Learning Mandarin as a Complete Beginner

Learning a language takes a great deal of commitment. Photo by Startup Stock Photos from Pexels

Language learning is an ongoing process of trying, failing, reassessing and trying again. 

“Nǐ hǎo!”

My eyes widen as I realize that I have greeted the shop owner instead of thanking her for the fourth time this week. I rush to exit the store, eager to remove myself from this embarrassing situation.

I wish I could say that it was only when I was put on the spot that my language abilities crumbled, but the last Chinese dictation that I failed weighs down my bag heavily, reminding me that I’m falling behind the rest of the class. I hadn’t been able to write any of the characters my teacher said, and I was embarrassed to hand in an almost blank sheet of paper. I head to the library, dreading the amount of work that awaits me.

I never planned on learning Chinese. Even when I found out I was going to Taiwan, I assumed that I would be able to get by with English. I thought that because I was already multilingual, I really didn’t need to spend time that could be used for travelling and studying for my major on adding another language to my repertoire.

It didn’t take long for me to realize how naïve I was. This wasn’t my first time living abroad, but I had never lived somewhere where I didn’t speak the native tongue. Sure, I had visited places where I couldn’t converse with the locals in their language, but these stays were short-term, and usually I could at least sound out the words or relate to them to one of the languages I knew. Unfortunately for me, Mandarin Chinese doesn’t use the Latin alphabet, and when I saw traditional Chinese characters, they looked like, well, Chinese. Totally foreign and incomprehensible. I quickly got sick of not being able to understand anything, and I decided to enrol in the free Chinese class offered by my university.

First, I needed to drown my ego. Nobody here cared what languages I spoke if I couldn't speak Chinese. In order to show respect to the country and the people who had accepted me with open arms, I felt it was imperative to at least try my best to learn. And so, somewhat grudgingly, I took on this challenge. I threw my night-before-the-deadline-while-watching-Netflix Chinese homework schedule out the window and committed to trying to decipher the mysterious characters that surrounded me.

I needed to drown my ego. Nobody here cared what languages I spoke if I couldn’t speak Chinese. To show respect to the country and the people who had accepted me with open arms, it was imperative to at least try my best to learn. 

I had Chinese every weekday from 8am to 10am, after which I spent at least an hour reviewing the lesson. In the evening my friends and I quizzed each other on the characters we had to memorize. On the days that we had dictations in class, I woke up an hour early and went over the characters that would be on the quiz that day. We got creative with our study methods by creating short, often nonsensical stories to go with most characters we had to memorize.

For example, the Mandarin word for hot is 熱 (rè). When I look at the left part of the character, I see two plus signs above each other. On the right side I see an “h”. In my head I say, “It’s too, too hot!” I picture the line that crosses the “h” as a temperature reading, and the four lines at the bottom of the character as sweat dripping down because of the heat.

More important than studying every day, I made a conscious effort to speak in Chinese in stores and restaurants, and, of course, when ordering bubble tea. Thankfully, Taiwanese people are very encouraging and understanding when they see that you are trying to learn. I was thrilled when I stayed with an Indigenous tribe one weekend and was able to maintain a simple conversation with our hosts—one of whom even complimented my Chinese.

Even with my early triumphs and regularly achieving A's on my Chinese exams, my linguistic progress hasn’t been linear. Learning a new language is like trying to keep hold of a slippery fish. Even once you grab a hold of it, it constantly tries to jump out of your grasp. Despite my best efforts, I have found it very challenging to keep holding on to my Chinese study habits. Once midterms came around and I had managed to maintain an (admittedly very basic) conversation with my teacher during my oral exam, I thought it was time to take a break from studying for Chinese every day and focus on my other classes that I had been neglecting. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a mistake. It only took a couple of days for me to fall out of my routine and start falling behind again in my Chinese classes. And once you fall behind in a language class, it becomes very difficult to catch up again.

Not only were my study habits suffering, the lessons themselves were getting harder. We weren’t just memorizing (and, in my case, forgetting) new characters every day, but we were learning to form more complex sentences and express ourselves more precisely. Perhaps I had over-inflated my ego with my early triumphs, because I was shocked to find out I almost failed my most recent exam. It was back to the drawing board in terms of coming up with (and maintaining) new study habits. I spent less time memorizing characters and more time going over sentence structures. I wasn’t going to let two weeks of not studying and one bad test distract me from learning Chinese; it was time to get back to work.

With finals coming up, I have established my golden rule: there isn’t a perfect way to learn a new language. Once you commit and accept that you are a beginner, it becomes an ongoing process of exploration, failure, reassessment, and trying again. Am I fluent now? Not even close. And I may never be. But I learned how to be honest with myself and push through setbacks—and this thought process will support my future ventures, even as the characters that I spent hours writing leave my conscious memory.

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Rebecca Janacek

Becca is a Slovak Canadian doing an exchange semester at National Taiwan University in Taipei, where she is studying Biology and Mandarin Chinese. She is passionate about the environment and loves going on adventures!

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