Have I Been Learning Mandarin At All?


I did try but I'm struggling to remember when I had my last official Chinese class. I think it was sometime after coming back from China and just before my life got turned upside down by a not so pretty event, one I'd rather forget...preferably for all eternity so let's not talk about it.

Sure, I've been spending loads of time with my Mandarin teacher but not for the purpose of actually learning Mandarin...or even speaking Mandarin. I've been mostly busy with eating my way through yummy Chinese food, learning how to cook it and just generally hanging out with the intention to have a good time.

I'm sorry but I cannot resist 饺子!(dumplings)

Neither can I resist any of this...

I can't remember when I last looked at my grammar book (I don't even know where it is) or did something more strenuous than looking up a word in the dictionary because I needed it. I think the most time consuming thing I recently did, related to studying Chinese, was circling a character on my Mandarin Poster and updating how many characters I am sure I know.

To be quite honest, it feels like a bit of a black hole. I miss having class. None of my Chinese classes have ever been dull or tedious. I never once dreaded going to class. It's one of the few things that I treasure deeply because I've had only good experiences.

I miss learning grammar structures. The whole concept makes my head hurt but in a good way. I enjoy the feeling of knowing that my brain is hard at work, trying to understand new things and weaving them into my memory. I'm not a grammar fan at all. In fact it's actually something you can usually chase me with, but when it comes to Mandarin I do enjoy it. I like making sense when I'm talking in Mandarin, at least once in a while. It's nice to be able to get straight to the point instead of taking a detour the length of the Yangtze River because I can't link a sentence together properly or because I mess up a grammar structure I should be able to recall at the snap of a finger.

I miss having someone correct my pronunciation. At times it makes me want to cry but mostly I feel a sense of accomplishment when I do eventually get it right. I really couldn't care less if the people around me think I'm nuts because I spend half an hour monotonously repeating the same word over and over again. Getting my tones right is a bit of a case of hit and miss. I'm really good at writing down the pinyin when someone is speaking, even for words I've never heard before, however when I'm supposed to put the tone marks on top of the vowels, I struggle. It's frustrating. It's not that I don't hear the difference, it's just that my brain somehow hardly ever gets it right on the first try. I actually pay very little attention to the tone marks above the pinyin (and just about no attention to the numbers because they confuse the hell out of me) when I look up a new word, which is probably a mistake on my part. Usually when I am looking up a word, it's because I need it in a conversation. If I'm writing characters, say for a text message, Weibo post, etc., I simply copy and paste without as much as a second glance.

Calligraphy. Let's Go!

I miss writing Chinese characters. It's not that I'm not writing them every once in a while, in fact when I'm scribbling I usually draw Chinese characters all over the place. When nobody is watching I get away with writing sloppily. I get half of the stroke order right and make the rest up as I go, which seems to be the reason why my brain instantly shuts down when I even as much think about learning how to write characters. There are very few characters I can handwrite, with the correct stroke order, from memory. I usually have to reach for my phone to look up the character and then I copy it. Mind you, my handwriting isn't bad, I've never had anyone complain they can't read my characters. That makes me happy, it means my efforts aren't entirely fruitless.

It would just be nice if I could expand beyond merely recognising characters to actually knowing how to write them when prompted to do so. It might not be the most important thing to know how to handwrite a character but I like the idea of it. I like writing characters, it's something that requires all my concentration and as such it relaxes me. I've tried to use apps like Skritter and various other iPhone apps but they just aren't for me. I can't work like that, I remember zero when I draw a character on my phone with my finger or use my mouse. Nope, I need to do it the old-fashioned way. I need someone to write the character for me, then I copy it, we fix my sloppy stroke order and then I proceed to write the character somewhere between 20 and 50 times, all the while slowly chanting the names of the strokes. After all that there's a slim chance that I will remember how to write the character.

I'm regretting not going for the HSK Level 3 or Level 4 exam this year. I'm not a fan of exams so I didn't actively plan to leave some time in my calendar for the exam. I still remember the post-exam nausea I had after taking the exam last year. Ugh, I'm not really looking for a repeat. Mind you, I did start to study and I did consider to take the exam but as a general rule the HSK preparation papers are perfect for a structured guideline on how to advance and improve your Mandarin. The required vocabulary for each and every level is quite useful, it's no nonsense kind of the stuff. I've yet to come across a word in the HSK vocabulary list where I find myself pondering what on earth I will need it for.

Then again, it's not like I've been doing nothing at all in terms of continuing to learn Mandarin. I've not stopped or decided to give it up all-together. I've just taken a different approach, although I'm just not sure I've been learning as much as I could have these past few months. I enjoy learning new words and still pick them up quite quickly. With languages I always do, as long as I'm not handed a list of words and asked to remember them for a set date a week from now. I don't learn like that. I love babbling away in Mandarin, even if I'm not making 100% sense. I can usually be understood, unless someone is trying really hard not to understand me.

I've been occupied with a lot of things but none of them is an apt excuse for not learning Mandarin.

Except for one.

I have a Chinese boyfriend.

I went fishing in Shanghai and caught this.

Yeah, you are now allowed to scratch your head and wonder why I consider having a Chinese boyfriend is a good excuse to go from actively studying Mandarin to passively studying/not studying. Especially when said boyfriend's English is very limited and not enough for an in-depth conversation.

In order to talk to my boyfriend I actually have to learn Mandarin, otherwise all we can do is stare at each other until we get sick of each other or engage in various physical activities. Then again some of these also require at least a basic grasp of a common language. Oh and get your dirty minds out of the gutter! I was talking about Chinese chess...

To be quite honest, I find it a little tedious to learn Mandarin on top of speaking to my boyfriend (in Mandarin). We speak every day, I have to keep up with my Mandarin. Exchanging I love you's and I miss you's isn't something you can fill an entire hour with when you're skyping. Well, you could but it does get a little boring after a while. It's much more fun when you actually have something to talk about, which we usually do.

I discovered that I pick up more Mandarin talking to my boyfriend than I would sitting in front of a book. Sometimes I do need a dictionary, especially when he uses a word I've never heard before. While it does occasionally happen, most of the time I manage to follow what he wants to say. I can be half asleep, take a glance at one of his message and usually understand what he's talking about. I make a point to look up words that I don't know, but I at least try to guess the meaning from the context before heading straight for the dictionary.

It also helps that my boyfriend is a patient teacher. He sucks at teaching the tones, I've got to give him a few hints on how it's done properly (read: how I like it done) but he's extremely patient when it comes to explaining things, repeating a word to help me grasp the context and understand what he's getting at. It only happened once that I absolutely didn't follow and he had to look up the English word in the dictionary. He has a good idea of which words and characters I know and uses them in a conversation or when sending a message instead of something super complicated that will leave me pondering over what the heck it is he wants to say. I appreciate it because he's pretty darn good with words.

I'm pretty sure that if he really tried, he could wrap me around his finger and I'd have no idea what I've agreed to. Should I ever complain about having signed a contract to scrub the floors in his apartment for all eternity, you'll know that he managed to work his magic on me. He keeps trying to tell me that he often thinks Mandarin is too difficult, too vague and doesn't make any sense, leaving him to struggle to find the right words to say something. To some degree I can understand where he's coming from, but on the other hand he's just trying to be modest. He's the type of guy who will politely say thanks and chuckle shyly when I tell him that he's handsome. It's actually damn cute but let's not get into that for now, I've another blogpost in the pipeline that will cover the finer aspects of dating a fish, err, I mean I Chinese guy.

My fish took it upon himself to teach me Mandarin and while he doesn't always correct every mistake, he will step in when I make a grave mistake or make no sense (even then he knows what I want to say!). Sometimes I want to say or write something really cute and instead of a cute response, the newly discovered Chinese teacher in him comes out and he starts to correct me. I think I may have to teach him that when I'm trying to be sweet and talk love he can't just waltz in and correct me. It's a mood killer.

Unfortunately my fish isn't yet as strict as I am when it comes to me getting him to speak English. I will not let go until he repeats what I want him to say and understands the meaning and concept. He tries to speak Mandarin but I usually resolutely refuse to respond in Mandarin or even understand what he wants to say. He understands the English sentence "I don't understand." extremely well. It makes him laugh and he usually gives in and speaks English with me, as much as he can anyway. He's shy! I reckon, if I keep it up, he will up his game too. I'm looking forward to an interesting challenge in our relationship. It should be fun.

You know, I really do enjoy this learning without learning. That's exactly the way I like to study. I learn quite a lot like this. I love just putting myself out there and using a language. Besides some of the mistakes make for perfect anecdotes when talking to my friends. I do have to make a bit of an effort to force myself to open a book here and there, but all in all I am happy with my progress. I can make myself understood and I can get around. I'm not comfortable in all sorts of conversations but I am at the very least comfortable to try my luck and see how far I can get before I have to plead for help, someone who speaks English or pull out my phone and rely on my trusted Pleco Chinese Dictionary. I'm not afraid of talking to my mother-in-law. I can understand her for the most part and the fish is around to take care of the rest.

Learning Mandarin is continuing to be a ton of fun. I'm playing with the idea to write the one or other blogpost in Mandarin but I've not yet found the energy to actually do so. Also, I need to bribe my fish to check my grammar mistakes and let me tell you, the kind of hongbaos he wants don't come cheap. Maybe I can fit at least one post in before the end of the year. Or maybe my two year milestone post will be entirely in Mandarin. Let's see where this journey takes me.

For now learning Mandarin continues to be one of the best choices I've ever made. It's a beautiful language and I've fallen hook, sink and anchor. Yes, I'm a tad bit biased, Mandarin is my language of love after all...

And on that note, since I'm talking Mandarin and love, no post would be complete without a mention of Wang Leehom. Voilà, my wedding song, as officially chosen by the fish and myself.