Confessions of a TEFL Teacher: Learning Mandarin in 30 hours

As I mentioned in my previous post, learning Chinese is one of the primary motivations behind my decision to up sticks and move to China.

I’ve therefore put my head down and have been studying pretty hard since I arrived 2 months ago, which makes it all the more painful when, whilst doing my weekly shop at the supermarket, I boldly enquire ‘yigong duoshao qian?’ (altogether, how much?) to whoever has the misfortune of handling my transaction, only to be met with a blank and puzzled expression…

Though this now occurs quite infrequently, I have found that even if your pronunciation and accent is spot on (mine is certainly not, for the record), some Chinese people are so astonished at hearing their language spoken by a Laowai (foreigner) that are entirely unable to comprehend what you’ve just said.

I recently completed my first bulk lesson purchase of 30 hours (lessons cost 150rmb/hour- the going rate in Shenzhen, or so I’m told) and have decided to renew for another 30; my teacher is pretty great, and she goes to the effort of travelling to my apartment for the lesson which saves me a huge amount of time and effort.

I’ve been having, on average, three lessons a week, each one and a half hours long, and then studying independently for the rest of the week. There’s been the odd disruption, such as the week I spent in Indonesia mid-July, but for the most part I’ve been consistent.

My reading and writing remains appalling, but I’m making some progress with speaking and listening. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘good’ progress, but I think ‘some’ sums it up pretty well- this has actually been a pleasant surprise, considering how traumatized my GCSE French exams left me.

I have got some basic vocab down for a variety of situations one might themselves in whilst living in China (taxi, weather, restaurant), but I’m miles away from being able to have any semblance of a conversation with someone I’ve bumped into on the street. I have found context to be my greatest hindrance; during my lessons when I know the topic, or when ordering something in a restaurant, I can usually get by. But without prior knowledge I’m a fish out of water. It’s given me a real appreciation for anyone of non-Chinese descent who has got a grip on the language!

Despite everything I have just said, when it comes to grammar and numbers Chinese is in fact quite simple. However, due to myriad factors including its vast difference to the Romance or Germanic languages of Europe, it’s extensive character based writing system, its wide ranging dialects, it’s tonal nature, and the speed which it is spoken, it is undoubtedly one of the hardest languages in the world to learn.

I don’t write this with the intention of putting anyone off studying Chinese, far from it! If there’s one language that’s worth investing in for the future, it’s Chinese. But just bear in mind, it’ll take a lot of time and effort and don’t believe anyone who tells you different! I can’t really make a qualified statement given I have only been studying for two months, but as an example, my current housemate has been studying fairly consistently for four years and though he is able to converse well (or so it seems to me) with most people, he still considers himself to be at an intermediate level.

After completing 30 hours, I’m still getting huge enjoyment from learning the language and it remains enormously satisfying when I am able to have even the simplest exchange. Though I’m unsure of what I’ll be doing and where I’ll be a year from now (when my teaching contract is up), I’m determined to stay consistent with studying and see how far I can get.

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