The unexpected difficulties of learning Chinese

I have spent the last 1 year and 8 months diligently learning Chinese, for about 2-3 hours day. The script – reading and writing – I find relatively easy. And I can speak bad Chinese all day if you ask me. In fact, I try to do so each day, thinking of everything in Chinese from dawn to dusk. However, it is the listening and understanding (tingdong) that is the most difficult for me. Others seem to have a knack of hearing, remembering and understanding. But they have a devilishly difficult time with the script. Not me, for it is the other way around.

Let me give you an example: Jiù zhè jĭ jiàn le. The catch is that ‘zh’ sounds an awful lot like ‘j’. The difference is the position of the tongue in the mouth. Said quickly, that is, at normal speed in China, it sounds like a series of j’s. To add to the difficulty, the number of sounds in Chinese has a distinct limit, but there are many more characters than available sounds, so many characters have exactly the same sound. These include shi, ji and so on. To be sure, there are the tones (four of them), but even so there are plenty of characters with the same sound and same tone. So you really need to know the topic of the other person’s utterance to make sense of what they are saying.

Perhaps it is my partial hearing loss, perhaps it is the fact that I often switch off even in languages I understand, perhaps it is because most of the languages I have studied were text-based rather than spoken (that is, ancient languages – which means that scripts continue to fascinate and draw me in), but hearing and understanding is my great challenge for Chinese. While in China, I have a personal tutor to work me through the tingdong process.

Practice, practice, practice. So take pity on the many random people with whom I strike conversations on a daily basis. No wonder they often give me that ‘what-in-the-hell-is-he-saying’ look. More and more, however, they register what I am trying to say and I actually get a whole sentence or three.


2 thoughts on “The unexpected difficulties of learning Chinese

  1. I had enough difficulties with managing passable French, and gave up on Russian after a short time. I think that Chinese might well be a life’s work, Roland. I am sure that you get great respect for at least trying.
    When I visited Beijing, I managed ‘hello’, ‘thanks’, and something that sounded like ‘jella-ting.’ (At least how I said it) This instructed taxi drivers where to stop, apparently, and it did work. (Most of the time.)
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. I certainly have a long way to go, and occasionally I feel like giving up when I am up against another wall. But I am determined to keep at it. The main aim is to read Chinese scholarship. My first step in that direction is to read one of the famous short essays by Li Dazhao over the next couple of days.

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