How I am Learning Chinese

“Do you speak Mandarin fluently?”

This is a question I most often hear from people after I mention that my husband is Chinese. Every time I hear the question I grimace.

No, I do not speak Mandarin fluently. I do not speak Mandarin even conversationally. If a life or death situation in which I needed to speak Mandarin occurred, I would be out of luck.

I grimace because I really, really want to learn the language. I halfheartedly attempted to learn Mandarin while pregnant with my son. The importance of learning Chinese hit home during this time, as I realized the chance of Alan learning Mandarin would exponentially increase if I could speak the language. My husband also knew that during my trip to China, it would help me communicate with people. Although most of his family speaks a local dialect, they also can speak Mandarin. He bought me Rosetta Stone, intrigued by how it can teach people to learn languages like a child. Instead of teaching a language by introducing grammar rules, the software provides pictures of words and phrases. The student selects the picture that best matches what the speaker is saying.

I was inconsistent due to being busy from graduate school and tired from pregnancy, so I knew I was not learning as well as I could be. Come to find out, what I thought I learned from the program was often incorrect. Mandarin has four tones, in addition to sounds that are not found in the English language. The software will not teach you how to make the sounds with your mouth. It will not explain how the same word could mean four different things depending on the tone. My husband corrected everything I tried to say. Sometimes, he even could not understand what I was saying. I learned that before continuing on with Rosetta Stone, I need to learn a few things.

However, there are resources that I am finding helpful.

  1. Chinese Is Not Really That Hard: A Guide to Using Technology to Learn Chinese and Hack Your Language Learning: This book is a manual of how to learn Chinese. Get over the fact that the title is a boldface lie (learning Chinese really is that hard). It is worth the few bucks for the Kindle edition. The book stresses the importance of first learning the phonetic system. The most useful advice I took from the book was to integrate Mandarin into your everyday life. For example, I will have an hour commute to school a few days a week. This is an optimal time to listen to Mandarin dialogues (after reading them first). I like to exercise first thing in the morning. Guess what? More time to learn Mandarin.

  2. My husband: often, people assume that my husband is teaching me Mandarin. Or that by him being around the house I pick up Mandarin by weird osmosis. This is not the case. Jocelyn, author of the speakingofchona.com website, blogs about why you shouldn't teach your spouse your language. It sets up a weird power differential in the relationship and isn’t relaxing at the end of a long day. I agree with her for the most part. However, a language tutor isn’t in the budget now. Thankfully, Zhenyang is teaching me the phonetic system and is a patient person. After this, I will relieve him of his language teaching duties.

  3. 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course: Wonderful book so far, although I haven’t gotten very far yet. It really emphasizes the importance of pronunciation and has many activities that include dictation. Each lesson also includes a vocabulary list, as well as the opportunity to practice speaking and writing. It does require an instructor, although an audio tape is included that pronounces the phonetic system.

I plan to go back to Rosetta Stone after I learn the Phonetic system. Although learning Chinese seems to be that hard, I am assured that it is not impossible.

Cassie Hua

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Ohio, USA
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