Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Do I need to go to China?

I really, really, really want to go to China. That is a fact, indisputable and undeniable. Another unfortunate fact is that it is not likely to quite some time (zhen zao gao!). Okay so assuming I can be all grown up about it, rather than crying like a baby (Whaaaaaaaaa!) there is another problem. A number of people seem to be firmly of the opinion that I will not be able to learn Chinese unless I go to China or a Chinese speaking country. What if they are right? Personally I think/hope they are wrong and here is why I think/hope this.

I have encountered a number of non-native English speakers who have learned pretty good or even excellent English whilst only living in a non-English speaking country. If they can do this, why can I not do the same with Chinese. Granted that they may have a considerably larger exposure to English in their home country than I have had to Chinese, however there is plenty of material out there on the Internet now, so I can make my own exposure.

Whilst there are plenty of examples of Westerners who have learned very good Chinese whilst living in a Chinese speaking country, there are also many that learn nothing or next to nothing, so being in China does not mean learning Chinese.

The Internet also provides many opportunities to connect with and talk with Chinese people that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. In addition the few Mandarin speakers I have met in the UK regard it as a novelty if a Westerner attempts to speak Mandarin so they are very helpful (this may change if learning the language becomes more popular and they get fed up with the attention).

I concede that I will miss out on some cultural issues and standard day-to-day interactions until I go there, but there again even a trip to an American city where they speak English would result in some measure of culture shock until I adapted. So is there really any reason nowadays why a Westerner cannot learn Mandarin from their own country?


Anonymous said...

Just try and you could speak Chinese very soon.

Mashhood said...


I am convinced that with resources such as chinesepod, the vast multitude of chinese podcasts, Skype, PPLive, etc it is absolutely possible to become 'fluent' in the language. It's quite amazing if one thinks about it and generally speaking i'm sure anyone is capable of doing it, so long as one has the resources, motivation and puts time and effort into it :)

John said...

As long as you get some feed back of some sort on a regular basis, because I find I often think I am pronouncing something the correct way when I'm realy not.

Otherwise I can't see any problems.

liulianxiaoyu said...

I am not sure if you need to come to China...... :)

But I think you can speak Chinese fluently even if you are not in China. I believe .......


ichbinjenny said...

Hi there -- Interesting post! I wrote a response on my blog...

ichbinjenny said...

Oh, I completely hear you. I had my bags packed a year ago, planning to relocate to Taiwan. Then, call it luck -- I found someone special. Two years later, I'm still not there. I know going to a Mandarin-speaking country would really help speed up learning, but there's always something in the way (not always a bad thing, I know). ::sigh:: best to you too.

CharlesChinese said...

To China or not to China. I think this also depends where you go. Here in Kunming Everyone speaks Kunming Hua all the time. Try talking to little kids and you'll find that they are still learning standard mandarin. If anything I think it has been detrimental to my pronunciation. Beijing might be different as Beijing Hua is much closer to standard mandarin in usage. I'd advise Taiwan as strangely enough they seem to mostly speak mandarin though your reading will take a step backwards (traditional Characters,it would allow you to read the subtitles of songs at a local ktv here in kunming as all their systems come from taiwan)

ZHIJUN said...


furyou_gaijin said...


Haven't seen this blog for a while, missed this interesting post...

I do believe it's possible to become fluent without setting one's foot in the country... Authentic-sounding - maybe more difficult, but fluent - yes, absolutely.

But China is not South of France and someone pointed out a very valid point to me the other day: one may be fascinated by the language and study it (professionally) for a long time yet hate China so much on the first visit as to be compelled to stop the studies and have to rejuggle plans for the future. Apparently, this has happened to more than one person.

I have now managed to visit it on several occassions and have finally come to quite enjoy the place, in a way. Although it is very very far from being love on the first sight...

And in fact - do you realise Shanghai is only a few hours away? How tight do the ties need to be?.. I thought families were there to help, not to impede?.. :)

Chris said...

As a person who lives in China and has a hard time understanding people daily, I would suggest watching some of the Korean soap operas that are dubbed in Chinese. The Chinese is simple and clear for the most part, and it's good practice. I also would suggest Chinese dubbed Everybody Loves Raymond.

Victoria said...

Just to pick up on a point that furyou_gaijin has made, with places as distant as China it is entirely possible to study the language for several years and then visit, only to find things quite different to how you expected. This is very much the experience I have had with Japanese, which I have studied now for 3 years. It was only March of this year when I finally got the chance to visit and the "culture shock" (and assault on my expectations) threw a lot of things up in the air.

That said, its not the end of the world. At the time I felt particularly conscious of the "won't you look like a total t!t if you don't like Japan when you've been learning Japanese for so long" factor, even while I was still there, but the language has a value of its own and can help you get past the superficial differences and relate to the people.

I definitely think you can become proficient with Mandarin just as effectively outside China as within. Sometimes if you are trying to learn whilst living in a country you can reach a plateau where you know all the stuff you need to get by, and are so busy with just trying to exist that you stop learning. Also, being isolated from your first culture, some of that time you currently spend on Chinese will be rediverted to keeping up with your own identity. If you've never spent a block of time abroad before, you will miss the sound of English more than you think ;)

Don't be disheartened anyway by these "my way or the highway" advocates of a single route to linguistic achievement. You'll get there, and you'll be able to say you did it your way :)

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Dario said...


You can do anything you put your mind to. Learn chinese in Bath. Save up some money and go to China! :-) It shouldn't be that expensive if you go with Euros (you have the foreign exchange rate on your side!).

You can do it, man! Don't give up! Never give up!