Thursday, 6 December 2007

Mandarin and Spanish

Well it's been almost a month since hubby started his Mandarin lessons and I'm astounded by the progress he's made. I said that in a few months time he'll probably be better than me! (and no, I'm not joking). My main problem is just learning new vocab, words I never used growing up but need to know now for my adult life. So while he is having his lessons I am secretly eavesdropping hoping to learn a thing or two ;) :)

Meanwhile, I realised I have fallen off my Spanish learning wagon and need to get back into it. For those who are learning it I really recommend Coffee Break Spanish. My friend was using it and I decided to try it too. For something that is free it's pretty good! They are podcast lessons. The only thing is if English is not your first language it may be a bit hard due to the hosts' Scottish accent and also they teach the Spanish Spanish, which is a little different to South American Spanish (which I was used to and found easier). But anyway, like I said, it's awesome for something that's free!

I just did a quick search about language learning blogs (to add to my Bloglines of course ;) ) and there are soooo many blogs written by people currently learning a 2nd, 3rd language. It's great to see so many people embracing learning another language because we all know how hard it can be the older you get and the excuses people come up with: "I am not good with languages", "I'm too old", "I won't ever get a chance to use it", "I don't need it" etc etc. Bah humbug! Languages are one of the most useful things to learn. So you can play tennis or piano - so what? They are great skills to have but not nearly as useful as another language. Not that I'm brilliant with languages myself. I struggle just like everyone else and I admit I procrastinate, forget, become lazy, etc etc. But I think it's one of those things you don't realise how rewarding it is until you have accomplished it and understand those around you. To me you don't even need to be fluent enough to write an essay or to pass IELTS, or HSK or whatever. As long you can have a decent adult conversation and read books, magazines and newspapers, the web (even if you don't know every single word) I think that is a big accomplishment.

I mean, when someone whose second language is English speaks English to me, I can immediately pick out their faults in their grammar, pronunciation or whatnot but really, it doesn't matter because I think to myself, geez, their English is still a heck of a lot better than my German/French/Italian/Spanish/Japanese or whatever!!

It's funny though. I find myself noticing people's mistakes and the same ones are made a lot of the time. Some mistakes I notice friends and family members making are:

* "There have" instead of "There are/is" or "There were/was" because in Chinese it's 有 (you).. it sounds strange in English but if I translate it back to Mandarin in my head it makes total sense.

* "A.M. 11:00" instead of "11:00 A.M." My stepmum writes me notes (when I used to live at home) and she would always put the AM or PM before the time. I pointed this out to her, and to my dad, but she just keeps doing it. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

* Plurals where there shouldn't be any. eg Softwares, furnitures, jewelleries (jewelries),.. These words don't have s's on the end! (not that I know of anyway).

Anyway, I just found this blog commenting on this article about Mandarin being a 'fad'.

"...In a few decades China may indeed overtake America as the world's top economic power. Will Britons who make the effort to learn its language be rewarded with better careers? Barring some kind of sea change in global language learning, the answer will almost always be no.

With its tones and horribly complicated writing system, Mandarin is much harder to learn than most European languages. The Foreign Office, for example, gives its officers four times as long to get from beginner to operational level in Mandarin as it does in Italian, French or Spanish—and only those with the greatest aptitude for languages are selected for it. The vast majority of Westerners who travel to China to study Mandarin give up, go home and forget what they have learned. Undergraduates at British universities find it hard to adjust to a workload heavier than that for other subjects, and many drop out...."

Someone on the blog commented:

I do think a lot of the current craze around Mandarin is similar to that which surrounded Japanese during the 1980s, where Japanese was considered ‘the’ language to learn due to Japan’s booming economy and their increasing presence in foreign markets.

I can definitely relate to this as this was one of the reason's I learnt Japanese (well it was the 1990s but still...) and it's funny how this focus has shifted onto learning Mandarin. I don't regret learning Japanese for a second. I still shocked myself that when I went there recently I could actually understand a lot of what people were saying, despite not attaining a very high level (only crappy high school level) and not using it for 12 years. I really wonder if Mandarin is a 'fad' and in 10 or so years it'll be another language we are told we 'must' learn?

I do have a lot of respect and admiration for anyone who can master Mandarin, especially someone with no prior knowledge of any language apart from their mother tongue. It really is a very hard language to learn but in saying that, I think the reading/writing is a lot easier than Japanese and the grammar is easier than English!

When I go to coffee shops and cafes here I often see 'foreigners' with laptops and a whole stack of text books studying Mandarin. Not just any beginner type of Mandarin but bl00dy hard HSK level type stuff and I think to myself - How the heck did they get that far? Wow, I'm really impressed, amazed, jealous even.

On another topic, hubby and had a debate about which was easier to learn out of Mandarin and Japanese. On that same blog is an interesting discussion. Another thing about Japanese though is that if you learn Katakana (48 characters) and you know English you can read a lot of the signs because they are just English words written in Japanese characters (and read funnily).

Actually I have a funny story to tell. I love reading Katakana and I find that reading it regularly (on food packets for example) helps me remember it and never forget it. Anyway, many years ago I was at home with my sister watching "The Simpsons" on TV (or 'terebi') and it was the "Mr Sparkle" episode (one of my favourites!) When I saw the packet (written in Katakana) I put on my big sister all-knowing show-off voice and said, "Hey I can read that!... Mi-su-taa Su-paa-ku-ru... Mister Super Cool!" But it turns out it was actually "Mister Sparkle" and I felt a bit stupid so sometimes you can 'translate' Katakana incorrectly but most of the time it is pretty easy. :)

OK, back to studying for me...

1 comment:

Susan said...

Hi, just want to share this article with you. Happy reading :)

When in Rome, why not let the Romans teach you?

In Huangshan (黄山) southern Anhui province in Eastern China, Fu Shou-Bing logs on to the computer in the public library near his village. Since discovering (, the retired High School Chemistry teacher has been logging on almost every day to the English-Chinese teaching website. Sometimes he cycles the 25 miles home, cooks himself a simple lunch of rice and stir-fried vegetables with salted fish, often returning once again to the library and his new hobby in the evening. boasts an educational website that teaches members conversational English or Chinese (no "this is an apple" stuff here) via video clips contributed by other members. After a vetting and often transcribing process by language tutors commissioned by the site, the clips are available free of charge in YouTube fashion. The twist? Members film each other in everyday activities, hoping other members will learn not just their native tongue, but also cultural innuendos lost in textbooks and more conventional means of language learning.

"One member filmed himself cooking in his kitchen. We got a few emails asking what condiments he used," says a bemused Warwick Hau, one of the site's more public faces. One emailer even wanted to know if she could achieve the same Chinese stir-fry using ingredients from her regular CR Vanguard (华润超级) supermarket. "We often forget our every day activities may not be as mundane to people on the other side of the world," Hau adds. Another such clip is "loaches" - a Chinese mother of 3 filmed her children and their friends playing with a bucket of loaches - slippery eel-like fish the children were picking up and gently squeezing between their fingers.

Lately the members have also begun to make cross-border friends and contacts. The ECpal function works much the same way sites like and work - members can invite each other to view their clips and make friends. And it has its fair share of juvenile humor as well. “Farting Competition” features two teenagers and graphic sound effects. Within several days, the clip was one of the most popular videos that week, likely due to mass-forwarding by the participants’ schoolmates.

For other members keen to learn more than the fact juvenile humor is similar everywhere, there are many home videos featuring unlikely little nuggets of wisdom. “The last thing I learned from the site is why you never find green caps for sale in China”, says Adam Schiedler one of the English language contributors to the site. Green caps signify cuckolded husbands, particularly shameful in China as they are a huge loss of face. Adam vows not to buy any green headgear for his newfound friends.

The subject matter of the videos often speaks volumes about its contributors. Members choose their own content and film the clip wherever they please, some of their efforts drawing attention to rural surroundings and the quaint insides of little homes otherwise not seen unless you backpack your way thru the tiny dirt roads and villages along the Chinese countryside.

Idyllic countrysides and cooking lessons aside however, ECpod marries the latest video sharing technology with the old school way of teaching a language - from the native speakers on the street. It's a modern, more convenient alternative to spending 6 months in China. And why not let the Chinese teach you?