About learning Mandarin

Mandarin is difficult because of the need to learn so many Chinese characters, and the tones. However, there are aspects of Mandarin which make it easier then many European languages. The rewards of learning Mandarin, the process itself, and then the ability to connect with Chinese culture, are enormous. It is well worth the effort.

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1 comment on “About learning Mandarin


Hello Steve,
I’ve been following your blog for a year now ever since I started to learn Mandarin Chinese and you’ll be glad to hear that listening activities is my main method of learning the language. I download the videos and transcripts of programs such as 對話 and 新聞1+1 from the CCTV website.

For me, learning the vocabulary and its dictionary pronounciation is straightforward. The biggest challenge by far is distinguishing and recognizing that same vocabulary when spoken by native people. I know that there are many Chinese ethnic groups and sub-groups having their own dialects and “accents”. So, for example, when a news reporter is talking to a local person, I might understand 50% of what the reporter is saying because he/she is speaking in standard PuTongHua but my comprehension drops to 5% for the local person.

What’s interesting is that when I started studying these CCTV interviews, even when standard PuTongHua was being spoken, for some phrases I simply could not match what I was hearing with the transcript. I would replay the phrase again and again. I would reduce the playback speed. It was no good – all I was hearing was noise. Other times, I was convinced that the speakers were pronouncing the characters differently from the dictionary version.

My definition of noise in this context is sounds with no information content. I cannot recognize the sounds even if I heard it again; I cannot describe it; I cannot articulate it. In contrast, sounds with information content are sounds where, even though I do not know it’s meaning, I can recognize it when it’s being spoken; I can attempt to articulate it myself.

After months of study, my listening ability has improved to the point where I can distinguish virtually all the words spoken in the videos (excluding local dialects). I have to read the transcript and replay the videos but it’s not noise any more.

This has led me to a theory about how we hear. The analogy I would use is the way that we see. The raw signal comes from photons hitting our retinas then the brain processes and interprets the information to build up a picture of what we perceive as the outside world. This picture is actually very different from the information contained in the original raw signal. For hearing, the raw signal comes from sound waves hitting our ear-drums. I think the brain also processes and interprets the information before producing the perceived sounds that we hear. It would seem logical that our perception of what we hear is shaped to a large extent by our native language but I’m sure there are many other factors. It may be related to pattern-matching. Perhaps the brain is interpreting a sequence of sounds as a familiar English phrase and decides that the next sound that it receives must follow this pattern.

Each person is different. I don’t know if my listening ability is below or above average but it’s a good feeling to have made substantial progress from a year ago. Anyway, keep up the good work. I always find your videos interesting and informative.

Regards, keithy.

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