I was sitting down for a quick lunch the other day and picked up a What’s On In Suzhou rag to occupy my mind/look for new businesses that have opened recently. After shaking my head a few times at some obvious rip-offs, I came across this beauty of an advertisement:
Sweet Baby Jesus! The nerve of these people!
Impossible. Completely and totally impossible. A person who denies the holocaust, believes JFK was assassinated by a team of Soviet trained snipers monkeys, tells you that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams and practices Reiki crystal therapy wouldn’t take Mandarin House’s ridiculous claim seriously. Three months! That’s an insult to your intelligence. I don’t know if a native Spanish speaker could undergo an intensive language program in Italian and be fluent in three months and those two languages are kissing cousins! Absurd.
Beware of the Bullshit
Let’s get one thing straight – learning Chinese is hard. Not just hard, it’s really, really fuckin’ hard. Anyone who tells you they became fluent (ability to read, write and speak at a high functioning level) in anything less than two years is either a genius, lying or doesn’t understand the meaning of high functioning. Probably lying. OK, they’re lying. You’re looking at least three years of intense studying to reach true fluency. And I mean INTENSE STUDYING. I’ve lived here in China for five years, took a couple of semester of Chinese back in college, and have been visiting China since 20o6. I’m not even close to fluency (as I am lazy, have a job, and don’t have a ton of free time – you know, a normal person).
Chinese is one of the three hardest languages to learn for native European language speakers (along with Japanese and Arabic). Let’s take a look at some, just some, of the major hurdles you’re going to face when learning Chinese.
The Beast that is Chinese
To slay the language beast that is Chinese, you are going to have to go toe-to-toe with these major issues:
Tones – Four different tones. In Western languages we use tones to express emotion, ask questions and put emphasis on specific words. In Chinese, one sound can have one of four different tones. Each tone of the sound is a different word with a different meaning. Example, the word ‘ling’ has four different meanings depending on how it is said, not include additional meanings it may impart when used in combination with other words or in slang/idioms. This is crazy hard to get your mind around at first. It’s going to take you a few weeks to even be able to hear tones, several months just to be able to distinguish tones at something that resembles a normal conversational speed and probably a year before it’s easy to hear.
Pronunciation – Not only do you have to hear tones, you need to speak in tones. Good luck with that. Prepare to walk around your apartment practicing the word ‘wang’ or ‘ma’ in the four tones over and over again. It feels like you’re going crazy. 4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40, 44 is 44 – you know what I’m talking about. God damn Chinese language…
Characters – As if tones and pronunciation aren’t hard enough, you also need to learn characters. So, yeah, that means you’re learning two languages at the same time. Learning the theory of radicals and being able to identify said radicals is going to take a long, long time. If that’s not bad enough, the written language doesn’t really inform your ability to learn the spoken language when you are first starting out. So, you’re not learning one language with a different but understandable written phonetic system (like Korean), but instead are learning two languages at the same time.
Imagine you’re learning French. In your French class, you have to speak in French but in order to read or write in French, you need to learn the equivalent word in Egyptian hieroglyphs. Let’s see, eye of Ra plus stork with left leg up means…Bonjour…OK, now what is three snakes pointing down mean again….
It’s not quite that bad but it’s in the same ballpark.
Stroke Order – Just being able to identify (read and say) Chinese characters is not enough. No, you must also write in Chinese characters. To do that, you must learn the correct stroke order for making characters. And practice it again and again and again. Goodbye three weeks of your life.
A lack of decent learning material at the intermediate level – So you’ve put on your big boy or big girl pants and suffered for half a year and you’ve learned the basics. Congratulations. You can now count, read 1/8 of most sentences and can get around town in a taxi. You’re all ready to move on to the next step – only it’s about to get a lot harder because there aren’t many quality intermediate level resources out there.
The cold hard fact is that Chinese people suck at teaching the Chinese language to foreigners. Why? Because they’ve really never done it before. English, French, German and Spanish students have a wealth of intermediate learning materials because people have been teaching those languages to foreigners for hundreds upon hundreds of years. This is a byproduct of colonialism and the pressing need to get your local colonial administrators up to snuff as quickly as possible for the maximum exploitation of the colonies.
China, on the other hand, has a long history of actively NOT teaching the language to us foreign devils. Because of this, they kinda suck at teaching Chinese in a logical, efficient or structured manner. The general style of teaching and learning in China doesn’t help either. Instead of explaining why you are wrong and helping you correct the problem, Chinese people will just say ‘bu dui’ (incorrect) and you have to try again…’bu dui’ and again…’bu dui’ and again…’bu dui’. You’re going to hear a lot of ‘bu dui’ in your studies.
Chinese people are unable to make intuitive corrections to your shitty Chinese – Native English speakers (particularly Americans and Canadians) have been listening to immigrants and visitors brutalizing our language for hundreds of years. As a result, we’re quite good at figuring out what you are trying to say even if you make a bunch of mistakes. If you say ‘store were is? I look it.’ or ‘birsday happy happy you’, I know what you are saying.
Chinese people are not used to foreigners speaking Chinese and are certainly not used to outsiders murdering their language as a natural step in the learning process. Because of this, Chinese people will not be able to understand you if you make a mistake. Not at all. Use the wrong tone and they CANNOT understand you. Not at all. Wrong sentence structure – nope. It’s super frustrating. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to repeat a word, going through all of the tones until I hit the right one. As soon as you say it in second tone instead of the fourth tone you thought it was, they totally understand what you said. So frustrating.
A lack of parallels – When I learned Spanish back in high school, there were plenty of ‘oh, just like English’ moments. Sure, the verbs sucked but at least they made sense at some level. Chinese is not related to English or any European language in the slightest. There will be no ‘just like in English’ moments on the horizon. Sentence structure, the concept of time or even a similar starting point in logic are all completely different. Need an example, the word ‘yes’ does not exist in Chinese. Of course, there are many ways to say yes and it’s easy to say yes but there is not a universal word ‘yes’ in the language. I still don’t understand how that is possible. Any similarities between English and Chinese are purely coincidental.
A Peasants Language and an Academic Language – One nice thing about Chinese is that the day to day language of people is much easier than, say, English. Chinese society has almost always been two tiered. The elite ruling class and peasants. This plays out in the language. Take the word big. In English, a fanatical class based society, there are many, many words for big like vast, titanic, enormous, etc. – each with a highly specific meaning. Word selection is one way that English speakers identify or express class and level of education because English people are obsessed with class. In Chinese, you’d be lucky to hear more than three words used to describe something as big (da). Most of the time, it will just be ‘da’. That’s actually nice because it means you have a lot fewer vocabulary words to learn.
But Chinese could never really cut you any slack because then it wouldn’t be almost impossible to master. No, in Chinese there is also an academic version of the language that is reserved for speeches and higher learning. Just when you think you’ve got it down, there’s a whole new set of words to learn. I have a friend who did his undergrad at a Chinese university. His Chinese is pretty solid. We were listening to our big boss giving a speech and I asked him what our boss was saying. His answer – “I have no idea. Something about China and society”. Why am I learning this stupid language again?
Accents – Why won’t this list end?!? Did I mention that Chinese is hard yet? So, you got some official Chinese learning under your belt. Time to hit the streets. You pull out your fancy pants Beijing accented Chinese only to find the locals don’t talk like you at all. Sure, they can understand you just fine – you’re talking like a news reporter after all – but you have a hard time understanding them! Down here in Suzhou, there is no hard r sound at the end of words. Nope, they soften it up with an n sound instead. Chuar becomes chuan. Head off to Sichuan and the word ‘shi’ becomes ‘si’. That gets confusing because shi is a pretty damn important word, meaning the number 10, the verb to be and a whole host of other important things and ‘si’ is also an important word – most importantly the number 4. That’s right, the number 4 and the number 10 sound almost identical. I still can’t tell the difference between a Sichuan #4, #10, and the verb to be.
Local Languages – Bwahahahahahahahahaha!! Chinese is the worst. Many old people don’t speak “Chinese” in an official sense. Nope, they’re too old, never learned it in school (whatever schooling they did get back in the day) and just speak their own local dialect. They can usually understand you but you can’t understand them. It’s a trip. When old Chairman Mao videos are shown on CCTV, I will sometimes ask my lady what he is saying. She has no idea because he’s from Hunan province and she isn’t. That’s crazy.
Did I mention that the local dialects can be as different as German is from Spanish? Yep. So, you can even be totally fluent but if someone doesn’t want you to listen to what they are saying, they can just switch to their local language and they might as well be speaking Thai.
Let’s take another look at that advertisement:
Three months, you say? Go fuck yourself, Mandarin House.