Learning Mandarin: Update After Nine Months

This is the third part in my learning Mandarin account.

Here is part 1: The Idiot Stage

Here is part 2: Learning Chinese after 6 months.

So what to report? Well, as I’ve detailed in my earlier accounts, my level of studiousness is pretty poor. I basically don’t do any studying on my own. I just go to class 3 times a week – which is about 6 hours of 1-2-1 tuition, and of course I hear Mandarin all the time because I live in Beijing, and most of my colleagues are Chinese.

The biggest noticeable difference is how much more I’m starting to understand. I am still getting shutdown by my lack of vocabulary, but in conversations around me I can consistently pick out snippets. Same on the radio or on TV (though I don’t watch TV, mostly because I’m obsessed with coding and productivity). I’m not talking about picking out individual words – that started happening much earlier. Now it’s like chained 10-20 word snippets which I understand, then I get lost when a new or complex word comes up. I’ve also internalized a lot of the typical ‘connecting’ or ‘filler’ kind of words that every language has – in English it would be stuff like ‘well’, ‘you know’, ‘let me think’, ‘kind of like’, ‘I guess’ – you know, just meaningless stuff that people say to fill up space. It’s important to be able to recognize this so you can filter it out. The funny thing about this realization is that it highlights to you quite how much of our everyday spoken dialogue is mindless filler. Food for thought. I always remember how the Douglas Coupland’s incredible novel *Jpod *one of the characters talks in hushed awe about meeting Bill Gates and notes how throughout their long conversation “he never said ‘um’ once.”

My colleagues are very patient with me, and if we go to lunch then they’ll slow things down, and repeat things. To be clear though, we do our business in English. I don’t feel ready for that step yet. The conversation process is now a lot less painful. I’m able to accurately and easily describe exactly what I don’t understand, and make jokes like ‘why are you asking me about such a complicated topic, you know I’m a retard!’ So everything is much easier than before, but certainly not easy. I’m also struck by something MM once described about learning a foreign language, which is that in Mandarin I basically have no personality. As in, my ability to express myself is so severely restricted that it is very difficult for me to come across as interesting or intelligent (although this is of course a constant challenge in English too…but even more so in Chinese).

Things are at the stage now where I’m pretty comfortable shooting the sh*t with a taxi driver, or buying a train ticket under the extreme duress of a busy Chinese train station (although ‘express’ train or ‘regular’ train caught me out recently!). Certainly with my Chinese teachers, we’ll chat for an hour and a half without any English – but they’re obviously super-easy to speak to.

As for reading and writing, I fell off the horse the past couple of months. I got sucked into more coding projects, and my previous routine of practicing writing every week went out the window. I’m pretty relaxed about this, although it’s a bit lame to realize that in 3 months I’ll have been living in China a year, and my ability to read and write is still shocking. I guess I can read about 100-150 characters, and write probably about 30. I should commit to a date to take the HSK level 3 exam. I think that would probably motivate me – but learning Chinese comes second to getting my app out the door, and that process is proving an unbelievable time sink.

Anyway, that’s a flavor of how things stand after 9 months in China. I’ll do another update at the one year point, and hopefully be able to report not being totally illiterate.