Learning Mandarin Chinese, and some insight into my brain’s inner workings

I’m learning Mandarin Chinese in preparation for my trip to Taiwan in August, where I’ll be attending the Wikimania conference before spending a month or so wandering around the island.

That’s assuming my passport comes through the strike in time of course.

I’m enjoying learning a new language again after a long period of atrophy for that part of my brain. Watching myself learn is fascinating. Mandarin is particularly challenging, because it has little connection with any of the other languages I know. It also challenges my listening ability, as it’s tonal, a concept that can be strange for English speakers. There are four tones; level, rising, falling, and falling/rising. A word can also have a neutral tone. The same word spoken with a different tone can mean different things, and as an English speaker I struggle to hear the differences. The sound ma, with a neutral tone is the question particle. Ma can also mean mother, or horse, with other tones, so I can see myself getting into trouble if I don’t get it right.

The grammar so far seems very easy, and much more consistent that any other language I know.

That’s just the spoken language – I’ve decided to leave the written language on hold for now, as I only have a month and a half!

It’s interesting to see how I learn a language. Rote learning is a disaster. Trying to learn lists of words achieves very little. Rather, seeing the word repeatedly used in a particular context allows me to understand a concept, even if the individual words may elude me.

The importance of sleep also cannot be underestimated. I can battle away at a module, going over it again and again, with little improvement. But after a sleep, I can return to the module, and suddenly it all fits into place. So for me, my learning sees me pushing to a level beyond my comfort zone. The next day, I’ve almost magically improved and can push it further.

I’m also interested in how much I use English, or translating, while learning. Using it extensively, such as trying to translate everything I don’t understand, holds me back. Learning works best when I try to think in Mandarin, connecting the sentence or phrase as a whole, rather than individual words. But English helps to set the context. Some learning systems exclusively use the language being learnt, with no English at all, just as a child would learn their first language. And the idea is obviously based on the understanding that too much English can get in the way of learning. But I find that some English is useful to set the context. Telling me in English that the next dialogue is about a man meeting his teacher, and then switching to Mandarin, saves me time in fumbling about to understand the context.

So I guess if I was spending US$300 on some language learning software, that’d mean Fluenz would work better for me than Rosetta Stone. I’ll just stick to my Exclusive Books special, and hopefully some help from some Taiwanese friends.

I can perhaps learn from the way I learnt French versus the way I learnt Spanish. French I learnt at university, and the methodology was similar to what seems to work best for me now. I studied it for two years, but barely did anything more than attend classes.

Spanish, by contrast, I learnt in a month in preparation for a trip to Peru. I studied quite diligently for about an hour a day, but focusing much more on the grammar, and using much more English. I ‘learnt’ enough Spanish to bumble around Peru, but perhaps one consequence of the intensive easy-in method was that it was also easy-out. I can barely speak a word any more. French I remember much better, even though it’s years since I spoke it.

Bear in mind these are only first impressions, as I’m only about four days into my Mandarin studies! As the time draws closer I may in desperation revert to my Std 6 Latin teachers method, and be seen frenziedly chanting the Mandarin version of amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant.



  1. Nǐ hǎo. I am a Chinese teacher at the Wits Language School. I found this article of yours via Google search. It’s really useful and I decided to use it as a class material for my students to know a bit more about Mandarin learning experience. Thank you.

    N.B. I’ll make a remark about the source

  2. My first encounter with Chinese Mandarin was walking around San Francisco, Chinatown and totally bewildered by the inflections and nuances of the largest Chinese population outside of China. Now I hear the island of Mauritius has the largest population, which makes SADC the greatest Chinese community outside of China.

    Now my Cantonese is better than my Manderin, and both are second to Japanese and Korean. Wish you luck with your travels.

  3. Hi there,

    Thank you for a very interesting and informative article about Mandarin learning.

    I want to study Mandarin fulltime in South Africa or China. Can anyone recommend universities or language institutions?

    Any suggestions?


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