‘Ting bu dong’
Why most people fail to master Chinese
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.
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.
“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.
Almost 1.4 billion people around the world speak Chinese while more and more want to learn it.
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.
Jin Yueran Li Jing Qi Hongyan Xia Jing Zhao Sijia