the “sh” and “s” , “zh” and “z” sounds, but not too much, because if you over do it with the retro flexes, (at least here in Taiwan) it sounds very foreign, well very BEIJING. I don’t even bother with the “er” unless I am in a joking mood. With that being said though, I am FAR from fluent, and my vocab is very limited. I can write, but my writing is even more limited, (naturally).

    Well enough gloating… My point is this:

    Yes It’s a huge mountain to climb, but you know what? Millions of native Chinese speakers learn English, which to them is just as difficult. You know there are many sounds in the English language that are simply non existent in Mandarin Chinese. In fact, English is much more phonetically rich than Mandarin. So that is why Chinese people, even though many have amazing English, still sound quite “foreign” to native English speakers. However native English speakers are just used to “foreigners” speaking English, where as the Chinese speaking world is really not used to hearing big-noses speak Mandarin. I agree with your final assessment. Give mandarin a try for a few months, and if you don’t like it, just be happy you know the basics! I for one fell in love with the language. I especially love flirting with the beautiful young ladies that work in department stores all over this island.

  24. I have written a bit of a reply to this article, as well as other ones with a similar tone. It’s called “Is Chinese unlearnable?” Find it here: http://www.thecapitalinthenorth.blogspot.com/2012/02/is-chinese-unlearnable.html

    • truettblack

      I skimmed it. You don’t seem to understand my message. I don’t think it’s impossible to learn Chinese. I think it’s difficult to learn it well. There’s a difference.

  25. caffinit

    I am currently a high schooler. I take Latin, and I generally have a strong passion to learn another language. Unfortunately, Latin is not a modern language. I signed up for a Chinese class that takes place over the summer. I understand it takes perseverence to fully grasp a language, and I really want to learn Chinese. After the class is over, what should I do next?? A private tutor? I’m willing to invest. I don’t have an urge to learn an other romance language that is connected to Latin. Thanks.

  26. Hi there. We’re working on a piece at City Weekend Shanghai titled “Is it worth learning Chinese in Shanghai?”. Would you be interested in taking the helm for the “no” side of the debate? Do let me know if you’re interested or have any questions.

  27. Sam

    It’s nice to get some wisdom from people who’ve devoted years to it. It makes me feel a bit better to know there are others banging their heads against the wall, but still going on with it. I started 4 years ago when did a research internship in New York, where 8/10 of my coworkers were from mainland China. Since then I have been devoting in my free time about 5-10 hours a week, I’ve gone through all 3 levels of Rosetta stone, and after an honest assessment, I would still describe myself as a beginner/basic level. I can barely get through a basic kid’s book in Mandarin. I accept it.

    So you joke about going to Mexico for 6 months and being fluent in spanish – Well, I actually did that, and I am quite fluent in Spanish now. After all that effort to learn Chinese and still remain basic, while learning Spanish in 6 months – I feel truly feel the pain. With fluency is spanish and some high school french, I could spend 2 months in France, Brazil and Italy each, and gain good fluency in French, Portuguese and Italian. (Speaking seriously, I think I will, at least with Portuguese. Having never studied, I can read and understand 70%).

    I feel like an idiot, not because I’m not progressing very far, but because I’ve decided to keep trying. After immersion learning Spanish so quickly, I’m short term planning months abroad of mandarin-learning in China, I’ve started weekly skype conversations with my many close Chinese graduate school friends, I even have a f@#$ing renren account. I understand it may take 10+ years – but I’m young, I got time. Especially if my future brings me to China. When I read the title of the article- I couldn’t help but think “Well, sh$t”, having spent that much time in what may become a failed endeavor. But it’s honestly a bit refreshing to hear the magnitude and scope how difficult it is for others. It’s in some ways a bit of validation and vindication. I imagine the accomplishment of Mandarin fluency not to be a feat of great language learning ability, but rather of borderline superhuman patience, stubbornness, dedication and teethgrinding – and to me, the latter is far more impressive. If I am indeed an idiot, I’m glad I’m not the only one.

  28. Tony

    The best place to learn mandarin is in a refrigerator. Why do I say that? Well why does ‘good’ mandarin as spoken by newsreaders in Beijing sound like hissing and very different to that spoken by say a native Cantonese speaker. Simply because mandarin as a northern Chinese language is spoken in -30 temperatures. You don’t open your mouth wide in -30 degrees, you hiss the words out. As a result it is a very difficult language for those of us from warm climates. And I agree with the general tenor of the article. Why learn Mandarin if you are a native English speaker.

    There are 400 million Chinese in China learning English and doing quite well. My travels in China surprised me as many Chinese who have never left China spoke it reasonably well. In contrast very few (comparatively) English speakers are learning Mandarin. In the USA 51,000 university students are studying Chinese. In Britain in 2010, 750,000 people took the Chinese proficiency test however 670,000 were native Chinese speakers looking for marks in what for them is an easy subject.

    Most of the people studying Mandarin overseas are Chinese. Its the same in Australia. But even in Singapore few learn the written language. Now with technology there is even less reason to learn Mandarin. Google or Microsoft can translate it for you. And numbers of people speaking Mandarin doesn’t count. If it did we should all start learning Hindi.

    The other great disadvantage of Mandarin apart from its tonal qualities is the character based script which takes forever to master if you are not a talented artist.

    English is the defacto world language as the British Empire has spread it around the world in contrast the great majority of Mandarin speakers are clustered in China as most overseas Chinese speak Cantonese or Hokkien or another of the many Chinese dialects especially if they left 30+ years ago.

    And the Chinese being more pragmatic than the Japanese have been teaching English in schools for a long time and at a young age. My advice if you want to learn a language is to learn English well. You will always get a job in China.

    • truettblack

      And if you learn good Chinese, you will find an even better job.

      • Tony

        Not necessarily, as you have pointed out it depends on your field and your desire to work in China not to mention your relationships. China is a country where who you know counts in getting a job more than what you know and more than in the west. Recently I was on a plane sitting next to the wife of a provincial governor. She wants her son to study in Australia with someone reliable to watch over him. As my Chinese girlfriend fits the bill she suggested I could be offered a contract with the provincial government without knowing any mandarin at all.

    • 400 million Chinese learning English? You know how they come up with these figures? Every school-age Chinese is included, since English is now a subject in all ordinary state schools. That doesn’t mean however that all those people will actually know much English once they leave school. Learning a language at school is not a guarantee of being able to speak it, and you can see for yourself in China how many young people who have been to school and thus presumably “learnt English” can hardly say a word.

      You say that you were suprised how many Chinese could speak English well when you travelled in China. If you actually lived in China like I do, you would see that the vast majority of people speak little or no English, that even young people with a university education don’t always speak it much, and that speaking Chinese is pretty much essential to living here, understanding the society and doing business. Here in Beijing my flatmates (a young engineer and his wife) are unable to converse in English, although I imagine the guy can read engineering texts in English.

      I agree that the number of speakers isn’t the point, but the fact is that China is getting more and more important, and people who know Mandarin will be able to cash in on this better. This is precisely because it is not a world language and it is very difficult, so few non-Chinese actually learn it. This means that if you do learn it, you will be part of a select group of people.

      As for your comments about Mandarin and the Chinese climate, they are certainly original, but I doubt they have much basis. I doubt Russians or Swedes find Chinese easier than the rest of us. English didn’t exactly originate in a tropical climate either by the way. Nore does it ever reach -30 in Beijing, whose dialect Mandarin is based on. It does get very cold here, but only from December to February.

      • Tony

        400m Chinese know basic grammar and can usually read and write in English. Spoken English is a problem probably because they don’t get a chance to practice but what 400m means is an enormous number of potential English speakers when I would be surprised if the worldwide number of half ready non Chinese mandarin learning speakers is 1% of that. From what I have seen its usually embarrassment that prevents Chinese trying to speak English unless they travel overseas but then the same can be said of anyone not comfortable with a language. I imagine you never speak English to your flatmates because you are a native Mandarin speaker so don’t blame them.

        As for climate you miss the point. It is irrelevant what the temperature is in Beijing now. What matters is what the temperature was when mandarin was developing as a language somewhere between 1100 and 1300. Which surprise, coincides with the Mongul dynasty (from the colder north and also with a mini ice age starting about 1300). There is also evidence of a Korean connection with standard mandarin and certainly the distribution area for the language includes parts of Tibet and Manchuria (both very cold).

        The reason the Russians and Swedes don’t find mandarin easy is because mandarin (and Asian derivatives such as Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese) are all tonal languages. Its the tones westerners find difficult especially when combined with the method of speaking from the north, Southern speakers do not seem to pronounce mandarin with the same, for want of a better word, hissing sound,

        Finally, and gong back to the article, if I was a natural linguist I may try to learn Mandarin or one of the other useful languages in the world but as I am not I am happy not to join the select group of foreigners trying to hiss their way around China

      • First of all I am no native speaker of Mandarin, in spite of the fact that I use my Chinese name (Jixiang) in this forum. If you click on my name, which links to my blog, you will see that I am actually a foreigner who lives in China and has learnt Chinese, although by no means perfectly.

        Secondly, the contention that 400 million Chinese can “usually read and write in English” is just untrue. That would be almost a third of the Chinese people. Anyone who has any real knowledge of China would never claim such a thing. 400 million Chinese probably know how to say “hello”, “yes’, “no”, count up to ten in English, and that’s about it. If these people don’t speak to you in English it’s not because of embarrassment, it’s because they can’t speak it, or at least not very much.

        It certainly wasn’t the Monguls who invented Mandarin. It is based on a dialect which originated in Beijing, although some Manchu and even Mongol words may have slipped in. And my point is that all else equal, I doubt Russians find it easier to learn Chinese than people from warmer climes.

        In any case, I totally respect your decision not to learn Mandarin, and I agree that in today’s world it’s just not worth the effort unless you want to move to China. If you do, however, it’s a real pity not to at least make an attempt.

      • Tony

        Hi Jixiang,
        My research indicates that Mandarin while associated with Beijing cannot be said to have originated there. You will find numerous references. However once the political masters in Beijing adopted a form of pronunciation it would have been widely imitated. As you can imagine if the Mongol Khans spoken mandarin with a hiss and ruled for years then it would have been a brave courtier that spoke differently.

        I don’t intend to continue arguing whether its 400m or 450m or 350m people. The point is that far far more Chinese have some knowledge of English than non Chinese outside of China have of Mandarin and the main reason is because the Chinese government very pragmatically decided to embrace English in a way the Japanese did not when they were the second largest economy. And the reason for that is because they recognised that mandarin is not widely spoken outside China while English is.

        However now that China is the second largest economy it does not automatically follow that the rest of the world will or want to learn Mandarin which Chinese nationalism seems to assume. The language itself will deter most people because to learn it well you really have to grow up with it. Even from an Australian perspective (and we are a pimple on China’s bum in an economic sense) socially and linguistically we are not likely to learn Mandarin in any numbers as we can and will rely for communication with China on the many Chinese students who are bilingual and choose to stay in Australia.

        In my case I have a Chinese girlfriend as do many of the foreigners I met in China and in most cases they admit that even after years their mandarin was rudimentary as they rely on their partner for any serious business discussions. As a matter of fact at the moment we are deciding on moving to China and it is likely I will teach at one of the campuses in China that teach my field in the English language but I won’t be struggling to master Mandarin. From my time in China I don’t think it is necessary and in terms of time its really pretty unproductive not to mention too hard for me. My employer would employ me because of my English skills and knowledge not because I speak Mandarin.

        I suspect that because you are trying very hard to speak mandarin well that you rarely use your English to communicate in China and as a result haven’t been astonished, as I have, by just how many people in China can speak English to a tolerable standard. That number will only increase rapidly as the base is large. If you then look at the base knowledge of mandarin outside China and the lack of desire and need to learn it you will appreciate that mandarin is not going to become a world language.

      • Look, my first year in China I could speak no Chinese. I had to try and get around in English, and I tell you it’s hard. The only people who can generally communicate in English (not always well) are university students. Whenever I had to go to the bank, chemist or post office, not to mention talk to a taxi driver, or even go to the campus doctor, I had to call a Chinese friend and ask them to translate. And this was in Beijing. The reason you haven’t figured out quite how few Chinese people can communicate in English is because you have only travelled in China, and not lived here.

        I might agree that most people outside of China will not learn Mandarin, at least for the time being. I don’t agree with these people saying “Chinese will be the next international language” or this kind of thing. But people who say “all the Chinese can speak English anyway” are equally deluded.

        If you are going to live in China, not even trying to learn Chinese is rather silly. I know it’s difficult (I am learning it after all), but any little bit you learn will be useful, appreciated, and will enrich your experience. If you live here without speaking Chinese, you are restricting your communication to the few young, rich and educated who may know English, and you are never going to figure out much of what this country is about. You won’t even be able to read all the political slogans on the streets, or understand what people say about you because they think you don’t understand. And trust me, if you want to be successful in China, speaking Chinese is useful, even professionally.

        And yes, Chinese is hard, but as an intelligent young person who lives in China and has a Chinese girlfriend, if you put in some real time and effort in the beginning and then make a point of speaking Chinese to your girlfriend and Chinese friends, you will find you become at least conversational rather fast, and Chinese people will cover you with genuine praise every day. And let’s not mention your girlfriend’s family. What better use of your time can there be?

  29. Varsha

    Hi I’m from India and I have been contemplating learning Mandarin.
    I have plans of working and living in Singapore sometime in the near future. Would knowing mandarin increase my chances of getting a job?

    • truettblack

      Singaporeans speak English. Some of them speak Mandarin too, but English is the lingua franca of Singapore. I think you should ask a Singaporean about job opportunities in Singapore. Good luck.

  30. BananaTaiwanese

    Hi, that’s an interesting article – I wouldn’t learn mandarin if the motivation was just to have an ace up my sleeve when it comes to job opportunities. Also, I believe that it would be hard for me to learn Mandarin from scratch and I absolutely agree with you with the voice control thing. My parents are from Taiwan and I grew up in Austria and German is my mother tongue. At home we would speak a mixture of Chinese and German and as a child I never wanted to learn Chinese because it was too difficult for me to learn all the characters. My parents tried their best to teach me at home, but I and my brothers would always have an excuse why we couldn’t spend time on learning Chinese (e.g. I need to get the math homework done). Now I’m 30 years old and guess what – I’m determined to push my Chinese to a better level 😀 My vocabulary is limited, but I can speak and express myself to Chinese people with them understanding me. My personal goal is to have a better command of the language and being able to read the news or simple books. I’ve been to Taiwan last year, reconnected with them (The last time I was there I was 9 years old -lol^^) and kinda fell in love with the country – it’s a place I definitely wan’t to visit more often. Last year I was there with my parents and we were guided by our relatives most of the time – I rarely spoke with people other than my relatives and that’s the thing I wan’t to change next time. I would never ever learn the language just because of business opportunities – you’re better off with English in my opinion. I think if you wanna learn Chinese, you should also have some sort of affection/interest for the Chinese culture in general. I think it’s a very beautiful thing to delve deeper into a different culture-it broadens your mind – it’s a beautiful treasure nobody can take from you. So generally speaking i would say: If you wanna learn Chinese because of money- forget it – if you wanna learn Chinese because you’re attracted to the culture/country – go for it!

  31. Not sure you still read this post but I just wanted to say that I agree with you.

    I tried learning chinese for 6 months. No verbs to conjugate, no female or male words like in frech, sounds great I thought. Oh and the characters look cool.

    Let’s get started.

    6 months later I came to the realisation that my eyes were more tired, that I was spending a lot of hours on something I still could not use with any proficiency. By this time I could understand “Friends” on television in English (I’m from Belgium).

    And it’s not like I didn’t try, I have 6 books on chinese, I have movies in mandarin, I really did try but I asked myself “Is this really how I want to spend my time”.

    It is not their tonal system that is the hardest, it is not their grammatics, it is 100% down to their ridiculous writing system that sucks all the fun out of learning a language. The mere fact that pinyin is employed to counteract the tone-deafness in their characters means there is something inherently wrong with their language as a whole. It’s not “complex”, because given enough time everyone can learn Chinese, it is cumbersome, there is a massive amount of time needed to learn their “alphabet”, there is absolutely no need for every syllable to be written as a different character, romanic based languages have shown this, even non-romanic languages like hindi have an alphabet.

    There is also a fallacy that people spread that once you learn chinese you will be able to understand “3 billion people”. Well, not really true is it, you will understand maybe the one from one province, and from mainland china, most chinese will still have no idea what you’re talking about since the difference in dialects are significant.

    Well, that’s just my 2 cents.

  32. 黄鹰

    Since you are answering questions/comments so well, I’ll sling this up here.
    Essentially, having had some success picking up bar Thai/Vietnamese in the past, I took a relationship with a Chinese girl to motivate me to learn Mandarin.

    Long story short, Rosetta stone is crap. So is random addition of flashcards. To all beginners, please please please go and learn HSK 1 + 2 vocabulary, and work from there.

    I spent a year studying useless before I arrived in China, falling back on English teaching, and discovered EVERYBODY here speaks English at you in the big cities. Emphasis on AT you, there is no choice if you are white (until you have a fair level of fluency already). The first year plus I was here and with the girlfriend, the only practice I could find was while buying food. It was painful. After we broke up, I forced myself to travel and interact with thousands of people, usually while drunk, and with painful pronunciation and tiny vocabulary. But I forced myself.

    I decided to study a semester of Chinese, to “fix my grammar, pronunciation, and enlarge my vocabulary”. That was my aim. I chose a small city to avoid the English bandits, and swore I would use no English at the beginning. 3 months, not a sausage of English, all music tv and film was Chinese. Worked great… except the school very rarely corrected any mistakes, and all my classmates cared about was HSK5.

    I have passed my HSK4, and I am about to elave the university. I started working in a tea shop recently, and got asked on the first day (after 3+ months of immersion, daily classes, 6 hours a week one on one with tutors I would regularly ask if my pronunciation was ok… “oh yes, it’s great) by my boss “你知道汉语有四声吗?不只是平声”. So my active vocabulary is still tiny (and instantly forgotten), my pronunciation still sucks, my fluency is going backwards as I overthink how to pronounce each and every word, I still can’t pronounce the words with the correct tones with any certainty, and trying to say anything but the simplest sentences means I guess the grammar.

    I now feel like all that work was wasted, and now I am stuck deciding what the hell I am studying Chinese for. Much as I love China and the Chinese lifestyle, being made to feel like a freak, or under constant attack by false friends wanting English practice, is not good for your mental health.

    Every day, perhaps several times a day, I flip between extremes.

    The problem is, I am at a low intermediate level now. I can very fluently use my very limited vocabulary to bash out a conversation. I have had a lot of stress and family problems this term, which have not helped my study, so in future I could find it easier. I have had conversations with thousands of people, including discussing pretty sensitive/important stuff. It’s been an amazing experience. I can now read and hear Chinese and understand it, without having to translate it to English. It is a good hobby, it may open some doors in future (relationships, emmigration, careers, etc), and as you say, I am past the hardest part in theory.

    But by god is it depressing to not have the slightest confidence that you are speaking correctly, even after nearly 3 years fiddling with the language (and 1 year half seriously). You can ask natives as much as you like, and they just pat you on the head and say it’s fine. I am not even sure I pronounce my name, hello, thank you or goodbye correctly. My basic grammar is still terrible, and I feel like I am guessing every single sentence I say (writing is much easier, albeit using computer obviously) I am understood, and I can use it as a communication tool. That is wonderful when you live in country, and you need to buy bread or ask for directions. When you are talking to people in Australia, and they have worked damn hard for their English, it starts to lose some of its charm.

    And now I am starting to obsess about switching to German for “an easy life”. I feel like I am cursed either way. Quit the language, feel like you wasted the last year (including a not cheap semester in China driving myself -almost literally- crazy “studying” the language) or 3, convince yourself you’ll pick it up in future if you fancy it. Or, persevere, continue to watch Chinese tv, listen to Chinese music, have your phone and computer in Chinese, an hour or two every day of studying… and still get laughed at by ANY child you attempt to speak to because your tones are still terrible. Or spend a considerable amount of money on skype lessons with a strict teacher, hopefully get half decent pronunciation, and half decent level in the language… for what? I love 摇滚, I loved 迷笛, I love Chinese women. All three of which absolutely do not require Chinese to enjoy, and infact you would be much better of with no Chinese in all cases (just ask my ex-girlfriend).

    Chinese used to make me happy. It used to, and still occasionally does, give me a considerable amount of gratification. Living in country and using it everyday is a special thing, but at my current position in life, the only way I can do that again would be to return to English teaching. I have seen some job opportunities involving using Chinese in Taiwan, but not many at my current level. After getting a HSK level 5 I might be better off, but that has very little to do with your speaking ability.

    And I feel that whatever level I get to, the shortest break and it will disappear. And not only that, that by continuing to study Chinese, I actually /limit/ my options in life, as to put so much work in to something and not use seems like a horrible waste.

    I am left thinking…
    Do I have to find a girlfriend who speaks Mandarin. If she is native Chinese, I will get back in to the “how much English is fair”. If she does not speak any English it will be hard to maintain the relationship, and I will feel like I am using her… and one day I may have to personally teach her English from the ground up. If I have a Chinese girlfriend, she WILL want children, which I do not. If I don’t have a Chinese (speaking) girlfriend, how can we share my hobby, how will I continue to motivate myself without forcing her to come on trips to the middle kingdom as a passive mute.

    Do I live in a Mandarin speaking country. If I do that, I basically have to teach English, which I dislike intensely. Or live in huge polluted cities. There may be other opportunities, but I need to improve my Chinese a long way before I can enjoy them. If I don’t do that, then who do I speak Chinese with? Students I suppose, but then I will feel bad for depriving them of English speaking opportunities.

    Learning a language was meant to enrich my life, and my opportunities. Instead I feel like it is closing them off, like everything has to involve Chinese or I will lose what feeble level I already have. Like if I dare to start studying German at the same time, then I’ll definitely lose it all. If I work really hard to get a level 5, or even 6, what will that really gain me in life. Beyond the ability to watch poor acting in kungfu films…

    And yet if I improve my memory, take some time to plan study times and set myself goals and work. If I plod along, use italki.com and Anki more, actually take it more seriously, ignore all the other aspects (relationships, work, emmigration) and just enjoy babbling away in another language… 我可能会有一个成功.

    Bah, my head hurts.

    • truettblack

      You’re fiddling. That’s why you’re frustrated. All or nothing, sir. For a solid year or two. Otherwise, just focus on chasing your girls, or whatever you like to do.

      • Richard 黄鹰

        “Chasing” sounds a bit sad. I met my ex and, being romantic and interested in the language, started it. It nearly killed me.

        Now I’m rapidly approaching the point of consigning this to a chapter of my life and moving on. Or keeping it as a fallback in future. There are worse hobbies, that’s for sure.

        And I gave it my all, and literally drove myself crazy trying (possibly too hard). I had other life issues at the time, but it did not do me many favours. Ho hum,

  33. Charlie Pelham

    very good help

    • Steve

      I started Mandarin classes a few years ago – every Sunday afternoon for two hours and many hours outside of this time. After 6 months I realised I could possibly attain a pre-schooler level at best. Even know I struggle to get a meaningful sentence together; which is usually corrected or misunderstood by a Chinese speaker. Why do I persevere? I find the mental challenge addictive in a way that others do crosswords or suduko. Its a wonderful yet monstrous language with no connection to western languages whatsoever. There’s no point of reference at all for English speakers. So much makes sense – days of the week, months, seasons, no plurals etc yet so much is so weird for the English speaker – grammar, tones and don’t get me started on measure words! The people in my class (mainly spouses or children of Chinese) are fun – as is the laoshi – so its a social scene as well. I could have taken up golf….

  34. “Satan himself invented Mandarin to keep the Chinese from hearing the Gospel.” — 19th century Western missionaries to China.

  35. James

    My biggest issue isn’t necessarily learning the language itself, it’s the rampant racism and basic refusal of native speakers here in Taiwan to help me along in the process. As a white person, if I attempt to engage in any amount of verbal discourse with even the slightest hint of reduced facility, I can expect to have eyes rolled, voices raised, and general dissatisfaction aimed in my direction. I’ve actually grown to hate most of the general Taiwanese population for their rude behavior and general misplaced jealousy, to the point where all of my friends are either Korean or Japanese now (whom the Taiwanese hate even more, haha!). I get a chuckle out of the fact that my Japanese/Korean friends and I communicate exclusively in Chinese (albeit imperfectly), sharing our cultures and enriching eachother’s lives, and the countrymen whom we came here to share with ignore us and treat us like garbage.

    • truettblack

      I had exactly the opposite experience in Taiwan. As did each of my contemporaries. I doubt things have changed so much. Draw your own conclusions.

  36. I’ve just written a post debunking some common myths about learning Chinese, including the myth that it is impossibly hard to learn, and the myth that it really isn’t that hard at all:

    http://thecapitalinthenorth.blogspot.com/2015/09/five-myths-about-learning-chinese.html

  37. I was a teacher in Thailand for 11 years. Very few people in Thailand or the rest of S.E. Asia want to learn Mandarin for a number of reasons: China is an enemy or Mandarin is difficult or Chinese tourists are rude, etc.
    I fail to see Mandarin becoming a global language anytime soon.

  38. I think, that there is something overlooked in the discussion that is of utmost importance when one is deciding whether or not it would be worth the effort to learn Mandarin: what is the reason you wish to do so? Would this be something you would still be interested in learning if it was already known that it wouldn’t earn you any “points” in negotiations? Many people seem to be of the mind that learning Mandarin will somehow give them an extra “in” with the Chinese people they may do business with or for. Certainly it helps to be able to speak Spanish or French or Portuguese like a native when you are a stranger in a strange land, as it makes a common ground, more relate-able and creates a bit of camaraderie and more inclusiveness, just by making it easier on the natives who then don’t have to speak YOUR language if they are more comfortable in their own.

    But I think Chinese culture is different in the sense that no matter how well you speak, even in the event that you even CAN speak well enough to not sound like a foreigner, you will not have the same sort of acceptance just on that ability. Even the most fluent speakers will still be considered “other” by the Chinese. If anything it might make some uncomfortable knowing that they have to be careful what they say if you do understand them rather than just speaking without their guard up to someone who is Chinese and knowing you are clueless no matter what. Some of those critical expressions that some have noted might reflect the bit of a chore it will be for them to humor you in speaking their language rather than appreciating that you took the effort to try and communicate on their turf. The Chinese are comfortable in their separation from others, even within their own race. (read: the Chinese are pretty racist. They are racist against other groups of Chinese. So being non-Chinese is already a THING that speaking Mandarin is not going alleviate, but just make more pronounced to the point where your speaking Chinese is just something else you won’t do as well as Chinese do.)

    If anything, the big advantage of learning Chinese would probably be the ability to comprehend what others are saying more so than the actual speaking of it yourself. And it would be a bigger advantage if no one knows that you do understand what is being said, rather than something you would advertise. Remember how the Chinese do business, and be mindful of how that could help pull back the curtain on some dealings that would be assumed private even though they occur within earshot.

    I don’t believe that anyone not Chinese would be considered much more valuable as a potential hire or associate just because they spoke a little Mandarin, or even if they spoke a whole lot. It mostly would depend on the nature of the relationship you were dealing with and it could even be a setback if the people who you would be working with have an interest in playing things closer to the vest.

    If you want to do it for the self-betterment, so be it, and have at it, but be aware that the Chinese are not going to be overjoyed or impressed with the efforts of someone who thinks that it is same sort of gateway to acceptance that it might be if you were conversant in some other language where the culture is different. Especially in a business sense, considering that Chinese people don’t put a whole lot of stock in things that are spoken anyway. They will say just about anything if they think it will improve their situation. (My grandfather spoke several different dialects, maybe as many as seven, and we didn’t even know he spoke Vietnamese at all until he was in his 80’s in the hospital after a stroke, but the fact that he spoke ENGLISH was probably the best thing going for him being Chinese.)

    Japanese, I think, would be a better tool for that sort of thing, maybe, if you want to have a leg up on the competition for business interactions, or hiring advantages. Chinese might just be kind of annoyed at you for the effort rather than impressed with you.

    It is a tool to be able to know what is going around you though. THAT may be a value worth considering if you intend to spend time in China among people who are speaking Mandarin, if only because it widens your own perspective to be aware of more. I spent a month in China as a child and didn’t speak a word other than a my favorite food items from dim sum and the Cantonese phrases for “Hurry up!” and “Get out of the way.” Mostly, I was bored because there wasn’t anything around me that I understood other than my mom and grandparents. I clung like a crab to the only other American woman in our tour group, just because she was the only other person I could understand who wasn’t family.

    Maybe I am way off base in that interpretation of the cultural base, but I really don’t get the feeling that it would be the same kind of leg up to have some Mandarin under your belt in China, at least not nearly the same kind of asset it would be by comparison to have some similar familiarity with Japanese if you were going to be living/doing business in Japan and wanted to add that skill. Just my own take on that, though.

  39. Ben S.

    I feel somewhat relieved reading this as I studied Mandarin diligently, and even with a Mandarin speaking partner and his family accessible to me, after eighteen months, I could utter not a single word that they (or any other Mandarin speaker) could understand. Spent a fair deal of time trying to understand why this happened too, as it really did do my head in.

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