About Author

Nǐhǎo,
Welcome to my blog. My name is Rachel and I am a Chinese teacher and Chinese textbook author (“Chit-Chat Chinese” to be published by Far East Publishers in 2009). I started learning Mandarin over 20 years ago and I can’t say reaching fluency was exactly a “walk in the park”. I want to help other learners with tips and short-cuts to make their learning a bit breezier than mine was. I also own language schools in New York City and San Francisco (ABC Language Exchange) and have seen hundreds of Mandarin students come through our school, some successful in acquiring conversational Mandarin and some, well, not so much. I also want to encourage teachers to simplify their teaching and avoid the linguistic mumbo-jumbo that can just add to the confusion. It’s a blog from the learner’s perspective, since 学中文一辈子还学不完, in other words: you can study Chinese for a lifetime and still not be finished. I would love to hear from both Mandarin students and teachers and open up the dialogue.

20 Responses

  1. Actually, I think the attitude 学中文一辈子还学不完 is a horrible thing to say, think, and teach.

    Ok, about the ‘mumbo-jumbo’. I suppose it all depends on who your audience is. If you are just teaching people who want to chat and converse fairly well, then, I suppose yes, you can skip the ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ But, if anyone is really looking a deep and thorough understanding of the language, you need to get down to some pretty heady stuff.

    Can you tell me what you mean by ‘fluency’?

    I still resent the lack of teaching of solid grammar from the start. I personally believe you have to throw grammar and linguistics at adults and force them to use the language. Kids, on the other hand, can pick things up much more quickly and naturally.

    So, I guess I’d say I’m for making teaching far more intense and robust, not complicated, but detailed and copious.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s a positive message to tell people they’ll never get finished. To me that sounds like the teachers don’t have an accurate idea of how long mastery takes, what entails mastery, what things need to be learned, etc. I think the more honest thing to say is, you need 4 years of intensive study and guidance combined with in country living and adjustment to achieve fluent or near native status in a variety of tasks. If you can’t tell someone in 5 or 10 years that they can master or have what they need with sufficient study, then that just means the teaching/teaching material needs to be fixed, because no language is that hard.

  2. Yes, “fluency” is a vague and probably overused word. I consider fluency (as I define it for myself) the ability to converse for 2-4 hours with a native speaker and the conversation does not break down (it is “fluid”) because the learner does not understand something or cannot have the something reworded and then understand. That took me many years for Mandarin (6+, but maybe I was slow), 1.5 years for Spanish (living in Spain), 1.5 years for Sign Language (Spain not ASL which is a work in progress), and haven’t reached it in French with part-time lessons in a non-immersion environment for 3+ years now. I love learning languages and consider it a life-long pursuit. I have continued to try to improve my Mandarin something I started 20 years ago, which brings me to the topic of “studying a life time and never finishing”, an attitude you described as “horrible”.

    Allow me to explain what that attitude means to me, and how I have taken it when I have heard native speakers say just that. I consider my native language, English, a continual work in progress. I love learning new words, expressions, thinking about my own use of grammar (imperfect as anyone’s). Then any L2 language I take on even more so! That said, I do not start a beginning Mandarin course by telling my students they will never learn. I set realistic goals and yes, I can give students the parameters of what they can expect (4-8 years or so for mastery). My courses do include grammar, and so will my textbook. Avoiding “mumbo jumbo” to me means explaining grammar in a way that the lay person can understand. Take the most popular textbook’s description of 了, calling it a ‘dynamic particle’ and going on with an explanation that even if you know how to use “le” you would not understand what they mean. I’m trying to work on a more user-friendly approach. Anyway, thanks for your feedback.

  3. Hi

    Sorry, I couldn’t find any email address on your blog, so I have to contact you this way.

    I’ve found it interesting to read somethings about Chinese life in your weblog.

    I myself have just recently started a blog. In this weblog I am writing about my experiences in learning Chinese:
    http://www.learnclick.com/chinese/wordpress/

    I was wondering if you would do me a favor and link this page on your website. I’m happy to link your blog on my website.

    Regards.

    Philip Perry

    Learnclick.com

  4. hsknotes, it depends on your attitude and interpretation of the phrase.

    I still have and always will have a fascination with my mother tongue English. I will never stop learning things about English and I have no real technical interest or understanding of English grammar.

    I disagree very strongly with the attitude of forcing language and grammar on adults, someone can learn that way if they wish, but adults can learn in a similar manner to kids very successfully.

  5. Hi,

    I have a Chinese learning website – Learn a Chinese Character a Day.
    http://www.learnchineseeveryday.com

    If you find that my website is useful, please link my page on your website. I am happy to have add your blog into my blogroll.

    Thanks.

    Regards,
    Min Min
    Regards.

    Philip Perry

  6. Hi,

    I have a Chinese learning website – Learn a Chinese Character a Day.
    http://www.learnchineseeveryday.com

    If you find that my website is useful, please link my page on your website. I am happy to have add your blog into my blogroll.

    Thanks.

    Regards,
    Min Min

  7. (@hsknotes)

    While telling people the reality of learning Chinese might be discouraging, I feel that they ought to know what they are getting themselves into. The truth is, Chinese is a language that takes a lot of study and dedication, far more so than perhaps any other language, and if you’re not someone who is willing to put in the time, then perhaps it would have been nice for someone to have told you this from the get-go so that you could have decided to learn Spanish or French instead.

    Adults should not need to be fooled, pampered, cajoled or otherwise deceived so that they think they have a good shot at learning a language. No matter how you splice it or dice it, languages are not easy and the whole idea of making people think it is is just downright deceiving and wasting their time.

    Imaging after studying Mandarin for 4 or 5 years you finally realize the truth that it’s a very hard language and you are still not fluent. Wouldn’t you be mad? It has been written about time and time again that this is one of the hardest languages to learn and gain fluency in. Even children growing up with Chinese as their mother tongue have a lot more rote learning to do than the average Joe.

    So, if you are going to learn Mandarin or any other Chinese language, do it because you just want to; do it because you love it; for any other reason, perhaps you need to think twice, maybe thrice.

  8. I love your site…and I love your articles! Thank you for this effort. I’m elbow deep into learning Mandarin — and I love it. My own personal sudoku puzzle! It doesn’t surprise me that how to actually study the language causes a lot of passionate responses — personally, I’m struggling with a system that wants me to learn BOTH simplfied and traditional characters. Simplified is hard enough.

    The joy of learning Mandarin is the Chinese people you talk to — they’re so wonderful when you try their language!

  9. I just finished a degree in Chinese and I still feel like I’m just getting started (I still can’t read a newspaper – how messed up is that?!). The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. (For reference, Mandarin is the eighth language I’ve studied in depth, including a degree in Russian, so I feel like I can make a pretty good comparison). I think it’s fair to say that I could definitely 花一輩子 studying it and would never feel like I’d figured it out. Of course, you can have a conversational grasp of it after a few years, especially if that included an in-country stay, but I don’t think it’s unfair to tell people what they’re getting into in terms of fluency. The challenge for me is trying to learn all of the stories and the history behind the thousands of idioms you’d have to master to be able to feel like you were expressing yourself as a native would. Cultural references are tough in any language, but when your history is as long as China’s, it’s an added challenge. There’s also the additional burden of learning/practicing characters – time that in another language that could be spent working on oral practice. It’s definitely worth the struggle, though! (and a great way to fight off the Alzheimer’s, right?)

  10. Ha, yea great way to fight senility. And, yes, worth it. I still find it an exciting language, after all these years. Even reading children’s history or chengyu books can be exciting.

  11. 20 Years!! I have only been learning for 4 years and surprisingly this is encouraging to me. I always thought of this as a long term goal so I am ok with it. To hear someone still enjoys it and is humble to admit they are not all knowing is refreshing. Honestly since I have started learning Mandarin I have learned a lot about English, so I guess After 29 years of life I am not completely fluent in English either! Great Blog!!

  12. I agree with you all here. Learning chinese is not easy although both my parents can speak and write in chinese.
    But I keep trying to learn chinese. And it is also put my mind a bit ease that other people have difficulty learning chinese..
    jia you

  13. Hi, Rachel–

    Cool blog. Would you be willing to do a link exchange with me? http://www.chinesewithmike.com (Don’t post this comment)

    Mike

  14. Hi Rachel. What a delightfully (written) insightful (content) blog.
    I started to learn Mandarin some ten years ago while working in China and with a burst of determined effort eventually got to the point where ‘they understand me! yippee!!”. Of course there were more hurdles to come and some still ahead.
    I did not pay much attention to Chinese characters at first but eventually they seemed the next reasonable challenge. I made the usual progress with the typical ‘knock-it-in or knock-yourself-out, re-write a hundred times’ method. I also started to make sketches/drawings which mimicked the shapes and structures of the characters — a bit like ‘oh, look! it looks like two trees and the sun shining through beneath’ for 春 (spring).
    No doubt I became adept at this and soon had several hundred ‘pictorial mnemonics for Chinese characters’. These act as memory pegs and work a treat – once you can remember the character the stroke order and writing are very doable.
    Over the years I have beavered away at these and all the while with the dilemma of how to make them available. Apps (iPhone, ETC.) presented an ideal vehicle.
    “Pictorial Mnemonics for Writing Chinese Characters, Vol. 1” is in the iTunes/App Store and Vol. 2 will be submitted this weekend.
    I would love for these to be beneficial to all those learners of Chinese who ever have, are or will be struggling with Chinese characters. I believe also that it can encourage more people to take up Chinese and successfully master it. The thrill alone of being able to recognise, read and write Chinese characters will generate a lot of enthusiasm.
    I would very much appreciate if you would have a look and give me some feedback. You can also find more information on the website: http://www.speakwritechinese.com. Thank you for your support and thank you for your work and site also.

  15. @ Joe, thanks for reading and for sharing your site. Your ideas look interesting. I like the hand-drawn drawings. It’s hard to tell where you go with it just seeing 3 characters. I am curious to see more. I find other mnemonic driven techniques (e.g. Heisig, Tuttle) breakdown pretty fast to becoming, in my opinion, convoluted. Right now I am working on the character book to go with my conversation textbook, “Chit-Chat Chinese”. I decided to go with some mnemonics for certain characters,like pointing out that the character for “cup” is composed of “wood” and “no/not”, so most cups are “not” made of “wood”; or making simple associations like “bright” is composed of a “sun” and a “moon”, both “bright”. I also reference some ancient forms that have pictographic roots, so the learner can make a visual association. But, then I drop this whole approach for certain characters when I think demanding an explanation will become too convoluted, for example characters like 我, 那, 也, etc. I am curious to see how you handle those situations. Any chance you can post some more examples of your work?

  16. Hi Rachel, thank you for your interest and support, and sorry for the slow reply but I was away for a few days and could not use email. Also, I tried replying from my email to your follow-up/reply (June 18 at 6:36) which was forwarded to my inbox but it does not work (it’s a ‘no-reply’ address), and otherwise I cannot figure out how to send you more examples of my work.
    Of course the app “Pictorial Mnemonics for Writing Chinese Characters, Vol.1” is available in the iTunes/App Store and Vol.2 is presently at the review stage and should be available in a matter of days. I have had very positive responses to the app and people are especially enthusiastic about the content.
    Again sorry for not getting back to you sooner and look forward to your feedback.

  17. Just to say I’ve added Chit Chat Chinese to the directory at: http://eastasiastudent.net/directory/china/mandarin/

  18. This blog is really interesting, are you planning on updating it any time soon? It seems like it hasn’t been updated since 2010.

    With learning Chinese, I think that there’s times when you do *pretend* that you fully understand and sometimes you admit you don’t understand. Sometimes in daily conversation there are a few unfamiliar words and it’s awkward all the time to say “I don’t understand that” There is an assumption that non-Chinese people don’t speak Chinese and it’s also fun when they assume this and you can understand everything.

  19. is this still an active site ??

  20. Hi Charles, yes it is. Any questions?

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