When something is almost impossible to understand, the French use the phrase, “C’est du Chinois pour moi” (It’s all Chinese to me). Many other countries have their own versions of this saying. And when the untrained eye sees a passage of Chinese characters, or the unpractised ear hears a string of unfamiliar sing-song syllables, it is not hard to see why, for many Westerners, Chinese appears to be a tough linguistic nut to crack. With its complex characters, tricky tones and mouth-stretching sounds, Mandarin can be as baffling as it is beautiful. But, if you are an English- (or other mainstream European language-) speaker, just how different is it to learn Mandarin than to learn a second European language? And how different is it to teach?
First things first
“When you set out to learn Mandarin, you have some decisions to make that you wouldn’t encounter if you were learning a second European language,” says languages teacher Rhian Harley. “The first thing to think about is whether you want to just speak Mandarin, or if you want to read and write Chinese characters as well.” If a Spanish speaker wanted to learn Italian, or an English speaker wanted to learn German, they could sign up for a course and get speaking, reading and writing immediately – the alphabet is the same, and many of the words share common roots. If the same learner decided to study Mandarin, they would have to consider the character issue before they could get started. Alongside characters, Pinyin is used – a standardised version of Chinese words written in the Roman alphabet, complete with tone marks to tell the reader how the word should be spoken – so those not learning characters have a visual reference.
For children studying Mandarin at school, learning characters is important – not only is it essential for progression, but it brings an added cultural dimension. But there are no shortcuts – you have to learn to recognise as many characters as you can. Rhian explains, “With most European languages, if you heard an unfamiliar word, you could have a guess at the spelling. But if you hear a new word in Mandarin, you have no idea what the character looks like [and] so could not write it.” Similarly, if you read a character you don’t know, you can be stumped to its meaning, and how to pronounce it. Building up a good knowledge of radicals (common components shared by many Chinese characters) can help give an idea of what the character might be related to – for example, the radical for water is used in more than 153 characters including river, ocean, ferry, injection, wave, steam and tears – but this alone will not provide a precise translation. With less room for an educated guess, the learning curve for a beginner can appear much steeper for Westerners learning Mandarin than other European languages, as they have to learn to decode every character they come across.
“The stories behind the undeniably beautiful Mandarin characters can provide a fascinating insight into traditional Chinese culture.”
Mandarin teacher Terry Tang recognises that special techniques are needed to teach characters to Western students. She explains, “Learning characters is difficult as there are just so many to remember. With Japanese or Korean, you can read and write after learning the basic phonics, but you can’t do that with Mandarin. So getting students to memorise characters is a really big task. I spend a lot of time on radicals. This can be a big help later on. For example, if students know the ‘girl’ radical, it will help them to recognise the character for ‘mum’, ‘sister’ or ‘aunt’. When I was a child, we were asked to write new words many times each day, so eventually we remembered them. This approach will not work for Westerners learning Mandarin, unless they have attended a local Chinese school since they were young. The style of learning is so different. To help Western children learn, I often make up stories to help them remember the radicals and components. When I tell the story again, they will remember how to write it.”
The stories behind the undeniably beautiful Mandarin characters can provide a fascinating insight into traditional Chinese culture. Some characters are logical – for example, the character for food looks like food in a square bowl, and the character for fire looks like a sparks coming off a campfire. Many simple characters, such as the one for “person”, can often be a basis of many more complex characters. Using background stories to grab a Western student’s attention and help cement the character in the memory can make what could be a laborious task into an interesting exercise in its own right, and add another dimension to their studies that they would not encounter when learning a second European language.
Rhian agrees that to teach Mandarin characters effectively, just sitting in a class and memorising them is not ideal, and a more hands-on approach is required. “With Mandarin, your hand needs to ‘learn the characters’ too, so this needs a more kinaesthetic approach to learning and teaching,” she says. “On average, you need to see or hear a ‘word’ seven times if it is not immediately memorable, plus you have to write a character seven times (correctly!) to learn it. So the process of teaching and learning Mandarin requires a more involved, multi-sensory approach which should be easier for children than adults. Relying on ‘chalk and talk’ to teach characters will not be very effective.”
The second major difference for Westerners when learning Mandarin is getting to grips with tones. With other European languages, students may have been taught how to pronounce words, but they won’t have had to pay attention to where they pitched their voice while pronouncing them. In Mandarin (and other tonal languages such as Thai and Cantonese), tones are used to differentiate words from each other, and one word can have many meanings depending on its tone. When you have only used tones to convey the intention of the word (for example, questioning, ordering, reprimanding), to use them to give a word meaning can be a huge leap. Some studies suggest that when non-tonal-language speakers are in the early stages of learning Mandarin, their brains are not capable of processing tone properly, and some areas of the brain have to be trained by practice to do so.
Mandarin teachers have many strategies to teach tones. Terry Tang explains, “Since Westerners come from a ‘no-tone’ environment, the most important things is to make them hear the four tones and be able to tell the difference. This is very easy to say, but super-hard to achieve. What I normally do is to use their own expressions to introduce the four tones. For example, for the first tone (flat) I tell my students it should sound like when the doctor asks you to open your mouth and say ‘Ahhhh’. For the second tone (up), I say it is similar to the rising sound at the end of a question, like ‘Huh?’ The third tone (down-up) is the most confusing. I tell my students to imagine a mum asking a child to do something. After 1,000 times, the child will finally say ‘All right’ (where the ‘all’ is going down and the right is going up) – that is similar to the down-up tone. The fourth tone (going down) can also be confusing. For this, I tell students to either imagine they have just dropped something, and they let out a short ‘Ahh!’, or they are trying to scare someone with a ‘Boo!’”
“… the process of teaching and learning Mandarin requires a more involved, multi-sensory approach which should be easier for children than adults.”
Other teachers might use hand gestures and different body movements, such as raising their eyebrows and stamping their feet, to help teach and reinforce tones. In many classes, students are also encouraged to make the gestures when they speak, as it can help to speed up their learning. For Westerners, being expected to make odd-looking gestures and movements while attempting to speak in a foreign language is something they have probably never encountered in any other language class before.
“… once you have learnt the basic numbers in Mandarin, from one to ten, you have opened many doors.”
Aside from tones, to pronounce many of the syllables needed in Mandarin, Westerners have to contort their tongues in very unfamiliar positions. Rhian explains, “When you are teaching a Westerner a European language, of course you have to teach pronunciation, but they can generally pronounce a majority of the sounds. If they are learning Mandarin, they might not be able to make all those sounds straight away, so that can take a lot of practice.”
The good news
But not all aspects of Mandarin are challenging to Westerners. There are some areas that are much easier to grasp than when learning another European language. Grammar, for example, is much more straightforward in Mandarin, especially in the early stages. Sentences are formed according to simple formula – time, subject, verb, object – and there are no irregular verbs, no subject/verb agreement, no genders, no tenses (apart from the “yesterday”, “today” or “tomorrow” that indicate tense) and no plurals. Those long hours of poring over pluperfect tenses and puzzling over whether a word was masculine or feminine, which can be a headache in some European languages, are just not necessary in Mandarin, which can be a very welcome and refreshing change. Whether you are learning the language or teaching it, time spent on Mandarin grammar is much less than with a Western language.
Also, once you have learnt the basic numbers in Mandarin, from one to ten, you have opened many doors. You will be not only be able to count to 99, but also say the days of the week, and the months of the year as these are given a number, rather than a name. The slog of learning different names for different numbers, and different names for each weekday and month – as with European languages – is completely eliminated.
Common to all language learning, the keys to success are interest, practice and perseverance – plus the confidence to just dive in and speak. For Westerners learning Mandarin, it will certainly be a very different journey to that of studying another European language – the learning curves, the challenges and the teaching methods will all differ. But, as a student’s competence increases, hopefully the phrase “It’s all Chinese to me” will be supplanted with “Vive la différence.”