Learning Chinese

December 2nd, 2012, 1:07 am PDT by Greg

I have now finished six credits (two regular courses) worth of Mandarin. I’m pretty pleased with how things went.

The word “fluent” certainly doesn’t come to mind as a description of my mandarin. Definitely “not totally ignorant” would be fair. I don’t see any way I was going to learn any more of the language in four months, so I’ll take that as a win.

Pleco was a big part of me learning as much as I did. If you’re learning Chinese, you need it. I know it seems like a lot to pay for an app, but screw that, it’s worth it.

At the end of the course, I have 336 flashcards (≈ vocabulary words) in Pleco, with 361 unique characters. I’d guess I can write most of those: maybe 275–300. Basically, that’s enough to occasionally see a Chinese student’s facebook status and figure out more-or-less what’s happening.

My spoken is somewhere between difficult and impossible for a native speaker to understand. It’s better if I’m concentrating on what I’m doing.

Let’s not talk about my listening comprehension. The best way I can describe it: I have enough brain cells to either hear the sounds or process what the sounds mean. I never seem to be able to do both at anything like a reasonable speaking pace.

My top three most annoying things about Chinese:

  1. It’s not written phonetically. I thought this would be my biggest problem going into the course. It definitely makes learning vocabulary harder since there are kind of two things to learn for each new word. But somehow it wasn’t a huge irritant as the semester went on.

    I know there are little phonetic hints here and there: I know 吧、把 and 爸 and they sound similar, so I could take a pretty good guess at 巴. Still, there isn’t much of that for a beginner, so I’m not counting it. Also, if I guessed how to pronounce 色 the same way, I’d be very wrong.

  2. No capital letters. I have a surname that happens to also be an English word and that has never been a problem. I have never known anyone to read “Baker” and think about a pastry chef, because that’s written “baker”.

    On the other hand, if I come across the sentence “我觉得笑茵很好”, I have to stop and think “I know everything but 笑茵… what is that? Is it a word I should know? Is it a verb/noun/adverb here? Can I guess what it means from the context? The characters contain the bamboo and grass radicals: maybe it’s something about plants?” Basically, I’m screwed out of understanding that sentence.

    If there was some hint that 笑茵 is a girl’s name, then I’d be totally fine: the speaker thinks some girl with that name is pretty. There is no such hint.

  3. No spaces between words. Goddamnit anyway, this is no way to run a language.

    Here’s an example to illustrate: “学” (to study) and “生” (to be born/give birth). Thus with no other information, I’d see “学生” and think “studying birth… they must be talking about obstetrics.”

    But no, “学生” is one word: student. How do I know that? Because I know it: nothing about the way it’s written gives me any hint if it’s one word or two. How do you say “to study birth?” Damned if I know. Maybe “学习生” would do the job, but likely some other term. I’m sure there are other examples where the ambiguity is worse and/or harder to clean up.

    That’s probably the computer scientist in my worrying about an ambiguous grammar in that sense. It’s probably my biggest “you guys need to fix your language” thing, though.

Surprisingly not making the list: the tones. Sure, we don’t have anything like them in English, but we don’t have that consonant sound from 词 (cí) either and nobody bitches about that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I can reliably hear the tones, but that always seemed pretty far down the list of problems.

I have a solid list of things I like about the language too, but that’s going to have to wait for another post.