Learning Mandarin: Week 4

“If you finish this book,” Sophie reiterates, “You’ll be able to get all around China with no problems.”

I wouldn’t have thought it possible when we started learning Chinese. But, weirdly, I think she’s right.

A month ago we couldn’t tell where one sound ended and the next one began. A Chinese sentence was a meaningless, shapeless blur, the ultimate barbarian “bar-bar-bar”. The only syllables either of us could even identify as individual sounds were xièxie (thank you) and nǐ haǒ (hello).


Well, we can cope with basic conversation and if there’s something functional that I need to get across, I can manage it…

… Eventually.

We haven’t quite finished our course in three weeks (click on the links to read about week 1, week 2 and week 3), but six hours hard study on the Sunday before we leave Kunming brings us to the end of it.

And Z, at least, is super-stoked to hear that some of Sophie’s adult students take a year to finish the book, and longer than that to get to the point where they can comprehend and be understood in conversation.

But are we at the end of it?

It feels more like we’re at the beginning of something.

Chinese is a fascinating language and phenomenal brain training, whether you’re ten or thirty-seven – and that’s before you get to the magic of the characters. It’s also an extraordinarily useful one for Z to know as the new world order begins to shake down.

So, once we’ve got our little travel money hassle resolved — replacement credit cards for the ones the pickpocket took are currently somewhere in South-Western China en route to Lijiang — we’re going to schedule a couple of hours of study via Skype once a week.

We even have our new coursebooks! We’re onto New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 1, complete with CDs, and armed with these we’ll be learning to read and write our first few of the 2500 most common Chinese characters.

So this is the last in the weekly series. But I’ll give you an update in a month.

We Covered
Posting parcels, mending a bicycle (oh, happy memories of mending our motorbike), booking into a hotel, at the train station, booking plane tickets and the internet. Also different ways of making sentences with , the use of the word jiù, colloquial passives, different ways of forming requests and various common ways of linking sentences.

My View
“Grammar’s not so important,” says Sophie, as she and I plough through yet more grammar and Z plays with her daughter’s hamsters. “You need to learn the words.”

And, actually, it’s true that once you get the tones even approximately right — Z can sound fairly Chinese when he’s trying, I sound resolutely English, I think because I push the sounds through the wrong cavities — you can, in fact, just string words together fairly intuitively and… Well, it’s ugly, but it works.

That said, I’m a full-on grammar Nazi (a former sub-editor and one-time English teacher with a degree in two dead languages, and you don’t get much more fascistic than that), so I WANT to understand this stuff.

I’d also like at some point in my life to speak not pidgin Chinese but good Chinese.

On the plus side, I can now make sentences with the dreaded de particle. I’m getting a feel for when to use guo and when to use le. I can even drop in words like yíxìa (‘one time’ – a Chinese equivalent of “please”).

And I’m sort of getting a feel for the slabby, heaped constructions, the piling-up of nominal phrases, the obsession with number, the prioritization of big things and big ideas over what we’d consider a normal word order. So much so, in fact, that Z sometimes has to haul me up for talking Chinglish (a far worse fate than talking Singlish).

On the downside? Reading and writing’s going to be a whole new level of crazy. Take this, from our book:

“There are three structural particles, ‘的’, ‘得’, ‘地’ in Chinese.
的 only occurs before an attributive modifier before a noun.
得 only occurs between a verb and a complement.
地 only occurs after an adverbial adjunct, before a verb.”
Why all three of these at once? Well, all three of these very different characters are pronounced (albeit only when used in the senses above), de.

The Kid’s View
“Whew! Thank god that’s over! No homework tonight, I hope… Though I am pleased we finished the book.”

“You do realise we’re starting a new book after this one?”


“But you do feel a sense of achievement? ”


“Are you alright with learning more Chinese?”

“Well, yes. I do want to learn Chinese. I understand it will be good when I’m an adult. And, yes, I do kind of like learning Chinese. But not at this kind of rate. I’m TEN, for god’s sake.”

He has a point…

On the other hand, in Chinese terms (AKA, Sophie’s terms), he is “very smart, with a very good tongue, but lazy”.

She has a point…

You see, by Western standards, Z has been working his little butt off, covering in three and a bit weeks what would take a good couple of years in school.

By Chinese standards? He’s, umm, a lazy little sod who needs to put the hours in.

In Practice
I am mildly irritated to find that, as with Indonesian, Z prefers to eschew speech in favour of correcting my myriad errors.

“Shouldn’t you put a question word after that? Like ma?”

“You mean yaò, not yǒu. That’s why she’s confused.”

. Not méi.”

I am also not entirely sure what to do about this. I’d like to get him together with Chinese kids of his sort of age – we left Kunming too soon after he befriended the girl on the bus to arrange a hook-up.

This would be a good thing on all levels, linguistic the least of them.


Chinese kids of Z’s sort of age work phenomenally hard. They’re in school from 7.30am to 4pm with 2-3 hours of homework every evening – a lot of it rote learning — and, generally, classes at weekends too.

Add in the time spent commuting to and from school and you’re looking at a 13 or 14 hour day.



And consider this. The vast majority of Chinese couples today will, like their parents, only ever have one child. That means that there are two, often three generations’ hopes and dreams invested in that single child’s success.

Urban, school-age Chinese children do not have much time for family time with their adoring parents and grandparents. Let alone time for play.

In other parts of Asia, we’ve found it relatively easy to meet kids of around Z’s age scampering around the streets, in restaurants, in parks or just, say, hanging out on the beach. Here the kids who are out and about at any time on a weekday are usually of pre-school age.

Time to hit the parks more, I figure. And time our travel around weekends.

Because, yes, armed with our little pinyin dictionary and three and a bit weeks of gutbusting toil, we WILL get around China just fine. But I’d like Z to make a few more Chinese friends.

This is the last in the weekly series. But I’ll give you an update in a month.

And, if you’d like to learn Chinese, you might want to pick up our coursebooks:
Intensive Spoken Chinese

Buy the Intensive Spoken Chinese Book via bookdepository.com for $16.82 with free delivery worldwide
Intensive Spoken ChineseBuy the Intensive Spoken Chinese CDs  via bookdepository.com for $18.44

New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook v. 1

Buy the New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 1 via bookdepository.com for $24.98

New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook v. 1

Buy the New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 1 CDs via bookdepository.com for $30.73

Thanks to Post Office for their support of our site.

9 Responses

  1. Kevin says:

    This article is great. As I am relocating to Malaysia soon and my GF is Multi-Lingual, Mandarin being one of her fluent languages, I could use the help of this course as I struggle with even simple greetings & phrases, including the tones. On top of that, I keep inadvertently using my Spanglish!

    Thanks again, will check it out,


    • Kevin says:

      PS: This ended up being posted twice as I typed in my Domain name which I have not Published yet, causing an “Error 80” Sorry ’bout that.


    • Theodora says:

      I think it’s a function of age that each new language pushes the old one out, Kevin. The course will be good for the basics of greetings and thank yous, even without a teacher, and if you keep listening to and repeating the dialogues that will give you a handle. I’m going to do a post on the Mandarin words everyone needs to know once we’re a little further into China.

      The good news, though, is that Bahasa Malaysia is a hell of a lot easier than Mandarin — it’s almost identical with Bahasa Indonesia. And, while there are Chinese speakers in Malaysia, notably in Penang, most of those who speak Mandarin do so as one of a portfolio of languages that includes English, Bahasa Malaysia, and (for most) one or more Chinese dialects. As in Singapore, you’ll only generally “need” to use Chinese with the elderly — and the elderly often speak Hakka or Hokkien rather than Mandarin Chinese anyway. More useful for you will be Bahasa Malaysia. Educated people all speak English but particularly in the eastern peninsula and in Borneo you’ll find a bit of Bahasa helpful for getting around. One post on basic vocab in Bahasa Indonesia here: http://travelswithanineyearold.com/2011/07/30/20-words-to-get-you-almost-anywhere-in-indonesia/

  2. Scott says:

    Wow, Chinese? That is quite a feat. I visited China 3 times last year and never in my wildest dreams did I ever consider learning Chinese – you no doubt have your task cut out for you, I wish you the best and hope for your success!

    • Theodora says:

      Wayull… It’s sort of expanded from wanting to learn the basics of getting around (and we’re there on that), to, “Wow! I like this language! I want to understand it.” But as languages go, it’s not the easiest one, LOL…

  3. Helen says:

    I admire your patience. I agree that mandarin is a beautiful language yet I find it complicated as well. My sister just taught me two words that when pronounced differently will have a different meaning. It is great that learning Mandarin for you isn’t as difficult as before. Keep up the good work. I can’t wait to learn you finally finished.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh Helen, it gets worse! You have words that are written the same and pronounced differently, words that are pronounced the same and mean different things — but then it also gets better. You start to see patterns. We’re starting to write now and Z is finding it a lot easier than me to memorise both the strokes and the characters.

  4. I realise I’m a little late to this particular party, but I just wanted to say how much I sympathise with your experience finding friends for Z in China.

    We have the same problem and our eldest isn’t yet 4! Most of his classmates from kindergarten are off at “Interest Classes” at the weekends (why aren’t they doing art/music at KG?!) and only seem to play between 6-9pm, while ours are asleep by 7…

    I’m really enjoying catching up with your blog, and particularly looking forward to when/if you return to Zhongguo!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you. I think the plan is to return at the end of this year. Hopefully school will provide friendships…

      We’ve struggled a little in the Egyptian cities, as well, where we are now. We got lucky in Dahab, with a 13yo boy at the place where we were staying, and once in Cairo, but it’s quite hard to find “ordinary” Egyptian kids out and about.