Learning Mandarin: Update After Six Months

I’ve been living in Beijing for six months. I can now effortlessly read the newspaper, incessantly crack witty jokes in Mandarin that make Chinese girls do their girly giggle, and often speak at conferences. Just kidding. Such feats are a long way off.

On balance, I’m happy with my progress. Sitting in the lunchroom with my Chinese colleagues I can understand about 30-40% of their rapid-fire Beijing accent, a big improvement. I’m fairly comfortable having the type of lame conversation where you talk about where you went and what you did on the weekend. You know, the type of thing you talk about in an office. I know a few fancy phrases, and never need to speak English when I’m haggling for goods at the knock-off foreigner markets (where the amount of English spoken is uncharacteristically high).

Having said that, ‘comfortable’ feeling conversation is still beyond me. You know, the kind where the other person feels like they don’t have to slow everything down and moderate their vocab. I often do not catch things first time, and as soon as some half-complex vocab gets thrown into conversation, I’m lost. My tones are better, but I know they still need a lot of work.

I’m still illiterate. I’ve aggressively focused on speaking and listening in my classes, and am only now beginning to make the transition to learning the characters. I have no regrets about this, it has made my quality of life much higher. I will take the HSK Level 3 examinations in the next few months, for which I’ll need to be able to write 600 characters. I figure that will give me a reasonable base, and also that the incentive of an exam will get me learning characters. Fairly comically, I can type quite complex sentences (because the software converts *pinyin *to hanzi) which I am then unable to read a few minutes later.

To be clear, I work in English. I overhear a lot of Chinese in informal situations (e.g. at lunch since most of my colleagues are Chinese), and of course in the street. My actual learning routine consists of 6 hours of formal lessons per week (three 1-2-1 sessions), and I’ve recently started listening to the Pimsleur Mandarin audio course on my commute (so far I’m finding it very useful, I will do a post on it once I’ve finished the course). In a good week, I’ll do 30 minutes of revision at home. So pretty much fuckall. I’ve made a careful decision here. When I wrote my goals for 2014, I committed to processes. My number one priority this year is to finish an app I’ve been working on for months (oh god, so many ups and downs, will do a MEGA post on this soon). Learning Chinese is goal two – but I guess it is quite a distant second, otherwise I would do more revision. My main process is: never miss class. Even if work drags on horrifically, or I’m bone-tired, I force myself to go to class. And I don’t think I’ve ever regretted it. In fact, quite a few times I’ve arrived miserable as hell, and then come away from my lesson feeling energized.

I’ve found committing to the process of going to class to be a fairly effective learning approach. In the past, I’ve said that I would ‘revise at least 10 characters a day’ or something like that. I never do. I’ll sit down and learn Javascript or Python for hours, but there’s something about writing *hanzi *that just really doesn’t float my boat. Even Anki hasn’t solved that problem. It’s almost certainly because there isn’t enough incentive: I can’t see a major long-term benefit from it – particularly given that translation apps make navigating the characters much easier. Living in China 10 years ago would have been much harder. I learned a while ago that I must understand my own incentives in order to be disciplined.

So there we go, that’s a straight-up assessment of my progress. At this rate, I expect to be having reasonable conversations in another three months, and comfortable conversations in six. If you had the time and money, I think you could plausibly and effectively study Chinese 30 – 50 hours a week, depending on your ability to concentrate and your level of discipline. Of course, then you’d make much faster progress than me. But Chinese is hard. I lived in Spain for six months (having **very ** basic Spanish when I arrived), and after six months was having very comfortable conversations almost effortlessly. I would estimate that spoken Chinese is 2-3 times harder than Spanish (for a native English speaker), and written Chinese is a whole different level. Still, I’m game.

If you’re interested in learning Mandarin (and languages in general), Scott H. Young is doing an interesting series of posts on it over on his blog. Recommended.