Monthly Archives: November 2008

So You Want to Learn Mandarin Chinese?

To be fluent in Mandarin Chinese, here’s what you need:

1. A great dictionary.

2. A motivating teacher.

3. The perfect learning method.

4. The proper texts and the latest learning technology (e.g. Podcats and language learning software).

5. Encouraging classmates.

Etc., Etc., Etc., Right?


If you want to learn fluent Chinese, you really only need one thing.

A deep, burning desire to learn Chinese. Another way to say this is you need a very good reason to learn Chinese, something other than “I think it would be cool to learn Chinese” or “Gee, I really should learn Chinese.” Even “I think learning Chinese will make me a lot of loot” isn’t a motive that will sustain you through the process. You must be absolutely, 100%, “you can pry my character flashcards from my cold, dead, fingers” dedicated to learning this language and learning it well, or you will do little but waste your time and spin your wheels.

If you’re looking for an easy road, go and learn Spanish or Italian. If you’re not afraid of a bit of a challenge, learn French, German, or Japanese. Only those with a serious jones and an endless fascination for learning Mandarin are going to actually learn it.

If you aren’t really sure whether you want to learn Chinese, you probably aren’t equipped with the motivation and fortitude to learn it successfully. You might take one course and see if you like it, but chances are, you won’t (like it). That’s because you needed to take a course to figure out whether you wanted to learn Chinese or not.

There is nothing wrong with this. Most non-Chinese people aren’t equipped to learn to speak, read, and write fluent Mandarin. That is why the ranks of Mandarin speaking foreigners, while expanding, aren’t expanding very quickly.

Think of it this way: How many people do you know who want to become professional writers? Dozens? Hundreds? Most of your friends and yourself? Okay, now how many of them are actually professional writers? None? I thought so. Why? Because becoming a professional writer requires the fortitude of Heracles and the work ethic of Paul Bunyan. That elimates 99.99% of all possible candidates. Lots of people want to write, but very few people have to write, and rewrite, and write again until their fingers cramp and their butts go numb.

The bottom line: If you want to learn to speak (and possibly even write) Mandarin Chinese fluently, you have to want it so badly that you simply can’t NOT learn it.

If you’ve got that, the importance of the method you use to learn Mandarin pales in comparison. You’ll get to your goal because you have to. You will not be stopped.

But be forewarned–many people learn to speak and read Chinese, maybe even write it, but still don’t sound like native speakers.

That’s because if you want to learn to speak Chinese like a native, you’ll need two other things:

1. An undying commitment to getting the tones and pronunciation of Mandarin syllables correct.

2. A natural talent for mimicry.

If you don’t have those, and few people do (these types are so rare that they are legendary among expat circles), you’ll always sound like a foreigner. That’s actually okay. There are plenty of foreigners who work as multi-directional interpreters who have foreigner-accented Mandarin. It isn’t really a huge problem, but I need to mention it because some of you have unrealistic expectations.

Uncle True doesn’t want to discourage you from learning Mandarin. I want to make sure you know what you’re getting in to. If you don’t have what it takes, don’t be hard on yourself. There are plenty of other endeavors in life that are just as rewarding and that you are probably better suited to.



Filed under Language

“The Pain and Joy of Learning Mandarin Chinese”


Melody Chen at The Taiwan Journal has produced well-written, insightful article that brings up most of the relevant points for those investigating the cost (in time, money, and pain) of learning Chinese.

Here it is: The pain and joy of learning Mandarin Chinese. Enjoy!

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Filed under Language, The Learning Chinese Craze