I started learning Mandarin Chinese three years ago, it hasn’t been a straightforward journey but it’s certainly been a worthwhile one. Looking back to my early classes, it’s staggering for me to think about the progress I have made since then, whereas many others I knew simply gave up and stopped trying. By the time the end of my first evening course approached, all but four people had left the class. Although we can never assess everybody’s personal reasons for quitting, all too often people fall to the defeatist and negative discourse that Chinese is just “too difficult” and not worth the effort, driving so many of us into our pocketed English-speaking comfort zones.
Of course, that is not to claim that learning Chinese is not challenging or daunting for the newcomer. With thousands of characters, as well as the terrifying tones and pronunciation to tackle too, it can seem overwhelming and sometimes frustrating, but should you quit or just leave it? No way. Is it worth it? Absolutely! To learn Chinese is a rigorous exercise in personal discipline, patience, commitment, organisation and self-vision. Although nobody can decipher or understand your personal needs and circumstances, if you are a beginner currently questioning whether learning Chinese is just too difficult, it may be time to question your effort first.
Therefore, what makes a successful Chinese speaker? I will guide you now through a series of simple Chinese idioms (or figures of speech) which can help motivate you to stay on track.
跋山涉水 (跋山涉水) fashansheshui (scale mountains and ford streams)
To “scale mountains and ford streams” is an expression relating to making a long journey, one which encounters large challenges which, in order to reach your destination, require a test of character and endurance; be it crossing a river or climbing a mountain. Although the journey is long and sometimes frustrating, it is the experience of that journey that changes you and not the arrival at your destination.
Learning Chinese must be understood as a journey, and, sometimes on that journey, it will feel like there are mountains to climb and rivers to cross. This requires above all, patience, but also, like every journey, a vision and a map of where you aim to go; combined with enthusiasm, passion and self-belief. If you are learning Chinese, what is your goal? Where do you aim to be with it? I set off three years ago on a journey to be fully fluent. Admittingly, I am still on that journey, but it is the vision of my destination and the experience of scaling the mountains on the way which has made it such a rewarding experience; which leads to the next phrase!
哀兵必胜 (哀兵必勝) – aibingbisheng (determined soldiers are bound to win the battle)
This idiom reflects upon how the character, spirit and attitude of soldiers can make a crucial difference in a war, even if the enemy appears to be superior or better equipped. Whilst obviously, learning Chinese is obviously not a battle, it is, as stated above, a test of your personal character, commitment and resolve. Those who consistently approach learning Chinese with the most determination, passion and focus are bound to see it through, regardless of their academic abilities or talents. This is the simple distinction what separates those who give up at early stages and those who push on and make it to proficiency.
To succeed at Chinese, you must have a passion for Chinese. As referenced above, build that determination and passion by continually reflecting and developing on your goals, dreams and vision the journey you set out on as you begin learning.
便宜施行 (便宜施行) – bianyishixing (acting diligently without relying or waiting for others)
This idiom refers to the idea of independent initiative and action, putting in careful thought and doing what needs to be done without waiting or simply relying upon the instructions of others. Although one may question how this phrase is applicable to Chinese learning due to the strong role the teacher plays as a guide in classes, there are nevertheless many ways we can take the initiative in our own learning. Above all, it is about being active, engaged and constantly seeking to learn and improve.
For example, strive to memorise characters independently. If you are truly passionate about learning Chinese, then head outside of your syllabus. Download Pleco, a free app which allows you to draw characters you don’t understand and discover their meanings. Listen to audio recordings of your work, memorise songs, read news articles, subscribe to The Chairman’s Bao! To succeed at Chinese is above all about taking your own initiative – don’t leave your newly learned Chinese at the door when class ends or when the homework sheet is done!
Conclusion: 超群绝伦 (超群絕倫) – chaoqunjuelun (exceeding all expectations)
To conclude, if you treat Chinese as a personal journey, approaching it with passion, determination, resolve and personal initiative, you will be surprised at how far you will go. Despite my lasting commitments to the language, it doesn’t mean I haven’t expressed doubts or inadequacy at it during times. I wondered myself how it is possible to memorise thousands of characters and write them with swiftness and precision. Despite having being reproved so many times by teachers about tones, pronunciation, grammar and Character strokes, I didn’t give up and soon, I found I was doing better than I expected. If you are a beginner in Chinese, you too can 超群绝伦. This is your opportunity, your journey, remember these phrases and get to work!