Saturday, October 31, 2009

Studying Mandarin

China's Confucius Centers across the globe are making it much easier to study Mandarin.

From The Associated Press:

Image from

TAMPA, Fla. — In a small room at the University of South Florida, Maya Ueda and two classmates prepare for a Mandarin exam. A pot of green tea idles nearby and Chinese folk instruments, games and movies fill the cabinets and bookcases.

Although the students are doing their work at a state school on Florida's Gulf Coast, the center they are studying in is part of a global outreach by the government of China called the Confucius Institute. The cultural and language centers have sprung up around the world, hosted at universities eager to boost their Mandarin offerings as China's economic influence grows.


China observers see the Confucius Institutes as part of the nation's efforts to reshape its image from that of a threatening superpower. Such displays of "soft power" are hardly new, though analysts say the Confucius Institutes are unique in the close relationships they establish with universities.

Read On
One of the first Confucius Centers in the United States was at the University of Kansas, near where I grew up. Qian has asked about teaching at the school, but there are only subbing opportunities available since their full time teachers are all on exchange programs from China (ie. they don't hire locals). This is unfortunate since Qian would be a great asset to the Confucius Center.

Qian put an ad on the internet a few weeks ago for tutoring Chinese. The ad has worked pretty well. She has three students - two adults and a young girl - already. None of them have any experience with studying Chinese. Qian has been really impressed with the talent of the students though. They're all doing pretty well with the language.

A fellow China blogger just wrote a really long and in-depth analysis of studying Chinese. The title of Ben's post - Journey Across the Great Hump: Debunking the Myth that Chinese is the World's Toughest Language.

Ben grew up about five minutes from me here in the suburbs of Kansas City. Although I've never met him in person, I think it's interesting how we both ended up going from Kansas to China and falling in love with the place.

I'm really impressed with Ben's studying of Chinese. He's currently acting as a translator in Chicago. He seems to have taken a similar path as Peter Hessler did in Rivertown - a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in China. Both Hessler and Ben attacked Mandarin and learned it very quickly.

Unfortunately, I did not learn the language as quickly as Ben did. I was too intimidated when I first started and was more interested in learning "survival Chinese" than really perfecting what I was doing. This lack of time and effort in the beginning made my Chinese path much more arduous than Ben's. Whereas he got to a very high level in about two years, I'm still at a more intermediate level after studying for about two years. I regret that I didn't tackle the language more head on when I first got to China (I really wasted my first year linguistically in China thinking I was only going to stay for a year and then come back to the States... I ended up staying for three and a half years).

There's nothing I can do about how I learned Chinese now though. So I'm just trying to do the best I can after my rocky beginning. Although I've left China (for the time being), I'm continuing to use my Supermemo study method and am trying to use Chinese as much as possible on a daily basis with Qian.

I'm not sure I can say that I've cleanly crossed Ben's "Great Hump," but I'm relatively happy with my level. I've crossed many personal "humps." The way I'd put where my level is is that I can have fun with Chinese now. I can chat fairly easily in one-on-one conversations. I still get tripped up from time to time, but I can tackle a wide array of issues and topics. I can't understand a lot of what goes on on TV and am not ready to be a translator, but I'm having, and have had over the past year, a lot of fun. And since starting studying Chinese more seriously about two years ago or so, that's been my goal.


Anonymous said...

There is a dragon in my life that I know I must slay. I have avoided confronting this dragon because I know the only way it can be conquered is through a relentless, dedicated, nonstop attack. I know if I only poke at it from time to time that I will never slay this dragon, so I have avoided even confronting it until I know I am ready.

The dragon is learning Chinese and that is how large the task feels to me. The moment will be here soon and a part of me dreads it. Once I decide to commence the attack I plan on dedicating hours everyday to the task with maybe a day off here and there. This is the only way I know I can achieve my goal of fluency, fluency at a level that Ben has attained. Today's post and Ben's post were very inspirational and comforting to me. It confirmed some of my already held beliefs about what will be the biggest challenges and what aspects will actually be easier to learn. For now, I do not feel ready, so I will enjoy this peace and easy living while I can, for the moment will soon be at hand and I relish the day I can actually recognize this 'great hump' and realize I have passed it.

Mark said...

One of my best friends in China - James from Bolton, England - "crossed the hump" a lot earlier than I did (if you can even say that I have... which is debatable). I've lamented to James about my Chinese level. I'll say things like, "Man, it just pains me to see this person and that person who've been here for a shorter amount of time than I have be at that level already." He'll then, invariably, ask me, "Well, would you trade all of the other things you've done in China to have that level?" My answer is always "No."

I didn't go to China to learn Chinese. I wish my level was higher, but I can't say that I wasted my time there. A few of the other things I did when I was there:

- Found, courted, and won over Qian over the course of two and a half years.

- Created this blog and wrote a few pieces for other publications.

- Traveled for two months straight once and for five weeks straight at another time. I've been to Xinjiang, Yunnan, Yangshuo, 3 Gorges, Xiahe, Pingyao, Qingdao, Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Sichuan, and a few other places I'm sure.

- Refined my guitar playing to a level that is pretty decent. Also sang for the first time ever in China.

- Read books like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest." Things I should've read long before I was in my twenties.

I've lamented to my brother than I'm a jack of all trades and a master of none.

He pointed out to me that I cannot be Michael Lewis (my favorite writer), Al Schnier (my favorite guitarist), and James (a rather fluent speaker of Chinese) all at the same time. He's right.

I hear what you're saying, Hopfrog. If you don't want to tackle Chinese until you can do it "the right way," I'm certainly not going to argue with you. I think Ben is completely right about how to study Chinese.

But while I regret that my Chinese isn't where it "should" be, I don't regret things that much. Maybe I have ADD or maybe I'm too lazy to perfect anything I do, but I like the life I'm living and have lived.

Mark said...

Oh, and another thing I did was "get drinking out of my system." I was 22 when I went to China. Still drank too much at that time. Getting out of that phase is great. But while I was in that phase, I definitely spent a night too many out at clubs and bars rather than at home studying Chinese.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I know where you coming from man. I was there once too. In all honesty, at the point in your life when you went to China, learning Chinese really should not have been all consuming. You needed to read Grapes of Wrath, court a girl, learn the guitar, and drink like a man in his twenties. Delving into Chinese in the way that I propose and maybe the way that Ben attacked it, probably would have gotten you fluent, but would have caused you to miss out on more important things at that time in your life.

I've read Grapes of Wrath, courted the girl, learned the guitar (I suck), and gotten plenty of partying out of my system and still enjoy a glass of wine or two with dinner. I'm still young, but goals become more focused with experience. Probably because you've gotten things out of the system and time doesn't need to be spread as much.

Saying that, I am still trying to get through all the movies, books, shows, games, etc.. that I have always wanted to get through so that I can be focused. Its not until I have gotten through those things that I feel I can tackle this huge goal.

Your brother seems like a wise dude and of course he is right. I've also used that same saying on myself many a time, jack of all trades. I suppose only a jack of all trades personality would do something like live in China for a few years. True, I will never be like my favorite writer Jack Kerouac or my favorite guitarist Tarrega, but part of being the best me I can be involves mastering Mandarin. Something I could never have done at 22.

Well enough poetic waxing, and if you've never read 'On the Road'.... Read it!

Mark said...

"On the Road" was actually one of the books I read in my first few months in China! I liked it, but I wouldn't say it affected me they some of the other books I read at that time did.

It probably would've been good for me to go to China a few years later than I did, but my goal was to get abroad while I still could (ie. no woman, no kids, no mortgage, etc). And it was great being abroad while I was 22 - 26.

My best bit of advice would be to get the tones and basic pronunciation down first. Seeing that when I began I didn't have fluency as my ultimate goal, I didn't master those as well as I should have. That's made the whole endeavor more difficult than it should've been. Over the past year, I finally turned a corner with my tones, but it's been a pain.

Anonymous said...

On the Road is one of those books that will lose something as each generation passes because it is so time period specific. It certainly woudln't have the same effect on me growing up today as it did when I read it, but hey, its one of those books that should be read and I am glad you have.

You don't need to feel guilty for not mastering Mandarin or going to China too early. As discussed, you shouldn't have mastered Mandarin at that age and you certainly went to China at the perfect time in your life. I look at your old blog and think about how cool that whole experience was for you. I'm not gonna be playing guitar at a Jazz bar in Xian and meeting my future wife (how I envy all that). So (getting back on topic) becoming fluent in Mandarin and passing on what knowledge I have to my students will be my adventure. I might be reading into things too much, but you should not be feeling guilty about your Mandarin level, but for some reason thats the vibe I am getting here, and please, you shouldn't feel that way at all. As your bro said, no one can be all things.

Mark said...

That's cool that you can appreciate the things that I've done in China. I think that I have done a lot of interesting things.

I do feel a little bit guilty (or maybe just bad) when I read about people getting fluent in two years. Especially considering that I'm now trying to find a niche (or actually ANYTHING) in a horrible job market. Every day I think about if I was really FLUENT in Chinese and what possibilities that might give me.

But at the same time, life could be worse and I don't regret the life I have at all. I also think it's more of the system's fault that it's hard for me to break into the job market as opposed to me having not having good skills or good experience.

Damn financial crisis.

Anonymous said...

That was a really interesting article, thanks Mark.

The stages and the timeframes Ben describes sound about right. The first two or three months were hard for me and then the study slowly became more logical with the new vocabulary tending to stick faster. At that point the study was no longer a chore but something to be enjoyed. Having then got to about 600 words, a watershed by all accounts, my regret is that I then left China and my study since then has almost come to a standstill. I still remain hopeful that a concerted effort will drive me on to become fluent in a few years.

Hopfrog, i'd just dive in if I were you. Yes the initial stages are tough but this passes quickly. Soon you become aware of people around you using vocab you've studied, and you start tuning into converstations (that might just've be me!). After a while you'll then start learning words where you already know the contituent parts. Just yesterday I was watch F1 racing and saw a car with the company 'patriot' displayed prominently as a sponsor. It translates to 'love' and 'country'! I think that the fact that you've become accustomed to the sounds, albeit through integration and not study, should be a big help. Finally i'd recommend the supermemo study method. If you're lazy like me and need routine then it'll keep you on track.


Anonymous said...

@Andy, thanks for the insight, I always try and apply the experience of others. From what I read there, I should keep the gas on the pedal and not feel too comfortable.

@Mark, I graduated in 1992, the last economic recession. Granted this one is worse, but I know the feeling man. Only advice I can give is to not compromise for money. Carve that niche man. I caved to make a buck and ended up doing a wide range of jobs. While the experience has been cool, I realize I should have taken the road less traveled. Oh, and there is no law that says you can't buckle down and get fluent in Chinese now that you have this free time. I figure you got at least a year head start.

Mark said...

@Andy - It's funny that you say Supermemo is good because you're lazy. I agree with you. Most people who I described it to couldn't believe it and thought I was insane. But it just makes things easier. It's complicated, but it is good if you don't want to be looking at the same piles of flashcards every single day. A rational method for study cards is so nice.

I'd fallen off on Supermemo, but am continuing it again now. I'm almost completely caught up after taking a hiatus I shouldn't have. Nearly ready to start adding more vocab again. Fun stuff!

@Hopfrog - I agree on keeping Chinese going. I'm getting back into it now that I'm getting nice and adjusted here in the States. When we first got back, I just wasn't feeling studying Chinese. But now the routine is great.

Something's going to work out eventually on the job front. For the time being, it's rough. But it's all an adventure, I suppose.