thoughts on Mandarin

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my growth in Mandarin lately…I have to say, the immersive language experience has been nothing short of amazing, and while daunting at times, has really boosted my confidence in my own intelligence and mental adaptability. I’ve always hoped I had the ability to jump into a culture and pick up the language, but never had tried it formally. Moving to New Zealand was a more of a baby step in the expat experience – it’s culture, language and style of life is not so different from America. Odd South Islander, notwithstanding – even after a year I could still hardly figure out what the hell they were saying with that accent and we were still speaking the same language! (funny aside – they often had the same problem with me – what? what?? WHAT???)

China has been a different sort of challenge, obviously, but the number one thing I’ve heard about Mandarin has thus far proven untrue. Everywhere I look, I hear: Mandarin is the number one most difficult language in the world…So hard, waaaaah. I say nay. Or, if it is, then I have an unexplored knack for languages I need to develop further! For one, it’s grammar is sublimely simple compared to English. No tenses, no articles like "a," "an," or "the…" No singular or plural or masculine vs. feminine verb conjugates. No verb conjugation at all, in fact. There are some weirdo bits like classifier words (words that you say in order to label a particular noun as part of a group – like yiben shu – yiben being the classifier word for any sort of periodical, and shu being book) and the tones, which are sometimes a pain.

But being here in China, where I hear it all the time has really helped my growth. I’m making basic sentences after almost 5 months and can have a conversation with people patient enough to use their hands, talk slowly and repeat themselves. Not a very intelligent conversation, but I can get the gist and occasionally surprise them (and myself) with a decent response. My grammar still needs work but I have the foundation. Which i feel is most important – even though I’m pretty dedicated to learning Mandarin, I’ve dropped out of the classes I was taking. Why? Well, for one, I want more free time and the day it was on was a work day, to boot. But also, with the linguistic foundation I  have, I can get the rest based on context and questioning. Now that I know how, I can simply ask "what is that?" What does that mean?" "What is the name of this?"

The written language, I’m not so sure of. I’m not giving up on it, per se, but I haven’t learned a thing about stroke order, whatever you call the individual components of the character, etc, though I’ve learned 10-15 characters by sheer osmosis, so it’s probably not that hard. Just going to focus on spoken Mandarin, for now. By the way – Mandarin is a hodge-podge language, just as Han is a hodge-podge ethnicity. Being here, I can say with confidence that Jinan is NOT 98% Han Chinese like the net will tell you. There is so much diversity that is repeated throughout the city; the demographics are either lazy or just plain wrong to group so many people under one umbrella. But looking at my words now, it does make some sense. China’s political and cultural philosophy has been about harmony and unity for millenia – it makes sense from that perspective to try and fit as many people as possible under one cultural umbrella, even if by Western sociological standards, it’s like grouping Scots and Brits as one ethnic group. But yeah, Mandarin…Apparently native speakers here in Jinan that go to Chengdu, Hong Kong, and other southern cities have quite a bit of trouble picking apart the local dialect. There is a standard dialect – Putonghua – the official language, sort of like Standard Arabic, that everyone supposedly knows. For the record, I have no idea which I am learning, but I suspect it’s Jinan-ese and NOT Standard Mandarin, though it’s probably not too far off since Standard Mandarin is based on Beijing’s dialect, which is quite close. Meh.

Imagine if in America you had to be concerned with not being able to speak the Floridian dialect during your vacation – what if they don’t know Standard American English at your hotel?? Strange, considering how long China’s been around. But I guess parts of it have been at war. A lot. So maybe it makes some sense, too.

In a year? Two years? I hope to be able to have a fluent conversation and perhaps learn more about politics, culture, religion, etc…I’ve also given thought to more languages. I want to work West eventually, maybe live in India for a year and then get into the Middle East legally. Urdu seems useful as a bridge through West China/Pakistan/North India and maybe Iran…From there I suppose Arabic would be useful…I wonder how close they are. I’ll have to research that later, but for now, English, Spanish and Chinese serve quite well…I’ve always wanted to say I’m trilingual – and in two years that may be a distinct reality. Hella bragging rights, not gonna lie…

Categories: china, Uncategorized


  1. Ni hao ma, Earl.

    Tonal languages are considered linguistically to be some of the most difficult types of language for speakers of our background to learn because it is extremely different from what we’re used to.

    There are probably three reasons you’re picking up the language so quickly:

    1. Excitement/willingness to learn
    2. Total immersion into the culture and language
    3. You have a super power for languages


    • Thing is, that difference is given far more consideration than it’s due. For one, English has tones, too. Phrase a statement versus a question – “You can do that.” versus “You can do that?” You use tones to convey your meaning. English isn’t tonal, per se, but its not an alien concept.

      Plus I’ve noticed a lot of the tones follow the sounds your mouth normally makes anyways as you say the words. Like Ni Hao, in fact. Without trying too hard, you get the tones proper. It doesn’t hold true for written words that might have four different tones, like “Ma,” but many Chinese word tones simply emphasize the way you’d normally say the word, so it’s not so bad.

      Zai Jian!

      • By the way, Ni Hao Ma is the root of linguistic evils – don’t try it here! I’ve been pulling my hair out trying to figure out “what’s up,” and people always tell me it’s “Ni Hao Ma?” but it’s really not. They just laugh and start saying “Hello? Hello?” if you try it. There’s a specific context I have yet to figure out – when I use it in class, I use it for my Kindie kids when I say “How are you?” and they look at me funny – I translate with “Ni Hao Ma?” But its not meant to be outright said. Weird.

        I still haven’t figured it out, but Zhang Feng gets the job done. I meant to write a whole post on it in fact haha, so this comment will have to do.

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