Put Down The Chalk & Pick Up The Language

My road through the Chinese language has been a bumpy one full of roundabouts and dead-ends. In the more than two years I’ve been here I’ve not had any formal Chinese education, and I’ve really no excuse for it.

I’m often praised and then quickly chastised by Chinese co-workers on my level of Chinese. When they first meet me they lather it on, but once they know I have a Chinese wife, their faces screw up and they try desperately to understand why I can’t speak better.

The truth is, nothing has hurt my Chinese more than having a Chinese girlfriend/wife. This isn’t a slight against her in anyway, as she does her best to push me in the right direction – correcting my tones, telling me for the thousandth time how to say random vocabulary, etc.

The problem is, nothing is a keener motivator than the day to day struggle of having to deal with the Chinese-speaking masses just outside my door – and with Maggie by my side, even simple conversations that I could navigate through, are handled by her.

Well, enough is enough. I’ve watched friend after friend make huge strides with Chinese while I sat dumbly by mumbling “ting bu dong”. I’ve made the decision that come the end of this term I’ll be turning from teacher to student and exchanging my ESL lesson plans for Chinese homework.

I’ve settled on a program at Soochow University (aka Suda) – don’t ask me why they still use the silly Wade-Giles spelling. The term runs from September to January and costs about 8,200 RMB (about $1,200 CAD). This breaks down as:

Tuition 7,500 RMB
Application Fee 250 RMB
Registration Fee 250 RMB
Books 200 RMB

The price structure seems similar to various other Mandarin courses I’ve seen in other Chinese cities. Though not “cheap”, considering what a foreign student pays a term when they attended Canadian schools, it’s a steal. It’s four hours each morning (8~11:30), Monday to Friday. The program also offers some interesting electives – Chinese History, Chinese Calligraphy, Traditional Chinese Painting, Tai Chi and Chinese martial arts – in the afternoon, so I may enroll in a few of them as well.

I’m quite hyped about being a student again. It’s been on the back burner for quite a while now, as the wedding basically stole the show (and emptied my bank account) over the past year. Now with married life settled into, I can start focusing on the rather massive collection of other things populating my “todo” list.

I’ll be registering in the summer (as my Z visa expires, and I’ll need to transfer it to the appropriate student visa), and as such will be taking a placement test. I’m a bit nervous about this. My language abilities are all over the place – I know some rather complicated vocabulary reasonably well, but am completely lost with other, relatively simple, things. I can say more than I can read, read more than I can write, and write more than a beginner, but not by much.

As such, I’m going to try and hit the books before hand and get some sort of consistency in my Mandarin knowledge. With having a relatively passive interest in learning Chinese since I first arrived, I’ve a huge collection of links, books, software and such to help me – but am open to any suggestions that have worked for you readers.

I’m planning to put into practice Mark’s good advice (Learn a Language by Taking Advantage of ‘Hidden Moments’) and also some tips gleaned from a Pick The Brain article.

These ideas, coupled with my use of ChinesePod‘s free MP3s, Active Chinese‘s cool lessons and a couple of text books I’ll have to dust off, will hopefully cause me to, at the very least, not get put in the “NEEE HOW” newbies class.

16 Responses

  1. Blimey, minds think alike! I plan to do exactly the same thing (also concerned about visas at this point – how easy it is to switch from Z to X) but for a long term future in China, and not being an expat with decades of work experience, formally studying Chinese seems like one of the better options available.

    I’m looking at the Dalian Finance Uni or Technology Uni. Urgency awaits.

  2. I’ve a number of friends that went the DongCai route and they all seem to like it, too bad it’s in the middle of fecking nowhere. 😉

    I agree though, especially as it relates to my ‘field’ (communications/journalism) – Chinese really is a must. And hell, it’s a fantastic excuse to finally get out of teaching.

  3. I think a lot of us are in the same boat. If it weren’t for my current job, I’d have moved to Harbin to become a student last summer. I was looking at a four hour a day program quite a bit like yours.

  4. Add me to the list. Studying is way more interesting than teaching these days, and there’s more opportunity on the other end. DongCai is high on the list, and it’s close to where I live now. Basically, I figure if I don’t speak Chinese by the Olympics, I’ve kinda wasted my time here.

  5. Alex: before leaving Dalian, I sat in on a couple of classes at Dalian Normal Uni., and had a good experience, for what that’s worth.
    Ryan: 加油! I really want to encourage you in this move. For me, going to school to study has really been a must. I guess I could pick it up on my own, but it’d take at least twice as long. I also relate to what you say about your Chinese partner. I rely too heavily on my gf for help in situations that I should handle myself. Also, her English is much better than my Chinese, so our conversations are often in English. Actually, it’s funny, usually, she speaks to me in a weird hodge-podge of English and Chinese. She’ll often switch back and forth three or more times in the same sentence.
    I liked your links (especially the one to my blog!) You know, I came to China with the express purpose of learning Chinese: everything else these last two years has been secondary, which is one reason why my blog is so badly neglected. I continue to be amazed by how hard it is. I was completely deluded when I first came, thinking I could get fairly fluent in under a year. Now, I’m still really at an intermediate level. I’m starting to think I’ll never really be satisfied, but, on the other hand, I know I’m still making progress, so that’s a good thing, right?
    I use Supermemo for flashcards, mostly for the characters. As I’ve written about before, it’s pretty 辛苦, but does have a good effect over the long run. Nowadays, I seem to be the one in my class that everyone else asks when they don’t know how to write a character (even the Koreans and Japanese!)
    My German roommate recently started using Chinese Character Bible, and I’ve looked it over, and it looks pretty good. They have a free demo version.
    Once your classes start you’ll probably be buried in homework. Try to keep up! Other than that, general advice is stuff I’m sure you’ve heard a lot before: try to avoid situations where you’ll just talk English: hang out with your Korean, Japanese, and Thai classmates rather than the Americans and Europeans.
    Oh, one thing I noticed in the “Pick the Brain” article — he likes Pimsleur a lot. I do, too, and I keep thinking I need to make myself more Pimsleur-style listening tapes. I can’t remember who gave me this idea, but I have yet to do anything about it. What I mean is, an MP3 where I’ll record and English sentence, and then a pause, and then the Chinese translation. When listening, I’d try to remember the Chinese before the speaker says it. I think this’d be a great way to practice in those “off moments”, but it takes a little investment in time to make the files. Do you know anybody else who’s doing this? It would be great if there were a site to swap these kinds of tapes.

  6. My speaking and listening has always been better than my reading and writing too. I know your pain.

    One thing that I’ve tried which was pretty helpful/fun:
    Just try to learn all of the characters for everything you can say. Write out as much as you can in pinyin and then learn all the characters.
    It’ll create pretty solid base in your everyday Chinese and it’s easy to do when your studying on your own.

  7. Best of luck on the studies! It really is the only way to ‘learn’ Chinese. Hanging out will only get you to pick up a superficial understanding of the language. A few words of advice, try to get into a 2nd year or better class. I think my Chinese was worse than yours (my impression from reading your blog and watching your vblogs) when I came to China to study for a year. I had had one year in the states and could have gone into newbie class, but pushed myself to a 2nd year. After barely keeping up for 6 months I finally broke thru and managed to make some real progress and was very happy I didn’t start in a newbie class. As for the wife, since her English is much better than your Chinese, I’m sure your default language is English. However, she could be your greatest learning resource if you can find a way to change the default language to Chinese. My gf in China didn’t speak much English at all, our default language was Chinese. My Chinese was pretty lame when we met and there was some difficulty in the beginning, but she was the best teacher I ever had! Even though it didn’t work out in the end 🙁 Last bit of advice is ‘go Chinese’. This may sound weird since you live in China, but try to ban English from your world, read Chinese books (I read a few kids books), magazines, newspapers (even though I know your not a fan of the writing), get a radio a listen to it at breakfast, watch CCTV (I know that’s bad, too) watch more Chinese movies (personal favorites are the 70-80’s Shaw Brothers movies, they have been re-releasing them digitally remastered) and if you do watch English-speaking movies, make sure those subtitles are on in Chinese! Of course you need a break some times for your sanity. I remember coming home from especially difficult days in class and wanted nothing more than to put on some western music, call up some ex-pat friends and speak as much English as I could. But if your studying hard and surrounding yourself in the language your need for those ‘English breaks’ will mean your on the right track. Have fun, the student days are always the best, I’m sure you’ll do well!

    And if you haven’t read it already, John at Sinoplice has a great post on the levels of learning Chinese.


  8. Good luck. I want to learn Chinese too, but fear I’ll end up in the same situation like you having a Chinese wife too. Also I’m in Denmark, which complicates matters further I guess 😉

  9. Ryan-
    I know exactly what you mean about the wife not being any help. I have been with my Chinese girlfrien for almost three years, and (again, no offense to her intended) my Chinese would be a lot better had we been single. The problem is that since when we first met, I spoke no Chinese, and she already could speak English, our relationship has always been based in English. Speaking to her in Chinese seems almost as unnatural as speaking to my parents in Chinese. On the contrary, having a girlfriend/wife who could not speak English would seem to do wonders for one’s Chinese. The advantage being that if you can’t say something, you really need to force out a way to convey your meaning. This is, what I have found to be the best way to improve Chinese. When I have travelled by myself in China, there have been many times I was forced to speak Chinese. If I don’t know how to say “When do I get my deposit back?” I have to say “When do I get the money I gave you to prevent my from stealing your TV back.” Usually this elicits the correct word, and I learn how to say deposit. Whether this happens or not, the extra explaining is a Chinese workout in and of itself. When I try to speak to my girlfriend in Chinese and get stuck, we just shift to English. Good luck in your studies at SuDa!

  10. Hey Ryan, My first Chinese lesson is tomorrow. A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and all that stuff. Looking forward to reading your Chinese blog in a couple of years 😉

  11. Ryan, from my own selfish point of view, this will be awesome for your blog. I love reading about people’s language learning stories.

  12. Hey Ryan, good to hear you’re going to be studying full-time, you’ll have a great time. I went to Shanghai JiaoTong University for a year and it was fantastic. Had a bit of a break since I got back home, but I’m getting into it again now. See if there’s anything on my blog which might be of use.

  13. Hey, thanks guys… all great advice.

    @Chris: You’re one of the ones that is truly a kick in the pants to me. I remember you’d come and visit F4 and chat with the Chinese staff after only a few months in the country… I was damn impressed. I’ve followed your learning on your blog from then, and really enjoy the advice you have.

    @Xuexiansheng/Ben: The ‘go Chinese’ route and putting myself in Chinese-only situations is definitely a big asset. I realized this back in October when Maggie was in the hospital. I had to do a lot myself for those two weeks and it showed me that I actually can. Since then, my Chinese has increased exponentially – but it’s still so far behind where it should be. I’m not going to completely eliminate fellow English speakers from my life – as I’m also in China to have a life – but pushing English to the back-burner and having more full-Chinese days around the house is soon to be instated.

    @Mark: It’s funny, the two things that people really could use information on, and I rarely write about them – teaching ESL and learning Chinese. They’re two things I’m intimately involved with every day, but just never seem to write about. I’ll work on changing that.

    @Dan: YOU’RE POSTING AGAIN!!! Hallelujah!

  14. Nice site.

    Regarding your visa situation: Now that you are married to a Chinese person why don’t you get your visa based on that? Then there is no need to rely on schools or Workplaces for your visa.

  15. Hi,

    Anyone who is a native English speaker lives in Suzhou (I live in Suzhou Industrial Park) and is willing to practice oral English with me? I will pay tuition but I am afraid the fee has to meet my budget. Please feel free to contact if interested (having experience is preferred).

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