East Asia Student

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Benny tackles Chinese

So, Benny at Fluent in 3 Months has got around to learning the language of most interest to me: Mandarin Chinese.

I’ve been following Benny’s blog for some time now, and it’s without doubt one of the best language learning sites out there. I’d put it among the likes of AJATT and Sinosplice. Do take a look if you haven’t seen it before.

Fast fluency

Benny’s main piece of propaganda is that he learns languages to an impressive level in three months or less. He uses the word fluent, but as has been discussed elsewhere, this word has vastly different meanings depending on who’s saying it.

My definition of fluent doesn’t include the level Benny gets to in three months. That’s not to say that he doesn’t make fantastically fast progress in the languages he studies, but to me “fluent” is the highest level a non-native speaker can possibly achieve.

Chinese in 3 Months?

I’ve been waiting for some time for Benny to have a go at Chinese. I’m not one of those who thinks that Chinese is outstandingly hard compared to other languages, but so far Benny’s languages haven’t been quite so far removed from English. Even Japanese and Korean, in totally different language families, have a significant quantity of loanwords from English. Chinese has very few.

My prediction is that Benny will do just as well with Chinese as he has done elsewhere. The spoken language really isn’t any harder than any other language once you’ve got your tones sorted and fixed some common errors.

I also think he’ll show that you can get pretty far with characters in a few months if you put the effort in. Characters seem impossible until you’ve learned perhaps ten of them, and then you realise that this is a writing system made by human beings for human beings. It seems pretty wacky at times, and probably isn’t as easy as phonetic scripts, but it’s a totally workable, learnable writing system.

So, I don’t think it’s totally outrageous for Benny to claim he’ll get pretty far with Chinese in a short space of time. He won’t reach my definition of fluency, but he will reach his, I think.

The importance of tones

I was pleased to see Benny’s immediate focus on tones as soon as he began recounting his first use of Mandarin. When you’re learning Mandarin, you’ve really got to be tones, tones, tones.

Apparently Benny found that shorter phrases were easier when your ability with tones is limited. This does make sense, although I often think that with longer phrases there’s more context and less ambiguity, so you can get away with bad tones a little bit more.

In any case, it’s good to recognise both the importance and difficulty of tones in Mandarin right from the start, and focus on them. Ten 月饼 to Benny for getting this right.

Already better than most expats

One thing in Benny’s post that didn’t surprise me at all is that he’s already better than the majority of expats living in China. Certain foreigners in China are a bit of a pet hate of mine, but it really is true that so many people who move here just suck at learning Chinese.

Of course a lot of people just don’t want or need to learn it, but it is amazing how much you can avoid the language of the country you live in if you put your mind to it. Anyone who’s put some effort into Chinese quickly discovers they’re in a minority here.

In one week, Benny’s already got a few characters under his belt and had a stab at speaking with locals. He’s had mixed success, but he has had some, which is more than can be said for a lot of foreigners in China. More 月饼.

Writing vs typing Chinese

One thing I didn’t totally agree with in Benny’s post is that you don’t need to learn to write Chinese, you can just type it.

…if you *vaguely *remember what the character looks like (since those in the list presented to you will usually be quite different, so a precise memory of all strokes is really not required, although I imagine there are rare examples of same pronunciation, same tone and similar characters), and remember the pronunciation and tone correctly, you can write any word you like.

Yes, typing Chinese is a lot easier than handwriting it. But there’s a lot wrong with this, I think. For one, typing Chinese phonetically is very slow compared to using stroke-based input systems. If you can handwrite then you can type blazingly fast on a computer.

Another point is that learning to write is a massive help in learning to read. You don’t forget characters you can write comfortably. Writing forces you to be aware of the small differences between characters, whereas “vaguely remembering” does not.

This doesn’t come up that often, but misread similar characters are a source of much hilarity in Chinese. Getting them muddled up also becomes more and more of a problem as you start to get into the thousands of characters.

On a lesser note, learning to write is probably the greatest pleasure of learning Chinese for me, and I think you miss out on a great deal of enjoyment by only learning to speak and type.

Focus on listening

As usual, Benny is focusing on getting a lot of listening done to rapidly acquire Chinese. I totally agree with this. Listening and reading are so important in learning languages, especially when pronunciation and grammar are different to what you’re familiar with.

As people in the comments have pointed out, Mandarin is enjoyable to learn because word-forms are fixed, so once you’ve learnt a word you can consistently hear it in speech without any problems.

Easy grammar gah gah gah

However, some commenters have got my goat a little bit by propagating the “Chinese has no grammar” or “Chinese grammar is easy” myth. Intentionally or not, Benny has stayed away from this and I hope it stays that way.

Chinese really does have a fully-complex grammar and it is important. It’s just not the same as the grammar of other languages, particularly European ones. Yes, Chinese does not have conjugation, agreement or tense, but word order and sentence structure are massively important.

It’s not trivial to be able to form sentences naturally in Chinese. It might be true that the boundaries for what is “correct” are wider, but that only makes it all the harder to sound natural. As far as I’ve seen, most foreigners that learn Chinese end up comprehensible but sound weird.

It’s like Yoda speaking English. It is sort of correct and you understanding what he’s saying, but it’s really not good English. When you’ve got problems with tones and rhythm to deal with, it seems wise to at least get the form of your sentence as understandable as possible.

I’ll be interested to see how Benny gets on with this, but it does seem to be going well so far. Good luck to him!

Contact me: mhg@eastasiastudent.net