Learning Chinese: Notes on language utility

Image: Steve Webel via flickr

On Friday I took my first Chinese class ever, at the Chinese Cultural Centre in Belgrano, Buenos Aires. We were five Argentines, an American expat and myself: asked about our motives for learning the language, most responded with vague references to work possibilities and cultural interest, given the sizeable Chinese population in Argentina and the commercial links between the two countries. Ana, slightly built with iron-grey hair, simply wanted a challenge.

As we exchanged numbers after class before going our separate ways she reflected that she’d certainly got one.

Our teacher was tiny and giggled a lot, demonstrating the tones with dramatic arm gestures and stamping feet, singing the language and basically being exactly what I’d expected.

It reminded me of my brief flirtation with Quechua: a language completely foreign to my ears, with no Romance-language markers or sounds to grab onto and build comprehension around. We won’t be touching the Chinese characters until level 3 (thank heavens!) but I still felt cast adrift in unfamiliar waters.


When I got home I googled “learning mandarin”, wanting some audio lessons to help me wrap my head around pronunciation and the four tones before the next class.

Among the results I turned up a Newsweek article by linguist John McWhorter, English is here to stay. This is the kind of article that has language aficionados up in arms: the general gist being that hey, if you speak English, its not really worth the effort learning another language. The New York Times provides some forceful responses to this general argument in their Room for Debate section: that beyond the cognitive benefits, language learning provides and will continue to provide immeasurable returns in all facets of our globalized lives.


Language fascinates me. I had so much fun learning Spanish – after the initial panic – and struggle to understand expats who live for years in South America without getting beyond the absolutely necessary. Finishing Cien años de soledad on a beach in Peru was one of the most exhilarating academic experiences of my life. (Language geeks are sexy, aren’t they?). The time I invested in the language has brought considerable returns already.

Chinese is a different story. It will require a much greater investment of time to reach a comparable point of fluency, and that point may never be reached. I’m not living in China and have no plans to move there, so I’m denied both the learning facilitation of immersion and the immediate payoffs of a smoother expat life.

There’s a financial cost as well: I took Spanish classes here and there, but largely depended on friends, books, online exercises and lots of practice. I’m fairly sure Chinese is going to be classes all the way, a not inconsiderable financial investment if I’m going to reach proficiency.


But over the last few days the doubts crept in. Could McWhorter be right? I’ve been flirting a bit with Brazilian Portuguese. French also appealed to me. Mandarin went from possibility to decision very quickly. Had I really thought it through properly?

My primary motive was to add a little bling to my CV: I plan to stay in the Latin America region once I graduate and hope to work in development. China has links and trade interests here as it does in any every other part of the world and will be an important partner in regional development into the future.

But then I began the struggle with tones and Mary Anne began trying to scare with me tweets about Mandarin’s difficulty…


And then one morning I opened my eyes and saw my bookshelf, one of its shelves a ragged row of worn spines with Spanish-language titles. Bugger it. The New York Times team were right: it’s worth it, and for so many reasons beyond cold economic benefit.


Updated 31 March: There’s another interesting collection of articles over at Intelligent Life. Start with Which is the best language to learn? and work your way through the related articles on the right.


I may be feeling a bit more confident but I could still use some help – if you know of any Chinese bands, movies, podcasts, TV shows, websites, or other resources pass them on in the comments! I’ll be eternally grateful…


6 thoughts on “Learning Chinese: Notes on language utility

  1. Oh dear, I didn’t mean to scare you like that! I mean, I’ve already scared myself a million times over with my attempts at learning Chinese. In China. I used to think I was good at languages- I mean, I grew up totally bilingual having been sent to a French school for all of grades K-12! I voluntarily started teaching myself Irish (yes, Irish!) at 15 because I had a huge crush on an Irish musician who was fluent. When I was in a 3 year relationship with a South African in London in my 20s, I picked up a decent amount of Afrikaans just though dirty poetry and banter. I tackled Turkish on my own for 6 years and was frustrated because I hadn’t been able to get higher than intermediate– but I know if I’d taken a class or two, my level would have zoomed up. My mental and emotional blocks were what had kept my Turkish back- I was starting to see it as the language of the men who pissed me off, of the employers who had fucked me over. I frequently went on language strike. But I did learn a lot and I’m still amazed by how much of that absurdly difficult language I managed to get into my head, how much is still there nearly 4 years after leaving.

    But Chinese! I’ve studied! I’ve taken classes! Hell, I’m planning to enrol in a full time uni program for it in September because I’m so frustrated by my lack of progress! A lot of the frustration comes from not being understood when I do use it.

    In my head, I have a decent elementary level command of the grammar and vocab needed for daily life here. When I actually try to use it on humans, I frequently get blank stares. Are my tones really that bad? My teacher didn’t think so- I got 92% on my last speaking test (a veggie market role play, with bargaining!). My ability to effectively communicate in Chinese after 3 years is worse than my Turkish was after 2 months. Seriously! It’s embarrassing!

    Maybe it’s linguistic burnout. Maybe it’s that Shanghai is the wrong place to be (the local dialect is rather different from Mandarin so the stuff I pick up on the street tends to be fucked up). Dunno.

    By the way, am liking the simplicity of the new blog redesign. What theme is it? How much tweaking did you need to do to make it work?


  2. I’m strangely sort of reassured, I’m not sure why… I think I’ve decided to just treat this as more of an intellectual exercise than anything else: lets face it, I ain’t never gonna be participating in conferences in Mandarin, but the cultural insight will be handy, and I feel like a challenge.

    (I have had a few post-blog-renovation celebratory beers so that may just be bravado, ask me again tomorrow).

    Glad you like the new look! Extra glad because it will never, ever be changed again, what a headache. It’s not a free theme – I bought it way back when for the hostel blog and never ended up using it (remembered why when I had to change the photos in EVERY SINGLE ARCHIVED POST).

    I put in maybe six hours of work today… and its Woo Themes Daily Edition. I’m DMing you about this as well…


  3. You’re braver than I am! I took a single Chinese class when I was in university, enough to remember how to say “Ni hao ma, wa da ming ze she Kirstin” and realize it was a terrible idea to continue. I’ve heard Chinese grammar is actually not too bad (I’m sure MaryAnne could either back me up or tell me to f*** off on that point), but the tones and characters are killer. I’ve also been thinking about taking on another language; my Russian is getting to a decent point but I’m tempted to start learning some basic Kyrgyz, even though it’s completely impractical outside of Kyrgyzstan! Oh well, good luck with your new language endeavors!


  4. Kirstin, it’s true that Chinese grammar is pretty easy– blissfully easy after the algebra that is Turkish grammar. However, the vocab issues more than make up for it. I read recently that there is a poet famous for having written a whole poem (not a short one either- we’re talking a dozen or so lines) using only characters that had the shr sound. There were a lot of words for him to choose from. And they all sounded like shr.

    In Shanghai, it’d be even worse because they don’t do the sh sound so not only would you have 40-odd shr words but they’d be doubled to include the sr words. Gah! Even Chinese people can’t understand each other at times and have to write down the character for what they’re trying to say. My students last year said they couldn’t really follow their classroom teacher because she’s Shanghainese…



  5. I dont even touch Chinese ! You need to be a brave person with loads of free time…or great organization. (still need time)

    Am afraid that even if i will start and have the persistence to go on it for few months i still may quit at some point and all the time and effort would go in vain.


    1. I’m wonderful at diving wholeheartedly into new projects that kind of tail off after a while. This is my fear with Chinese, but hey. I was reading an essay the other day, Why Finish Books, that wondered about the pressure we feel to finish a novel. We may enjoy greatly it to a certain point, and then realise that, for us, it’s finished. The value is in the journey, not necessarily in the grand conclusion of the last fifty pages that is often only a construction allowing the author to dip out as gracefully as possible. Two upshots in this seeming irrelevance: I can stop forcing my way through Moby Dick feeling like its a classic and by God I will conquer it despite not really enjoying it and not having the time, and, I don’t need to reach a certain level of proficiency with Chinese for it to have been worth the intellectual journey. Two very liberating conclusions.


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