Learning Mandarin - In Chinese, We Call It....

Posted by Charlie @ Discovering Mandarin Sunday, 11 October 2009
This is the next edition of what I now hope to become a regular part of my blog. Guest posts from Mandarin learning friends, explaining why they decided to learn Mandarin. How they have gone about the learning process and where they are now in their journey, learning Mandarin. Today's guest post is from Bill Glover founder of #MandarinMonday who has been a great help and inspiration to me in keeping Discovering Mandarin moving forwards.

Learning Mandarin: So Why Chinese?

I cannot remember the moment I decided to learn Chinese. It was not one of those decisive moments where I said to myself that I was going to learn a new language, it just kind of happened.

I managed to leave school (and university) in stereotypical British fashion, speaking only one language, English. Despite dabbling in Latin, Sanskrit, and to a greater extent Classical Greek, I wouldn’t consider myself a linguist by any means. I tried French a couple of times but spent more time outside the classroom than in and consequently never made much progress. So why Chinese?

Well, there is this girl. Hang on, before you stop reading, she is NOT the reason I started learning Chinese. Challenge anyone who tells you they are learning Chinese because “there is this girl”. If you dig deeper, you will probably find that it’s just an easy way to respond to a casual questioning. When I met my wife (whom you’ve probably guessed is Chinese), her English was excellent. Now, several years on, her English is superb. Yes, she makes mistakes but they are relatively minor and the structure/style of her written English is far superior to mine. And the true test? She can not only argue, but also win in fluent English. So, in short I have no reason to learn Chinese to communicate at home. However, it would be wrong to say that my wife played no part at all. One thing that she did give me was an introduction to China, Chinese culture, and of course the Chinese language.

But what was it that really got me learning Chinese? If I had to put my finger on one thing that really sparked my interest, I would attribute my decision to learn Chinese to one phrase: “In Chinese we call it…”

I remember early one morning walking with my wife (then friend) through Lammas Park (map) in Ealing and deciding to visit the animal sanctuary. One of the inhabitants of the sanctuary was a barn owl.

In Chinese we call it… 猫头鹰 [māo tóu yīng] literally, cat headed eagle

On our visit to The Science Museum in London we spent some time in the computing section looking at the history of computing. One of the themes of any computing exhibition is how “intelligent” computers have become.

In Chinese we call it… 电脑 [diàn nǎo] literally, electronic brain

And then there is the mobile phone. How many people know why it is called a cellular phone? It’s obvious if you know a little about the mobile phone networks work, but in Chinese there is no such complexity.

In Chinese we call it… 手机 [shǒu jī] literally, hand device

Another favourite of ours is the use of butter in cooking. Needless to say I am forever putting too much butter in (or on) everything. So, how do you say butter in Chinese?

In Chinese we call it… 黄油 [huáng yóu] literally, yellow oil

The list goes on, but hopefully you can start to see why the language fascinated me. Yes, I would never be able to read those crazy looking characters, but here was a language that appeared to make sense. And so, I started to look around for online courses. I came across ChinesePod (one of my top 5 tools for studying Chinese) and began listening to the newbie lessons. It all seemed so easy.

Now, several years on I realise that it isn’t easy. Progress has been very slow (people are often surprised at how slow), the list of excuses is endless, but two things remain: I still find the language fascinating, and I still thoroughly enjoy learning it. Since visiting China, I’ve found an additional reason to learn spoken Chinese, and that is to communicate with my in-laws. Most married couples seem to detest the visits to/from the in-laws, but I’m longing for the day when I can have an in-depth discussion with them both in their native language. The only trouble is, their English is improving far faster than my Chinese.

As long as I still find it interesting, challenging and fun, I will continue to learn Chinese. Part of what makes it fun, is the great people I have discovered on my journey. If you are learning too, you are welcome to get in touch. You can find me over on my personal blog, or taking part in next week's #MandarinMonday.
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  1. Deborah Says:
  2. Ni Hao! Interesting! I've just very recently become interested in Chinese as well after a business trip to Shanghai. I'm not good at languages though, have a terrible ear, but am still fascinated. Should I venture?

  3. Deborah,

    Thanks for dropping by. I would urge you if you are interested to give learning Chinese a go.

    I was terrible at languages too. I have now begun to think it is becuase I didn't really ever want to learn another langauge though.

    I personally think if you want to learn, it gives you a lot of motivation and positivity to overcome some of the hurdles.

    As for an 'ear', I am tone deaf in music, when we played in a band I was the drummer. But as I say the motivation to learn helps by wanting to.

    Wish you all the best.


  4. Taylor Says:
  5. Enjoyed it...thanks Charlie and Bill!

  6. Greg Says:
  7. Thanks for sharing Bill, interesting post. "The more you know, the more you want to know!" (Charlie, is there a Chinese proverb about this? :-)

  8. @Taylor - Thanks for dropping by, glad you enjoyed it, hope you will come back and maybe share your experiences sometime.

    @Greg - I have been looking all day for one about it being a small world. No cigar (yet).

    I will have a look though.

  9. Puerhan Says:
  10. Thanks Charlie for hosting and Bill for sharing.

    @Deborah - I always thought I had no aptitude for languages too, but I actually did very well when I studied Mandarin because I wanted to, not because it was compulsory. I think Charlie is right that motivation plays a large part in language learning and probably all learning. If you're interested, go for it! It will open up new worlds of discovery for you.

  11. Anonymous Says:
  12. Interesting...

    Certain words are very Mainland China, eg 黄油
    Elsewhere we use 牛油 (lit. cow lard) instead.

    Ha ha... But it's good to know both, Charlie.
    Because we have a saying in Chinese,


  13. @Puerhan - not a problem at all, glad to host such great stories.

    (I hope you are getting yours ready.) ;)

  14. @1ondoncalling - Does that saying mean to 'never say never' or to say 'I won't learn it is silly?' not quite sure of it's use.

  15. Bill Says:
  16. Wow, lots of comments. Thanks everyone. I actually enjoyed writing this short article. My wife has often said that I clearly enjoy the process of learning Mandarin more than I relish the thought of every achieving it. Maybe she is right.

    @Greg: Spot on, "The more you know, the more you want to know!" really does sum it up.

    @Deborah: One word: Yes. If you don't start you'll never know. You can always stop if it isn't for you.

    Thanks again guys, and thanks to Charlie for accepting the post.

  17. Bill,

    Thanks ever so much for sharing your story!!

    The learning process is intruiging, I can see the trap of it. But hey, who says you ever have to fully achieve a new language fluently to native level?

    It is a nice goal but more realistic 'cehckpoints' along the way may be a better motivation to achieve steps.


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