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Chinese is hard 汉字是难

Popularity 13Viewed 3847 times 2014-3-22 22:30 |System category:Life| Chinese, 汉字

The title is semi-joking, I really enjoy learning Chinese.  I actually do not struggle with characters, but the tonal nature of the language is crippling for me.  While I can vocalize the tones for the most part, some configurations are hard for me, like a word that is "2nd, 4th, 2nd tone" and other examples.  However, when I study I tend to make note cards.  Doing this, I can remember what the character looks like in order to read it, if not always draw it, the spelling the word and what it means in English.  The problem is the tones in the pinyin I forget.  I get nervous as I am speaking and will end up just speaking in a rushed manner or in a neutral tone.  But some background should be given, yes?

I started learning Chinese as a graduate student and I studied it for a year in 2007-2008.  However, due to deciding to not go for a PhD at the time I stopped and focused on my research and writing for my Master's degree.  I worked on my mandarin intermittently until winter of 2011.  I knew I would be visiting a friend in China in February-March of 2012 so I bought a Chinese learning computer program, in addition to, taking out my old Chinese course books. 

I felt I was ready by the time I came to China that February, but that wasn't the case. Despite that, in the three week span my listening ability improved some.  Yet I still hoped that by that time my Chinese would have improved more. My friend's parents spoke even less English than I spoke Chinese, so it was frustrating to have to express my gratitude for their kindness via translation.  That said, it was a wonderful experience as I have previously noted.

I continued to work on my Chinese some when I got back, but living in a place with no one to practice Chinese on or with I gradually worked on it less and less. My studies fell by the wayside until Spring of 2013 when I had applied to some programs to teach here in China.  I wanted to refresh and improve my mandarin vastly before I came here.  In the end, I felt I was more prepared than I was, to my vexation. Even though I had hoped my abilities would be better by the time I got to Beijing, I had enough Chinese that for the most part I could get around. 

One time that proved to not be the case was when I wanted to take a cab to Beijing University's East gate. Our hotel was right by the West Gate and having hurt my leg, I didn't want to make the 30+ minute walk to the meeting on the bad leg.  So "simple enough" I thought, I asked a cab driver to take me to "Beijing Daxue Nanmen" We spoke briefly for confirmation, but almost immediately I noticed we were taking a new and confusing path to get to a straight forward location.

I tried to say to myself that this is just some shortcut the shifu knew. It was when we got on the onramp for the freeway that I knew something had went terribly wrong.  I was eventually able to show via many maps that I meant the East gate of Beijing University.  I am lucky that I left for the ceremony very  very early, and I was able to make it right before it started.  Later that day friends said I should have said "nanmar", but that was of no help that day.

Since then my mandarin has gotten somewhat better, I am still not where I want to be with it.  My goal by this summer was, and still is to be able to converse fluently in smalltalk with my colleges but that is not looking feasible.  I will say things to co-workers that I know if I write out they will know what I mean, but when I say it, I will get quizzical looks and blank stares.  Some colleges know what I mean but it can be quite discouraging.  Yet I must persist, my goal is to live and work in China permanently and becoming fluent is vital to that dream.

I am someone who is quite talkative and being unable to make jokes or just chat with most of my coworkers is very hard for me.  It makes me feel like an outsider, yet the onus is on me to learn the language. I am the foreigner and it is my job to assimilate, it is not the job of the surrounding culture to assimilate to me.  This is a lesson that many in the west seem to be forgetting. Melting pots and immigration work best when the immigrants try to integrate into the larger culture as best they can.  They do not think of themselves as their birth nation first and their new nation second.

So eight month into my new life in China, I can understand a lot more of what my colleges are saying and even a small amount of TV programs, however I have many hurdles remaining in my mandarin studies.  I smart phone dictionaries and even chat programs with characters to be a blessing and a curse.  In the period from when I was in graduate school until when I began formal classes in August, I had really not practiced writing characters at all. 

So while I am able to read many more characters than I can write I can still communicate a fair bit thanks to these programs.  I have found myself very comfortable on QQ reading Chinese and writing on a digital format than I am in speaking and listening.  However I push myself to do speaking and listening each day even if I struggle and look stupid.  Practice and making mistakes is the only way I will get better and learn.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Comment Comment (14 comments)

Reply Report ColinSpeakman 2014-3-23 05:59
I am confused. You wanted to go to the East Gate of Peking U. You asked for the South Gate. Wouldn't you have correctly said "BeiDa Dongmen". Not "nanmar" ?
Reply Report voice_cd 2014-3-23 16:50
Good job, we have highlighted it.
Reply Report claudeckenni 2014-3-23 18:43
Try to find some Chinese friends and talk with the often, it helps a lot
Reply Report youxiudeyou 2014-3-23 19:13
Good luck with your Chinese studies. As the Chinese often say, 慢慢来。Yes, there is difference about directions even in Chinese language. East is dong and South is nan. Additionally, Beijing University campus is huge. You have a grammar mistake in your title. You should say 汉字很难 as meaning Chinese Characters are difficult or if you want to say Chinese language is difficult, I would prefer 中文很难 or 汉语很难. I think spoken Chinese is one of the world's easiest languages, it is just the characters that make it so difficult.
Reply Report thomas.wood 2014-3-23 22:28
Try keeping a diary in Chinese, I've found it really helps.  No matter how basic or boring the stuff that you write, you're still practising writing characters and forming sentences.  Then get a Chinese friend to take a look at it and help you correct any mistakes.
Reply Report squiddy84 2014-3-23 23:32
Yes Colin, that is right I did mean dongmen however the accent, would be akin to mar, not men.
Reply Report objchina 2014-3-24 05:11
You should make some Chinese friends, they would be willing to help you
Reply Report Maierwei 2014-3-24 06:42
Sorry but can I be the "bad egg"? 是 is not used with adjectives, unless its a structure for emphasis "是。。。的" With adjectives always use很. I know it is taught as "very", but it doesn't always indicate quantity. 学汉字是挺难的 or 汉字很难学 would sound more natural. Make Chinese friends, and even if they don't correct you, just pay attention to how they speak or write!
Reply Report tedbrent 2014-3-24 07:54
Maierwei: Sorry but can I be the "bad egg"? 是 is not used with adjectives, unless its a structure for emphasis "是。。。的" With adjectives ...
There you go. You could also say 学中文是一件蛋疼的事情.   I think some Chinese netizens are content to  use such expressions for fun.
Reply Report MissBarbara 2014-3-24 19:21
I've made some funny mistakes both in written and spoken Chinese but my friends make allowances for me, fortunately..
Reply Report tedbrent 2014-3-25 05:45
Keep up the good work.
Reply Report squiddy84 2014-3-26 04:54
Ah I see, thanks for all the comments everyone!  That's great to hear Barbara, I find most tend to do that, but those other times can be stressful.
Reply Report remitrom 2014-3-26 13:46
WoW, I am so impressed with your level of preparations for living in China,
and continuing strides!  Such a fascinating place from every angle!  China!
Reply Report juzunme 2014-3-27 15:50
Haha. Can't agree more. Being using pinyin to type in QQ and Weixin and then staring at all the words they present     to figure which one to choose. Then getting your friends reading your message      in laughter if they know you make a mistake or in      wonder and amazement if they misinterpret what you wrote. A friend has read enough of my *&^%$#@ Chinese message to know how to interpret them correctly  

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