How I Learned Chinese (part 1)

06 May 2007

Over the years I’ve gotten quite a few questions about this, so I thought I’d write a series of entries that explain everything. I’d like to stress from the beginning that the method I used is not going to work for everybody. It’s not “the right method.” It’s simply the method I used. This post will focus on my formal education in the States.

I decided to start learning Chinese while I was an exchange student in Japan. When I went to Japan I was still a microbiology major. I had to write an essay about why I wanted to go to Japan in order to get into the program, and among my reasons I listed all the advances the Japanese were making in biotechnology, which led to my belief that knowing Japanese would help me as a scientist. It was while I was in Japan that I decided I would abandon microbiology altogether to go the linguistics route. At that point I made a lot of practical decisions which would set the course that I’m still on now.

I don’t remember what all the stimuli were for the decisions I made that night, but I recall vividly the intense excitement for my new course of action. That high made me surer than I’d ever been about what career path I wanted to take. Some of the things I decided that night were:

1. I would change my major from microbiology to Japanese.
2. I would minor in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.
4. I would also minor in Latin American Studies.
3. I would take Chinese classes on the side.
5. I would go to China after I graduated to learn Chinese and teach English.

My choices were all very pragmatic. I didn’t major in linguistics because after I got back from Japan I wouldn’t have time to earn all the credits I needed to graduate in four years. I wanted to graduate in four years because my scholarships paid for everything but they only lasted four years. I was also eager to get to China after graduation.

I minored in TESOL so that I would know what I was doing as a teacher in China. I started working as an “interaction leader” at the English Language Institute at the University of Florida, and I loved it. I loved all the intercultural exchange, I loved being a part of other people’s learning processes, and I loved the linguistics of it all.

I minored in Latin American Studies because (1) I didn’t want to lose the four years of Spanish I had in high school, (2) I wanted to continue taking Spanish courses, and this made them count towards something, and (3) I wanted to study in Mexico, and this minor justified that expense.

Anyway, my third year at UF I started studying Chinese formally from scratch. I was 20 years old. I started with traditional characters, but after the first semester decided they were a pain in the ass and a totally unnecessary one since I was planning on going to the PRC after graduation.

I remember clearly how hard I struggled with tones my first semester. We were supposed to go to the language lab and work on the tones, but I never did. I was struggling, but it was clear that I wasn’t the worst off in the class, so I didn’t put in the extra effort. I was of the opinion that it would get easier with time, so I didn’t sweat it too much. I could still make A’s in the class with mediocre tones.

The first semester our instructor gave us a series of “tone quizzes” to force us to work on the tones. She did this by reciting a number of Chinese poems and making us put the tone marks on the syllables. We had no idea what the poems meant; they were just sounds to us at that point. I tried really hard at learning to identify the tones but ultimately sucked at it. I passed the quizzes with flying colors by identifying tonal patterns in the poetry and memorizing a few “marker” syllables to identify which patterns went with which poems.

My first year of Chinese study at UF was pretty unremarkable. We had the typical character-writing homework and classroom exercises. Now that I think about it, my teacher tried hard to get us doing communicative exercises in class. We often did pair work, or exercises where each student only had one piece of information and had to find the other student with the other piece of information by using Chinese. These kinds of exercises became increasingly difficult to pull off in the classroom with each semester, however, as the Chinese class attrition rate is about 50% from semester to semester.

The second year of Chinese class we started using Integrated Chinese. I rather liked it as a textbook. I found the vocabulary useful and the grammar explanations effective. This is the book I really focused on before going to China. I didn’t have time to take Chinese class my last semester, but I was able to keep studying Integrated Chinese. [Note: I think there are now better materials for studying Chinese available, but I didn’t have those at the time.]

I think I got a pretty good theoretical foundation in three semesters of Chinese at UF. My grammar and character knowledge (both simplified and traditional) were pretty solid. What was not solid was my pronunciation. I knew I didn’t have control over my tones, and that my pronunciation of pinyin q, x, j and r were not correct (more on this). I learned enough to pass my classes with A’s, but that didn’t include accurate pronunciation.

The important thing was that I knew before I went to China what my weaknesses were. I didn’t realize how profoundly those weaknesses would impact my attempts at communication. But more on that in the next post in this series.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. John, thanks loads for sharing this. As someone just heading into Chinese study, you might guess how valuable it is to read what others have done and how they did it. Cheers man.

  2. Lorean Says: May 6, 2007 at 1:14 pm

    John, very interesting to read. That night, not only having everything so thoroughly planned out, but also following through with it! You come across as very focused in achieving your goals.

    I am definitely looking forward to part II!

  3. Very interesting post — I might steal the idea, since it’s been a while since I updated my blog. It’s interesting — most of the people I know who studied Chinese ended up coming up with schemes for avoiding the tones at first, and then modified the schemes until ultimately they became more complex than actually learning the damn tones would’ve been. I don’t know anybody who learned them properly the first time around — I had to go back and retrain myself about four years into my Chinese study, which really sucked. Perhaps this is related to the fact that I don’t know anyone who actually put in any language lab time.

  4. When I started learning I put all my effort into tones because I figured that would be the hardest thing for me. So from the very beginning my pronunciation of individual syllables has been good but it has taken me a very long time to actually string those syllables together into coherent sentences.

    Also, I used Integrated Chinese in college and didn’t like it very much. For some reason its beginner books just never made me feel like I was really learning the fundamentals of the language.

    John, I also think this is a really good idea for a series of posts, and Brendan, I think you should definitely steal the idea.

  5. Cool post!
    i don’t know they would use “tone quizzes” to exercise the feeling for the language.
    hmm, still puzzled, why you made the decision to learn Chinese when you were in Japan? is it the question i asked you last time, about the Kanji book?

  6. Fascinating. I had no idea that you had once planned on becoming a scientist. It seems that a lot of people who are really driven get started like this- by abandoning a pursuit they’re working hard at for one they find they love more.

  7. TONED OUT – I think it was physically impossible for me to hear/distinguish/utter a second tone versus fourth tone when I first started studying. My teacher and I would repeat back and forth literally 20 times. On try 21 I would again make the wrong tone.

    I think it’s a natural process, the change does happen & the ability does come, but it’s different for everyone when that happens. Just like it is with when exactly a kid might begin talking.

    The ‘academics’ really put a damper on the learning of Chinese IMO. After that first university class, I started to look for other ways.

  8. wow your article and these comments are all very inspiring! I admire the hardworking spirit of you guys.. I ‘ve just started learning Spanish, a language much more easier compared to Chinese. However I still suck at it and are not willing to recite all those verb variations. After reading ur blog I think it’s time for me to pack up all my courage and energy for some really hard work to catch up with guys in my class!
    I’ve added ur blog into my links~ I will often come visit~ Looking forward to more excellent articles from you!

  9. Froufrou Says: May 7, 2007 at 3:49 am

    i’m in my first year at university, and i started studying chinese (i actually live in France); the way you were taught sounds a bit weird to me because my crazy teacher comes down on us like a ton of bricks when we don’t pronounce stuff properly, and chinese lab is a class we all go to (although not these days since we’re seven days away from the end of the semester). Different countries, different ways^_^. I really like your blog, btw

  10. John,

    I always find your personal stories to be most fascinating and motivational. Your Tone Drill practice audio has helped me immensely, and I continue to use it, now, months later as a warm up exercise, and as an excuse, actually, to practice speaking Mandarin out loud when I have nothing to say and nobody to say it to. I’m also still working with your article on pronunciation, which is the best description of what my mouth is supposed to be doing that I’ve ever come across. If it weren’t for these resources, I may have given up by now due to the frustration I experience when I’m not understood (or worse, when I’m misunderstood).

    I hope you use your deep understanding of pronunciation difficulties to do more work in this area in the future.

    Since you mentioned “Integrated Chinese” and said “there are now better materials for studying Chinese available” I’m wondering if you would mind sharing what those materials are? I know that ChinesePod is at the top of that list, but is there anything else between ChinesePod and Integrated Chinese?

    Keep up the good work!

    Regards,

    Delta

  11. Chuck in NY Says: May 7, 2007 at 6:58 am

    Hi John, I was just wondering which book you used to start out since you say in your review of Integrated Chinese that you started with a different book? I am just finishing Colloquial Chinese by PC T’ung and have really enjoyed it (even though the very communist milieu where some of the dialogues seem to be taking place are a bit out of date).

    Also, as far as traditional characters go, are you still able to read traditional characters as well as you can read simplified characters? When you entered very advanced chinese in china it must have been a bit of a pain in the ass to check the traditional character for every new one you learned…

  12. Xuexiansheng Says: May 7, 2007 at 7:10 am

    Thanks John, look forward to the rest of these posts!

  13. dustin Says: May 7, 2007 at 8:04 am

    yeah I’m surprised too that you decided to go to China while in Japan. Any insight you have into learning Chinese as someone who’s studied Japanese would be cool too, thanks!

  14. canrun Says: May 7, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    [Note: I think there are now better materials for studying Chinese available, but I didn’t have those at the time.]

    In your opinion what would some of those currently available be?
    This is for John or ANYONE, really…

  15. Nice post, John. It got me thinking that if a College student were to want an ‘ideal’ path to doing Chinese while staying in the University, he’d best:

    1. Take year 1 at his own college
    2. Take year 2 at the Middlebury College LS program
    3. Take year 3 at his University (most end there)
    4. Take year 4 at an in-china summer program, i.e. ACC, ICLP, or Princeotn in Beijing
    5. Do year 5 at the term abroad with your university. (they should be able to see you into a L5 class when there)

    At this point you’ll be fluent but not near-native fluent. Any other Chinese you want to work on should be done in programs that’ll let you study for a full term or two. ICLP is supposed to be the best for very high level because the environment is more free and the program better established. It’s supposed to take 12+ full months of study in intensive programs to get to real near-native proficiency, but once you get to that point, 20 years of doing normal work in China is supposed to make you native-like.

  16. Hi John, was 艾老师 teaching when you were at UF?

    I just finished up my fourth semester of Chinese at UF and pronunciation practice doesn’t seem to be a big deal for our program. I think we just don’t have enough teachers. With 20+ students per class and people on waiting lists there isn’t enough time to critique everyone’s tones.

    I think they’ve stopped the tone exams in first year, and in second year we record speaking samples and get graded. However, no real feedback, just a number.

    Hopefully my language partner and chinesepod.com will help me prepare over the summer for spending the fall in China.

  17. Vitaly Says: May 8, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    I minored in Latin American Studies because (1) I didn’t want to lose the four years of Spanish I had in high school.

    Well, what about all those years of microbiology? Or did you get complete aversion towards it?

  18. Thanks for such a great post, John. I find this very interesting and hope you will continue to give us Part 2,3,4,5,6,7 and so on.

  19. Awesome. Keep it coming!

  20. John, thanks for the post and for the awesome site (the tone pair drills esp. have been exceptionally helpful). What was the deciding factor that made you abandon microbio? Just the love for languages in general? Or a specific experience?

    I’m a bioengineering major minoring in Spanish and Chinese, so it’s very encouraging hearing about someone who’s been in a similar situation. What’s the Spanish-Chinese interaction like for you? Have you found that you’re losing the Spanish over time? (I’m currently studying Chinese while abroad in Santiago, Chile, so my head has been spinning with learning piyin in castellano!)

  21. Looks like Mandrian is more popular in the States than Canada. I even cannot find a language exchange partner here. Canadians are more of interest in complaining how crappy the Chinese product is and how their government should be tough on human rights issues with China.

  22. I’m a student at San Francisco State and have decided to follow a similar path to yours. I agree about Integrated Chinese. It is WAY better than the Colloquial Chinese we currently use at State, which was writtin in Britain in, like, 1981. PS, Tones are FOR SURE the hardest part of learning Chinese!

  23. Henning Says: May 13, 2007 at 3:01 am

    Thanks, John.

    Two points struck me: Your acquisition of a) a solid character and b) grammar knowledge.

    ad a) I guess you learned writing characters. How important would you rate that now? I focused heavily on reading them, but actively writing remains a core weakness of mine. Should I attack that?

    My view on the characters: I became convinced now that characters are the cornerstone to reach an Intermediate level.

    ad 2) Grammar is another weakness. Actually I only learned from examples (mainly wife and CPod) and got the impression that Chinese is a collection of exceptions . (;
    I wonder how far Grammar can actually carry you (still waiting for that CPod-Duke-Nukem-Forever-Grammar-Guide).

    Do you still conciously apply Grammar rules when writing?

  24. kastner,

    hmm, still puzzled, why you made the decision to learn Chinese when you were in Japan? is it the question i asked you last time, about the Kanji book?

    I was interested in Chinese partly because of Chinese characters, partly because there are so many Mandarin speakers in the world, partly because I wanted to try a tonal language, and partly for the challenge (I originally chose Japanese over Chinese as my foreign language in college simply because I was afraid the tones would be too difficult.)

  25. Delta,

    Thanks for the feedback on the Tone Pairs Drill. I was actually rather disappointed at the lack of response, considering the amount of work that I put into it.

    I am putting my understanding of pronunciation difficulties for work for me on my masters thesis.

    As for other textbooks, I’m afraid I don’t know any off the top of my head. You might want to check out this comments thread though.

  26. Chuck in NY,

    I wish I could tell you what my very first Chinese textbook was, but I’m just not sure. I no longer have it. I think it was published by Yale. It was a blue reader and a red character book, I believe. The characters in it were handwritten.

    I have been able to keep up my literacy in traditional characters pretty well without much effort. You still see traditional characters in mainland China in karaoke lyrics, DVD subtitles, and other places… Context helps a lot too.

  27. dustin,

    Any insight you have into learning Chinese as someone who’s studied Japanese would be cool too, thanks!

    Yes, I’ve been meaning to write about this. Don’t worry, I will get around to it eventually. Thanks for your patience!

  28. scoff.

    Hi John, was 艾老师 teaching when you were at UF?

    Yes, she was my Chinese teacher for all three semesters I studied there. I think she was a good teacher; my less than glowing description of UF’s Chinese program is more a reflection of the overall program than my teacher.

  29. Vitaly,

    Well, what about all those years of microbiology? Or did you get complete aversion towards it?

    No, I never lost my interest in biology or biotechnology. I just rejected it as a career path. I’m really glad I did.

  30. Chris,

    John, thanks for the post and for the awesome site (the tone pair drills esp. have been exceptionally helpful).

    I’m really glad to hear that! Thanks for letting me know.

    What was the deciding factor that made you abandon microbio? Just the love for languages in general? Or a specific experience?

    There actually was a decisive negative experience involved. The summer after my freshman year I did an internship with my genetics professor. He was doing a recombinant DNA experiment involving pigeons. It was exactly the kind of thing I was excited about.

    What I discovered is that regardless of how fascinating the science behind it all is, actual lab work was every bit as bad as office work in terms of pure drudgery. It was all pipettes and test tubes. I decided I just wasn’t that type of person after all. After that summer I went to Japan, and my future was set.

    What’s the Spanish-Chinese interaction like for you? Have you found that you’re losing the Spanish over time?

    My spoken Spanish has degenerated a lot, but I can still read it pretty easily. My listening comprehension has suffered, but not horribly so. I haven’t really used Spanish at all in 7 years. Fortunately, working with the SpanishSense people at work, I actually have some exposure to Spanish again now.

  31. Sorry about the late replies to the comments, everyone! I had a pretty rough week. I appreciate all the interest, though, and I’ll be better about replying to the comments on the next post in this series.

  32. Dubbsie Says: May 15, 2007 at 7:20 am

    Well, i can associate with most of what you found John.

    I am from Australia though so your university is out of the question, however after looking around (and my own study) I have found that especially here, there are a lot of tertiary institutions that are focusing on Asian Studies.
    I dumped a degree in Applied Science and have eventually come over to Linguistics and Mandarin as my new majors.

    great blog entry John

  33. Henning,

    ad a) I guess you learned writing characters. How important would you rate that now? I focused heavily on reading them, but actively writing remains a core weakness of mine. Should I attack that?

    It all depends on your goals. If you want to go to grad school in China, you have to be able to hand write an essay to get in. Once you’re in, though, you won’t need to write characters much except for notes in class, and you’ll be the one reading those.

    Do you still conciously apply Grammar rules when writing?

    Not really. I may still make the occasional grammar mistake, but I don’t need to focus on grammar like I once did (unless I’m reading 古文 or something, which is rare). Now it’s all about word choice — what’s awkward and what’s natural.

  34. My I have some idea of learning English? Can you tell me something about the difference between Chinese and English?
    an english-learner

  35. Hi.

    I am from Colombia, South America.

    I was preselected to study in China with at scholarships, right now i am waiting for the Chinese goverment decition

    The scholarships is a 1 year of Chinese, and a Master Degree wich I choose ‘Computer Information System’.

    I am really worry about, learning Chinese in 1 year, and the go to the master degree, i dont know if it is
    enough time.

    I am study some characters, which the thing that worry my most.

    How difficult is to find job in shanghai for a foreingen computer guy.

  36. […] When I first started studying Chinese, I DID look up every word in the material I was studying. After three semesters of Chinese, I came to China with my Oxford English C-E / E-C dictionary, and I literally took it with me EVERYWHERE. I really did look everything up. […]

  37. Wow! Thanks so much. I can’t wait to read the rest. You are the first person that I have ever seen actually take the time to try and help beginners. All of the other web sites I have seen are pathetic and only trying to make a buck. You are awesome for doing this!

  38. Greg Olsen Says: January 17, 2010 at 8:26 am

    Hi John, fyi there is a website “chineseonline.cc” that stole the story you wrote here and has published it as an account of one of their customers. I guess that kind of thing happens frequently. Anyway, I figured I would mention it as I am a big fan/user of sinosplice and chinesepod.

    Greg

  39. Congratulations! This page is the #1 hit on google for both ‘i learned chinese’ and ‘how i learned chinese’!

    John, I enjoyed reading about how you learned Chinese. Your written Chinese must be quite impressive if you wrote your master’s thesis in it. I wanted to ask you, have you ever read any really old texts in Chinese, say from before the 14th century? If so, how difficult is it? I mean, has the writing evolved enough since then so as to make those texts incomprehensible to modern Chinese?

    I’ve become literate in Spanish in the several years I’ve been studying it, so I know the massive commitment it takes to achieve literacy in a totally new language. And Chinese is an entirely different ball game, in every way. So… I guess my question for you is… I’m not sure what my question is after all but a related question is could you recommend any good history of written Chinese to me?

    Well thanks, and I admire your work and the way you’ve chosen to live your life.

    -August

  40. […] learning Chinese. The blog has a huge archive so that I suggest you to start with the entry “How I learned Chinese“. If we could develop (yeah, “we” because I’m still fighting myself with […]

  41. […] I began my study of Chinese in the States, then moved to China and started practicing on my own pretty hardcore, […]

  42. […] the way back in 2007 on how I learned Chinese. I began with how I studied before I came to China (part 1), and then continued with what I did after I got over here (part 2). That got me to a low level of […]

  43. […] I’ve already explained how I arrived in China with a decent foundation in grammar and characters, but some problems with […]

  44. Great blog. For some reason, I find it hard to imaging that John ever had trouble learning Chinese…

  45. […] blog posee una gran cantidad de contenidos de modo que sugiero empezar con este enlace “How I learned Chinese“. Si pudiéramos desarrollar (sí, “nosotros” porque todavía estoy luchando con […]

  46. John, I just found your blog. I’m an IELTS and ESL teacher in Singapore. Most of my students are from China. Oh, I also speak Spanish – that is my second/third language. Mandarin is probably my second language. I grew up learning a bit so I have the basics but Spanish is my passion and I studied it in University and learned it the cognitive route.

    Anyway, since you have some experience in teaching English (TESOL), I’m wondering if you have any good recommendations for good Chinese grammar books for very low level Chinese speakers. I have a lot of those students and my Chinese is not good enough to explain the grammar to Chinese students. So I want to recommend a good basic grammar book to them – written in Chinese, but better still if there is also English translation.

    Do you have any recommendations? Thanks.

  47. […] Part 1 (2007): How I got started in Chinese in college […]

  48. […] blog ha accumulato una quantità di post impressionante, ti suggerisco d’iniziare da “How I learned Chinese“. Se riuscissimo ad avere – si, mi ci metto anch’io – anche una sola parte […]

  49. […] like all languages, Mandarin is nothing more than a means of communication. And as such it can be learned. And in 2015, those who speak Chinese possess a superior weapon for the battlefield called […]

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