Stories from our Readers: Chinese is like an Elephant

Stories from our Readers: Chinese is like an Elephant

We’re excited to announce a brand new series for Mandarin Companion that comes from readers like you! It’s called Stories from our Readers, a place where we explore the unique journeys of ordinary people learning to speak and read Chinese. We believe sharing your story can help inspire and motivate others to reach higher and achieve more.

If you feel like you have a story to share or are interested in being part of this project, please reach out to us!

This story comes from Brian T., a graphic designer from Toronto, Canada. He and I had a great call to talk about his experience which I am excited to share with you here. This is his story.

Brians Story

I grew up speaking Vietnamese at home and, although it’s technically my first language, English is my primary language from growing up and attending school in Toronto, Canada. From when I was young, I loved playing Japanese video games and watching anime which spurred an interest in learning Japanese.

Learning a new language is a really big investment in time and mental energy. I studied Japanese for a number of years and have been to Japan a number of times for vacation. Last year in 2017, I went on vacation to Japan but this trip I decided to also visit Taiwan after some time in Okinawa.

Visited Taiwan for the first time in 2017.

Before going to Taiwan, I had started learning some very basic words in Chinese like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, and ‘I’m sorry’. At the time, I didn’t have any intention to learn the language, but after I arrived, any time I spoke very basic Mandarin there was such a warm response. People genuinely reacted as if “I can’t believe you are making an effort!” It was such a positive feedback loop that I just made the decision that, yeah, I’m going to switch!

I am the kind of person who just enjoys learning language, so for me there wasn’t any real extrinsic motivation to learn like “I’m going to earn so much more money by learning Chinese” or use it as a way to tap into a growing economy. That’s not where my heart is at. I felt like entering the Mandarin speaking world was opening a universe with a much greater global reach.

Japanese and Chinese are very different. Source: “Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese” on Sinosplice.com

I feel that learning Chinese, and specifically Chinese characters, is fun! I had already learned a number of Chinese characters by studying Japanese so at the beginning it was about attaching pronunciation to the characters I already knew. The structure of the characters, the radicals, made more sense to me in Chinese, especially when compared to my studies in Japanese. I can learn one element and see the relationships of how they fit in together with other elements of the language. I learned pinyin at the start for pronunciation, but I didn’t rely on it heavily. I learned to use pinyin as a method of input as opposed to a replacement for characters.

When I began my studies, I first used Yoyo Chinese’s online courses, something I still use today. However, I learned many characters by chatting online using Line and WeChat to text with Chinese speaking friends. When in Taiwan, I would enter characters frequently seen into Pleco and add them as a flashcard. I focused on the characters that I saw in my environment and those that kept reoccurring in normal conversation. Even if it was a super complicated character, if it was used frequently I just learned it. I used some other flashcard apps to learn more characters, but unless I frequently saw the character while chatting or in everyday life, things didn’t really stick so well.

At this point, I thought I was making a lot of progress, but when I opened native level content that I thought was quite basic, I found I was having a very difficult time comprehending and I didn’t understand why. I remember trying to read information posted on a bus stop in Taiwan but I was just not able to understand what it was trying to say. The first time I tried to open a Chinese website was a real eye opener for me. I was trying to understand why I couldn’t read these things even if I knew all of the characters!

As I was trying to figure this out, I sat down and Googled “how to read Chinese better” which directed me to an article on Hacking Chinese. I kept reading and found an article about extensive reading in Chinese that mentioned Mandarin Companion and I thought I’d give it a try.

I first read the H.G Wells story “Country of the Blind”. I had heard of it before and it looked like an interesting book but I had never before read the story. To be honest, it was a real challenge. I was completely blown away. I knew every individual character but seeing it used in context to communicate thought, that was a real tough and humbling experience. Studying single characters from flash cards is no way to learn a language.

At the beginning, I. read. each. word. like. this. It was tough. It took me forever to read the first book. And when I was reading, I was asking myself “why am I not understanding this? Why am I not parsing this?” But I kept reading and things got smoother, faster, and I needed the dictionary less often. I just kept plugging away at it.

By the end of the first book, I felt like the world of Chinese language had opened up for me combined with a childlike the wonderment of learning language for the first time. It was so rewarding because not only was the story fun to read, it taught me that it was worth the struggle to learn. I don’t remember the last time I had read a picture book, but reading a book with illustrations brought back the nostalgic feeling of being a kid again in a really good way. I’ve now read all of the books except for the “Monkeys Paw” because I can’t read anything scary!

Too scary!

Great Expectations” is my favorite book in English and I was very curious to see how the Mandarin Companion version was adapted into Chinese context. However, reading a level 2 book was a different challenge than reading level 1, but being able to read a book at that level created something of an epiphany for me. As I was reading Great Expectations, I thought to myself “Man, I’m really reading this! This is something I can do!” Considering from where I started, I felt such a sense of accomplishment and confidence! It was that moment when I was truly able to say to myself this was worth it!

It’s hard to notice your daily improvements but looking back over the last few months, I can say, yeah, for sure I’ve improved. My learning was layered and step-by-step, but I can now fluently read the level 2 books. There is still a challenge but it’s no longer a tough slog like at the beginning. Side note, I like to read out loud. Even if there are people around me, I don’t care, I just read out loud!

An important benefit of reading in Chinese is seeing words and grammar in context. I was able to see how they are used in different ways and how flexible they can be. It isn’t about learning one word structure and applying that to everything. There are nuances to how words and grammar can and can’t be used and reading teaches that in a way that studying can’t. You’re not thinking about it all the time you are reading, but your brain is picking it up and processing it.

More than any other language in the world, I think Chinese is a literary language. Learning to read characters has helped me to understand how essential the written word is to understanding Chinese culture and history. I think anyone can say that about any language, but it is particularly so for Chinese because of its unique writing system. It made me realize the depth to which the average Chinese person must respect their language in order to become just a normal basic literate person.

I think of learning our ABC’s to how a small mammal will gestate and give birth to offspring within a month and then they are pre-programmed with everything they need to survive. Chinese is more like an elephant that gestates for nearly two years and then requires focused care and nurture. It’s an entirely different beast.

The true reward of reading Chinese is access to thousands of years of thought ingrained into the written language. As a graphic designer, I am grateful how the series of stories has helped me to appreciate the beauty of Chinese characters. We have our ABC’s in English, but to see the art in Chinese and for that art to have meaning is something special to me. That is only something you can get when you read in Chinese. I feel like my world is opened up to a culture in a way that I couldn’t if I was just learning oral Chinese.

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