‘Ting bu dong’

Why most peo­ple fail to mas­ter Chi­nese

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - FRONT PAGE - By Ka­trin Büchen­bacher

Stan­dard Chi­nese (Pu­tonghua) is among the most chal­leng­ing, yet in­creas­ingly im­por­tant lan­guages to learn. Re­gard­less of its dif­fi­cul­ties, the num­ber of peo­ple who wish to mas­ter the most spo­ken lan­guage in the world in­creases daily, many drawn by the in­creas­ing eco­nomic sig­nif­i­cance of China.

Ap­prox­i­mately 50 mil­lion peo­ple world­wide are in­ter­ested in learn­ing Chi­nese or are al­ready learn­ing it, Zheng Wei, an edi­tor at Bei­jing Lan­guage Univer­sity’s pub­lish­ing house, told the Tele­graph in a 2011 re­port. To meet the in­creas­ing de­mand, the Chi­nese govern­ment has founded over 500 Con­fu­cius In­sti­tutes in 142 coun­tries and re­gions across the globe, a 2017 Xin­hua News Agency re­port said. Those who achieve flu­ency in Chi­nese are ad­mired both by Chi­nese and non-Chi­nese speak­ers, which sug­gests that the num­bers might still be rather small. Peo­ple who choose to live in China have an ex­tra mo­ti­va­tion to learn the lan­guage to get around and make lo­cal friends. Also, be­ing im­mersed in a Chi­nese lan­guage en­vi­ron­ment gives learn­ers an ad­di­tional ad­van­tage over their coun­ter­parts who study Chi­nese in a non-Chi­nese speak­ing coun­try. None­the­less, those who com­mit to learn­ing Chi­nese and at­tain flu­ency are still quite rare, not to men­tion those who don’t even try and “ting bu dong” (don’t un­der­stand) their way around town. Nowa­days, China’s in­creas­ingly cos­mopoli­tan cities are such that non- na­tives do not need Chi­nese lan­guage skills to sur­vive any­more, and a wide ar­ray of English-lan­guage ser­vices specif­i­cally catered to ex­pat needs make it pos­si­ble. An­other pos­si­ble rea­son few peo­ple mas­ter the lan­guage is that Chi­nese re­quires many years of study and few for­eign­ers stay in China long enough to re­ally en­joy the fruit of their la­bor be­fore re­turn­ing home.

To find out why most peo­ple fail to learn Chi­nese and what the secret to mas­ter­ing the lan­guage is, Met­ro­pol­i­tan talked to some of the best Chi­nese teach­ers in town to get their tips on how to suc­ceed in learn­ing the lan­guage spo­ken by al­most 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple, count­ing all the di­alects.

Lower your ex­pec­ta­tions

Qi Hongyan has been a Chi­nese teacher for over 10 years. She teaches at Cul­ture Yard, a Chi­nese lan­guage school in a tra­di­tional Bei­jing

hu­tong court­yard near Beix­in­qiao. A lot of her stu­dents come from Europe or the US.

“A lot of them think that learn­ing Chi­nese is sim­i­lar to learn­ing a Ro­man lan­guage, such as Span­ish. So, they ex­pect to be able to con­verse in a few months. The truth is, it is very rare that some­one can speak Chi­nese flu­ently af­ter half a year,” Qi said.

Com­par­ing the time it takes to learn Chi­nese ver­sus that of other lan­guages can also lead to frus­tra­tion. There­fore, Qi ad­vises stu­dents to lower their ex­pec­ta­tions.

Chi­nese char­ac­ters, the of­fi­cial spell­ing sys­tem, pinyin, and the four tones used to pro­nounce them are all sys­tems of the lan­guage and have to be learned sep­a­rately.

Li Jing, who teaches at Global Vil­lage, a lan­guage school with cam­puses in Wu­daokou and Wangjing, Bei­jing, teaches

ad­vanced Chi­nese to stu­dents pre­dom­i­nantly from Asian coun­tries. She has been a teacher for more than 20 years.

“At times I do feel sorry for my stu­dents be­cause they are learn­ing such a com­pli­cated lan­guage. Sometimes, the same char­ac­ter can have dif­fer­ent pro­nun­ci­a­tions and var­i­ous mean­ings,” she said, ex­plain­ing that Chi­nese char­ac­ters are ideograms that have to be mem­o­rized by heart, a task many West­ern stu­dents would find stren­u­ous.

On the flip­side, when stu­dents are aware of the dif­fi­cul­ties, it can help them to put less pres­sure on them­selves to see re­sults early on af­ter start­ing to learn the lan­guage.

Be con­sis­tent

Xia Jing, a long­time teacher at Cul­ture Yard, ad­vises stu­dents to stick to the Chi­nese way of study­ing. “Ob­vi­ously, one has to put in a lot of ef­fort,” she said.

For Xia ded­i­cat­ing as lit­tle as 20 min­utes a day to lan­guage study is the type of com­mit­ment that will even­tu­ally pay off.

How­ever, self-study re­quires a lot of dis­ci­pline and can be even harder for those who lack a solid foun­da­tion in Chi­nese. There­fore, Zhao Si­jia, an ex­pe­ri­enced teacher at Global Vil­lage, rec­om­mends that ev­ery­one take classes at a rec­og­nized Chi­nese school as stu­dents from dif­fer­ent coun­tries are likely to have unique chal­lenges with Chi­nese gram­mar and pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

“The teach­ers there [at rec­og­nized lan­guage schools] have the ex­pe­ri­ence to grasp each stu­dent’s spe­cific needs,” she said.

Go lo­cal

“Many peo­ple come to China, but they spend all their time at work, where they rarely speak Chi­nese. In their free time, they hang out with for­eign­ers, so they do not have many oc­ca­sions to prac­tice their oral Chi­nese,” Jing said.

By con­trast, peo­ple who spend a lot of time with their Chi­nese friends will pick up col­lo­quial Chi­nese while con­sciously ap­ply­ing the new terms they learned in class.

“They will also learn more and faster in class,” ex­plained Jin Yueran, a newly re­cruited teacher at Cul­ture Yard.

Fuel your in­ter­est

Lis­ten­ing to lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions, watch­ing Chi­nese movies or TV shows and read­ing books are all ways that can help make Chi­nese lan­guage study more fun and re­lat­able, Jin thinks.

“Ac­tu­ally, if you have a lit­tle in­ter­est and push your­self a lit­tle from time to time, you’ll find that learn­ing Chi­nese is not as dif­fi­cult as you used to think. On the con­trary, Chi­nese may be a very interesting thing to learn,” she said.

Qi agrees. She said the mo­ti­va­tion to study Chi­nese should come from a place of in­ter­est and joy.

“If you like China, like Bei­jing or are in­ter­ested in Chi­nese cul­ture, I am con­vinced that Chi­nese is a lan­guage that is not hard to learn,” she said.

Photo: VCG

Al­most 1.4 bil­lion peo­ple around the world speak Chi­nese while more and more want to learn it.

Photo: VCG

The rea­sons Chi­nese flu­ency is hard to achieve may be a com­bi­na­tion of too high ex­pec­ta­tions, a lack of con­sis­tency and not enough con­tact with na­tive speak­ers, ex­pe­ri­enced Chi­nese teach­ers say.

Photos: Ka­trin Büchen­bacher/GT

Jin Yueran Li Jing Qi Hongyan Xia Jing Zhao Si­jia

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