A Message to Mandarin

One of ChinesePod’s more active and positive users, simonpettersson, recently wrote an amusing Open letter to the Chinese language. Here’s how it starts out:

> You’re afraid, aren’t you, Mandarin? You’re starting to feel it; the cold sweat trickling down your back. You heard I kicked English’s ass already at 12, and you witnessed first hand what I did to French. French is my b*tch now. And I’m coming for you, Mandarin.

> I know you fancy yourself the biggest, meanest language in town. I know you beat the snot out of most anyone who comes to take you on. Hell, you even gave me a sound asswhooping once that caused me to give you space for quite some time. But I’m not like the others. I’m not giving up, and with every day I grow stronger. You ain’t never met anyone like me, Mandarin. And you’re starting to realize it.

The rest of it is on ChinesePod.

I loved this post, and not just because of the “I don’t care if it’s supposed to be difficult” attitude. Simon does a good job of reminding us that learning a language is not just a weekend’s endeavor, and to keep up the fight, you have to play the mental game. You have to psych yourself up. Talking a little trash does some good.

It also reminds me that I’ve got to keep working hard too if I want to someday be able to deliver the kind of merciless asswhooping that Simon describes.

Here’s to asswhoopings!

Related: Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard


John Pasden

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


  1. Is there a theme here John? First you link to the “over the top rant” — the one about foreign students of the language needing to read read read. Now the trash talk…

    Asswhoopings are needed indeed. I’ve been giving myself one a week for the last six months and it’s still not enough.

    But “Why Chinese is So Damn Hard” is needed too. I link to it every few months but hadn’t read it for myself in a long time. Just did so now. Whoa. Now I remember why the piece is so refreshing: because every once in a while you come across a language savant (or a deluded soul) who says it’s not really that hard. Dog farts! Learning some taxi talk is relatively easy, but really being able to function as a literate adult in Chinese society is, well, damn hard.

    You can’t use “hard” as an excuse — that’s the whole point of the rants, right? But at least you can use it as cold comfort when you forget, for the 48th time, the difference between 秦 and 奏.

    Anyway, thanks for the ass-kicking posts.

  2. BS,

    Heh, that thought occurred to me as well… I don’t write ’em or choose when they’re published, though! They all just appeared recently…

    Anyway, whether you think Chinese is crazy difficult or not so much, motivation is still a huge factor in whether or not you’re going to stick with it until you reach fluency of some kind.

  3. I dunno, the dudes hitting me off with this Chinese is easy talk, “Just gotta buckle down!” talk are also pretty likely to suck at the language. This isn’t just some dickwaving “I’m hardcore” thing on my part; they just suck. Yeah, you can learn enough of any language quickly enough to impress people, but straight up, it takes years to be anything but an interloper in a foreign language, no matter how many words you can read off your flashcards, or how many measure words for obscure things you know. There’s always another flight of stairs to crawl up.

    But let’s get beyond that issue, the sucking issue. That’s something I can forgive. I can forgive swagger and dickwaving. I really can. But I don’t really understand that style of language learning that reduces languages to long division, abstract things that can be mastered with a learning system– and then you move on to the next one! Let’s learn Laotian! Yeah, yeah yeah, but what are you going to do with Chinese once you learn it? (Can’t speak for this guy, ’cause he might very well have some plan to better himself or the world through the learning of Chinese).

  4. The force is strong with this one, I think.

    @Dylan – I don’t know that he’s necessarily trying to collect languages — just that he’s studied other languages before and is reasoning that hey, Chinese is just another language. Which it is. I don’t necessarily think that Chinese is easy, but it’s a damn sight easier than, say, Classical Greek, which kicked my ass and sent me home crying when I attempted it. (To this day I remain unsure what an aorist is and why anybody would want one.)

    You’re absolutely right about it taking years to be anything but an interloper in a foreign language — but then, how many people ever really get good at their own language, whether it’s Chinese or English?
    (This also puts me in mind of a post I meant to write a while ago about “culture gaps” — a term I hate — and The Big Lebowski. I have a copy of The Big Lebowski with Chinese subtitles that are really quite well-translated — even inspired in places — and are simply not funny in Chinese. For that matter, some of my family members in Ireland didn’t think the movie was very funny either.)

  5. Mandarin. Don’t get me wrong, mine is rather rough. But, I get tired, very tired of always hearing “Mandarin is the hardest language in the world” from my Chinese brothers and sisters. Like it is a special point of pride. Like they are somehow special because they can speak their mother tongue.

    I’ve been lucky enough to live for a while in Taiwan where the subways announce their stops in 4 languages. Try getting down “Tai yu” with its eight tones and weird nasal and throat noises. Sure, Mandarin is a challenge, but nothing like Taiwanese, or Cantonese, or any of the other provincial-ese that are spoken around China.

    Sure learning a foreign language is a challenge. When most Chinese speakers can properly conjugate verbs I will be willing to concede that English is not so hard. But for now, watch out 中國朋友! English still be kicking your 屁股!

  6. I just finished my first semester of Mandarin as my chosen foreign language. I was hard. I knew that going in an put a lot of time into my studies because I wanted to learn in for myself (I love Chinese culture, language, history, etc) and to prove that a nearly middle aged women can go back to college can kick ass at the hard stuff. I wanted my brain to take a beating and it made me not only a better mandarin learner but a better student overall. I plan on taking mandarin as far as I can in class and in the real world.

    Shannon (An Nishan)

  7. Getting really good at anything is hard, to the point that most people don’t ever become really good at more than a handful of things. Chinese (or English, or Spanish, or whatever) is no different. Like Brendan said, Chinese is just another language. If the asshole cashier at the 良友 down the road can speak it, there’s no way that I won’t be able to if I put in the time.

  8. I still relate my learning of Chinese back to my learning of guitar because there are many similarities when learning a highly complex and also subtle language. It wasn’t until after the first 2 years that I really felt I was accomplishing something and this seems to be the same with Chinese so far. I speak, in Chinese, for only an hour or so each day but I can hear that I am doing well.

    I like to say that, “the easy stuff is easy; the hard stuff is hard”. 🙂

  9. So, does the “trash-talking” imply that he hates studying Chinese because it is so difficult or that he loves studying Chinese because it is a challenge to overcome ?

  10. I think this comment really tugs at the essence of learning foreign languages. You just have to do it, and not be a big pussy about it (for lack of a better expression). It isn’t easy, but as John B points out, most things worthwhile are hard. It’s the people that sit back and constantly ask “How do you learn Chinese/English/Spanish/Classical Greek/Swahili/etc?” that never pick it up. You have to just grab it by the nutsack and run. Great comment Simon.

  11. Funny post, but the process is still daunting. I am a French native and I have learned and teach various languages (including Hindi and Punjabi). I think Chinese is in a world of its own when it comes to actually mastering it. I remember saying to myself when I started: “3 months and I will be fluent. I ‘know’ how to learn languages!” The fool! What keeps me going – years later – is love. I love the sounds, the tones, the grammar, the cultural content, the historical background of Mandarin. Love is not a goal-based activity. One does not need to conquer the Beloved. One simply wants to be near her/him and to gaze into her eyes. And when the beloved says to me: “Where you learn Chinese? Your Chinese pretty good!” I swoon and go into ecstasy.

  12. I can’t agree with you more, Jean. Actually I was moved by what you said about chinese learning process.
    “What keeps me going – years later – is love. I love the sounds, the tones, the grammar, the cultural content, the historical background of Mandarin. Love is not a goal-based activity.
    As a Chinese I learned English more than 10 years and by now only can say oral English is just in a communicable level. while I will keep learning it for all my life because the same reason – love and passion to the culture, history, people and everything for the language itself. AND I think that is the best thing to motivate a language learner and keep the prolonged study to pass one and another difficult satges.

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