The N Stages of Learning Chinese
Learning a language is a long and daunting task, no matter which language you choose to learn. They all have their own unique quirks, and their own unique stumbling blocks, that make the learning experience that little bit different for each.
Chinese is, at the end of the day, just another language, and I thought it might be fun to look at some of the stages that you might go through should you try to learn it. The following are a few of the stages that I went through, or that I’ve seen other people go through, when learning Mandarin Chinese.
The Argh! Chinese Looks Too Hard Stage
The first stage you might encounter and one many people don’t make it past. Learning any new language can be intimidating at the start. With its drastically different writing system, tonality, and lack of proximity to English or other other closely related languages, Chinese can come across as completely inaccessible.
Many places will list Chinese as one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn (you’ve probably seen the FSI list that frequently does the rounds) and pronouncements like this, while they may well be true, can easily lead people to think that they don’t possess the necessary language learning capabilities to tackle Chinese.
However, it’s important to remember exactly what hard means in the context of learning; all languages are hard to learn, but at the same time, if you put in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years required to learn them, then all languages, at the end of the day, are routine.
Chinese being “hard” doesn’t mean you need a larger brain, a greater “affinity” for language learning, or more extensive language learning experience to take it on and master it. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to put in any more effort, as such. It simply means it will take you a longer time to become proficient.
I personally don’t buy the idea of certain individuals being either good or bad at learning languages. I think if Chinese is something you genuinely want to learn, and you’re going to be dedicated to that purpose (pre-requisites for learning ANY language), then don’t be put off by the conventional wisdom that it’s “hard”. It’s not hard, it’s just slow.
The I’m Never Going to Learn How to Read Stage
The natural next step for those with self-doubt upon deciding to learn Chinese. You’ve convinced yourself that you can learn how to speak and listen, but you’re still not ready to believe that you’re ever going to be capable of reading all those complicated squiggles.
*Maybe you don’t want to learn to read. Any language teachers out there (no matter what language) have probably met students who say they don’t want to learn how to read and write because they only need the language for this or that conversational reason. I know I have. I won’t even try to be polite about this one: if this is you, you’re an idiot. Being unable to read will drastically impact your ability to learn, full stop.
A lot of people look at Chinese characters, see how complex and alien they are, and think they will never be able to get their heads around them. The truth? The opinion of most linguists on the Chinese writing system is (and has been for a long time) that it’s inefficient and an impediment to learning. But. It’s probably nowhere near as difficult to pick up as your first impressions tell you it is.
I’ll throw out a comparison I’ve used before. If you put a photo of the Mona Lisa in front of me and asked me what it was, I’d be able to tell you. If you asked me right now (without giving me a photo to look at) which way she’s facing, how long her hair is, what’s in the background, what colour her eyes are, if she’s wearing any jewellery, etc., then I wouldn’t have the faintest idea.
Reading Chinese characters is a similar endeavour to recognising a painting. Yes, they’re complex, but you don’t actually have to know how to write them.
You don’t need to be consciously aware how many strokes a character has or how those strokes interact with each other. You don’t need to know exactly which smaller components they may or may not contain, or even be able to recall offhand roughly what they look like.
Reading Chinese characters is image recognition, just like how you recognise a painting, an object, or a human face. You don’t have to be able to reproduce them, or even have the faintest idea how they were produced in the first place in order to read them (although I won’t claim that it wouldn’t help once you get past a certain level).
There is a massive disconnect in Chinese between reading and writing (by hand that is). Reading can be learned far more passively and with far less effort than writing. For speakers of languages that use an alphabetic script this may seem hard to comprehend, but I’m personally a pretty good case in point: I have read dozens of novels and other books in Chinese. I can barely write a single paragraph by hand (anything beyond a simple sentence in truth).
The Oh My God When Did I Learn How to Read Stage
This is an interesting upshot of what I was saying above; learning how to read can actually be quite passive. Depending on how you go about learning Chinese, there is a decent chance that one day you’ll look up at a string of characters on a sign, or a newspaper headline, and, without having consciously focused on learning how to read, suddenly realise you understand what it says.
Now, usually it’s not so dramatic as to be every single word. But for me, and at least a few people I’ve spoken to, there was a very clear Eureka moment where they suddenly saw a piece of text, offhand, and realised they recognised enough characters to comprehend its meaning.
For me that was a newspaper headline I saw while sat waiting in a bank. For others it may be a banner hung outside a shop, or a text message from a friend.
That last example leads me into an important caveate. This stage will probably never occur if you don’t make any effort to at least type in Chinese first, use flashcards with characters alongside the pinyin, or have some other way of learning where the characters are at least present, even if they’re not themselves the primary focus of your efforts.
I learnt to read by using Youdao Dictionary and a Chinese pinyin input. I typed in pinyin and then checked the characters by hovering my mouse over the top to make sure they were right (Youdao pops up with a definition in English whenever you hover over a Chinese word or character).
I never wrote down the characters I was using or focused directly on learning them; I just wanted to be able to chat with people (via QQ at the time, before WeChat was a thing). Without fully realising it, I was steadily building up my ability to read.
The Chinese People Don’t Actually Bother with Tones Stage
My favourite stage of all, both because of how ridiculous it is, and because of how utterly convinced people can be when they’re in the middle of it. Let me just start by saying: Native Chinese speakers speak with tones. They comprehend what others are saying with tones.
It’s probably safe to assume this stage arises naturally from the learning process; you start off learning with untrained ears and an untrained mouth, and you learn by listening to isolated sounds with exaggerated tones, as well as by repeating those sounds in equally exaggerated ways.
Even once you’ve learned enough to get through basic conversations, you’re unlikely to have mastered the four basic tones, either in terms of pronunciation or listening.
At first, you’ll likely assume all communication problems are your own, and while that’s not necessarilly true (just think how many subtly, or even wildly, different accents you hear in your own language on a daily basis), you’d be at least mostly correct.
However, at some point you’ll likely reach a stage where you develop enough self-confidence to belive you’re saying things right, and you’ll probably reach it before your ears are accustomed enough to the language to know otherwise.
You may well notice that no native speakers are pronouncing the tones with as much force and clarity as you are, and you may be unable to distinguish their tones at all. You might potentially interpret this, wrongly, as them not pronouncing the tones as all.
Native Chinese speakers use tones. It’s just that it’s second nature to them. Their tones are naturally blended into the language, as organic, unconscious parts of each syllable. They’re not exaggerated like yours probably still are.
For native speakers, tones are not the focal point of pronunciation, and they are spoken with more subtlety. It takes longer to develop an ear for them than it does for your own clumsier approximations. But that’s fine, keep going, and, unless there’s something seriously wrong with you, you’ll move beyond this stage eventually.
Oh, and don’t worry about it too much. If you don’t use tones, people will still probably understand most of what you say, depending on how slowly and clearly you enunciate the other components of each syllable and how much context you give the listener. In the end though, you’ll be a lot easier to understand if you keep working on your tones and you’ll be much better off developing an ear for them too.
The Why Don’t You Understand, I’m Pronouncing This Perfectly Stage
Everyone will experience this from time to time, it goes with what I said above; you’ll eventually reach a stage where you’re proficient enough to know what you want to say and how it should be pronounced, but you’re not yet proficient enough to realise that you’re doing it wrong.
This stage is mildly frustrating, but to anyone serious and humble enough to learn a foreign language it will mainly serve to fuel your desire to get better.
Occasionally, however, you may bump into someone deluded enough to not just believe it in the moment, running high on frustration and embarrassment, but to genuinely think it true in the cold light of day.
Because very few, if any, non-native speakers will ever be perfect in their adopted languages, you’re unlikely to ever reach a level where you don’t express things poorly on occasion. Moving out of this stage relies more on developing an understanding of your limitations and a sense of humility.
It helps to watch people with less developed language skills than yourself claim indignantly that native speakers are stubbornly refusing to understand them when you yourself can clearly determine exactly what they said wrong. Once this has happened a few times it can really help you develop a sense of objectivity when you encounter the same blank faces in response to your own words.
On the flip side, you will occasionally meet people who, for reasons that seem to be entirely their own, cannot for the life of them understand you. Even when saying the simplest things. Even when you’ve said those same things to a hundred other people and they have all, without exception, understood you perfectly.
Hopefully you have a grounded enough view of reality not to cling to the following statement and use it to support the idea that your pronunciation is perfect (it’s not), but some people just can’t seem to handle even the lightest of accents.
In my experience I’d say roughly one in every ten Americans does this to me when I’m speaking English (and not just me, but other Brits, Aussies, South Africans etc.). After I while, I just stop trying to talk to them. (I know that sounds like a cheap shot, but I’ve seriously only encountered this with Americans.)
The I’m Fluent Stage
This stage is rarer and correlates more to personality than learning level. First of all, let’s just get this out of the way: you’re not fluent. I’ve been living in China for over a decade, spent two stints (albeit short ones) studying Chinese in university, and worked as a translator for over three years now, and I have not once met a non-native speaker who is fluent in Chinese.
A lot of that probably comes down to my definition of fluent. If you struggle to come up with the right vocabulary when talking about something that, while not an everyday subject, is far from specialist, let’s say politics or nutrition for example, then you’re not fluent.
If your speech is interrupted by misuse of words and a lack of clarity that could not possibly occur in even a relatively uneducated native speaker, then simply put, I don’t view you as a “fluent” speaker.
That’s not a bad thing. I’m not fluent, and I work as a translator. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, I work within one specific field and I’m very well-versed in the vocabulary of that field, but there are plenty of topics that I understand and can talk about for hours in English that I can’t comfortably discuss in Chinese. I can’t explain the off-side rule clearly, for example.
Sure, I don’t doubt that there are people who can and do attain that level of proficiency, it’s just I’ve never met any; they’d be making the big bucks and wouldn’t be seen dead hanging around with the likes of me (I jest, I’m anti-social and rarely meet anyone new).
I do genuinely feel that those who are truly fluent probably don’t go around telling people about it. Certainly, in my own experience, the people I’ve known who have developed their language skills the most have generally been the most honest and self-effacing when it comes to talking about it, while those that brag about being fluent, tend to be proficient, but nothing more.
I have certainly encountered big-talking “translators” who aren’t so familiar with the content they purport to translate. Quite recently in fact. I’m currently going over a game translation, doing last minute damage control, you could say, for a project at work that was translated by someone who clearly understands Chinese far less than he seems to think.
I say “he” because he somehow managed to type his name into one of the strings and we found him on LinkedIn where his profile includes long swathes of grandiose self-effusion and claims to have tranlsated word counts in the millions (I’m not saying that last part isn’t true, it just looked really cringey on the page, and, seriously, this dude’s translations were shockingly bad).
I’m not going to name and shame, but what we saw displayed in writing is textbook example of the sort of person who professes fluency when they would really benefit from being honest with themselves and striving for betterment (don’t be that person. Stay humble and stay hungry).
The I Want to Study a Dialect Stage
This one may well only apply to those studying Chinese in China, but I imagine it’s still quite common (it’s certainly something I’ve been through at least once). China is a big country with a long history (I won’t be dragged into a discussion on exactly how long) and a topology that has, historically, made transport and communication between distant regions inconvenient. It should come as no surprise then to learn that China has a lot of different dialects.
I don’t plan to get into the debate on what is a dialect and what is a language, other than to mention that opinions vary and the official view within China of basically everything Han being a dialect has clearly been informed, at least partly, by political considerations. The key takeaway should be, there’s a lot of people speaking a lot of mutually unintelligible tongues.
It stands to reason that someone who’s learnt Mandarin to a high level will have at least some interest in the culture and history of China and its people, and so one of the logical next steps for a curious mind looking to augment their everyday Mandarin is to learn one of these dialects, whether that’s one of the big ones (Sichuanese, Cantonese, Min, Wu etc.) or a more specialised dialect such as Puxian (which even other Fujianese have told me sounds like an alien language) or even a non-Han language, such as Zhuang.
For my part I still kind of want to learn Sichuanese. It has a great number of speakers and is far closer to Mandarin than something like Wu (I think) or Min (I know). For now I have other things to focus on, but maybe one day I’ll get round to it.