Tag Archives: Mandarin Study

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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Time Magazine Article: A Mandarin School in Minneapolis

Fascinating article here about a Mandarin immersion school in Minneapolis. I believe that attending an immersion school like the Yinghua Academy for several years is one of the only ways a person can become truly fluent in Mandarin while still living in the United States.

From a cross-cultural perspective, check out the part of the article that discusses some of the cultural adaptation challenges the Chinese and Taiwanese teachers are facing. These folks are living in an entirely different world now. I’d love to go and talk with them for a few hours about what the Americans are thinking.


Filed under Chinese Language Instruction, The Learning Chinese Craze

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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