What is it like to learn Mandarin Chinese as a nonnative speaker?

For me, there are two big things about Chinese:

It is, as my Classical Chinese teacher called it, “the language of the Fool’s Paradise.”

Whenever—and I mean whenever—you start to think that you’ve finally understood things, that you have a grasp on things, that you can tackle whatever you want, there will still be documents and pieces of literature and ways of speaking that will throw you for a loop and leave you going “huh?” That’s not to say that foreigners can’t become very good at Chinese—or even good enough to be mistaken for natives (I’ve met some of them)—just that it tends to kick learners when they think they’ve finally gotten it. There are so many weird twists and turns and the cultural and linguistic and literary accretions of millennia that there’s always going to be something.
When I went to study in Fudan, one of the foreign teachers that was linked to our program (a PhD and fluent Chinese speaker) summed the language up perfectly. She said:

“Chinese is the easiest language in the world and the hardest in the world. For everyday use, Chinese couldn’t be easier; if you want to sound good, Chinese will grab you by the balls and make you squeal.”
For me, that’s sort of the summation of Chinese: when you start, it’s really easy. Yes, there are tones, but you’ll get better at them. Yes, there are characters, but, for everyday use, they’re really not that bad. In fact, once you get done with second or third year university Chinese, you might start thinking you’re pretty hot shit.

You’re not. And I know this from experience. When I finished Third Year Chinese, I thought it was clear sailing ahead—I had what I needed to know and, from then on, it was just working out the kinks. And I didn’t just take three years of Chinese: I did time in Fudan University, I took classes on Chinese historical linguistics and the linguistics of Modern Chinese, the whole shebang.

In retrospect, I’ll say that I knew almost nothing. Oh, sure, I could carry on an okay conversation and talk about stuff, but I could basically only do so in that sort of grey wasteland between formal and informal language: what we call, in an English learning context, “Schoolbook English,” except with Chinese. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t know some formal language or some slang or that I’d be completely unable to cope with either, but I wasn’t really exposed to them that much except at Fudan. I couldn’t sling chengyu (except for a small number) or recognize the many literary references that pepper Chinese culture and writing, I couldn’t really negotiate the culturally-soaked slang terms.

It took me a lot more study to get even close to what I’d call being marginally capable in Chinese. I took courses on Classical/Literary Chinese, I had grad-level courses in Tang and Song poetry. When I left college, I kept all that up and kept slugging my way through Chinese literature—and even now, after all this time, I still come across passages that make me go “huh?” and send me clinging to editorial 正義 notes and commentaries like a swimmer clawing onto flotsam.

There are always lists of “here are things that make Chinese neat and orderly and easy!” No conjugation! Easy dates of the week! No genders! But, honestly, in my experience, that’s pretty much Chinese 101 level stuff: it’s the sort of thing that makes you go “wow! This is easy!” in your first year. Then stuff keeps on piling on and piling on and piling on and you get a look under the hood and see that—hey! All of this stuff can actually be really complicated!

That’s the core of what was told to me in Fudan. Yeah, sure, ordering a 包子 is super easy. There’s nothing you have to conjugate, there are no verbs to change or declensions. You have no gender to remember. The worst you have is tone, maybe. But once you start wanting to look like you even vaguely know what you’re talking about, you’re in a world of pain.

It’s the sort of stuff that’s explained simply to you (“了 is past tense!”) in your first year or so, and then afterwords gets you a slap on the wrist when you have to actually know (“No! 了 is either an aspect marker or a modal particle! There is no tense!”).

It’s the sort of stuff that’s just flung at you that you have to know—there’s no way for you to know, but you just have to: “No, 傻逼, 不亦説乎 isn’t pronounced bu yi shuo hu! It’s bu yi yue hu! 說 is really 悅! What do you mean, how are you supposed to know that? You just do!”

It’s learning that all those really simple words you remember when you first learned the language actually have about fifteen wildly different meanings. Do you want to know how confused I was when I first saw 道 in the sense of “to say”? Or how 色 doesn’t actually just mean color like we’d all mostly been taught in our standard language classes—but also “countenance,” “appearance”: “巧言令色? Clever word commands color? What?”

So for me, that’s the core of learning Chinese. The beginning, and the basics, are really easy. Sure, at the time, they seem moderately challenging because you’re learning tones and characters, but it’s not like you have to memorize lists of months and days of the week and conjugation tables and noun gender. You can even get pretty far, academically, by going “wow! so easy!”

And then you decide you want to actually know what’s going on, maybe sound a bit educated in the language, or dive into things like traditional Chinese culture. You don’t want to be that guy whose Chinese ability is limited to ordering things in a restaurant. And then Chinese jumps out of the alleyway and hits you on the head with a bat and goes, “you’re in the wrong part of town,” and every inch of confidence you’ve built goes down the toilet until you feel like you know nothing at all.

A lot of people won’t get to that point—they’re business people or people who just want to learn how to communicate, basically. Then, there are others that go a bit further until Chinese starts really kicking their ass and they recognize that, after three years of the language, they’re still having trouble fluently reading a newspaper. Then, they go “screw this.”

And then there are the poor, sad, abused, slovenly sacks like us who the Chinese language kicked to the ground right when we felt good and made sure we knew just how much we sucked, but then we got right back up, told the language to go fuck itself, and kept on plugging: reading/memorizing texts, poems, characters, interpretations, features of historical linguistics, whatever, just so we could know what was going on.

In my case, I went down that path because I loved the language and it bothered me that I didn’t know what was going on “under the hood.” I had thousands of years of literature just sitting there and waiting for me, if only I would put in the effort to learn how to read it and understand it. But it was a challenge and it took blood, sweat, and tears—and I’m still far, far away from knowing much of anything at all.

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