Author’s note to the reader: This post deviates from the standard on this blog as it is mostly text and is a guide for other learners rather than a story about our travels. We’ve included striking signs for your amusement. You’ve been warned! Also, for those who care, I apologize for my lack of tone marks and character examples. However, it is proving to be a little difficult to get the correct language input methods installed on my computer.
Two primary motivations brought us to Taipei: to become closer to this side of Mags’s family, and to learn Mandarin Chinese.
First, a few facts about Mandarin Chinese. The “Chinese language” is a written language, meaning that Chinese does not define spoken sounds. Many dialects of Chinese exist, the currently most well-known one world-wide being Mandarin Chinese. Many other dialects, such as Cantonese, share with Mandarin the written language of Chinese.
Of course, it could never be that simple as to fit into a single-paragraph explanation. Within what one would hope would be a standardized written language, Mainland China (PRC) has adopted simplified Chinese for their writing system, whereas Taiwan (ROC) uses traditional Chinese characters. I believe simplified characters became the official system in PRC during the cultural revolution. So, rather than simplifying, it is now the case that if you know traditional Chinese writing and subsequently go to Mainland China, you will find that you are not able to read a considerable amount of things, as a new learner.
And to complicate things even further, one quickly finds that there are many differences between spoken Mandarin Chinese in PRC compared with Taiwan. As far as I can tell, the differences are greater than between American English and British English. For instance, to say “Miss” in Mandarin, you say “xiaojie.” However, “xiaojie” in PRC has come to mean prostitute.
So, now you think you are in the clear by understanding that there are major differences between PRC Mandarin and Taiwanese Mandarin. However, within Taiwan itself, while the majority of people speak Mandarin, it is also the case that the majority of people speak a different language as their first language. The two biggest examples of this are Fujiannese and Hakka. The result is that many people speak Mandarin with a heavy accent. The younger people tend to speak Mandarin more like you learn in class, but some of the older folks can be harder to understand than the younger folks.
Now that we’ve got that cleared up (you got all that?!?), please allow me to tell you some tips that I have learned through almost three months living in Taiwan and learning to speak and write Mandarin Chinese.
As noted above, there are so many discrepancies between PRC Mandarin and Taiwan Mandarin that, honestly, I find it a little irresponsible for dictionary and phrase book editors to not more clearly note the different regions in which a word is used. I stopped using the phrase book a long time ago after one too-many translations that weren’t common in Taiwan. For instance, even “I don’t understand” is different between the two countries. I also stopped using the English-to-Mandarin dictionary much as, again, it often didn’t even include the most common versions of words in Taiwan. What is the point in putting all that effort into learning new words on your own when you later find that a quarter of them are not in common usage by the people with whom you intend to speak?
So, because of this, I have come to learning new words by picking them up in conversation and only writing them down when I get them from a native speaker from Taiwan.
Now, where a dictionary is useful is the Mandarin-to-English dictionary. You see, every syllable in Chinese has a distinct character. Many words are just one syllable, hence one characters. Many other words are two syllables/two characters. There are a number of words that are three characters, however four character words are more like compound words. The result of this seems to be that we are able to track the meaning of each syllable through the years. And how this helps the student is that one is able to look up a word and find the meaning of each component, which can be an excellent learning tool. For instance, it was fun to learn to say “car” in Chinese, you say “qiche,” which literally translates to “steam vehicle.” And furthermore you can learn that “che” originally referred to a cart. These facts make it easier to remember how to say “car” in Chinese; they help to remember how to write the characters; and they help in remembering or constructing new words.
Now, about those pesky characters. I find that remembering how to write the traditional Chinese characters to be by far the most difficult part of learning Chinese. I have heard it said that one needs to know between 10,000 and 30,000 unique characters to read a newspaper. I estimate that right now I know 300 characters at most. And characters are tied to both meaning and sound. So just because two words have the same exact sound, if they have a different meaning they most likely have a different character as well. Also the same character can have 2-3 different pronunciations depending on the context. Oy vey. Having said all of this, there are some tricks to make your life easier, and even make the process a tiny bit fun.
First of all, you should know that while it may seem like it sometimes, the characters are not completely random. One of the easiest examples of this is the Chinese character for middle (zhong), which is just a box with a line through the middle. That won’t take you long to remember. Of course most other characters are more complex than that, but thankfully all of them contain one or more radicals. A radical is a component of a character that contains meaning and is common across many characters. Some of the most common radicals are those for heart, person, and grass. There are around 200+ radicals. 20 of the most common radicals are a part of 10, 000 characters. Getting familiar with the most common ones is very helpful for memorization. Like, it is a lot easier to remember the character for eat (chi) when you recognize that it has a mouth contained in the character.
I don’t recommend simply memorizing by rote more than a few radicals; this is exceedingly boring. Rather, when you find yourself recognizing a certain component over and over, consult your list of radicals to find what what the component means. (Note: not all common components are radicals.)
The second, and I think fun, trick to learning characters is to make up little stories about the characters. They don’t need to make sense. In fact, I think the more ridiculous the story, the better it sticks in your mind. For instance, the character for “to be able at this time” (neng) contains something that looks like the number four, a moon (AKA month), and two spoons. So, my story is: “Hey, are you able to go have lunch? No, but in four months I’ll be able to meet for two spoons.” Of course some characters provide you with no help at all, and can be remarkably detailed and complex. These you’ll mostly have to rely on rote memorization.
Another thing about memorizing: even when it feels like all hope is lost and you find yourself saying “I’ve been practicing this same character for two weeks and I still can’t remember it!”, don’t give up! Your brain is trying to remember the character even though it isn’t yet succeeding fully. And each time your brain tries to remember it, it gets a little closer to succeeding. So just keep practicing, and before you know it that really difficult character will be old hat to you.
Now, that’s the hard part. On to speaking and listening. I personally find speaking Mandarin Chinese to not be that difficult. Of course, that said, I still don’t fully understand the majority of things being said at home, or on TV. But when someone is speaking to me, at my level, I find that holding a conversation and feeling like I am pronouncing things relatively well is not too hard. Here are what I think are the keys to accomplishing this feeling.
First of all, Mandarin is a tonal language. This is to say that tones are very important. Don’t know what a tone is? Just notice the difference between when you say “dude!” and “dude?” There, you’ve just used the fourth tone and the second tone (there are four total). Now, when I say that tones in Mandarin are very important, that means that depending on your tone, the meaning is completely different. For example, if you say “mai” with the third tone it means “buy” and with the fourth tone it means “sell.” There are many common words whose pronunciation is only differentiated by the tone.
At first you may feel bashful to “put your heart into it” and “belt it out” because it kind of feels like you are singing, rather than speaking. But there’s no avoiding it. Embrace the tones from day one, because sooner or later you’re going to have to give in if you want people to understand you.
Another note about pronunciation: As often as possible, get a new word spelled out for you. Many times when you hear a word, you may either mis-hear it, or it may be mis-spoken or mumbled. If you confirm your hearing through a dictionary, you can rest assured that you are pronouncing it correctly when you say it.
“Who would mumble their Chinese when speaking with you?”, you ask? Movies and TV is who. I would not recommend relying on these to teach you Chinese. I don’t think it is practical to “pick things up” from these sources as they speak really quickly, and mush a lot of their syllables together. Cartoons on TV often use funny voices which can also be difficult to understand. The one exception is that TV news can often be a little more clear. That isn’t to say you’re going to understand what they’re saying, but you could at least pick up a few new words this way. That isn’t to say that watching TV news is the best way for picking up new words; it is just better than other TV and movies.
I think that the best way of picking up new words is a several-step process. First, obtain new vocabulary from people who are practiced in speaking Mandarin in Taiwan. Write it down, and review it on your own to put it into memory. Use you dictionary to understand the components of the word. It’s a lot easier to remember “watermelon” is “xigua” when you know that “xigua” literally translates to “west melon.” You’ll want to pick words that you know you would want to use often. For instance, we eat oatmeal for breakfast every day here, so I quickly made sure that I studied how to say “oatmeal” (maipian).
Secondly, speak Mandarin with people who are at your level. Your classmates are an excellent option for this. I have formed a discussion group with my classmates to this end. I practice my new vocabulary with them, and we all learn in the process. You need to speak the words even after you have memorized them so that your brain gets used to saying the new words quickly in conjunction with other words, and recognizing when you hear those words in the same way. This can also be a fun way to make new friends and share a few laughs in a low-pressure, no-grade atmosphere.
In my opinion, language schools should actively organize these kinds of groups as I find this time to be infinitely helpful, and I also find that I am only able to convince my classmates to participate once per week at most.
Next, you can now use the words more easily in conversation with fluent speakers. This should solidify your knowledge of the word, and they will also note that you know those new words and use them when they speak with you.
Now, a note on immersion. There are two ends to this spectrum: full immersion and no immersion. An example of no immersion would be taking a Chinese class while living in the US and not living with any other Chinese speakers. Full immersion would be living in a Mandarin-speaking country such as Taiwan and living with people that don’t speak English. I think somewhere towards but not completely full immersion is the best balance. You should speak Mandarin as much as possible, but at the same time from time to time you need to be able to express yourself fully. I think the best would be to live with a non-English speaking family while being able to take a break sometimes and speak English with your local friends.
A final note is to get excited about learning Mandarin and to that end become a language geek. When you can understand the grammatical structure of the language you will be able to pick up sentence structure much more clearly. Understand what kind of word a word is, such as noun, adverb, place word, subject, object, etc. And understand the differences between English and Mandarin grammar (there are many). Learning the grammar can also make it seem less like you are just learning a random collection of sounds, which can make it a lot less frustrating.
And, believe it or not, that’s all I have to say about that. I hope my tips are of service to someone! And please, leave me feedback as to how these tips have worked out for you, or any differences of opinion you may have. Thanks for reading!