My Journey to Learn Chinese


Chu qu!” chimed Vivian. “Ch-chu qu” I mimicked cautiously. “Chu qu!” repeated my Chinese tutor, this time emphasizing the movement of her lips. Off of Vivian’s lips, the two syllables had subtle differences, the second “qu” sounding like a little girl releasing a sneeze. Yet when I attempted to pronounce the same two syllables- my mouth, lips, teeth and tongue contorted to make the two distinct sounds to no avail. The very basic but crucial element of the Chinese language is distinguishing between the different consonants and vowels as well as four tones. I had thought I had already covered these basics last year and was ready to plunge forward with learning new vocabulary and grammar. The exhaustion that took over my brain after repeating new words and phrases, simple one syllable words on paper, was enough proof to me that I had clearly been wrong. Even the letter “r”, a harmless little letter followed by the letter “i” to make the word “Ri” became a major chore. Thus has begun my journey to really start learning Chinese.

After living in China for almost one and a half years, I realized that I had to do something about my very poor and limited Chinese language skills. At first, I made many excuses for my lack of progress. Being a woman, I thought I was at a disadvantage to my Western male counterparts who seemed to pick up the language easily from their Chinese girlfriends. Comparing myself to some of my younger colleagues who studied Chinese in college and went to school in a day and age when Chinese language classes were more readily available then they were 20 years ago, I would lament that I didn’t have prior exposure to the language before moving here. Being older and also being preoccupied with my job, I thought were also good reasons. Truth be told, I was and still am afraid that when my time here in China eventually comes to an end, I will feel unfulfilled and that my experience here will be somewhat of a farce if I fail to make some headway in the language. China will not be out of my life when I leave. I will continue to watch the country from afar and hope to have a focus on China with future work. Having some language knowledge will definitely enrich my current experience as well as my future relationship with China. I have therefore decided to finally “do something about it”. Last week, I started meeting with Vivian twice weekly in a hope to put a change to this.

It is true that I have learned languages before. But this one is so vastly different from any other language I have ever tackled. Not only is there no familiar language connections to English or other European-based languages, but there of course is no written similarities either. Words in Chinese are one syllable long and are represented by one character. But depending on what a word means, it could be made up of several words put together. This part of the language I find fascinating and logical. For example, the Chinese word for university is “da xue” which translates to “big learn/study/school”. Sometimes, when I learn a new word that is made up of two or three characters, I like to look up what each character means and it helps me have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the word as well as the people long ago who helped develop the word and its meaning.

It doesn’t seem like there are a whole lot of syllables in the Chinese language. Therefore, the entire spoken language utilizes what seems like 20 syllables (ok- that might be a slight exaggeration). Therein lays one of the trickier parts of learning the language. To me, so many of the words just sound the same- a lot of “ch”, “sh” and “hu” sounds. Then part of my frustration has also to do with getting the tones correct. There are four tones in standard Mandarin Chinese and that means there are four ways of chiming out one syllable or word. Depending on the tone of the word, there can be vastly different meanings. So I may say something one way to a person and then get a blank, glazed look followed by “Shenma?”- the Chinese word for “What??”. When the person I am speaking to finally figures out what I am trying to say (usually after I show them the word from my little phone dictionary), he or she then follows it up with, “Oh, you mean…..(Chinese blah blah blah)!” with me baffled and thinking to myself, “Isn’t that what I just said?” I imagine the Chinese people secretly taking pleasure from these little tonal mishaps many learners of the language may make. Vivian shared with me a joke about a male foreigner going into a restaurant to ask the female waitress how much some dumplings cost and instead asked how much a night with her would cost!

Chinese children sometimes seem bewildered by my imposing figure and unrecognizable speech.
I was even asked once, “What planet do you come from?”

Although I look forward at some nearby point to learning the beautiful craft of writing Chinese characters, I have decided for now to focus on how to communicate verbally in Chinese. At this time, I can only read a few basic characters and cannot write any. I think learning how to write will help with my reading but will require a lot of commitment and dedication. The strokes have to be done in a certain order so it really is a very methodical process. Thankfully, here in China mainland, they have been using simplified characters for several decades so the characters and words here have fewer strokes and radicals. Hong Kong, Taiwan and Chinese communities outside of Asia use traditional Chinese characters which have many more strokes. I am simply amazed by some people who manage to not only learn simplified characters but the traditional characters as well! A French friend of mine is currently studying Chinese traditional medicine (in Chinese!!) here in Nanjing and has been learning both types of characters. Respect!!!

As you can imagine, it is frustrating at times being illiterate. I keep a small, hand-size notebook where I write new words down in pinyin, the romanization of Chinese words. This at least helps me with learning words and how to say them and can also be used as a quick reference in a pinch. However, if I want to convey and show a word to someone like a taxi driver, it’s useless to show him or her the pinyin. When I’m in a new city or even going somewhere new in Nanjing, I always have the name in Chinese pinyin so I can recite it and then follow it up with the Chinese characters to show him or her if necessary. Maps of Chinese cities that are printed in the West are almost always useless because they have the names of places and streets in English as well as the Chinese characters. What good is it going to be when you are lost in Beijing to ask someone where “Middle Mountain Road North” is when no one knows it as such and then you can’t read the characters on the map to see if you are on the desired “Middle Mountain Road” (which is Zhong Shan Bei Lu– by the way….)? This is also my beef with Western websites where you reserve hotel rooms in China. They usually only give you the address in English- not even pinyin, let alone in Chinese characters. Absolutely useless.

These basic but crucial language barriers between China and outside countries conveys the urgent need for 1) better language materials and media for foreigners desiring to visit China (by both Chinese and foreign organizations) and 2) increased language, cultural and education partnerships. For China’s part, younger generations have been learning English in school for years now. There is also a big demand for native speaking foreign language teachers- and not just for English, but also for French, German, Spanish, Korean and Japanese. The Chinese government also seems to offer a lot of opportunities for foreigners to learn Chinese in China or study in China (even in English!). I do hope at least in the United States that there will be a greater move in the coming years for younger Americans to learn Chinese in schools and universities.

As for my part, it may be too late for me to learn Chinese in school or at a university, but it’s not too late for me to make a commitment to learning it while I’m here. I will have to push myself and keep on track (not an easy thing for me to do, admittedly). One of my favorite Chinese expressions I have learned from another friend learning Chinese is, “Jia you!”. It roughly translates to “Go! You can do it!” and literally means “Add oil”. So in the next few months, I will be feeding my brain with new Chinese words and adding “oil”. So “onward ho” with my journey to learn Chinese! Zou ba!

For further reading:

A Chinese Voice of Dissent That Took Its Time

Calls to restore traditional Chinese characters


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