Questions and answers about learning Chinese

Today I will answer some questions related to learning Chinese. I have been learning Mandarin Chinese for three years now and I’m on elementary level at the moment, going strongly towards intermediate.

Here are some questions you typed to your favourite search engine before ending up to my blog.

Can I trust Skritter?

Seems like someone have been thinking of trying Skritter to learn Chinese, but is not sure if he/she wants to give them his/her credit card information. Skritter is a great way to keep all those words and characters on your mind. If you’re not familiar with it, you can first check out the post I wrote in January: Why I use Skritter to learn to write Chinese and why you should too?

From my experience I can say that you can fully trust Skritter as I have never had any problems with it. I do understand if you still don’t want to use your credit card or perhaps you don’t have one. In that case you can contact them by email and I’m sure they will find a solution that will work for you.

How do people know what to eat at McDonald’s in China?

This one is easy. Even you can’t speak or read Chinese they have a picture menu and you can just point what you want.

I know 1500 Chinese characters. What’s my level?

This isn’t easy to answer. When you say you know 1500 characters do you mean that you can read them? Or that you understand what they mean? Or that you can write them? In my opinion knowing x amount of characters should include all the aspects: meaning, pronunciation (pinyin) and writing.

Also being able to read or/and write isn’t enough. How is your listening and speaking skills?

You could test your Chinese by taking a HSK exam. That’s the official Chinese proficiency test. Well, to be exact there are two HSK’s at the moment, the old version and the new version. But no matter which one you take, it will be a good way to find out your level. More information about the old HSK can be found here: hsk.org.cn. For new HSK go to chinesetesting.cn.

No time to do that? Then you could try this Chinese level system.

Is learning Chinese hard?

There’s a huge debate going on whether Chinese is a hard language or not. This one I already answered last year in my post: Is learning Chinese hard or not?

Do you have any other questions about learning Chinese?

  • Jack

    Hi Sara, just discovered your blog and have been reading it for the past few hours, its hugely enjoyable and a pleasure to read.

    About learning Chinese – I think its not hard, but then again, I maybe bias!
    Since I was born in Taiwan and educated there until first year junior high.

    I think from my experience – learning English, everything did not make sense and it was all very hard and require much memorization until I learned the word/latin root of English language – once you figure out the system and the root, its fairly easy to build and figure out the meaning in a logical manner. For example if I don’t understand a word like “Antidisestablishmentarianism”, I can break it down because I know “anti”, “dis”, “establish”, “ment”, “tarian”, “ism” and thus I can understand it.
    The Chinese is the same, each chinese word has its word root – or “radicals” they call it. Learn the radicals, and their meaning and you can almost guess the meaning and pronounce the word. Technical words such as chemical elements for example, even tells you if the element is a metal, or a gas or not.

    Just learn the basics. its not hard, I think it will probably take a determined person less than 2 years to be completely fluent in Mandarin at everyday level (2000+ words and vocab).
    It took me less than a year to be fluent at conversation level, and 1 more year to be able to understand at high school level (then again, I was a kid)

    Also, relating to your other ancient post:

    “What is surprising to me is that how important face is even between family members. I was talking about Chinese new year with my boyfriend and he said that there is no point for Chinese guy to go back home during the holiday if he doesn’t have any money to give to family members. Also a Chinese boyfriend of my Western friend confirmed this and says he isn’t successful enough to go home to celebrate the spring festival.”

    Sara, the reason is simple. Chinese families (or any other non-western developing country in general) are still LARGELY agrarian society (in culture – even though China is still industrializing); and it is this reason family is extremely tight in such culture (think every developing countries where large extended families living together/communal living)
    So, what happen in this kind of culture is the family can exert enormous pressure on individuals – especially in Chinese culture when filial piety is still heavily emphasized.
    I went through something similar myself – I was in my final year in bachelor of Architecture, when my grandfather got very ill and was sent to intensive care and I was under enormous pressure to succeed. My parents asked if I want to come back to see my grandfather one last time, , and at the time I felt I cannot face my grandfather whom I have enormous respect and love very dearly. I felt I cannot face his disappointment so I did not fly back to see him. A week later my grandfather passed away, when I heard the news I had a nervous break down, the guilt of not being by his side on his deathbed conflict with the guilt of failing him and being a disappointment.
    All I can say is, I understand them, they felt guilty to be a disappointment to the family if they didn’t succeed. And that’s why many of them chose not to go home in New Year. One thing I found is that Chinese families are extremely family oriented, you don’t just live for yourself, you have a unspoken responsibility to live for your family. You are responsible for the well-being of the family and extended family, be it financially, or reputation.

    Also, about your post on “the cutting in line” – that’s normal in China or any developing countries – its like jaywalking in any first world country – its not even frown upon nowadays even though its an enforceable offense and can be fined.

    So cutting in line is ranked even lower than that, its a “victimless” crime in the mind of most people. Unless people start enforcing it or having a cultural consent and make it into a etiquette, it will continue to happen. I think it will be a good thing if you actually politely points out to the offender – coming from a foreigner it makes them feel extra guilty for what they do. And it will also make others in line see it is good to stand out and let your voice be heard. But in reality I think this is largely still a problem and it will take decades to change it – one of the point being east asian generally tends to avoid confrontation. Especially face to face confrontation.

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    Sara Reply:

    Thank you Jack for reading my blog and leaving comments!

    I agree that it’s important and very helpful to learn the radicals. In some cases I’m able to guess the pronunciation of a character just because of the radical. Or sometimes the radical gives a hint about the meaning of the character. In my early Chinese classes radicals weren’t taught well so I’m trying to make that up now when I realized their importance.

    I appreciate a lot that you share your experiences and help me to understand China and Chinese people.

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  • Jack

    I forgot to mention when I say it took me less than a year to be fluent at conversation level, and 1 more year to be able to understand at high school level, I meant English. I remember I can understand 70% of what my classmates were saying (I am the only asian boy in the class, and less than 10 asian in my high school at the time).
    by the end of first year. By the second year I have pretty much caught up and can understand most of the subjects as well as the kids next to me. What I remember also was to listen. I hardly talk but I listen to every conversation and I think brain is a marvelous thing, it subconsciously figure out meanings, structures, and eventually you just “miraculously” know the language. That’s how baby learn – they listen to their siblings and parents talking and observe the body gestures, facial expression, and eventually the mind put these together and you eventually learn to speak. Another thing I found is to watch a lot of TV! Soap operas if it interest you – they speak the most standardize pronunciation usually. For me it was the cartoons (The Bugs Bunny Show! And Disney Cartoons!) with my little brother – as kids we emulate/acting out those cartoon characters’s speech as closely as possible and I think that was enormous help in becoming fluent in the language.
    I think if you watch the TV (I think they put Chinese subtitles even for Chinese daytime soap operas) you can learn a lot of phrases and you just try to emulate the speech that you like. Another thing about Daytime soap operas are great is because they are usually set in contemporary time, so you can learn the speech in the correct context, with facial expression, body gestures that carries the meaning to help you understand.

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  • I spent fully seven years trying to learn how to read and write Chinese, and I still can’t do it.

    You are absolutely right in your other blogpost about the difficulty vs. ease of learning Chinese – it’s largely a matter of personal interest and motivation, AND (I should add) CIRCUMSTANCES.

    You yourself find Latin and German a pain in the butt – yet I find Latin and Germany very easy indeed – not to mention Farsi (Iranian), which I could pick up just through 2 weeks of conversation with Iranians. So who’s right? Right?

    This is what I noticed: if one is linguistically trained, there is a high tendency to regard learning any of the major ‘established’ languages (like English, French, German, Chinese, etc) as being very easy. This mindset is amply demonstrated in one or two highly popular Chinese-related linguistic blogs that shall remain nameless. The people on those blogs are mistaken, and not a few times they’ve been ‘reverse racist’ about it.

    The truth is, your ability to pick up and learn a language is directly proportional to your personal interest to the subject – that’s why we have people who are good in one thing and less so on another.

    It’s also a matter of circumstances. Those who have the opportunity to learn Chinese in Chinese-speaking surroundings (such as yourself) are bound to do better than a person who’ve had to take Chinese lessons in the UK (such as myself) – which isn’t hard to imagine the person forgetting practically everything by the time he/she gets from the classroom to the train station. (Having said that, some of my classmates in Chinese language were in exactly the same circumstances as me and they did brilliantly too – so what gives, right?)

    It’s called confirmation bias – a person who really dig Chinese is likely to say Chinese is easy to learn.

    But the fact of the matter is that Chinese is not actually an easy language to learn – and I would invite people to come to a Chinese-speaking/writing place like Hong Kong here to witness how our schoolchildren are doing badly year in, year out in their own language. Many of our HK schoolkids DON’T actually have a 1,500-word Chinese vocabulary, if that should actually surprise anyone.

    Just my twopence worth.

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    Sara Reply:

    I agree that passion and interest towards a language (or some other subject) has a huge importance and influence on how well you learn a language. At some point I thought learning Latin could be interesting, but it was nothing like what I think about learning Chinese. Also if someone is very interested in learning Chinese she/he will do better than someone who lives in China, but doesn’t have any interest towards learning the language.

    When you have the passion you will make your circumstances work for you, but if you don’t then even living in China doesn’t help much.

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  • Jack

    thenakedlistener :
    I completely agree its all about personal interest and motivation, AND CIRCUMSTANCES.

    I guess as a 1.5 generation immigrant – you were forced to be your parent’s translator when you were young – you try to adapt quickly due to the circumstances.

    Also, An environment to IMMERSE IN. In my personal experience I think this is one of the most important factor – well thinking back, I spent majority of my time in school, when I came home, I conversed with my brother in English, its only when I talked with my parents in Mandarin that sort of breaks this immersion.

    But day in day out, you practice (or forced to adapt!) to read, write, listen and speak. It takes real dedication if you do not have such immersive environment or circumstances.
    My only suggestion is to immerse yourself in such environment, don’t break the immersion for as long as you can.

    I have 2 friends (Aussies couple) living in China and til this day they still can’t speak mandarin and they have been living there for over 6 years. They live with someone who translate and do things for them, they probably knows little bit of everyday conversational phrase, but nothing beyond that. The reason is because they are teaching ENGLISH there – it breaks the immersion and stops them from practicing. So majority of their time are spent conversing in English with their students in school, and when they are tired and got home, they speak English with each other, and local people they are in contact with tends to want to practice English with them, so there is little chance for them to even want to learn Mandarin. I think that’s the worst possible scenario if you ever go to China to learn Chinese.
    Don’t get a job teaching English. You will never learn Chinese if you do that.

    I remember growing up in New Zealand, you stand out when you have black hair and yellow skin (and worse of all wears glasses!) and you stand out even more if you talk in mandarin! I remember if I were to talk in mandarin with my friend or my brother in public, I would even get scolded by passing strangers for talking in language they can’t understand. They would yelled at us “SPEAK ENGLISH!” or make racist remarks. The only way to adapt was to speak English at all time! I guess I have to thank them for their racist attitude! :D

    About the Greek and Latin roots in English – what I meant was before I know about this – English was hard – its just a bunch of unintelligible letters and alphabet put together that I had to memorize letter by letter. “Science” for example would be a 7 letters word to remember (“S-c-i-e-n-c-e”). Longer words would be especially difficult to learn letter by letter (Antidisestablishmentarianism! 28 letters!) But after learning the word root – it all made sense and became far easier after that – words are no longer just letters, but made up of individual components with meaning to each that made up the whole word.

    And it is the same with Chinese (or any other language) – its a system built upon systems of logic and extensions.

    For example, “forest” (I am pretty poor at breaking down radical and its meaning nowadays so if you will excuse me if I choose such simple example) is 森林, and the word root or radical in the word is wood 木, which makes it easy to guess the meaning even if you don’t understand the word – “Its a place with lots of wood! so its forest!”(and I can hear you say…or it could also be a saw mill!! :D) What I am getting at is that each chinese word while as complex as they are – are made up of these little components that form its final meaning. Learn the components and you can guess the meaning. Even words that chinese like us doesn’t know we would guess the meaning from just looking at it and breaking it down to its component parts. So learning the word root/radical/components is important in my opinion. It makes a more logical learning experience.

    I think the hardest part of any language would be the classifier – especially Chinese and German. Most nouns have one or more particular classifiers associated with them which makes it especially difficult to remember – for example 一个人 (1 person) but when you say this man it becomes “这一位先生” – the changing from 个 to 位 is contextual, and even I find it hard to explain why! (Hey! I only got a primary school education in Chinese!) but I think most Chinese will understand you even if you use the wrong classifier and it just makes a good laugh that’s all!

    [Reply]

    thenakedlistener Reply:

    Jack, you’re spot on about this business of immersion, and clearly you’ve realised that listening and speaking are the ‘gateways’ to learning a language than the often-promoted way of reading and writing, as your own experience amply shows. Indeed, my own experience in school in the UK and other countries sort of parallels that of your when, in my day, there was relatively more racism about not being able to speak the local lingo.

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  • Thank you for the advice, though I don’t have any credit card right now..but I will think about it (after I get bored with Anki).It’s just that when I went through the demo in Skritter, it’s quite hard to write correctly even the easiest characters that I already know..so the drawing tablet seems to be needed and I might be too penny-pinching to buy it:D

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    Sara Reply:

    Yes, the drawing tablet is quite essential if you really want that Skritter helps with your real life writing ability. You have to come to China, I think the cheapest ones are about 300RMB.

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  • Understanding the radicals and knowing what they stand for does help a lot in learning Mandarin like Jack said. But Mandarin is not an easy language to learn let alone to master. Here in Malaysia even the Chinese in Chinese vernacular schools don’t score well in the Chinese language.

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  • xiaozhoucoldsea

    Personally I don’t think radicals were the most important thing in learning Chinese and even if they were,at most 20% important as that in learning English.It’s ture that in some relative simple words radicals are easy to distinguish like what Jack proposed “林” and “森”and guess their meanings.But unfortunately the radicals in Chinese are not always so simple that via it you can guess its full meaning and for example in “歃” and “插” which share the same radical,though we are familiar with the meaning of “插” and often use it,it’s safe to say that even most of the native Chinese don’t know what “歃” means exactly while they all know the phrase “歃血为盟”.Why?Because the radical they share derives from acient Chinese classical word and uncommonly used, and the word “歃” is rarely used in single form but in the phrase “歃血为盟”.If you want to anatomize every Chinese character radically,then no one could deny that the language most to learn is Chinese which has evolved for thousands of yrs and whose native users are mostly not eligible to be called good at it in this condition.So as to some coplicated chinese charactors,it enough to know about meanings of their set phrase without understanding what their radicals or single characters reprensents exactly.The ability of logical reasoning is not as important as that of memory or emulating because chinese is less logical than English or some other languages:for instance,”中国队大败美国队” and “中国队大胜美国队” both mean Chinese team wins American team;but logically it doesn’t make any sence in view of that “败” and “胜” are opposites.

    Generally speaking, Anglo-Saxons or other european ethnics are more intelligent in language learning than Mongolian race(east asian).But for some reason though foreigners usually learned chinese very well,most of them couldn’t write in Chinese as well as in their native while some chinese writers such as Lin Yutang(林语堂) and Zhang Ailing(张爱玲) could write extraordinary proses and novelty in English as well.Maybe Communism China doesn’t deserve your reading or writing in Chinese just as former British Prime Mister Mrs Thatcher said:你们根本不用担心中国。因为中国在未来的几十年内,甚至在一百年内,都无法给世界提供任何新思想 and delving into studying it and it’s quite enough for you if you could cope with daily communication in China.

    Finally I cordially suggest that foreign Chinese Learners should never learn speaking from those with provincial accent and It’s just weird to hear a blonde speaking chinese with Dongbei,Sichuan,Shandong,Guangdong or other provincial accent just the same as an east Asian speaking English with Yorkshire tongue.

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  • Jack

    xiaozhoucoldsea, I agree, it is true that a lot of Chinese words are hard to guess meaning by just looking at the radicals, but you can still guess what they mean by its context in the sentence. I think English speaker does that too, and I do that when I come across a word I don’t understand and I read the whole paragraph to guess the meaning. The danger of course is contextual meaning of word can be wrongly interpreted, and many times I have found I was wrong about the usage of some words I thought I knew because in the past I interpreted the meaning without looking up the dictionary.

    For example, the word Laissez-faire – I used to think the word meant “corrupt” when I first read it in some editorial by some commentator lambasting the government’s handling of economy – and it does imply a certain connotation of corruption, but what it really mean is ‘unrestricted economic doctrine” or “Noninterference in the affairs of others”. As you can see, it is very easy to misinterpret the word meaning if you are not vigilant in looking them up in dictionary (I get lazy sometimes).

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  • Jack

    xiaozhoucoldsea :
    I don’t think “中国队大败美国队” and “中国队大胜美国队” are good example. They are the product of shorthand or shortening of phrase – because 大败 is short form of “大大击败” which means “to Significantly beaten” (the opponent). While “大胜” just means “big victory”. So, Chinese language isn’t illogical here, its just the shortening made it more confusing for the first time learners.

    I give you another example:
    “小心” – “Shaw shing” (be careful),
    but when you say “给我小心点” – “Gay wuah shaw shing den” (“you better watch out!” in threatening tone) doesn’t make any sense in direct translation (“Give me watch out”?? “Give me be careful”?) – but the phrase is really the shortening of “你给我小心点” – (“You becareful of me!”) which makes sense. So the shortening of everyday phrases are often the problem, not because Chinese language has structural problem in its logic. In all my years of learning English and Chinese, I found English more problematic – because its a mishmash hodgepodge of many languages, particularly Latin, German, and French, with each one having its own logic system built-in which are often incompatible with the others.

    The above “Laissez-faire” is a perfect example – its a loan word from French – which has its own logical meaning but has no equivalent meaning in English, thus it lost its own logical meaning language context. So unless you know french, you wouldn’t be able to guess the correct meaning from pure English background. This makes English far more daunting to learn in a logical manner.

    [Reply]

    xiaozhoucoldsea Reply:

    Thanks cordially,Jack!You see,although I am native chinese and never get abroad,I have a little bit misundersood the meanings of even the most basic words in chinese – 敗 and 勝 which testifies how difficult for a foreigner to master chinese in an accurate way.There still exist controversies in explaining 大敗,and maybe it is too literate or too simple to comprehend 大敗 as “大大擊敗”.First,in Chinese tradition,the host(to chinese the host is obviously chinese) should be taken precedence of the guest and certainly put ahead;actually being placed in front in such sentences is such a privilege for 中国队 or Chinese that we could never see a similar one like 美国队大败中国队 which grammatically is quite right.Should this be cultural violence呵呵?Second,大败 here should be rendered in a passive form (使动用法)while 大胜 doesn’t possess such connotation.It’s more covenient for me to explain in chinese(my English is terrible哈哈,and it’s impratical for me – an uneducated guy in rural china to utilize English to the exent to which one could express anything exactly in English as he wishes):
    败,在古汉语当中具有使动用法,“大败”即”使之败”,“中国对大败美国队”即“中国队使美国队大败”,此用法是古汉语某些词的用法在现代汉语中的遗留.
    (For a beginner in learning chinese it really gets one mad to dick around with such things.)
    Consequently chinese people never think about that why 大胜 couldn’t convey such connotation as 大败 does(使动用法) according to the custom and when this acquiescence in differences between them drived.
    Maybe the culprit of language phenomenon devoided of logic is not the language itseflf but its user.The indolence in delving into some problems and invariably passively accepting stereotype lead most chinese to prefer to explain things appealing to custom instead of logical ways.If they could have exlain away these problems logically,no doubt that the chinese learners will be less confused by them.
    I personally think that the different attitudes towards logic bring about differences in writting between Chinese and English:
    classical Chinese poems pay particukar attention to picturesque artistic conception while English poems more emphasize logic – the latter setence is always relevant to the former one.For instance,
    江雪(柳宗元)
    千山鸟飞绝 From hill to hill no bird in flight,
    万径人踪灭 From path to path no man in sight,
    孤舟蓑笠翁 A straw-cloak’s man in a boat, lo!
    独钓寒江雪 Fishing on river cold with snow.

    and verses selected from Emily Bronte’s poem
    “First melted off the hope of youth,
    Then fancy’s rainbow fast withdrew;
    And then experience told me truth
    In mortal bosoms never grew.”

    that’s my point of view,thanks again for ur reply.

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  • re: laissez-faire
    Umm, actually, it depends largely on the generation of people who know or not know this expression.

    Laissez-faire is indeed French, but it has been fully incorporated into English for at least 200 years – rather like the Latin expression “non compos mentis” (that being even more widely known among English speakers). Both laissez-faire and non compos mentis are fairly well known among the over 50s and 60s.

    Not to put too fine a point on this, why ever would one want to learn English in a logical manner, being that English is inherently illogical because of its heavy foreign borrowings and fragmented roots?

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