Learning Chinese – six months

As many of you know, soon after we knew we were coming here, I set myself the challenge of learning Chinese – for a number of reasons.

  • I have always wanted to be able to speak another language and decided that learning while immersed for at least two years was my best shot.
  • In a country where most people do not speak English, it would be really useful to have as much Chinese as possible, and it seems respectful to at least try.
  • Mandarin is the first language for 14% of the world’s population. English is a paltry 5.5% (at number three, slightly behind Spanish at 5.8%). We English speakers only get away with being monolingual because it is the second (or more) language for so many people.
  • With New Zealand’s changing demographics, it will be useful beyond our time here. For example, our first grandchild’s other grandmother has better Mandarin than English, and our next-door neighbours in Porirua have great Mandarin and limited English.
  • Finally, I was inspired a while ago by a book about a man who learned to read at 92 years old, and didn’t want my age (a wee way off 92) to be the reason I did not give it a go.

I don’t know how fluent I will become, but every time I feel discouraged, I remind myself that I will be more fluent if I do whatever I am feeling unmotivated to do than if I don’t.

So, how is it going? I plan to blog on this topic every six months, and hope I will look back on earlier ones encouraged by my progress – let’s see.

How am I learning Chinese?

Back in New Zealand, Feb 2016, I considered my options for how to learn. I soon eliminated face-to-face classes. I did not want to travel into town each week, and I knew from Spanish classes a while ago that group language learning frustrates me because I pick up grammar patterns quickly, and it is not possible to get much speaking practice with the expert. I had read a bit online and concluded that I would never be able to teach myself the tones – as my first lesson (and my 50th) has since proved – so wanted one-to-one interaction to get my tonal pronunciation right, and to be able to steer the focus to speaking and listening rather than reading and writing. Having worked in e-learning for over a decade, I decided this would suit me well – flexible timing with my changing schedule, no need to travel for classes, easy to change countries part way through, and progress at my own pace.

I selected three companies and took their free introductory class. I chose Tutorming for five reasons. They had engaging materials as the basis for their lessons, rather than requiring me to buy a separate text book, and I could have those materials to refer to afterwards with the consultant’s personalised notes written all over them. They record the video of each session and make that available within 24 hours so I can listen to it and play spot the difference between my and my consultant’s pronunciation. Their business model was purchase 100 lessons up front and have six months to use them, rather than pay per month. Given the irregularity of my ability to study, this suited me well. They also said they would be happy to extend the six-month timeframe, which they have since proven to be. And, they threw in 10 free lessons which we agreed Raymond could use.

And, I have been very happy with my choice. Occasionally the technology has not worked, particularly when we first moved to China. Their IT team spent time with me to identify the problem, tried to understand why my computer sometimes flicked to a server out of China which meant I needed VPN which made it too slow, and sent me the apk file for their mobile phone app which I now switch to when my computer is feeling global.

In feedback after each lesson, I score the consultant, technology, and materials out of ten, and can write a compliment or suggestion. Early on, I felt that the materials were boring, even though most consultants made it interesting with their conversation, so I gave the materials a low score. After several refunded lessons, someone from the Customer Protection Service Team rang and talked to me for nearly an hour to understand why I was not happy, and we agreed a compromise going forward. I do not control which consultant I have for each lesson, but because I give feedback after each lesson, and can email the Team, end up only having those I like. I have found the variety helpful as consultants vary in their common phrases, and explain things differently. The system means new ones know my level and the materials I have covered, supplemented by notes about me in the system. One made a comment that led me to ask what my notes say, and she said they say I am ‘motivated’, which, in the context, I felt might be a euphemism for ‘stroppy and demanding’. Several have commented on my humour, and there is usually plenty to laugh about!

My friend who teaches ESOL recommended some resources on language learning and I found this document helpful. The author talks about research showing that one is most successful if you take ownership of your own learning, and have a good balance between speaking, listening, reading and writing.


As I hint at above, one-to-one lessons with a teacher has been essential for me to learn to speak a tonal language. Tonal means that the meaning changes if you change the tone. Mandarin has a paltry four tones, apparently Cantonese has nine! Let me illustrate this point with the sound ‘shi’, which seems particularly popular, in beginning vocabulary anyway.

First tone (flat and high, I got better at this once I imagined myself singing on stage, being quite theatrical) shī means teacher (师) and lion (狮). Second tone shí (rising, as English speakers do when they say what?) can mean time (时), stone(石) and ten (十).  I do not know any third tone shĭ words, but they do exist. I make up for it with fourth tone (dropping, as English speakers do when saying ‘no’ disapprovingly) shì. So far this can mean – the verb to be (是), thing or matter(事), market or city(市), try (试), or generation (世). The latter is important because it is in our address Century City Road, century being (世紀).

A native speaker can hear the difference in tone and struggles to look past the wrong meaning if I say it incorrectly, not because they are being difficult, but because to them it is as different as saying ‘teacher’ and ‘stone’. I have some sympathy for this, because once in India I had an experience that showed me how hard it is to look past a word that means something else in your own language. My driver said that he was looking for a shop to buy jeeps. I was totally confused, because there were no car shops around and he would not have been able to afford one anyway. Eventually, we worked out he meant chips. Mispronouncing it slightly differently would have created a word that meant nothing and I probably would have understood him, but my brain could not get past ‘jeeps’.

Tones introduce three challenges. The first is saying them differently and correctly. I am much better at this, but still working on it.

Second is remembering the correct tone. I have learned about myself that I have a strong visual and pattern memory, so I tend to remember the pinyin spelling but I am not so well programmed to remember the sound. Some I know because I use them often. Others I add a tone image, such as picturing myself lifting a stone, or remember it within a phrase, such as idiomatic ‘I try’ is shì yī shì (试一试) where my brain finds it easier to remember it is down flat down, than try is shì (don’t ask me why my brain is like this). Kind of helpful, but it makes it very slow to work things out when I try to speak.

Third is getting out of breath going up and down, or down and up, particularly between second and fourth tones. So, even when I have mastered the first two challenges, my rhythm can be awkward at best and unintelligible at worst. And when I try to speed up, my tones can go out the window.

Initially, I found this quite overwhelming, but I have got to the point that when I speak I feel like the different tones are different words. My consultants score me after each lesson. I consistently get 5 for participation, comprehension and creativity. For pronunciation and on fluency, most score me between 4 and 5 out of five. However, one of my favourites only gives me 3 for pronunciation and 2 for fluency. I think she is setting the standard closer to where I want to be, so find it a mixture of discouraging and motivating, and recently was thrilled to go from 2 to 3 for fluency.

These scores match my experience out in the real world. Younger people tend to be able to understand me but I can see they need to concentrate, and sometimes repeat what I have said to themselves which is their involuntary way of making sense of it, and a sign that my pronunciation was not quite right. Older locals seem to struggle more, which I think is because of differences between the Sichuan dialect and the Mandarin I am learning, but I am too ignorant to be sure. All ages seem to understand and enjoy ‘wŏ tīng bù dŏng’ = ‘I hear but don’t understand’.

Another challenge in speaking is different Chinese sentence structure. I am getting the hang of more simple ones, such as: subject, then time, then place, then verb, then object. Example is 我们今天在超市买蔬了literally ‘we today in the supermarket buy vegetables (completed action). This is understandable in English i.e. ‘Today we bought vegetables at the supermarket’. But I have had to learn not to translate word by word. I did this initially, so I got towards the end and remembered I should have started with the subject and added place sooner. However, other structures are more different. 请问需要帮忙吗 is literally ‘please ask need help (question word)’. Translation ‘Excuse me, can I help you?’

Question words are necessary because the tone we use to indicate questioning is already used up changing the meaning of words. Verbs are simple in that the bit like ‘is’ doesn’t change as in English (am, is ,are, was, were, will etc) but the add ons like 了(le) above (completed action) do not have exact equivalents to English tense forms. It is similar, but different, to past tense. I am still mastering these. And it gets more complex the further I go, with one structure (so far) seeming to have no English equivalent. I have a lot more sympathy for why native Chinese speakers might get the order of their English sentences a bit wrong.

Pleco, the dictionary app on my phone is my lifeline. I continually look up words to remind myself what tone it is, which thing from my memory is correct, and what the Chinese word for something is. It has the pinyin, and an audio of the sound. My pronunciation is now good enough that I can read a new word and say it intelligibly to a local. For example, recently, I could successfully ask ‘Where is the peanut butter?’ at the supermarket, when I didn’t know peanut butter beforehand.

Early on, I learned that I am better to make a sentence than to just say a word. This is because even locals find the context helpful to know which of the myriad of meanings for the same sound is being said. Of course, with my poor pronunciation, as many clues as possible is good. I find that if I have the right sentence structure and tones, I tend to be understood. Without both of those, it is fraught. I was quite discouraged recently that someone did not understand me saying ‘I have been living (zhū) in Chengdu four months’. But when I checked in Pleco, realised I had said ‘I pig (zhù) in Chengdu four months’ instead. A minor difference to me, but massive to the listeners. If I can recognise where I went wrong, I feel better.


For all that I get high scores on comprehension, listening is the worst part of my Chinese. My lessons are now mainly in Chinese, unless we need to clarify a grammatical point, which sounds impressive, and is an indication that I am making progress. But, this is artificially positive because I get clues from the context, and my consultants use my limited vocabulary and speak slowly, which gives me a fighting chance.

Out in the real world – shops, restaurants, at work, even on the bus where I have heard the same automated message many times – I cannot understand much at all. I can pick out the street names in the bus message, and identified the ‘English sentence’ for each stop. This is ‘Now Chinese station name’ which is hard for any English speaker to pick in the stream of Chinese words.

I struggle to hear tonal differences which makes it harder for me to know which of the myriad of meanings it could be, or know the tones for new words when I hear them. But I am getting better, and often find during the replay of my lesson that I can understand the Chinese being spoken and listen amusingly to my earlier self who was not so clever.

When I am on my own, I listen to a bit of Chinese children’s television, but get less time on my own now that I am working.

Last weekend, I understood a guy saying to the woman weighing our fruit who was trying to say something to us ‘tā tīng bù dŏng’ i.e. ‘she is hearing but not understanding’. I laughed and said in Chinese ‘I usually hear but don’t understand’ – smiles all around.


Initially, I only wanted to be able to speak and listen in Chinese. So I started writing only pinyin (the Roman alphabet form of Mandarin I use in my blog here – showing pronunciation including which of the four tones to use, rather than using Chinese characters as Chinese do). However, in one of my first lessons, while still in New Zealand, I recognised the character 叫as meaning ‘call’ in English, but could not remember the Chinese sound. This made me think that in China, it would be handy to know what things mean in English even if I couldn’t say it in Chinese. So, I started writing characters, as well as the pinyin, in my vocab and revision books.

Some simple characters, such as 人(person), 口 (gate), 三 (three), 中 (middle) were easy for me to remember. As I learned more, it was easy to get confused when the bit I was using to remember a character turned up elsewhere. For example, I recognised 是 (to be, as in ‘I am Terry’, well done if you remembered shì from above) by its lower half, but once I came across 走 (to walk), I got confused.

Fortunately, soon after we got here, a colleague of Raymond’s shared a document with me that I have been using to learn Chinese characters alongside my Tutorming classes. The authors, for whom English is their first language, have identified the 3,000 most frequently used characters (out of about 80,000). They introduce one at a time, also gradually introducing primitives, which are the building blocks of Chinese characters, and using a story to help remember the character’s primitives and the meaning in English. For example, 好 (good) is made up of the primitive for woman 女 and for child 子. The story is that it is good when a woman looks after her child well. This is the hăo of nĭ hăo, literally ‘you good’. I often tweak their story for what is meaningful to me, for example 光 (ray) is made up of two primitives – 小 (small) and 儿 (human legs). My story is that Raymond ‘ray’ has short legs. Now I point ‘him’ out to him when I see it.

Initially, they gave a full story which taught me how to develop stories. Now, 500 characters in, they give names for the new primitives being introduced, and I have to develop my own stories. I revise characters on the bus to and from work each day. I have a target of learning 500 every six months, which would mean I know all 3,000 after three years. I reliably know about 400 of the 500 I have been revising, and have decided to press on and develop stories for the next 500, rather than wait til I know them all perfectly. My other activities help me still learn, and I can continue to revise the old ones.

So, now I see primitives in characters rather than an array of lines, and it becomes possible to remember complex ones, using them as building blocks with stories, similar (but different!) to using letters to spell words. For example, 潮 (tide) would be hard to remember by all its strokes. But I remember the tides of history as water (the primitive on the left that looks like drops) and 朝(dynasty). And to remember 朝, I have a story about pulling the mist (primitive on the left made up of ten/needles on top of early/sunflower) over people’s eyes for months (primitive on the right 月). It is easier than it sounds because pictures with stories are surprisingly easy to remember, and the characters are everywhere so I am continually revising in my head.

With stories I can recognise subtle differences that would be difficult, and impossible en masse, to notice, let alone remember by memorising how they look, such as 石 (stone) and 右 (right), 只 (only) and兄 (elder brother).

Thinking about the multiple meanings for shì above, you can imagine that it is also helpful to be able to read characters to help make sense of meaning when the same sound (even with the right tone) is being used. My teachers tend to say sentences then write them if I don’t understand and being able to read helps. Plus, I have just got to the point where I am starting to be able to read to help me learn or revise sentence structure. I am like a child learning to read. I use clues from what else is written, the context, and pictures in my materials to work out what it might be. I have also borrowed some children’s picture books from Raymond’s school.

I still alternate between thinking learning to read the characters was a good idea, and wondering if it is over-complicating things, because it takes time. But, at present, it is the most encouraging part of my learning and we hope I can get to the point where we can order food from a Chinese menu.


I do not really aspire to be able to write Chinese. However, being able to write is proving useful for several reasons. Firstly, in my revision book, writing the characters helps me recognise primitives and characters for reading. I am becoming much quicker, and neater. Secondly, I type in Wechat to communicate with our driver and to practice creating sentences with local friends. The act of selecting the right character is helpful in working out what I need to say, as in speaking, and recognising characters, as in reading. Also, because I can write, when seeing a character I don’t know or am not sure about, I can write it in Pleco (great touch screen writing part of the app) and it brings up options for what it might be so I can recognise it, select it and find out how to say it and what it means.

And how is it going?

So far I have had just over 120 lessons and revised 100 of them. Most week days, I have a lesson at 8.30am and then get to work about 10am (I am working for myself for love setting up a new business with another kiwi and his wife, so can be flexible – I will blog about work eventually). I decided to maintain momentum, even though I was falling behind on revision. Travelling on trains and planes over Christmas helped me catch up a bit on my revision.

The whole thing is a daily roller coaster, of encouraging and discouraging experiences. I can be on a massive high because somebody understood me, I recognised a new phrase in something I was hearing, or I know a character in context. Revision is encouraging, because I am making solid progress. But I can feel quite discouraged when I am not understood, can’t think of how to say something even though I have the vocabulary, can’t think quickly enough on my feet, listen to my colleagues speaking at normal speed and can’t understand anything they say, or go to a restaurant and my 500 characters don’t take me very far.

The most important thing is that I continue to be motivated. I remind myself that even when I had the magic ability of a child, it took longer than six months to learn English, and that everything I learn is more than I used to know.

I recently read about the value of learning a language in your old age to keep making new neuronal connections/stave off Alzheimers. I then thought of how I do not need to stop when we return to New Zealand. Now I picture myself in my retirement reading Chinese books (just like I did as a child in English) and talking to Chinese immigrants to help them settle in New Zealand, and to help me learn. We will see.

So, it turns out I have started on a lifelong journey. It is a significant part of my experience here, and is useful, challenging and fascinating. Catch you back here in six months for an update on how it is going.

PS What a mammoth post – congratulations if you made it this far!


8 thoughts on “Learning Chinese – six months”

  1. I made it. I’m on the bus from Hastings to Wellington, experimenting with slow travel, and taking time. The reward is the beautiful duets sung by two young people sitting behind me, and the time to read this blog. Your perseverance is inspiring.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow – congrats on your Chinese learning! I’ve been going for a year or so now and it’s pretty tough but so much more rewarding when you look at a page of what used to be random symbols and now is intelligible text.


  3. Wow! That’s very impressive! Thank you for blogging about your Chinese learning progress. It’s very important for educators to use it as reference and adjust their teaching. As a Chinese instructor, I fully appreciate what you have in this blog. Keep me posted about your next step and never give up on this!


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