Category Archives: Language

China and New Zealand Work Together to Promote Mandarin Study

I found this article about a an ambitious program captained by the Confucius Institute at the University of Auckland to quintuple the number of students learning Mandarin in New Zealand.

From the article:

“Last year, the institute placed eight assistants in New Zealand schools to promote the language – this year, that number will be 18.

Under the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement, up to 150 Mandarin assistants can work in New Zealand at any one time.

“We are very encouraged by a near 40 per cent increase in Kiwis learning Mandarin last year and will be doing much more to generate interest in the language this year,” said institute director Nora Yao.

“I will expect a more significant growth, and even if we do not reach our target, I am confident we will get near there.”

This year, 18 schools will be hosting the Chinese language assistants, whose jobs will be to fuel interest in Mandarin among students and train local teachers to teach the language.”

First, kudos to the governments of China and New Zealand for undertaking this effort. It won’t succeed (a huge percentage of those who start studying Mandarin drop out before they learn more than a few phrases), but it is an admirable effort.

Question for the reporter: How do you train local teachers to teach Mandarin when they don’t speak it in the first place? Or, are there already certified teachers in place who are Mandarin speakers and readers?


Filed under China, Greater Asia, Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

Learning Chinese on your iPod

Interesting link here for those who want to learn on the run (an excellent way to learn Chinese when you are busy)

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Newsweek Article on Learning Mandarin

Newsweek recently posted an article entitled “The Mandarin Scam: So you want to learn Chinese? Your best bet is to say at home.

The author takes issue with the quality of Mandarin language instruction, and the teaching methods used, in China. He concludes that a student of Mandarin Chinese would be better off using online options or staying home and learning.

While I don’t doubt that there are problems with the way Mandarin is taught in China (students who study Mandarin in Taiwan have their fair share of complaints), there is one thing I am sure of: It is ABSOLUTELY IMPOSSIBLE to learn to speak Mandarin fluently if you never live in China or Taiwan.

I suppose there might be a rare exception–someone who moves to an enclave of Chinese speakers abroad and learns to speak Mandarin that way, but for most, they will never achieve fluency until they live abroad in Taiwan or China and speak Mandarin all day, every day, for six months to a year.


Filed under Chinese Language Instruction, Language, The Learning Chinese Craze

John DeFrancis

If you’re a student of Chinese and you don’t know who John DeFrancis is, you’re missing out. Dr. DeFrancis passed away a few weeks ago. An oustanding eulogy is here, at The China Beat.


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On Learning the Standard Tones of Mandarin

Hard-core students of Mandarin Chinese will be interested in this article on the subject of teaching and learning the pronunciation of the four standard tones of Mandarin, posted on the excellent Chinese learning site Sinosplice.

Toward Better Tones in Natural Speech

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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.


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“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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Learning Chinese is Easier Than You Think? Afraid Not.

You can imagine what I was thinking when I got this link in a Google alert: Chinese easier to learn than students expect, languages lecturer says

From the article:

“…McClure said he wouldn’t trade teaching Chinese for anything, but also notes that there are also two major misconceptions about the Chinese language.

“Chinese is a fairly easy language. In Chinese, you’ll never have to conjugate a verb. It’s very straightforward.” McClure said.”
I agree with Mr. McClure, the lecturer quoted in the article, that there is no conjugation necessary in Chinese, and this does make life easier for people learning Chinese. What I cannot agree with is the statement that Chinese is an “easy language.” What about the four regularly used tones and the necessity of getting them right if one wants to be understood? What about the writing system, which has no alphabet and requires memorization of 3,000 characters and their often complicated stroke orders just to reach a first year high school student level of fluency? What about the fact that there are almost no vocabulary words in Chinese that sound anything like an English word? Chinese is decidedly not an “easy language.” More accurately, Chinese grammar is easy to understand. If you come from a romance language learning background, you’ll jump for joy on the day your Chinese teacher explains Chinese verb tense to you. There are essentially no plurals in Chinese, and prepositions are much easier than they are in English or Spanish.

I’m thinking that Mr. McClure is either trying to be encouraging to students and went a bit overboard, or he was misquoted.

The second misconception mentioned had to do with whether or not native English teachers can effectively teach Chinese. I fully support Mr. McClure’s assertion that a native English teacher can be a very effective teacher of Chinese. There are many reasons why I feel this way, all of them based on personal experience, but the details on why I believe this are fodder for a future blog post.

The middle of the article gets a bit closer to the truth…

“…there are thousands of characters to learn and not even a native Chinese speaker will know them all.

Although the average high school student in China will graduate knowing more than 3,000 characters, a Chinese student at this college will learn how to read and write 300 characters in one semester, and another 300 if they continue in the course.”

…before careening back into la-la land…

“Because each word in Chinese is made up of one, two or three characters, a student can become proficient in the language while here.”

(Proficient? In a few semesters of studying Chinese in America, you would be able to have very simple conversations in Chinese, but not in any depth, and certainly not with any grasp of detailed information.)

…and then moving back into the realm of reality again…

“Because it is a four-credit class, McClure also teaches the culture and history of China. Frequently, he uses movie clips to illustrate a lesson.

“It’s somewhat over their heads,” McClure said, “but they enjoy it when they can pick up phrases they know. Watching a movie with duct tape over the English subtitles is the closest you can get to immersion.” “

Kudos to Mr. McClure for adding history and culture components to his syllabus. It makes classes more interesting and gives students a cultural framework for their studies. Saying that movies in Chinese are “somewhat over their heads” after only a semester or two of study is another understatement.

Look, I don’t want to discourage anyone who wants to learn Chinese. If you are interested in doing business in greater China, working as a diplomat, getting into translation, or teaching English in greater China, learning Chinese is a very worthwhile pursuit. The fact that Chinese is so difficult to learn is what attracted me to the language in the first place (that, and growing up with a father who spoke fluent Cantonese). But let’s not do students the disservice of making Chinese sound easier than it is. You’re looking at a year or two of classes in the US, Canada, wherever, and then a good six months to a year of study abroad in China or Taiwan before you’ll be able to hold a conversation that goes into a bit of depth or actually be able to put the language to some kind of functional use. If you want to be able to read and write, you’re looking at an even longer period of time. It can be done, but you should go into it knowing what you’re up against.

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Chinese Language Programs in Australia: 94% Drop-Out Rate

I wrote a post earlier this year about Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s goal of dramatically increasing the number of Australian students studying Chinese and other Asian languages.The specific goal, in terms of number of high school students studying Chinese at grade 12, was 8,000 students by the year 2020.

So far, it isn’t working out. Why?

Because learning Chinese is very, very difficult.

Regular readers know how much I harp on the illusions people have about learning Chinese. What’s happening in Australia is illustrative of some of the many difficulties involved in implementing a successful Chinese language program in an English speaking country.

First, many of the students in the class will already speak Chinese, because their parents are from somewhere in the Chinese diaspora. From the Age article I just linked to, “Demand for Asia study overhaul”:

“…a new report reveals that the study of Chinese in Australian high schools “is overwhelmingly a matter of Chinese teaching Chinese to Chinese.

…It (a study into the results of Chinese language programs in Australian high schools) finds that 94% of students who learn Chinese at some stage during their education drop out before year 12.

Of the 4% still studying the language at year 12, 94% are “first language” speakers — Chinese-born or of Chinese descent.”

How are kids who grew up speaking only English going to compete and feel motivated in such an environment? Classrooms will be sorely out of balance, with groups of complete novices taking the same class as groups of fluent speakers.

The other problem, of course, is that even if you fixed the imbalance in the classroom, very, very few people have the discipline and tolerance for frustration that it takes to learn fluent Mandarin. From the article:

“The report calls for action to stop the massive drop-out rate from Chinese language classes by students who can’t compete with classmates who are native speakers or of Chinese descent.

It casts doubt on Mr Rudd’s target of 8000 year 12 students studying Chinese by 2020, and proposes a revamped curriculum to accommodate different levels of language proficiency.”

My suggestion to those involved in planning and monitoring Chinese learning programs in Western countries: Get realistic about what can be accomplished in a high school classroom in Australia, England, Canada, the United States, etc. If you don’t have things like full immersion camps, study abroad programs, and all sorts of supports in place to keep the kids motivated, these programs are not going to be successful. Chinese is just too difficult for most students to learn well, if all they do is study it in a classroom.

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How Long Does it Take to Learn Fluent Mandarin?

My daugher Rebecca contemplates a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen

My daugher Rebecca contemplates a statue of Dr. Sun Yat Sen

A lot of people ask me how long it takes to learn to speak and read fluent Mandarin.

To answer this question, let’s first define fluency in Chinese:

  • Speaking: You can easily hold your own in any conversation. There may be some vocabulary words you don’t understand, but that seldom occurs and is not really a barrier to communication. You are typically able to think in Chinese, seldom falling back on on your native language and then translating your thoughts into Chinese. Your pronunciation and tones are nearly always accurate, even if you speak with an accent. You are able to express your thoughts in Chinese without frequent pausing to search from the right word.
  • Reading: You can read novels, the newspaper, and work documents without over-reliance on a dictionary. You may not understand Tang poetry and the writings of Mencius in the original, but you can read junior high school Chinese textbooks and understand most of what you read.

Narrating my own experience with learning Mandarin might be useful to people who want to know what it takes to become fluent in Mandarin.

How Long it Took Me to Become Fluent

In summary, it took me one and a half years to develop true fluency in spoken Mandarin, and about three years to develop fluency in reading.

I learned Mandarin in three phases.

Phase One: The Beginning (2.5 Years)

  • My first exposure to Mandarin was the Mandarin 101 course I took at university in the USA twenty years ago. I took it over three and a half months (one semester), and learned about 300-400 vocabulary words, 300 characters, and some simple grammar structures.
  • I then took a two month Mandarin immersion program, also in the USA. I reviewed many of the words I’d already learned, and picked up another 500-600 words, for a total of about 1,000 words (though I could not use most of them). I did not work at all on characters during this program.
  • I then worked for twenty-one months in Taiwan. My job required me to speak Mandarin as fluently as possible, though for the first six months I was paired with a more experienced partner who could speak and read fluently. After six months, I became a senior partner to other newbies. I did not attend class during this time, as I was occupied by my work, but I used three key techniques to improve my Mandarin to the point where I was fluently in spoken Chinese and could read at a 6th grade level.
  1. I studied from the John DeFrancis texts each morning until I had finished his most advanced text. After that, I worked through the Chinese readers that Chinese elementary school students read, until I had “graduated” from elementary school (i.e. had finished the 6th grade texts). I also read other books and newspapers, time permitting.
  2. I spoke Chinese all day, every day, and filled notebook upon notebook with vocabulary in context.
  3. I frequently took on interpreting jobs, especially after I had been studying Mandarin for more than a year. This helped me to develop the quick response skills necessary for for true fluency, and helped me bride the barriers between my native language and Mandarin.

I did very little work with writing, choosing instead to type my correspondence in Chinese using a key-in system based on bopomofo.

Phase Two: University and Graduate School (Four Years)

  • After finishing my two year “contract” of overseas work in Taiwan, I returned to university. I changed my major to Chinese literature and spent the next two years taking courses in Chinese grammar, modern Chinese literature, classic Chinese literature, and Chinese language. I also took courses in Chinese history and Asian studies. Reading so much in Chinese helped me achieve true reading fluency, and taught me to read both traditional and simplified characters.
  • After graduation from university I began study in an MBA program in the United States. I worked for a Chinese professor as a research assistant for the better part of a year, took one business Chinese class that was way too easy for me, and spent a semester abroad in Beijing and Shanghai. Spending time abroad in China was very helpful in allowing me to quickly recover my old level of fluency (it had deteriorated a bit, living in the US for four years straight).

When I finished graduate school, I could read most anything in Chinese without consulting a dictionary, could hold a conversation at a level similar to that of a native speaker, and could interpret and translate for business, education, and other markets.

Phase Three: Business and Teaching/Training (15 Years and Counting…)

Since finishing graduate school, I have continued to learn Mandarin and to use my Mandarin skills in a variety of business and educational contexts. I have worked extensively in China and Taiwan in business, conducting my business exclusively in written and spoken Mandarin. I have delivered thousands of speeches, lectures, training courses, and seminars in Mandarin with slides and handouts written in Mandarin. I have taken on a variety of translation and interpreting jobs in business and education. I have written articles and translated my own books into Chinese (with the help of a native-speaking editor, of course).

In my personal life, I use Mandarin to communicate with my wife, some of my children, and with extended family and many friends.

At this point, my Mandarin is as good as that of many native speakers. I’m not perfect–I still mispronounce words (e.g. distributor, jing1xiao1shang1) from time to time, and occasionally have to search for the right word or use circumlocution to describe an object I can’t recall the Mandarin word for. Overall, though, I’m a fully functioning member of a Chinese-speaking society.

I’ll never stop learning–the vocabulary notebook is still in my briefcase, and I still read to learn new words and phrases and to refresh what I’ve already learned. Learning and using Mandarin has been an endless source of challenge, excitement, and stimulation for me. Sure, I was frustrated for the first year or so, but once I achieved my breakthroughs, it was all fun from there.

Eight Keys to Learning Mandarin Quickly and Efficiently

There really is no “quick” way to learn Mandarin, but there are things you can do to reduce pain and increase efficiency.

  1. Once you’ve decided you’re going to learn, never give up. Attitude and dedication are probably 80% of the battle in learning Mandarin.
  2. You can only learn to speak Mandarin fluently if you’re surrounded by native Mandarin speakers (preferably once who don’t speak much English). You can’t learn Mandarin in your home country. Take classes for six months or a year and then do a semester abroad or live overseas in some capacity for at least six months or a year.
  3. Don’t be afraid to open your mouth and sound stupid. You will (sound stupid), but don’t worry about it. You want to learn, right? You have to keep your mouth moving.Make lots of friends who will speak Mandarin with you. Ask them to correct you when you’re wrong.
  4. Be assiduous about learning vocabulary in context. If a taxi driver says “hou4hui4you3qi2,” open your notebook and ask him to repeat what he said. Then, find out what it means (it means “I hope we’ll meet again”).
  5. You don’t necessarily have to take classes, though having six months of classes is a good idea. Actually, if you’re learning to speak Mandarin, I think you’ll hit the point of diminishing returns with classes after a year or so.
  6. To become a fluent reader, start with the John DeFrancis series, then transition into basic elementary school texts, if you can find them. There are other ways to learn reading, but this way, you learn to read much like a native speaker does. There’s a cultural element to that kind of reading that is invaluable as well.
  7. At some point, start taking translation and interpreting jobs. That’s when you’ll really turn the corner in your Mandarin studies. Don’t do it as an amateur volunteer until you’re passably fluent, and don’t it as a professional until you’re very fluent.
  8. Read and speak Chinese all day, six days a week. On the seventh day, take a cue from the Bible and give yourself a rest. Read your English novels, magazines, and newspapers. Watch movies in English, and hang out with your English speaking friends. Then, go back to your all-Chinese environment again. You do that, and you’ll learn faster than most people.

So How Long Does it Really Take?

If you live in greater China and study with the same dedication an elite athlete applies to a fitness regimen, and you have some native talent for speaking and reading Chinese, you’ll be fluent in spoken Chinese in one to two years; it will take at least two to three years to be able to read.

For further reading on methods of learning Chinese, see one of my previous posts, How to Learn Fluent Mandarin Chinese.


Filed under Language, The Learning Chinese Craze