Learning Mandarin is hard …

For the past three months I’ve been spending a half-hour a day as an autodidact trying to learn Mandarin. It has always been a point of shame for me not to know another language (with the exception of the very deceased Latin), so I have poured myself in a seemingly doomed attempt to learn the language of my colleagues.

My step-sister has lived in Beijing for over twenty years and speaks Chinese as well as the Queen speaks English. Hearing the tones come pouring out of her very western visage is so incongrous that it makes me want to laugh. I taught myself some German while working Zurich, but the Swiss speak a weird dialect called Swyzerdeutsch and that project ended at the level of what I call “Railroad Station” where I could order things, say “excuse me” and ask people if they spoke English.

Two weeks ago a Chinese colleague gave a presentation in English. He kept apologizing for his poor command of the language. Later, as we were standing next to each other at the men’s room sink, he apologized for his lack of fluency. I looked him in the eyes and said, sincerely, “Your English is a hell of a lot better than my Chinese.” I need to finish this life with at least one language under my belt, and Chinese is the current goal.

I am using the Pimsleur series of CDs for Mandarin and making some progress. Retaining the lessons isn’t hard, I am sure my pronounciation sucks, but the killer for me is listening and deciphering what is spoke to me. I think I need to focus on the phrase, “Slow down.”

I read recently, with great amusement in the New Yorker, the story of a hedge fund manager who memorized this single phrase so he could fool his colleagues into thinking he was fluent in Chinese. When he addressed a Chinese speaker he would say, “This is the only thing I know how to say in Chinese. Please nod your head and laugh and pretend I know the language.”

Less than two weeks until my first Asia trip. Tamiflu and sleeping pills are packed, visa ordered, and language lessons proceed.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Learning Mandarin is hard …”

  1. Thanks. I’ll check it out, even if my step-sister (who is very fluent) told me to give up the quest and stick to English.

  2. Mandarin seems more difficult than European languages at first. But once you get the basics down, it may actually seem easier. The key is to go very slowly at first and be absolutely meticulous with pronunciation. Be very very patient. At a certain point progress will accelerate greatly. Learn by ear as much as possible. Use pinyin to check pronunciation only, the words must be stored in your brain as sounds. Pimsleur is good. Do ALL of the course but don’t expect to be even close to fluent when you do.

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