Big Noses Can’t Really Learn Chinese

" Your Average Big Noser"

Do you ever get the feeling that Chinese people think you can’t really learn to speak their language? There is a Chinese restaurant I have frequented in San Francisco for almost two years now. Each time I go in to get take out, I chat with the staff and laoban (boss) while waiting. They are all native Cantonese speakers, sometimes struggling to find the right word in Mandarin.  Many times I’ve guessed what they were trying to say and helped them with the Mandarin word or phrase. Nevertheless, something humorous and very telling happened last time I went in.

One woman with whom I am very friendly said in Mandarin “Can I ask you something?” I said “sure”. And she replied “I hope you won’t be bothered by what I am going to ask, but, all this time we’ve been speaking with you, have you really understood us or are you just pretending.” Wait a second, I was thinking, I am the one who corrects your Mandarin!  She has heard me having complex conversations with the laoban, who has more fluent Mandarin. Why would she ever imagine I could pull off such a complex hoax, including guessing entire conversations and making up answers in Mandarin, all while having no idea what I am saying? Yet, I think I know why. I think she falls into the category of Chinese people who simply don’t believe it is possible to speak or understand Chinese if you are a “Big Noser” (Chinese slang for the ethnically non-Chinese).

I can never guess who will be a person who eases into a conversation, briefly complimenting my level in Mandarin, but immediately accepting the concept of a Big Noser actually conversing in Mandarin. It is impossible to predict. I have interviewed Mandarin teachers, people whose profession it is to look at big noses and try to get them to learn Mandarin, who cannot accept really speaking in Mandarin with someone sporting a schnoz larger than their own. I had one teacher unable to concentrate, laughing and saying “I just can’t believe it!” while interviewing her in Mandarin for a teaching position. At one point she covered her eyes and said “If I just do this, I will then think you are Chinese and not find it so funny”.  Then there have been others with little to no exposure to Westerners, let alone ones who speak Mandarin, easing right into it and going with the flow.

There have been some posts, including one of my own, about people not speaking Chinese to Westerners. The assumption has been that they prefer to practice their English. This may be true, but I also think some of these people actually don’t believe it can be done. No matter if you have been conversing with the person on a weekly basis for two years. It must be a ruse, smoke and mirrors, a carnival trick. How I wish I could do that, and skip the nearly two decades of study.

Does Chinese Suck?

If you are a learner of Chinese and have “hit” the proverbial “wall”, you may have wondered: “Does Chinese suck or am I the one who sucks?” Few things are more humbling than trying to learn Mandarin. Maybe you even have studied for a year or two, but when you open your mouth native speakers look at you as if you were speaking gobbly-gook. So what’s up with Chinese? Am I just stupid or is this language stupidly difficult? (One hilarious rant I read online about “Why Chinese is So Darn Hard” made me think of this topic. ).

First of all, let’s not pretend: Chinese is not easy, nor is there some fast method that will make you fluent. However, Chinese is also not impossible to learn, and really anyone can do it. You have to have patience and perseverance, but you WILL learn. You should pace yourself and organize your learning well. Expect to learn in stages (check out Sinosplice’s definition of the 5 stages of learning Mandarin “The Five Stages to Learning Chinese” ).

Learning Chinese is a bit of a good-news, bad-news affair. First the bad news:

• Tones: There are 4 main tones (one neutral), a pretty trippy concept to get used to.
• No Cognates: Other than kāfēi for “coffee”, or shāfā for “sofa”, you are on your own. No freebies here.
• Non-alphabetical language: Need I say more?
• Unusual Sounds: Mandarin contains some sounds difficult for learners to pronounce such as the reflexive zh-, ch-, sh-, or the ü umlaut sound, and many more.
• “Out There”: Chinese is “out there”; it is generally just really, really different from English.

Now for the good news:

• No Verb Tenses: Once you learn a verb you’ve learned all its forms: that being only one. No conjugation here.
• No Articles: No complicated articles as you might find in a European language.
• Simple grammar: Compared to Arabic, Japanese and even some European languages, the grammar is pretty bare bones.
• Logical: Chinese has always been Chinese, so the language fits together in a logical fashion with few exceptions. Once you are past the beginner stage, you will see how the morpheme pairs and the grammar all fit together beautifully.

Tell me the good and bad news from your learning. Stay tuned for tips on learning Mandarin.