Studying Chinese destroys my head!


It’s been a reoccurring theme here that I have been lax with my language study. Almost every element of studying Mandarin makes me tired – even just thinking about it. I came close to re-enrolling in a Chinese class a month or two ago, but was at that point still on crutches, enjoying a broken foot.

So now I am still limping around, my foot slowly rehabilitating, I feel beyond tired in a new role at work. It’s funny how the train of excuses never stops. Oh I can’t afford it this month, oh I have too much on my plate at work, oh the temperature did not exceed 10 degrees this morning, blah blah blah!

I love language. It is a dream of mine to become not just conversational in another language, but close to fluent. I would like nothing more than to be able to travel to another country and converse with the locals in their own language – or hell, in my case, I could do that in my own town, considering Box Hill has so many Chinese living in it, its practically a Chinese province itself.

Why does language study have to be so difficult! Why can’t I just go to bed and wake up with a massive understanding? Because that is what we call fantasy, but I wish I wish I wish!

I was really quite hardcore into learning Chinese characters at one point. I was borderline addicted to a website called Skritter – which is simply amazing for practicing Chinese or Japanese characters. At one point I had around 100 under my belt and was progressing well. At that same time I also felt ridiculously tired…mentally tired. I actually felt like my brain was exhausted from working it too hard – a type of tiredness I can honestly say I haven’t encountered very often.

I think that learning Pinyin is the best way to enter into the Chinese world, and then supplement it with Character study. A lot of people say that learning Characters is an important way to understand the language as a whole and funnily enough they are right. I often found little comprehensions appearing all over the place as I studied the characters – particularly when you found the smaller parts of characters (called radicals) appearing in other characters. It slowly, logically brought things together – yet at the same time, I could never imagine myself ever actually looking at a wall of Chinese text – such as in a newspaper – and comprehending it. I could only imagine myself baby-reading it, one character at a time – where a month later, I would have finished the first page.

The other element to character study is that like the spoken language, the grammar is all over the place. The Chinese words do not follow the same structure as English – so much so that in order to understand even part of what is being said, you really need some colloquial knowledge.

I was listening in to a guy beside me on the train, yakking on in Mandarin on his mobile phone. Don’t you love people who sit amongst strangers on trains, happily crapping on about anything and everything? At least if you’re speaking another language, most people present will not have any idea of what you’re saying.  Well I guess I was culturally eavesdropping this guy and found it quite satisfying picking up different words.

I was understanding random things such as the word for Saturday, him answering in the affirmative, and a bunch of other tiny things that made no sense individually, but were satisfying to recognize nonetheless.

The point of this post is there is no point. Like my language study, it is a ramble. Hopefully next time I check in I can report on some advancement. I will say at least, that I am impressed with the amount of words I do actually know and remember. While I can barely string them together, and are not remotely conversational, some way, some how, I have retained practically every part of the language I have studied. My wife Courtney is similar – while she doesn’t think she knows it as well as I do, I am almost certain she has retained it all too. I only wonder if by pushing on and retaining, if that is the key to one day achieving fluency. It’s likely not the size of one’s memory, but one’s ability to commit to what has been a very tiresome path.


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7 Responses to “Studying Chinese destroys my head!”

  1. Nick Kellingley Says:

    I’ve lived here for 2 years, my wife’s Chinese and we’ve been together for 7 years and my Mandarin is still abysmal. I learned more Arabic in a month than I have Chinese in all that time. Embarassing really.

  2. wooSHE Says:

    If you want something badly enough, you will find a way to get it.
    I would like to help you if you really want to continue.

  3. Marcus Says:

    I think one of the biggest hurdles with Chinese is actually the sheer number of accents and dialects. Dialects have always been problematic for people studying it within China, but man, the accents. I swear, every different person I speak to pronounces things differently.

    I was having a few beers with some work colleagues the other night, and chatting to a Chinese Malaysian friend. Of course after a few beers, that’s when I’ll be inclined to speak more Chinese  Anyhow, I asked him to say something to see if I recognized it, and even something as simple as ‘chi le’, I couldn’t hear it correctly. The way he was saying ‘chi’, it was like ‘ser-la’, pronouncing the normal ‘ch’ from cheddar with a soft ‘s’. These things…they just kill me.

  4. Anonymous Says:

    oh ya, i remember you asking me about it in manchuria…

  5. Austin Guidry Says:

    Oh man, I completely understand where you’re coming from – language was really hard when I was over there. Before I went to China to do a semester in school, I knew about 150 characters and a few basic phrases and I was NOT ready!

    But the only way to improve is getting off your ass and practicing! I had to force myself to get off of my couch and go outside and talk to people.

    In six months, I went from 你好!你吃了吗?吃了!to having 2 and 3 hour conversations with perfect strangers on the streets of Lanzhou or on the trains or anywhere, really. It was just the practice. I stopped being afraid of talking.

    Once you stop learning the language as a subject and start learning and seeing the language as a living, breathing, changing part of culture, it is much easier to pick out the dialect and be able to guess what it means. Granted, 兰州话跟温州话不一样,but it does get easier. The dialects ARE insane; I’ll never try to pretend that I intend to learn them all

  6. Dani Wang Says:

    I would say for beginners, start by just focusing on Pinyin. As you gain an understanding of the language, you can start learning the Chinese characters at a later date.

    But think about it, your dream is to travel through China _speaking_ to people in the local language. So why focus on the written language?

    The other thing that helps is to learn initially through literal translations. In my experience this helps get over the problem with the word order being different to English.

  7. Marcus Says:

    Hey Dani,

    Yes I agree that the focus is definitely on speaking, however I also found that by studying Pinyin and then characters, a lot of the grammar became a lot clearer. Remembering the characters without having any real day to day need is very difficult, I think it’s fairly essential to at least be living in a place like China to really master those. For now, I would be just happy to be comfortably conversational. I have been somewhat slack with my language studies this year – I blame my new, super busy job!

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