Chinese Language Week: Chinese much harder to learn than German, finds Kiwi after going to China without knowing Mandarin


Rory English went to China without knowing any Chinese at the age of 24.

He had just graduated from college and wanted to see if he could “break” Mandarin in just over a year, as well as see something of China.

He hadn’t been able to find an image in his head when he thought about what China looked like, he said. “I wanted to fill this with something.”

Previously, he had spent a year in Germany, during which he had learned German without also knowing that language before his visit. Chinese would prove to be a much harder nut.

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Rory English on the Bund in Shanghai

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Rory English on the Bund in Shanghai

“German was very easy compared to Mandarin,” English said.

One of the problems was the large number of characters in Chinese. The other was the way Chinese speakers used tone to indicate the meaning of words.

“They have a lot less sound. Words are differentiated by how your verbal tone goes up or down. It’s something you almost can’t here when you first get there, English said.

Developing the ability to hear different tones had been a gradual process.

The tone in Chinese sounded like an inflection. In English, the way something was said might indicate whether it was, say, a question or a statement. “This little change in inflection, they have it for every word,” he said.

“What you listen to to define the meaning of what they say is completely different from European languages. In Chinese, you have to listen to the tones and inflections of the voice. It takes a long time to get used to.

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Sentence 5: Responding in the same way is a good way to be polite.

He first stayed in Shanghai, where many people could understand English, although they might be reluctant to speak it because they didn’t have the opportunity to practice often.

The first thing he wanted to do was say a sentence in Chinese that was understood.

Using a dictionary, he tried to put together some basic sentences so that he could buy cigarettes. Then he tried it on an elderly man in a booth, without anyone else looking at him.

“I tried and he didn’t understand. It was pretty intimidating to start with, ”English said. “It took a few tries. “

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He found that drinking a few beers could help him practice speaking. “To get all the subtle changes in your voice, you have to be feeling a little silly. For example, if you try to learn a dance step, it seems stupid to you because you think about it too hard, ”he said.

“In order for them to understand you, you have to seem like a stranger to yourself.”

On a visit to the mountains of far west China

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On a visit to the mountains of far west China

He went to a language school, but it was mostly oriented towards reading and writing. He was given short sentences to practice speaking in Mandarin, but wanted to learn to speak the language faster.

“The main way I learned was to hang out with Chinese friends and listen to them talk all the time,” English said.

He also used translation apps to build his own sentences, hoping they would be understood when he tried them. “Or someone who understands both languages ​​would tell me how to say it. Sometimes it was very different.

When it came to learning to read, he made some early progress, becoming able to understand public signs. But most of the time, it was a “slow, slow grind”.

Chinese characters meaning

Kevin Frayer / Getty Images

Chinese characters meaning “Zhongguo” or “China” at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in June, with the launch pad housing the Shenzhou-12 spacecraft in the background.

“You have to learn all the characters. You can only learn by writing them down dozens of times. That’s part of the context problem – just in order to read you have to know what each individual character means, and there are thousands of characters. Before you can read you need to at least have completed most of the puzzle, ”English said.

After six months of learning, her spoken Chinese was “not very good”. He could order food, but he “hurt” it, and sometimes the people he was ordering could barely understand.

He returned to New Zealand after about a year in Shanghai, but when he realized he couldn’t say as much as he wanted when he tried to speak Mandarin, he decided to return to China.

This time, he chose the southeastern port city of Xiamen – across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan – where he spent six months. He was looking for a place where fewer people spoke English, which put pressure on him to speak Chinese, and where more people would speak Chinese to him.

“The first year, it was just to learn to learn the language. The past six months have been intensive oral practice, ”said English.

When it came to learning to write in Chinese characters, one method was to draw the characters with a finger on a screen, rather than having to learn calligraphy, which he hadn’t spent much time on. time to do.

Nanjing Road pedestrian street in Shanghai decorated with Chinese national flags in June to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Nanjing Road pedestrian street in Shanghai decorated with Chinese national flags in June to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Another way to find a Chinese character was to type the sound of a word or phrase into an app in Pinyin – a Chinese writing method based on the pronunciation of Mandarin but using the English alphabet. The application would then display the character.

For the past two years, after leaving China, he had mainly worked on his Chinese reading and writing, English said. Now he could probably read a newspaper in Chinese, but not quickly, and that would depend on whether the article had characters he had never seen before.

He could also watch TV shows in Chinese and understand what was going on, even though he didn’t know every word. When it came to talking, he was able to hold a normal day-to-day conversation.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve done in the longest time.” It’s kind of like a hobby now, I guess, ”he said.

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Sentence 2: It always helps to be able to say hello.

English is back in New Zealand, working remotely for a Melbourne-based e-commerce company, as he continues to hone his Chinese skills.

“I guess it will be useful someday. It hasn’t been of much use to me so far except as a sort of party trick, ”he said.

“I guess the goal will be to keep improving, and then maybe opportunities will open up.”

About Norma Wade

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