Learning Chinese

Nǐ hǎo! Wǒ jiào Ashleigh. Wǒ zhù zài zhōngguó nánjīng. Wǒ huì shuō yīdiǎn zhōngwén. Wǒ zhèngzài xuéxí shuō zhōngwén.

In translation… “Hello! My name is Ashleigh. I live in Nanjing, China. I can speak a little Chinese. I am learning to speak Chinese.”

Chinese is a very interesting yet very complicated language to learn. At first when you get to China you know the basics which is pretty much just saying “hello” but as you go along through your day to day life, you start picking up different words or phrases that make living in China just that little bit easier. I think one of the first phrases that we learnt when we got to China was “Tīng bù dǒng” which means “I don’t understand”… So, you can imagine how often this phrase is used, even still to this date.

A few months ago, we started to do Chinese lessons online to try and improve our lacking ability to speak the language. When we started, it was very nerve-racking thinking that we are now going to have to do lessons for a language we have no clue about. You think that Chinese would maybe be an easy language to pick up, like how hard could the tones really be? Well that is incredibly wrong, they are super painful! In Chinese you have 4 tones when you speaking, technically 5. Chinese is a very tonal language that is almost spoken from the back of your cheeks, not opening your mouth too much, but still have to so that sounds actually come out… to me it is almost an art to speaking Chinese. If you can do it properly and be understood, I give you props! The tones in Chinese can change a words meaning.


As you can see, with the 5 tones, the meanings are so different from one another. You could think you are speaking about your mom and next thing because your tone is wrong, you are talking about a horse or being scolded… there’s so much room for error if you aren’t careful with the tone that you use. So, you can see that this can become very problematic very quickly if you are just trying to talk without thinking about what you could possibly be saying.

The lessons that we do are an hour long each session, it doesn’t sound like much, but when you are doing it, your brain feels like it is dying just simply from trying to concentrate and say it correctly. Our Chinese teacher has realized that between the two of us we can say all 5 of the tones, but individually it is a hit or miss situation… which doesn’t help us or her at all! This definitely does make trying to learn a new language more fun and more interesting, however it makes it much more frustrating, especially when one day you can say the tone yet the next day you have no idea how to say it anymore apparently. The best is when you’re saying what you think the tone is, and she starts correcting your tone, but as she says it, it sounds the exact same as what you have said. Due to this, you end up going around in a circle of what you think is the right tone, her saying the correct tone and you continuing to think you are saying the right tone not knowing why she is correcting you. It does drive you a little mental, but it is a good little chuckle in the end, with a small celebration when you finally get the tone correct!

At the moment we are still reading Pinyin to learn the tones and figure out pronunciation of each word however, it does become very intimidating when you are reading and you see the Chinese characters underneath. So, we are working from a Chinese textbook, which is pretty cool as all our Chinese Teachers (CTs) at work think it is weird to learn Chinese from a textbook. Regardless of this, our Chinese teacher has told us that by the 7th lesson in the book (so about our 14th lesson with her) we should no longer be reading pinyin, we should only need the characters and should have no problem reading the characters… this is a worrying factor as we know so few characters. We know random characters that you definitely wouldn’t need anywhere in our daily lives… like: flag, tree, forest, jungle, knife. The list goes on about the useless characters that we know, hopefully we will need to know them someday, but who knows! Obviously as much as we know the useless characters (in our mind at least) we do know some that are important in daily living, which I guess is something that everyone needs to know. Yet these symbols that we know, the useful ones, are not from doing Chinese lessons, it’s more from being in China, observing Chinese people and what they do when the certain symbols appear. I know it’s a little weird observing people while you are in China, but as a foreigner it is something normal that you have people constantly looking at you, taking photos of you and just being like “Oh my gosh” at you, so it’s normal doing it back and learning a few things from the Chinese.

It’s always interesting when you are at work and you hear the students or your CTs say something in Chinese and you’re like “Oh my gosh! I understood what they said without having to think or ask them”! Small victories like that definitely make learning the language worth the time and effort. As much as the students are learning English from us, the amount of Chinese words we learn from them. Normally in our lessons we will focus on about 3-10 keywords at a time, so the first time the students see something, they shout it out in Chinese… so throughout the lesson when they don’t remember the English word, they say the Chinese word for it, and this is how you learn Chinese from the students. For me, because I teach a lot of the younger stages 4-7 years old, they are learning basic English such as colours, my Chinese skills on colours is better than I thought it would ever be! It may be that I don’t always remember how to say it, but as soon as you hear it, you know what they are talking about! Another small victory when you can give them the correct colour crayon when they ask for it in Chinese.

The more you do with the students, the more you learn from them! If you aren’t able to understand them when they speak Chinese to you, 90% of the time you are able to understand what they are saying because of their actions they are doing while they are talking. When you are doing crafts of activities in class, they will say something simple, and you immediately know to say “You can say, I’m done” just because they are showing you their picture or whatever they have made. It’s always interesting to be able to have a small conversation with the students, half in English and half in Chinese… but the moment you say something in Chinese, they are confused beyond anything because they never expect you to be able to say anything in Chinese, even something simple as “hello”, that’s always a good little laugh when that happens.

Hopefully we will slowly pick up more Chinese, obviously the longer we live in China the more we will pick up. If we are doing lessons, I’m sure that the speed of our language will increase a lot quicker, but you are able to learn things still through our day to day life. So hopefully we will be able to have proper conversations soon with different people in Chinese!

2 thoughts on “Learning Chinese

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  1. Ashleigh Nǐ hǎo! I understand your sentiments when you say that ”your brain feels like it is dying just simply from trying to concentrate and say it correctly.” Keep trying, it will surely get better. Use to phrases/words you learn to make simple sentences and use them more while speaking to Chinese people. This way you will remember them better. Wish you well. xoxoxo


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