Learning basic Mandarin Chinese abroad; how it all started for me

How I learned Mandarin

October 16, 2016

My learning curve started in Sydney, Australia where I was sheltered with a handful of Chinese from the mainland. I was there to write my law thesis and they were there, mostly, to study accounting. Their English was a bit rough but it was all good. They mostly used Mandarin anyway. Overseas or not, with every other student being Chinese, Mandarin was perfectly fine.

My very own handwriting at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. I was abroad once again.
My very own handwriting: “Nǐ hǎo ma?” (How are you?) 🙂 It’s all very basic, I know, but kinda cool, too 🙂

So they didn’t really mingle with outsiders like me, but it got me curious and long story short, I registered myself for a community college class. It was very basic with words like “níhǎo” (你好 / hello) and “zàijiàn” (再见 / goodbye) on the white board. But it got me hooked.

I don’t think that my tones were anywhere near correct at the time. It was too unnatural for me. So that first course was more or less an eye-opener, an introduction to, and that was that. I didn’t make any friends out of it either.

Then a few years after that I was abroad again; I was in mainland China, doing a semester at the renowned Sun Yat-Sen University (Zhongshan) in Guangzhou, which is in the south of the country. We had like thirty plus students in a class, a big upgrade from the small community classes in Sydney, and this time they were also of similar age, albeit of different backgrounds (Vietnamese and Korean mostly).

The teacher (lǎoshī / 老师) loved to make us fall in and repeat every single word. Read after me she’d say (yīqǐdú / 一起读) and we obeyed without hesitation. “mā má mǎ mà; Lā lá lǎ là; Gā gá gǎ gà.”

It was all very monotonous and I didn’t particularly like it. It was just too rigid; definitely no fun; no playfulness. It was boot camp.

Learning HSK 3 vocabulary.

Basic HSK 3 vocabulary.
It’s definitely not easy to master the Chinese language. Look at this!

Today, though, I realize that that semester abroad created a solid foundation for my tones. Mandarin is a tone language after all. Maybe in your head you think you know how to pronounce it all, but if it comes out wrong, with a different tone, people won’t get you. Heck, you might even insult them by saying something inappropriate.

For instance: “māmā” (first tone) is mother and “mǎ mǎ” (third tone) is horse horse. So if you want to tell your friends that your mother knows how to cook don’t mix it up with “horse horse.”

Wǒ māmā zhīdao zěnme zuò fàn (我妈妈知道怎么做饭 / My mother knows how to cook).

Wǒ mǎ mǎ zhīdao zěnme zuò fàn (我马马知道怎么做饭 / My horse horse knows how to cook).

Notice the difference? I hope you do.

The Zhongda campus in Guangzhou.

Zhongshan University in Guangzhou where I really learned (basic) Mandarin. A very enjoyable semester abroad.
Sun Yat-Sen University in downtown Guangzhou, China. A great place of natural beauty.

Anyhow, ever since that semester I’ve continued learning Mandarin Chinese with the help of a handful of tutors and basically all the stuff you find online nowadays. I’m not here to promote anything in specific, but I do like Yoyo Chinese. Everything on that site just feels right and you learn cool stuff like … filler words young people use, like, all the time. For instance: “ēn” (嗯 / uh).

Question: Nǐ xǐhuān wǒ ma? (你喜欢我吗?/ you like me?).

Answer: Wǒ ēn ēn … fēicháng xǐhuān nǐ (我嗯嗯 … 非常喜欢你 / I like uh uh … you a lot).

Just remember, don’t say it like this to your significant other. They, for sure, would want to hear something a bit more … solid. LOL.


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