Learning Mandarin Chinese: The One Year Milestone

Author's Note: Before you start reading, you should probably know that this blog post could, based on it's length alone, pass for a short story. So if you don't have the patience to read it all, scroll to the very bottom for the Chinese version of this post. I can guarantee you, it's much shorter but with much less info. Of course, you should be able to read Chinese characters. If you prefer my English ramble (hey, summing up a whole year deserves a lengthy blog post!), pull up a chair or get comfy on your couch/bed/armchair. Drinks are on me!

I'm pretty sure that the only New Year's resolution I've actually ever kept was learning another language. I wish I could tell you that I've kept all the New Year's resolutions I've ever made but since that would be a blatant lie, I won't (besides you wouldn't believe me anyway, don't even try to tell me otherwise). I'm pretty sure I managed to keep the one or other New Year's resolution over the years but I honestly cannot remember, though I can't say I've made much effort to travel down memory lane. I humbly apologise. I do remember keeping at least one birthday resolution though so if we're counting these, which we are because I'm the writer of this blog so I say what goes and what doesn't.

(Hint: If you've been reading my posts for a while, then you should know that you can easily bribe me with coffee and chocolate. There are also a few other things that work but that would be telling and I really won't be doing all the work for you here. You honestly thought I would, didn't you? Oh go on, admit it already!)

Yes, this photo totally has something to do with language learning 

Anyway, I think I got side-tracked (as usual). Back to the actual topic of this blog post. My New Year's resolutions. Or rather the very one I made towards the end of 2010 and actually ended up keeping, the one about learning another language. To be quite honest when I made the resolution I didn't really think I'd end up keeping it. You see, when you've made the same resolution over and over again for a couple of years and birthdays and always end up breaking it, you kind of stop taking it seriously.

Strangely enough, I did end up keeping this very resolution. I think it helped that along with making the resolution to learn another language, I also made the resolution which language to learn. I kind of never included that in all my previous resolutions, which, I admit that much, may have been a major flaw in my plan to pursue language studies (don't look at me like that, it was kindly decided for me that I would have to learn English and I also didn't have much choice about German being my first language. Sometimes it makes easier when someone else makes the decisions for you! I still have to get used to this adults-have-to-make-decision-by-themselves-for-themselves-business!). I once made little post-its with all sorts of languages and then threw them all into a hat. I couldn't even pronounce the one I ended up drawing so I didn't purpose the matter any further either.

Have I side-tracked again? Oh, I'm so sorry. I took a painkiller today (pesky headache), I'm sure it caused a minor short circuit in my brain, I usually get straight to the point...which I will now, I think. What were we talking about again? Oh yeah, got it now.

Following my 2010 New Year's resolution, I spent most of January 2011 hunting down a suitable language teacher, who would be willing to teach me Mandarin Chinese. I briefly played with the thought to enroll in a language class but I abandoned that I idea pretty soon - or should I say I wasn't brave enough? I honestly wasn't though. I was dead scared I'd end up in a situation where I don't understand whatever it is the teacher is trying explain to the class. I got so freaked out about this possibility that I ended up convincing myself that should that happen it would result in me falling out of love with learning Mandarin Chinese.

By that time I had for numerous reasons (I'll divulge one, 王力宏) decided that not enjoying learning Mandarin Chinese simply wasn't an option. I wanted to love it and I wanted to be good at the whole thing. My plan was to impress (mainly my dad, yes, seriously!). You see, you just can't suck at something you want to impress with, it's not how the game works. Should my former high-school crush be reading this at the moment: You really shouldn't have tried to woo the girls with your non-existent basketball skills. We were laughing at how bad you were, not giggling nervously (or whatever it is teenage girls are supposed to do when they're watching a guy they like, though I'm sure it's does not include pouring a pint of beer over said guy).

Anyhow, by February 2011 I had found a suitable Chinese teacher, and scheduled a few lessons with her. We had our first lesson on the 24th of February 2011, hence today's celebratory post. I recall excitedly tweeting about my first lesson, before meeting my new teacher and afterwards. Needless to say the first lesson was pretty easy, I fondly refer to it as 'Do Not Scare The Newbie Away'. During said lesson we looked at a map of China, I learnt where my teacher was form and we talked about food, the Great Wall of China, as well as a few provinces. We mentioned pandas, West Lake, The Yangtze River, Huangshan Mountains...not necessarily in that order. All it all it was pretty fun but it wasn't overly scary or anything. Said lesson lulled me into a false sense of security which lasted until I showed up for my second class.

Once my teacher was sure that I really wanted to learn Chinese, she dumped me in the deep end and presented me with a pronunciation table - see ChinesePod.com for what I mean. At first glance, said pronunciation table looked like it could be a lot of fun even though it did remind of that pesky periodic table my Chemistry teacher tortured us with for years on end (is this even legal?!). I patiently listened to my teacher explaining me all about the tones and how if you mispronounce them you'll end up saying a whole different word. Great, I thought to myself, I'll forever call my mum a horse. Once my teacher had finished explaining and demonstrating the tones, it was my turn to have a try (试一试).

That second class ended with me having a banging headache and I'm sure my teacher was just a little frustrated, though she didn't show it. I went home and spent an entire week trying to work my way through that pesky pronunciation table. Remember how I earlier mentioned that I wanted to impress? Yup, I totally wanted to be the shining A+ student and impress my teacher. Come on, who doesn't like to hear those seven little words: 你是很好的学生!Ah, I was full of innocence back then, striving to show my teacher that I really wanted to learn Chinese, that I could be good at this. This feeling lasted up until my third lesson when my teacher -without as much as batting an eyelash- corrected my pronunciation, which was all over the place just not where it was supposed to be.

I returned home, battered and beaten (figuratively speaking, that bamboo stick my teacher was holding was just for decoration!), and continued to work on my pronunciation and continue you to do so in every Chinese class to date. My current Chinese teacher hears incredibly well, especially when it comes to my bad tones. There's no chance she'd ever let me get away with bad pronunciation, she'd sooner have my head. She's even taken up glaring at me whenever I get overly enthusiastic about speaking with a Taiwanese twang and currently frequently reminds me that we "speak Standard Mandarin in class". Unfortunately the excuse "羅志祥 made me do it!" no longer works so I'm going to have to find a new Taiwanese singer to blame my bad pronunciation on...or revert back to the lovely Beijing accent (like that's going to happen!) I apparently had when my current teacher first met me.

While I continue to work on my pronunciation, I also have to keep working on improving my grammar, which in theory is no problem at all as I have a fabulous teacher who can explain Chinese grammar extremely well...only for me to in practice make a ton of mistakes (my plan to impress is steadily going down the drain here). Just like that pronunciation table I battled with when I first started to learn Mandarin, grammar is another battle. It isn't rocket science but you do need to be willing to learn. When I have class I tend to tackle grammar by completely forgetting about how it's done in any other language I speak. I just focus on how it's done in Chinese - any comparison to German or English, especially German, would probably be my downfall.

Strangely enough, and yes I may need medication, I actually love Chinese grammar. My teacher and I are currently tackling this little fella: 把, looks harmless at first glance but let me tell you 把 is extremely versatile, loves playing tricks on me too. I'm getting there though, I think. Out of nine sentences I had to prepare for my last class I only got three wrong. In my book that's three too many but mistakes are allowed, I just don't like making them (This may be also why my teacher looked somewhat confused when I apologised for making said mistakes). Still, you learn from your mistakes. If you don't learn how to do it the right way at least you learn how not to do it, that's also very helpful occasionally. Probably not to helpful in the language learning department but helpful nonetheless.


- I can finally sing along to my favourite Chinese (pop) songs!
Usually rather badly and of course out of tune (which is why you won't find me in a karaoke bar any time soon although my friends and my teacher have hinted about a possible kidnapping...however I have awesome blog reader who will come to bail me out, you will do that, won't you?). I listen to a lot of Chinese music and would even go as far as saying that I almost exclusively listen to Chinese music, with the occasional exception. It is astonishing how much Chinese you can learn from songs.

I've picked up a lot of words, phrases and idioms simply by listening to the lyrics and getting curious about the meaning of the song. When I really like a song I usually hunt down the lyrics somewhere on the internet and I've been doing that with plenty of the Chinese songs I listen to. Sometimes I even translate them for myself, because you know translating Chinese songs is just something you do in your free time. It is, don't argue with me, I told you I'm the boss here.

- I can have a conversation in Chinese!
No, this conversation is not just limited to 王力宏's sexy backside and 羅志祥's amazing dance moves although on occasion these are my preferred topics. I am fully capable of telling you just how awesome I think my dad is and how much I love him (I have managed to make my dad believe that saying all this is a form of 孝顺 and so far he has successfully bought it, ah, I'm such a wonderful daughter). I can also indulge in various random thoughts that may pop into my head (though they may not be strictly grammatically correct but my friends generally manage to understand - they're awesome like that) and I have no problem with gushing about delicious food such as 酸辣汤 and 汤圆 or various 包子 or 饺子.

We could also discuss the pros and cons of 凤爪 if you like - I think they're 很好吃. While we're on the subject of food, I can order in a Chinese restaurant and I don't mean flashing the waiter the menu, pointing and saying 这个 - that's cheating! I may need a little bit of encouragement though as I tend to be somewhat shy about speaking Chinese when I don't know the person I'm taking to too well. It takes me some time before I take the plunge and just do it. I do chat to my favourite Starbucks waitress from time to time though. She's imposed a strict rule of refusing to serve me coffee unless I order in Chinese. Trust me, there is no better way to kick an aspiring Mandarin speaker / coffee addict into gear.

- Writing Chinese characters is fun!
Both hand-writing them and using them to chat to friends on Weibo, Facebook and Twitter. There're very few Chinese characters I can actually hand-write as I've not spent much time on learning how to write characters this past year. My current Chinese teacher made character writing part of our classes though. We usually save it until the very end to cool off after loads of grammar or reading. Sometimes I get to pick the characters I want to learn, other times my teacher will suggest some.

She teaches me the correct stroke order and I will practice a few times after that. It really is quite a lot of fun. I figured out that once you got the stroke order down you remember how to write the character. It's a bit like back in first grade when you learn how to write, it really is that simple and not scary at all - what's scary is how awesome a human brain actually is. Chinese characters really are friendly little things. Some can be a bit cheeky (I suspect they have Irish leprechaun relations) but overall they're loveable. You've got to appreciate them though, if you don't, trying to learn them could be a bit of a battle.

Though hand-writing character still isn't a priority for me, I want to continue to learn to write many more characters, which is why I plan to give Skritter another a try. By "giving it another try" I mean be more serious about it. The first couple 100 characters are easy to pick up but as you progress deeper into the language, I think it really is beneficial to know how to write the characters. It makes remembering them easier. It also means I have a greater choice of things I can doodle onto my notepad in work. I can't draw to save my life so Chinese characters it is. I actually write the the date using Chinese characters and at this stage I do it without as much as a second thought.

- Fellow Mandarin students are some of the nicest people I know!
On my journey into the depths of the Chinese language I've met some incredibly nice and helpful people, who do not hesitate to take a couple of minutes out of their own possibly hectic schedule to share their knowledge, help or explain something or simply chat for a little while. This kind of attitude is truly refreshing and I hope to always be surrounded by such lovely people. Studying Chinese makes me really happy and it's become an escape from all the nastiness that real life tends to try and unload on you, you know like work troubles, getting frost bite while waiting for a bus in Dublin or various other little annoyances. I tried to explain this to my teacher the other day and ended up talking about a smiling, open heart to try and explain genuine happiness (this was me speaking Chinese, I usually say a lot of weird things but I'm not that strange!). Said explanation was met with a chuckle. You can't blame a girl for trying, for example 他把飞机开到停车场了。makes little sense unless you're an airplane pilot and lost all your marbles but it is grammatically correct.

I'd like to shine a spotlight on a few people / pages simply because I believe they deserve a genuine 15 minutes of fame (or five hours, depending on how long you take to read this blog post!) ;-)

There is @ChineseSentenceADay created by @carlfordham with plenty of useful sentences you can actually use when speaking Chinese, a very sensible way of learning. I don't believe in learning a bunch of things I don't need, I like to learn what I need, what I can use, for example something like this: 45 Mandarin Sentences with Chinese Characteristics.

Then there would be @socialmandarin [website], a great source for a all sorts of different articles related to studying Mandarin. I tend to stop by every now and then to check out new posts or just look for something when I want to refresh my memory.

@MandarinPoster [website] deserve a special mention and a big 加油 for being awesome! I've had my poster with the 1500 most common Chinese characters almost from the very beginning. For the first couple of months I didn't actually highlight any characters on the poster because I was afraid of how much white I would see but when I started preparing for my HSK exam I picked up a marker and started marking off all the characters I knew (at the moment about 1/3 of my poster is highlighted and to be very exact (I'm German) we're talking 505 characters that are underlined). It really helped me to keep track of my progress and walking by my poster to check out some characters and revise those characters that I know has become a routine. It also helps that the poster is stuck to my wardrobe so I need to stop in front of it anyway if I want to wear something else other than my fluffy pink bathrobe. Yes, you read that right. My bathrobe fluffy and it's pink and I'm not ashamed to say so. I would wear it all day, every day but apparently it's not appropriate work wear. Pyjamas however are, apparently okay to wear in public, but that's another topic for another post for another time.

Big thanks to @criticalowl who has helped with my pronunciation and patiently explained the usage of various idioms or words. What I should really thank him for is enduring my bad Chinese, though.

One of my favourite sites to check out is probably @ChineseHacks [website] full of useful information for beginners, handy tools and that unconventional edge that I like to apply to my studies. Textbooks bore me, I like a modern, quirky approach to learning and Chinese Hacks is pretty useful for that. I should say that my Chinese Teacher also likes the website and she has allowed me to use references from the website in class to cover stuff I wanted to know. Yes, I know I have a super cool Chinese teacher, she knows, I tell her once a week if not more often. Apart from the cool website I'd also like to thank Chinese Hacks for the fun Twitter chats!

Other websites I've found helpful include (but aren't limited to) @EastAsiaStudent [website], ChinesePod.com of course, @chineselanguage [website] - the newsletter is really good, Yes! Chinese Reading, Proof Read China - also very useful for when you just need a chuckle, Chinese Grammar Wiki, CSLPod [Weibo Link / website].

Weibo is in general very useful, not just for stalking 王力宏 and 羅志祥 but also chatting to friends (Duh!). It's written talk but you can share pictures and little titbits about your daily life in Chinese. It's good practice and my friends tend to either correct or praise my Chinese which is definitely helpful. Some of my friends are learning German so I'll try help them, if I can. Give and take, really. There's another plus side to having a major soft spot for 王力宏 and 羅志祥, I've loads of Facebook friends who share my obsession and again, this is a great opportunity for me to practice my Chinese.

We don't just chat about those two super-handsome guys (lads, if you disagree, you can just pick one of the cute ladies from S.H.E. and I'm sure you can relate then or pick Jeremy Lin if you want to be more manly!), we chat about loads of different things, you know like friends would. ;-) All this means that throughout the day, even while not actively studying, I still have to use Chinese in some way or other. I call this passive studying, though I'm not even sure if this term actually exists, if it doesn't I just created it and claim it.

- Watching Chinese movies and understanding them too is fun, fun, fun! I've watched a lot of movies, TV dramas or concert DVDs since I started learning Chinese (I used to watch Chinese movies before I started learning Chinese but I never actively paid attention to the language). I both actively search for movies to watch and also ask my friends to recommend me a movie or two. Watching a movie or a TV drama is -for me anyway- the easiest way to pick up spoken Chinese.

The way authentic way the language is spoken, you know a no-nonsense approach. A way where you can easily pick up a few, helpful language quirks. The visual aspect of it also helps to understand how a certain phrase may be used used and how people react to it, e.g. when somebody says 你真是个大笨蛋!(You're such a fool/idiot!) the other person would be very unlikely to respond with 谢谢!(Thanks!). Unless that person is me because I totally would say thanks if somebody insulted me. Nothing confuses the insulter more than kindness, trust me. I've tried and tested this theory on many occasions. Heavy sarcasm or a simple "Likewise!" also works.

Watching how a language is used most definitely beats just reading about it. I must admit I usually watch movies or TV dramas with subtitles. I try to always have Chinese subtitles switched on (traditional or simplified characters doesn't bother me as I am learning both) but if dual English and Chinese subtitles are available I'll opt for that - strangely enough my eyes are always almost automatically drawn to the Chinese subtitles and I tend to just skim over the English translation.

When I'm really, really tired I will occasionally watch a movie or an episode of my favourite TV drama with English only subtitles. I find reading subtitles quite tiring though, no matter the language, so I generally stop half way through or I read a bit, then just listen and watch for a while and then go back to reading. Occasionally I realise (generally towards the end of the movie) that I hardly understood anything. This is somewhat annoying but if it's a good movie I don't mind watching it again. Even more so when 羅志祥 is one of the actors. Hey whatever works, right? Learning a language is about enjoying yourself not finding ways to put yourself totally off it.

- Passing the HSK exam and receiving my certificate was one of the proudest moments thus far.
When I, a couple of months into my studies, found out about the possibility to take the 汉语水平考试, I got strangely excited and brave. I decided to go for it and you can read all about it here. The fact that I got so excited about it should have, in hindsight, scared me a little but I was too full of adrenalin to really contemplate my actions. You see, I actually hate taking exams or studying for them for that matter. Exams totally freak me out and I always manage to convince myself that I can't do it or that I'll just screw it up anyway - yes this is indeed what I thought about most of the exams I had to take back in school. Probably why I was such a crappy student. Nevertheless, for the HSK exam I put my head done, studied dutifully (even on my holiday - this is dedication!), survived changing Chinese teachers and somehow managed not to throw up all over my exam papers on the big day.

Trust me, when I found out that I passed I actually screamed with delight. You know those fans that just start screaming mindlessly when they meet their idol? Yep, that was me, I screamed just like that. Then I checked roughly three or five different dictionaries to verify that the Chinese characters 合格 really translated to "qualified" and not "you're such a loser". Once I was confident that I had indeed passed, I texted my Chinese teacher, who later told me screamed too.

I'm pleased to say that even the post-exam panic attack I had after taking my exam and months of impatiently waiting for my certificate to arrive (it came all the way from Beijing, China) has not managed to put me off contemplating applying for another exam. I've no fixed plans for the moment but it could very well be that I make a spur of the moment decision to apply for the exam.

I've no idea what lies ahead for my studies, I haven't thought that far ahead just yet. Like I just mentioned I've not scheduled another HSK but I'm not ruling out giving it a try. When you did it once, you kinda want to do it again, even if it's just to impress yourself.

What I can say though is that I have a trip to China lined up and I will even be celebrating my birthday over in China. If you're in Shanghai, feel free to bake me a birthday cake and gather up a few friends to sing "Happy Birthday" (In Chinese!) of course - here are the lyrics if you want to practice as I do expect a perfect rendition not a half-hearted attempt. Seriously though, I will try to speak as much Chinese as I can on my holiday. I'm confident that -with a little bit of effort- I can manage to make myself understood one way or another even if I have to resort to some form of crazy sign language.

Other than that, I have the following things on my agenda:

- speak as much as possible with as many people as possible
- learn more characters, both simplified and traditional
- iron out my pronunciation
- prove my teacher that I can speak with a semi-decent Beijing accent on top of my Southern Style Chinese (no, not Kung-Fu, that I unfortunately suck at which doesn't necessarily mean that you'll succeed in a hands on fight with me, I did learn Judo for 18 months, so I do suggest you apply caution).
- eat more delicious 凤爪 - yes this totally falls into the category of "language learning", category: ordering Chinese food and telling friends how utterly 好吃 they are
- continue writing Chinese essays or little stories, who knows I may just discover my calling - the Laowai who wooed Chinese parents with cute children's stories
- learn to handwrite loads of characters and doodle them onto everything
- actively start translating my favourite songs to increase understanding
- read my first Chinese book from start to finish, my teacher will order this for us and we'll be reading it together. It will be a Chinese story, written by a Chinese author. No Pinyin and no English translation will be used for this exercise. I decided this is a good way for me to increase understanding, language usage and character recognition.
- and for the grand finish: continue to annoy you all with my obsession with 王力宏 and 羅志祥 (did you really think, I wouldn't find a way to mention those two just one last time?!)

Mandarin Chinese for the win baby! 

And for the grand finish of this super-long post, let's do this in Chinese:



今天是我学习中文一周年的纪念日。我们来庆祝庆祝吧! 我是从去年开始学习中文的… …告诉你吧,我非常喜欢学习中文,真的! 我有一位很好的老师,她是最棒的!她是个天才,不但很有耐性,还善于解释。她教了我很多:怎么说中文,怎么写汉字,还帮我解答无数个疑问。我非常尊敬她。老师,如果你看我的博客,谢谢你,谢谢!我觉得你不但是我的老师,而且是我的好朋友,我的姐姐,谢谢你!意思意思~~哈哈!(各位, 抱歉了,“意思意思”不能说的秘密。我的老师明白的~~嘻嘻!)

我也有许多好棒的朋友们,他们不但帮我学习,而且跟我聊天还纠正我的错误。你们真特别… …谢谢你们,认识你们我很开心,我爱你们! 如果去年你跟我说你今年会说汉语,我会觉得你疯了。如果去年你跟我说你今年会读写汉字,我更会觉得不可思议。 但是, 我做到了!

韓香萍 (小南瓜)