Learning Mandarin: 3 ½ years on

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Tuesday, 25 August 2009
This is a guest post from my Dutch friend Guus. This is his experiences of learning Mandarin. Guus runs a Mandarin school in Singapore and has been learning Mandarin himself for about 3 and a half years. I wanted to add a new perspective to the blog, to give new learners like myself an idea of the stages of transition that you are likely to go through learning Mandarin. Guus also runs a blog about learning Mandarin with tips.


My journey of learning Mandarin

A Dutchman in Singapore, I have been learning Mandarin seriously since January 2006. In this post, I’d like to reflect on the various stages that I’ve gone through. Of course, the process by which one learns differs from person to person, but I think that each stage of proficiency and learning has recognizable characteristics.

My motivation

I enjoy learning languages, but I don’t think I would have started to learn Mandarin if it weren’t for my then girlfriend, now wife, who I met when on exchange to the National University of Singapore. It’s my philosophy that you have to have a purpose in mind before you start learning a language. If you don’t, whatever you learn will sink away from your memory in a few months’ time.

Pre ‘Serious learning’

In 2005, I was in the Netherlands, completing my degree and did want to try learning some Chinese. I used the ‘teach yourself’ method, which comes with a CD and textbook that covers many everyday situations and also found materials online. I managed to drill the number 1-10 and some everyday situations like introductions.

The practical focus was nice in the sense that it had a real purpose, but it didn’t yet touch those mysterious characters, which I had a great interest to grasp. I needed more depth (and peer pressure!) to make headway.

Mid-2005 I decided to move to Singapore in 2006 and look for a job there. I would have my degree, and since I had nothing to give up I thought it’d be a good time to move to Singapore and give life there a go.

Four months of full-time learning at NUS

Since I needed a legitimate reason for being in Singapore beyond the normal 1-month tourist allowance, and wanted to learn Mandarin anyway, I enrolled myself into the Mandarin program of NUS extension. I took classes from 9:00am-1:00pm daily and spent the afternoons job hunting.

The four months before I clinched my job turned out to be a great foundation for learning Mandarin. The teachers at NUS approached language learning intuitively, not scientifically, and really pushed us to make the language our own.

We spent hours repeating the 4 tones (always hard for Westerners) and me and my classmates were ‘put on the spot’ by having to make a coherent sentence with whatever limited vocabulary we had. It was intense learning, but learning like a baby does. Not according to rules, but by mindful repetition and reinforcement. As one of my four teachers told us, “I can teach you the rules, and you can understand the rules, but that does not mean you will be fluent. You need to show me that you can make a sentence, and show that you can make it fast enough.”

The breakthrough point was about 6 weeks into learning the language, when I overheard my girlfriend give her friends directions on the phone and got the gist of the conversation. For some of my classmates the 1-month mark was the break-off point, they felt they were putting so much energy into learning the language, but not seeing the pay-off.

While it was sometimes tough to keep up, I really enjoyed the fact that characters were an integral part of my course. After a month or so I could not imagine any more to learn Chinese without learning the characters. It is as if you don’t get the ‘soul’ of the Chinese language if you don’t pick up its written part. Of course, the progress in writing was slow, but in the context of course books, stripped from characters we hadn’t been introduced to, I could see what it might be like some day to be able to read and write freely using Chinese characters. The day I reach that stage is still ahead of me.

Part-time evening course

I found a job after learning Mandarin full-time for some 4 months and switched to a part-time class. I’ve kept taking 5 hours of Mandarin weekly in the evening hours for approximately 2 years. It was tough sometimes to concentrate, and we had again a teacher that really pushed us, in fun ways.

She would ask us to write a story and present it in front of the (approx. 15-person) class. After one student had told their story, she’d ask someone else to summarize what he’d heard. One day, she came with brochures for property developments and let us do a property viewing role play using new vocabulary about rental terms, fixtures and rooms in houses, etc.

The group was mixed with some Singaporean Chinese, some younger professionals and some older expatriates as well. We had lots of fun, which I think made all of us do that little bit extra, and most importantly, kept us coming for the classes. Let me repeat once again, it takes energy, not in a peak effort, but continuously for a long period of time, to make headway in learning Chinese.

Learning in practice

I am lucky that my wife is Chinese, and while her English is faultless, her parents, uncles and aunts do not speak it that much. I got a great boost in my Mandarin, ironically, when we paid a visit to her family in the US in May of 2007. I was the only white guy between the uncles, aunts and cousins and while the younger generation is perfectly fine with English, several family members kept themselves to speaking Chinese.

Especially funny was the moment where I was in a shop with my newly found Chinese family and the shop attendant approached me as if I were a separate customer, apparently confused by the fact that a white guy was among these Chinese people. These “show-off moments” are great morale boosters that you simply need to keep going.

If you give up too early, you won’t get to the point where you realize you are actually making headway. So the earliest stages are really the hardest, because you are spending a lot of time and effort without being able to reap the fruits of your hard work. It’s like building the foundation of a skyscraper.

Since March 2008 I have stopped attending classes. I’m still using the language every day because of living in Singapore where Chinese is one of the spoken languages and having Chinese family.

A week ago, I was at the cashier of the local supermarket, where the lady thoughtlessly took my stuff, scanned it and bagged it. Without looking up, she mentioned the price in Chinese. When she looked up, she realized that I, being white, shouldn’t understand, but I had the right amount ready. I told her with a smile “be careful, I understand everything you say” and we had a good laugh.

But I do realise that while words may come out more confidently and fluently, my vocabulary is limited and I am still far from the level where I could pick up a Chinese newspaper and read it, let alone correspond in the language. My written Chinese level is actually slipping because I’m not taking time to deliberately exercise it. It may be terribly immature, but I need a certain level of peer pressure to set myself to doing that.

So I am planning to take up a new course again, this time a course focused on business Mandarin with the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce. I have taken the Business Chinese test to assess my level and am now awaiting the result.
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  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. Just read up on your previous entries. It shows that you put a lot of effort into this website... it's truly great.

  3. Thank you ever so much for the comment and reading the articles. There is a lot of time put into the website, and is always great to hear back from people.

    Also Thanks again to Guus who wrote this article for me.



  4. Ramses Says:
  5. Goede gastpost Guus!

    Just a quick question: why aren't you going to 'study' on your own? You say in your post that you like learning in a natural way, so why aren't you just getting loads of input and let the Mandarin come to you?

    Also, extensive reading is really a good way to improve both your reading and your vocabulary.

  6. Hi Ramses,

    Thqanks for coming to the blog, I like your idea of letting the Mandarin come to you, but I personally think there has to be a certain amount of studying involved in the early part of the process?

    I will pass your question onto Guus too.

  7. Ramses Says:
  8. Sure, I'm actually doing some formal study myself as well at the moment, but it should be quite light and not involving grammar (that's my personal opinion). I'm currently just listening ChinesePod, learning characters with Heisig and watching unsubtitled dramas.

  9. Interesting. At the moment I am picking up my grammar through Rosetta Stone, and trying it on twitter through #MandarinMonday 's. I am not sitting with my head in books.

    Where can you watch Chinese dramas from? Not sure a) where to look and b) what is going to be good for learning.

    I am intruiged by Heisig, there seems to be a lot of people trying it out.

    Maybe I will give it a go too.


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