Learning Chinese is HARD

I’ve been studying Mandarin off and on (too much off, not enough on) since meeting my wife in 1994. I can basically understand the TV and radio news, can get the gist of most newspaper articles, and can usually convey to people the ideas I want to, but I still don’t consider myself fluent. There are too many words I don’t know. Too many characters I can’t write. And my grammar is often pretty poor.

I fully expected learning Chinese would be hard, but it has proven far harder than I initially imagined. When I met my wife, I was in an economics Ph.D. program. I quickly became fascinated with China’s economy and set out to learn the language as quickly as I could so I could conduct my Ph.D. research on China and become a professor of Chinese political economy. I had studied politics for six year (as an undergrad plus two years in Stanford’s business school Ph.D. program) and was studying economics. If I could just learn Chinese, I naively figured, I would be able to research and teach about China for the rest of my life.

Well, even though I spent far more time on my Mandarin than my economics, I didn’t get close enough to fluency to do hands-on research in China. My wife helped me conduct interviews with some very interesting business managers in Shanghai and Suzhou, but my brain just couldn’t process the hours of tape recordings in Mandarin. Splitting my time between Chinese and economics didn’t get me far enough in either to achieve my goals, so I wound up working in Silicon Valley tech firms, which I enjoyed but was never my goal. My Mandarin atrophied for years afterwards, but I’ve now gone far beyond my earlier level. I do feel I’m closing in on fluency, but I’ve already scaled a quite high mountain and am only just beginning to catch a glimpse of the summit through the clouds.

So I was struck by this interesting article:

My favorite professor taught a class on contemporary Southeast Asian politics. So when I told Professor Potter that I had received permission from the college to take Mandarin at a neighboring university, I was shocked by his reply.

“It’s a waste of time.”

Huh? Weren’t professors supposed to guide us to be better scholars? Why was he discouraging me? As if he could read my thoughts, he said I was too old to start such a complicated language.

“I’ve been studying Mandarin for 10 years and am still not fluent,” he explained. And he had lived in China for several years in the 1980s.

I didn’t take Professor Potter’s advice. While I’ll probably never be fluent, at one time I could read a Chinese newspaper and was told I sounded like a native speaker on the phone. I had learned a little about the Chinese custom of saving face, so maybe the latter was just a polite gesture to make me feel good about learning this difficult language.

Posted by James on Sunday, March 21, 2010