Learning Mandarin is difficult. After 90 hours worth of classes and nearly 2000 flashcards, I’m still struggling to even understand everyday real-life conversations.
According to the Defense Language Institute (DLI), Mandarin ranks as a Level 4 foreign language, which means that it’s one of the most maddeningly frustrating languages to acquire for English speakers. This isn’t exactly a surprise. Beyond the complex writing system, you can tell right away because Mandarin sounds worlds away from English.
These are two main reasons why becoming fluent in Mandarin is a gargantuan project:
At least 2000 characters for literacy
You need to memorize 2000–3000 characters to achieve literacy. Well, that’s not too much compared to the fact that educated Chinese people know around 8,000 and there are more than 50,000 characters all in all. As if that’s not enough of a kicker, there are also two styles of writing Mandarin: traditional and simplified. They have some correlation with each other, but you would still have to spend time recognizing the differences, and the writing system used depends on the country.
Get the tone right, or else
What if you’re not aiming for reading, but just want to be able to walk around and talk to people? Mandarin doesn’t exactly function like English there, either.
Take these three syllables: 吗, 妈, and 马. They’re all pronounced as ma, except with different tones. 吗 (for asking questions) is short, light, and neutral, 妈 (mother) is longer and flat, and for 马 (horse), you have to dip the pitch of your voice down then raise it again, like a phonetic U-curve.
It’s incredibly important to be mindful of these because native speakers can only comprehend what word you’re saying when you’re using the right tone. Trip up your tones, and you’ll either be incomprehensible or will convey the totally wrong message. Mandarin has four tones in total — let’s be thankful, Cantonese has four.
On the bright side…
There are no conjugations or tenses, grammar is relatively kind, and I’m guessing you’ll get a leg up in Japanese once you’ve grasped some of the characters. Still, it’s not like Mandarin goes around luring unsuspecting people in. The difficulty level is obvious, which is why people do a double take when they find out that I’m trying to learn it.
To be honest, sometimes I find myself asking why I even masochistically chose Mandarin in the first place rather than some other language with a gentler learning curve.
A lot of times, I wanted to quit, but then maybe that’s the point.
Being a serial starter gets tiring
If you’d asked me to write out my original reason why I’d be confused because I don’t exactly remember. Yes, I used to like someone who was Chinese and decided to look up some basic phrases to impress him. On a less shallow note, I was strangely drawn to a hodgepodge of classical Chinese traditions, including tea, ink painting, the I Chingand Tao Te Ching, tai chi, their strand of Zen Buddhism, and more. I innocently figured that I wouldn’t mind suffering through endless study sessions if it meant I could gain a deeper appreciation of these.
But I supposed the most genuine, heartfelt answer — even though I didn’t know it at the time — was that, for once, I wanted to not give up.
I’ve always had this terrible habit of procrastinating or not finishing things. I shifted multiple times in college, I’ve accumulated an endless lists of projects and article ideas that I never carried out, and I’m guilty of repeatedly picking up new hobbies and then ditching them after a few months.
There was always this sense of release upon quitting, a kind of vicarious freedom from dropping responsibilities, but at the same time, it was profoundly tiring to put in effort and then to demolish it, always starting over. The ghost of everything that I’d left unfinished followed me around even with the next pursuit — I became somewhat jaded, expecting that I’d ditch this eventually again anyway. Self-fulfilling prophecies came into full swing, so that was precisely what happened.
Mandarin absolutely isn’t the first language that I’ve tried to learn. But it’s so grand, intimidating, and fiendishly complex that I knew that to say yes to it was irrevocable, that it would require me to trod on for years without necessarily any immediate rewards and I would step into it with full awareness of this.
It was the perfect vehicle for teaching me not to give up.
Here’s what I’ve learned along the process:
It’s human to be demotivated.
As human beings, we’re cyclical creatures, even down to our hormones and energy levels. It was unrealistic to expect that I’d be pumped up all the time about it. In fact, I’d stop studying for a few weeks, even though I was well aware that my flashcards were piling up. It probably wasn’t the most efficient way to go about it, but instead of beating myself up whenever I slacked off, I accepted that there were times when I just didn’t have the motivation and then let it go. Predictably, after a while, I’d miss studying Chinese again, and then I would simply pick up where I left off. My studying took on a one step back, two steps forward rhythm, which made sticking with it much easier.
Detach from the outcome.
This is a common piece of advice that’s effective mainly because you’re taking the pressure off the outcome. When we fixate on goals, we tend to adopt the mentality of being satisfied only when we’ve reached our destination rather than enjoying the process. The result is that we’re constantly asking, “Are we there yet?” and feeling frustrated and listless. With Mandarin, I stopped wondering, “Am I fluent yet?” Instead, I set up a structured plan that involved textbooks and recordings. The benefit was that I didn’t even have to think anymore about what to study — it was all laid out there for me. As long as I’m making progress consistently, I’m happy, regardless of how much a beginner I still am.
Play the game that’s right for you.
Martha Beck, one of my favorite authors, pointed out in this article that humans seem hardwired to play games. We’re endlessly competitive — about careers, performance at school, relationships, appearance, more or less everything. This is rooted in our drive to “play hard” or reach a state of flow, and we’re the most fulfilled when we’re putting maximum effort into something that we genuinely care about. The problem, though, is that most of the games that we play are dictated by society, such that we’re playing them out of cultural scripts rather than any sense of genuine joy.
Looking back at it now, many of the hobbies and projects that I couldn’t make myself finish didn’t really bring me any intrinsic fulfillment. On the other hand, learning Mandarin is something that I chose to do on my own, for no practical reason. Picking up new words, untangling grammar points, delving deeper into a culture different from mine — I could do these for hours out of sheer fun. It’s a game that I’m happy playing, regardless of whether I won or lose.
There is satisfaction in continuing day after day.
As somebody who kept starting rather than finishing things, I’m very familiar with how satisfying quitting can be. But there’s an opposite kind of satisfaction: the satisfaction of continuing, of devoting effort day after day until what you build becomes larger than you ever expected and it has become part of you.
What makes learning a language so profoundly appealing is that it’s equal to rebuilding your worldview at the atomic level. Language is the very foundation of our thoughts, and it’s been said that people even change personalities when they switch languages. The me who’s speaking in broken Mandarin sees and expresses the world differently from my usual self. Each quest to learn a language, then, is a way of unearthing an aspect of ourselves that we would never have discovered, making us much more multifaceted and cognitively flexible.
Sometimes friends ask me to speak in Mandarin, and I stutter, mix up my tones, turn paranoid about whether I’m doing it correctly. Whenever I overhear someone speaking and the best I can do is isolate certain words, it’s a reminder that there’s still so, so far for me to go. More characters, more hours replaying recordings, more conversations to fumble with. But it’s been more than a year, and I’m still here, struggling but satisfied.
Thank you, Mandarin, for teaching me how to not give up.
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