29 Sept 2021
Rory English went to China without knowing any Chinese when he was 24.
He had just finished university and wanted to see if he could “crack” Mandarin in little more than a year, as well as seeing something of China.
He hadn’t been able to come up with a picture in his head when he thought about what China was like, he said. “I wanted to fill that with something.”
Previously he had spent a year in Germany, during which he learned German having also not known any of that language before his visit. Chinese would prove a much tougher nut.
“German was very easy compared to Mandarin,” English said.
One of the issues was the large number of characters in Chinese. The other was the way Chinese speakers used tone to indicate the meaning of words.
“They have far fewer sounds. The words are differentiated by how your verbal tone goes up or down. It’s something you almost can’t here when you first get there, English said.
Developing the ability to hear the different tones had been a gradual process.
Tone in Chinese was something like inflection. In English the way something was said could indicate whether it was, say, a question or a statement. “That little change in the inflection, they have for every single word,” he said.
“What you are listening for to define the meaning of what they are saying is completely different to European languages. In Chinese, you have to listen to the tones and inflections in the voice. That takes a lot of getting used to.”
He first stayed in Shanghai, where many people could understand English, even if they might be reluctant to speak it because they didn’t get to practice often.
The first thing he wanted to do was to say a sentence in Chinese that was understood.
With the help of a dictionary he tried to put together some basic phrases so that he could buy some cigarettes. Then he tried it out on an elderly man at a stall, with no one else watching.
“I gave it a go and he didn't understand. It was quite daunting to start,” English said. “It took a couple of goes.”
He found having a few beers could help his speaking practice. “To get all the subtle changes in your voice you need to make yourself feel a bit ridiculous. Like if you’re trying to learn a dance move, to you it feels stupid because you’re thinking too hard about it,” he said.
He did go to a language school, but it was mostly oriented to reading and writing. He was given small sentences to practice saying in Mandarin, but wanted to learn to speak the language more quickly.
“The main way I learned was by hanging out with some Chinese friends and listening to them speak all the time,” English said.
He also used translation apps to build his own sentences, hoping they would be understood when he tried them out. “Or someone who understood both languages would tell me how to say it. Sometimes it was very different.”
When it came to learning to read, he made some early progress, becoming able to understand public signs. But mostly it was a “slow, slow grind”.
“You have to learn all the characters. You can only learn by writing them out dozens of times. That’s part of the context problem – just to be able to read you have to know what every individual character means, and there are thousands of characters. Before you can read you need at least most of the puzzle completed,” English said.
After six months of learning, his spoken Chinese was “not very good”. He could order food, but he did it “badly”, and at times the people he was giving the order to could barely understand him.
He returned to New Zealand after about a year in Shanghai, but when he realised he couldn’t say as much as he wanted to when he tried to speak Mandarin, he decided to go back to China.
This time he chose the southeast port city of Xiamen – across the Taiwan Strait from Taiwan – where he spent six months. He was looking for a place where fewer people spoke English, putting pressure on him to speak Chinese, and where more people would speak Chinese to him.
“The first year was just learning how to learn the language. The last six months was heavy speaking practice,” English said.
When it came to learning to write in Chinese characters, one method was to draw the characters with a finger on a screen, rather than having to learn calligraphy, something he had not spent much time doing.
Another way of finding a Chinese character was to type the sound of a word or phrase into an app in Pinyin – a method of writing Chinese based on the Mandarin pronunciation but using the English alphabet. The app would then show the character.
For the past two years, after leaving China, he had mainly been working on his reading and writing of Chinese, English said. Now he could probably read a Chinese language newspaper, although not quickly, and it would depend on whether the article had characters he had not seen before.
He could also watch Chinese language TV shows and understand what was happening, even if he didn’t know every word. When it came to speaking, he was able to hold a normal day-to-day kind of conversation.
“It’s been the longest running difficult thing I’ve done.” It’s kind of like a hobby now, I guess,’ he said.
English is back in New Zealand, working remotely for a Melbourne-based e-commerce company, while he continues to work on his Chinese language skills.
“I assume it will be useful one day. It hasn’t been that useful for me so far, except as a kind of party trick,” he said.
“I guess the goal will be to keep getting better, and then maybe opportunities will open up.”