Why Mandarin is Not “Hard”

After going home for my winter break, I’m back in Shanghai! I’m meeting some of the new study abroad students, who have varying experience in Mandarin. Among the learners, I hear a lot of concerns about learning Mandarin, which is not that uncommon.

Mandarin, for a variety reasons, has a reputation as a difficult language to learn. The Foreign Service Institute at the US Department of State lists Mandarin (along with Cantonese) as a Category V language. It is described as “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers”, requiring 88 weeks or 2200 hours to learn.

The tones in Mandarin are usually what throw people off. That said, I think tones are fairly easy to teach, especially with the aid of pitch charts (see right). I realize that some may find Mandarin easier because of personal aptitude, but I’m not convinced that talent entirely accounts for one’s ability to learn a language.

There are many homophones in Mandarin, which can cause confusion for a learner. However, in my experience, context can often help determine what you mean to say even if your pronunciation was off. For example, the words 腳 and 角 are both pronounced jiăo, but the first means “foot”, and the other means “angle” or “horn”. Realistically, there are few instances where the use of these words could be interchangeable and still make sense.

The real issue in Mandarin has less to do with the language, and more with the way it is taught. In my classes in Shanghai, the radicals of characters are emphasized more for learning new words. Radicals are the basic building blocks  of Chinese characters. In the United States, I find that Mandarin learners are often unaware of the logic and structure of Chinese characters. They’re expected memorize a list of characters and that’s supposed to be the bare minimum. In reality, you need to be able to at least guess at unfamiliar words, through reading and listening to conversations. Because this ability only comes with practice, it requires active commitment to learning the language.

Mandarin itself is not difficult to speak once you’ve learned pronunciation and tones, since the grammar is quite straightforward. The primary difference between most languages in the West and Mandarin (and to some extent Korean and Japanese), is that the grammatical structures center entirely on sentence coordination. Because there are no verb conjugations or noun declensions, Mandarin grammar is mostly about the way you construct a thought, rather than the individual words.

Learning the turns of phrase to express complex thoughts is what can be truly challenging, but only because there are so many nuances and things that you can say. Having a functional, conversational command of the language is not the hard part. Reaching advanced levels of fluency is where one encounters difficulties, but that’s not unique to Mandarin.

In short, I don’t believe that Mandarin has to be as difficult as it’s made out to be. It is the system of teaching that often gets in the way of learning Mandarin effectively, and I think that if we change the way we approach Mandarin and other languages, we’ll find that they’re easier to learn.

Some useful links and apps for learning Mandarin:

All Set Learning (pronunciation, grammar)
Tone Pairs with Yoyo Chinese (tone pairs and tone sandhi)
Pleco Chinese-English Dictionary (has Mandarin and Cantonese pronunciations + traditional characters + example sentences); available on the Apple and Android app stores

Navigating Social Customs in Other Languages

One of the biggest fallacies that I encounter among people trying to learn a particular language is trying to pick and choose what they learn. Some say, things like “I only want to know how to make basic conversation and colloquial things”. While that’s all well and good, you should be aware that language is never so simple. In my opinion, much of these kinds of beliefs stem from a subtle assumption that other languages work more or less the same way as a person’s first language.

That’s not exactly a good way to think about a foreign langauge, because it’s rarely ever a one-to-one relationship for everything. Even for related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, there are things that don’t always cross over. You can’t assume that Portuguese is “a different version” of Spanish, because not all words in Spanish have the same meaning or have cognate in Portuguese. And geographical proximity doesn’t account for anything either, as in the case of Indian languages, where there are 1500+ distinct languages, with varying degrees of mutual intelligbility (though by and large there is very little if any at all).

One of the biggest things about language is its intimate ties with culture, and how that translates in and out of different languages. There are certain cultural norms associated with different languages, which need to be upheld and respected. Obviously, one should exercise discretion, because sometimes, social customs can be extreme or ridiculous. But, usually, that’s not a call for us outsiders to make.

For example, in many Indian languages, it is widely considered inappropriate, rude, or inauspicious to discuss death, especially in the presence of the elderly or the sick, because it could be misinterpreted as a bad omen. This is not that complicated and is fairly easy to understand and get behind. But, what some learners of Hindi or other languages may not understand is that it precludes certain types of expressions, such as “I’m gonna kill you” or “You’re so dead”. In English, they don’t really mean anything, as they’re usually just threatening someone with the idea that there will be consequences to a particular action, not that they will actually kill someone. However, this is not the case in many Indian languages. Not only do these phrases not exist in direct translation, attempting to do so will result in a very different response. It may be interpreted as an actual threat, and even if it isn’t, it’s seen as poor manners or rude to say such a thing.

In a more complex example, Korean has an intricate system of honorifics and formal versus informal speaking. Certain words have particular forms that can only be used in deference to someone of higher social status. For example, my professor I’m meeting for the first time may ask “이름은 뭐야?” (Ireum-eun mweo-ya?). This is simply, “What is your name?”. The word 이름 (ireum) means “name”, but I would not use this word or even the same phrase to ask my professor’s name. Instead, I would say “교수님 성함은 어떻게 되세요?” (Gyo-su-nim seong-ham-eun eotteoh-ge doe-se-yo?). This literally translates to roughly “How is the professor (that I address) called?” 성함 (seong-ham) also means “name”, but it is the honorific form of the word. My professor can use 이름 with me, since they are socially above me, but I have to use 성함 with them. To do otherwise would be seen as too familiar, and even rude.

The Korean social hierarchy is something that not all Korean learners may immediately understand or even be aware of. But, in the context of Korean-speaking society, it is important to address such hierarchies, or you may face criticism and even anger for expressing unintended disrespect. For a language like Korean, it makes very little sense to ask only for colloquial expressions, since most Koreans will pay close attention (unconscious or otherwise) to the dynamics of social status in their everyday speech.

Whether the social customs that are ingrained in a language are complicated or not, it is important to understand such things. For those who learn in a classroom, the teacher may simply give you only phrases that fit in with the social conventions of the language, making it unnecessary for you to know at all. That can be a good and a bad thing, since while it promotes fitting in with the social norms, but doesn’t encourage synthesis of sentences, as opposed to using set, memorized phrases. Self-studiers should be mindful any kind of social conventions or rules of the language, rather than simply gleaning knowledge from the dictionary and grammar books. The best way to do so is engaging in media (particularly television) in that language, to grasp how the language is used in real life.

I hope this post was helpful in your studies in foreign language, and feel free to leave comments and suggestions for other posts. Don’t forget to share this post on social media, too!

5 Activities for Foreign Language Teachers

Having been a language student for six years and a language teacher for two years, I have seen both sides of the language learning experience. Even though I haven’t been teaching that long and I don’t exactly have credentials, I think I have an idea or two of what helps language students. Sometimes it just isn’t enough to give grammar drills and give lessons on new concepts every day. You need to change it up a little and give them a way to exercise the concepts they’ve learned. So, in this post, I’m going to elaborate on five classroom activities that I’ve come across and personally created, all of which are included in my book, Scoprendo l’italiano!: An Accessible Guide to Learning Italian. Please note that these assignments can be edited as needed to suit different needs.

1. Personal Discussion Project – For Intermediate Classes and Beyond

The students will work together in groups of three or four. Every group will create their own PowerPoint or Keynote Presentation. The instructor will choose one topic, and each group will base their presentation on that topic. This project can also be made smaller and assigned to individual students.

Classes, School, and Academic Goals

Each student will discuss the reasons they take certain classes and what university they plan to go to and why. Then, they should discuss their plans for study at a university, and what job they plan to take from there.

Foods and Cooking

The students will pick a semi-difficult recipe, talk about it with the class, about its significance, what certain terms mean if new vocabulary from outside the text is learned.

Literature and Reading

Each student picks a novel, and they will discuss them with the class. Summarize the plot, and pick two symbols and explain their meanings (This topic should be expected to take some time).

Culture and Family Traditions

The students will talk about their cultural values, where they come from, and important family traditions. They should explain why those traditions are important.

Talents and Skills

Each student will pick a talent or skill they consider significant to them. They will then discuss how they came to do those things, and why they like doing it so much.

This project should be graded upon accent authenticity, focus on the given topic, how well the project is presented, and if vocabulary and grammar are used properly. For advanced classes, this should be presented in the target language. The instructor may choose to require additional criteria.

2. Novel Report – For Advanced/AP Students

Students will read novels in the target language, and must be at least two-hundred pages in length. A four paragraph essay will be submitted by each student in the target language, discussing theme, plot, and symbolism. A well-constructed thesis should be included. Grade based on use of vocabulary, understanding of grammar and syntax, and comprehension of the book. If assigned to intermediate classes, the use of a dual-language dictionary is highly suggested. If the instructor so desires, shorter books, books originally written in English, or other familiar stories can be assigned, and a shorter essay can be written instead.

3. Writing Poetry – For Upper Beginners and Beyond

Students will write poems in Italian, in order to foster an understanding of Italian poetic language. The students will turn in three one-page poems. Classes of all levels are advised to consult a dual-language dictionary and also poetry in the target language.

Students will then select one of their poems, read it aloud, and then discuss it with the class. For languages in which there are more than simply present, past, and future tenses, in which tense is distinguished differently, with forms such as the aorist, conditional, non-past, or non-future, the students should discuss the relevance and effect of using certain tenses in the poetry. The discussion should be lead by the author of the poem, who will ask questions, and other students should participate.

4. Learning History – All Levels

Consult an article about cities, monuments, traditions, or other things in the nation(s) where the language is spoken. The article should be in the target language. Discuss it with the class in English or in the target language for classes with sufficient knowledge to understand. Afterward, have the students discuss it with each other in the target language. It is recommended that instructor repeat this exercise several times, each time about different topics.

This exercise allows students to use authentic materials to exercise their knowledge and obtain new knowledge from such a source. This gives them an idea of how natives read, understand, and use the written language.

5. Timeline Project

This project will have the students present a timeline made from cardstock, or cardboard, with pictures or photos to represent events they did in the past, and/or those they will do in the future. They will present a script, which is to be followed by an instructor or listener, in order to check that the student has memorized it. Grade based on pronunciation, accent authenticity, fluency, and poise when speaking in front of a group. For advanced classes, permit the audience (including the instructor) to ask questions, which the presenter should answer in the target language.

I hope this helps some of you, and don’t forget to share this on Facebook and Tumblr! Feel free to leave comments and suggestions!