While I’ve been struggling to learn everyday Bahasa Malaysia, my friend Anna has taken on a much grander challenge by learning Mandarin. It’s been fun to follow her advance in her studies! I asked her to share her experience in case there are any others out there eager to learn this important language and give their brain a thorough exercise.
Where to start?
I would recommend a private teacher. I found Language School Teachers.com a good reference and found my great teacher, Nicole Peng, there. I think it is useful that the teacher has taught foreigners from different countries before. In the beginning I did two lessons a week (each lesson is two hours long), and now am down to one lesson a week. If you have the time, I’d recommend doing two lessons a week. After 10 months I know the basics: I know the numbers, I can order a meal, introduce myself and say something about my family.
KL is a good place to study Mandarin: you can hear and practice the language and there are many teachers. I try to speak with taxi drivers but they speak English back.
Is it really hard?
What is the hardest part?
For someone who has only learned languages in Roman letters, learning a new alphabet is extremely hard. The characters look all the same and people speak really fast. You think you can spot a character here and there but quickly realise it wasn’t what you thought – it’s really depressing to understand just how many there are. In the beginning you are a “confident moron” (read a funny blog post about this stage here) and think you know much more than you do. The tones are extremely hard and I still can’t nail them. The teacher corrects my tones occasionally, but lets me try to make sentences. It is also difficult to know which words are names – they all have a meaning.
I have always loved the Chinese characters and I loved it when I could start practicing them myself. It was a nice surprise that the numbers are not that difficult and once you know the numbers, you already can use a lot of the language. The grammar also seems to be fairly simple – but I may learn otherwise soon.
You think you can guess what a character means from the looks of it, but you can’t. I often ask Nicole why something is the way it is, and her response is: “It just is”.
You don’t learn just a language
By taking lessons in Mandarin you don’t just learn the language but also the culture. If I’m too tired to learn I ask questions! The language is intertwined with the culture. For example many of the radicals in the characters and words are ancient terms describing food or nature – the radical “rice” occurs in lots of other characters. Family is also very important, and in the beginning we spent a lot of time learning how to talk about families.
I am studying reading and writing. It is possible to only learn conversational Mandarin but according to my teacher doing that the language doesn’t stick so well. If you learn at an unhurried pace – reading, writing and speaking at the same time – you will also learn the connections between the characters and the spoken language.
Your favourite learning tips?
Google Translate is your best friend. Other than that, I use Pleco, an interactive dictionary app with cool features like recognising characters from a photo taken with your smartphone and looking up words by drawing them on the screen. Skritter is a good tool for learning to write in Mandarin. I also follow Living a Dream in China, a great blog by a young Finn living in China and studying to become a Mandarin teacher. She has many great tips on learning the language – like watching date shows on tv.
Photo from Skritter Facebook page.