Learning Mandarin: Start Off Lazy, Build From There

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Monday, 28 September 2009
This is another Guest Post just in time for #MandarinMonday It is written by my friend Greg over at Mandarin Segments and is his personal experiences of learning Mandarin. Greg has been learning for about 2 years, although has made amazing progress in the last two months. Here is Greg's learning process.


Before describing my journey in learning Chinese, I need to be open with you:

When I began learning Mandarin: I did not have any Chinese relatives (I still don't), I do not have a Chinese wife, and I do not work for a Chinese company. I don't live in China, and I was not planning to move there. I do not have any ancient secret documents written in Chinese that I need to translate, I am not practising t'ai chi, and I am not studying acupuncture.

Nope, there was no obvious reason for me to learn Chinese whatsoever. And yet, there I was, subscribing to the "Teach Yourself Mandarin" series on iTunes - and really excited.

Pressing The Button

Just 6 months earlier I had been in Taiwan on business, and I learned to read my first Chinese word: exit = 出口. (You can read the story here.) And so my entry was 'exit' - then Mandarin started to creep into my thoughts.

I also learned a dozen basic phases (Hello, How are you, I am fine, Two beers please, Just a little, Don't want, ...) Chinese people are so complimentary when they find out a Westerner is learning their language. You don't need much more than "ni hao" or "zai jian" - to get lots of bubbling outbursts like "Wow - your Chinese is amazing!" and "You are so clever!"

And for 6 months, with just a dozen tone-less phrases, it felt like I was fluent. Until I realised that I wasn't ... but that I really wanted to be.

So I pressed that magic 'subscribe' button in iTunes.

The Laziest Path

By that stage in my life I had no spare time, and absolutely no desire to study any more. A couple of degrees and a professional qualification lay in the past, and 10-12 hour work days and a half-dozen international business trips a year lay in the present. I knew that anything extra that I took on would quickly get discarded - I definitely needed a better plan.

So I did nothing. Well, almost nothing. On the way to & from work - totalling 20-30 minutes a day - I listened to my Mandarin podcast. Most of the time I was thinking about something else, but those beginner podcasts played over & over in the background. Until one morning, after a month, I woke up from a dream repeating "Huan ying nin lai Beijing" to myself. That phrase must have played in my ears a dozen times by then, and even though I'd never really concentrated on it, here I was, saying it in my sleep, knowing exactly what it meant.

So I took a significant step forwards - I actually started to listen to the podcasts, rather than just playing them. I also subscribed to ChinesePod, and my conversational Mandarin continued to develop.

But I stuck to my original promise - I was not going to study Chinese, and I was definitely not going to waste time learning to read Chinese! I would plug into my podcasts, but it would not be like school. I was not going to memorise lists of vocabulary, and this was not going to feel like a big effort. (And yet, I was enjoying myself so much at the time that - looking back now - it was a disproportionate amount of time that I was spending with my Chinese-English dictionary!)


Then in May this year, I changed gears again after spending a month in Asia on business (China, HK, Taiwan and Singapore).

When I took off from Heathrow Airport I was pleased with how much Chinese I could speak. When I landed here again a month later, I was frustrated and determined to up my game. There was going to be more effort, more podcasts, memorising lists, using flashcards - and learning to read. Although I was at a conversational level, I realised in trying to speak with people that I simply didn't have a wide enough vocab. I could speak & be understood, but they used so many words when speaking to me, I just couldn't keep up.)

So in the last 4 months, I have been listening to more podcasts, memorising lists, using flashcards - and learning to read. It has been fantastic.

Sometimes I wish I had been this fired up 3 years ago - I'd have a much better command of Mandarin by now. And yet, somehow, that's OK. If I had pushed too hard at the beginning I might have scared myself off. But that feels irrelevant ... this is where I am now. I've learned over 1000 Chinese characters in my reading experiment, and I am progressing all the time in my spoken Mandarin.

Discovering Mandarin

One of the things I did at the start of my 4 months of passionate learning was to start my blog, Mandarin Segments. And through blogging I discovered a world of people who are also learning Chinese, who have also experienced the same challenges as I have - and who are willing to provide input, and to debate in a way that keeps my moving forwards. Blogs are a great resource, and an excellent sounding board. Make sure you subscribe to a few with a Mandarin focus.

But perhaps I am preaching to the converted - after all, you're reading this on a blog, Charlie's excellent Discovering Mandarin blog.
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  1. Grace Lee Says:
  2. Nice post! I enjoy it a lot. Yap many of my foreign friends are amazed by people in Taiwan/ China cuz they think eastern people are so friendly and complimentary.

  3. Bill Says:
  4. I often find the "why" more interesting than the "how" when it comes to learning Chinese. But, whatever the reasons, as long as it is still challenging and fun that is a good reason to continue.

    Great post Greg.

  5. I have to agree with the above comments. And Greg, similiarly :

    "I do not have any Chinese relatives , I do not have a Chinese wife, and I do not work for a Chinese company. I don't live in China, though I would love to move there.

    I also do not have any ancient secret documents written in Chinese that I need to translate, I am not practising t'ai chi, and I am not studying acupuncture."

    :) Thanks for the great Guest post.

  6. Greg Says:
  7. Charlie, thanks for the opportunity to share my story with your readers. It was fun to remember how it all started, and now I'm wondering where I'll be in a couple of years time. (Yes, I'm optimistic :-)

    Thanks again

  8. Taggu Says:
  9. It's always fun to hear about why people start with chinese. I asked around in my class, consisting of 30 students, and it was rare that two people had the same reason.

    You should have more people tell you why they started, it fits with your blog name too :)

  10. Bill Says:
  11. I'd be happy to share the reasons I started (along with the reasons I continue to learn). It might also help me to renew my effort/focus on what exactly I want to achieve from my study.

  12. @Taggu thank you, it is very true. I love to hear why people start learning. And everyones story is unique! Always very interesting.

  13. @Bill

    I would love for you to write a similiar post. Feel free to e-mail me.

  14. Jenny Says:
  15. Haha~Nice and interesting post^^
    I've never known that people in Taiwan or China would be so complimentary when finding out a Westerner is learning Chinese.Maybe it's just because I'm unaware of this....lol

  16. Jenny, I have found that everyone that has found out I am learning Mandarin very happy to try and help me out whenever they can.

  17. XY Says:
  18. It is my great honor to have witnessed the giant leap in your Chinese learning.

  19. Greg Says:
  20. Jenny, here's an example from 2 days ago. I was arranging dinner plans with some people - and in the email I included the name of the restaurant (皇朝), and I used the phrase: "Hao bu hao?" The rest of the email was in English.

    The one recipient wrote: "Excellent Chinese! Really impressive!"

    Such wonderful people! :-)


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