Why I believe I can learn Chinese

Let me tell you. Learning Chinese is damned hard. The character set, the tones, the pinyin phonetic alphabet (which uses latin characters but the characters rarely correlate to English pronunciation), the grammar…

In comparison, learning German was a snap. And German is no snap. I can babble like an idiot in German but I’m understood. I’ve found Germans, Austrians and the Swiss quite accomodating of my linquistic struggles. Perhaps its because they already speak English and can decipher my grammatical gymnastics, translate my mangled vowels, forgive my nouns’ gender jumping. Perhaps English is a piece of common ground.

The highlight of my German-speaking adventures was at a hotel in Vienna. After speaking (strictly in German) for a few minutes, the bar tender asked if I was French. I may still have had an accent but it wasn’t an American accent. A HUGE day for me.

With Chinese, I have yet to gain purchase on terra firma. It often seems as if I were lost at sea, bobbing around like a fishing cork in the middle of the Pacific.

I have a plan.

I draw my inspiration from the essay by Konstantin Ryabitsev, How I learned French in One Year.

He is spot on about the flash cards. Flash cards are vastly underrated. Drill with them until they are grimey with fingerprints. He created his own “flip-card strategy”. I experiment with different approaches. None of them are a waste of time.

When learning the characters, you must also learn the tone that goes with the character and learn the radicals. Drill, drill, drill.

I served in the United States Infantry (1978-1982). We were issued vehicle and aircraft identification cards. Basically, they were flash cards with a silhouette of a truck, tank, helicopter… on one side and info on the other. We were tested periodically. Flash cards work really, really well.

I also use the Yellow Bridge dictionary. It accepts characters, pinyin or english for translation. You can enter the character using the keyboard or ‘draw’ the character with the mouse. I use this in conjunction with Google’s online translator.

My plan is to

(i) continue taking classes at Stanford Univeristy’s Continuing Studies. Taking a class give me a schedule to push me along. And I like school.

(ii) listen to chinese lessons on my iPod. I find it hard to run while listening to chinese but walking is fairly easy.

(iii) flash card drills

(iv) watch DVDs with both Chinese and English with subtitles (no luck so far finding them)

(v) use my account on palabea to practice my writing (like modern day penpals).

I’ve completed a couple of learning annex classes, worked with a tutor and just finished the first introductory course at Stanford. The coming year is my big push to climb out of the sea, up on the beaches and onto dry ground.

The biggest challenge to learning a language is boredom, embarassment, apathy, frustration, resignation. These are the enemies that lurk in the dark corners of the mind. These are the enemies that assault one’s resolve.

What makes me think that I can learn Chinese?

In the words of Winston Churchill, “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

It’s a matter of declaration and conviction. I will speak, read and write Chinese.


  1. I believe you will too, sir.

    (SOMEbody from happy nats afternoon class gotta make it out of the ignorance stable, and it ain’t gonna be ME or the DUCK or the BRAIN.)



  2. Of course, you can learn Chinese. Generally if you are zero level learner now, you can communicate in Chinese after 1 year and then you can write article in Chinese character after about 2 years. Only if you go to learn a complete course and have a good teacher. Every year there are over 600 American students who achieve their learning goal easily in our school. Of course you can as well. But you need to choose some right ways to learn Chinese. It is very important. Example: you should practice Chinese speaking and conversation with some Chinese volunteers after class. Listening to lessons on your ipod is not very useful for your Chinese learning but to give your some Chinese language background, because
    1, When you learn a foreign language, you have to pay full attention, otherwise you only can understand English part, not Chinese sentences. 2, English part in MP3 only can give you some culture background, not to help you to improve listening ability. 3, I have never seen a student can learn Chinese well only through listening to ipod. Generally students who can reach higher level in shorter time always spend more time on practice and talking with real Chinese people. The while process will be happy. I hope my suggestions are useful to you. If you still have questions, you can contact me. I am a Chinese study adviser.



  3. Hi Mandarin,

    I agree with your assessment that a student cannot learn Chinese well only through listenting to iPod. I hope that I did not give that impression.

    I like your website, especially the online magazine I Love Chinese, especially the reading section. It requires more vocabulary than I know but I can look up the characters and get the pinyin.

    – 紅豹



  4. I’m new here landed up searching blogs on resources on Learning Chinese. cool blog you have here, keep it up. and its nice to be here. i’ll be back some time later for more updates.Thanks for sharing with us….

    Devi Jones


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