Nathan Michaelson '13: Chinese is Hard

Nathan Michaelson was one of the 2014-2016 Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his second year narrative.

Learning Chinese is hard. It goes without saying, of course, that learning any new foreign language is hard, although the degree of difficulty depends on a slew of factors, ranging from individual personality, learning style, previous languages learned, amount of exposure, hobbies, etc. Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean are all considered “Category 5” languages, and as such are the most difficult languages for native English speakers to learn, requiring at least 88 weeks or 2200 hours to achieve proficiency in speaking and reading; to compare, French, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish, among others, are considered “Category 1” languages that are closely related to English, and only require 23-24 weeks (600 hours) of study. (Source: Despite countless hours of French study, two years of university Japanese, a year of university Arabic, and some Hebrew, I came to China without knowing any Chinese at all. I would have to start that 2,200 hours on the ground.

But I’m getting ahead of myself—what exactly is “Chinese?” Most Chinese immigrants in the USA either speak Mandarin or Cantonese, but in China, every place has its distinct dialect (or language, depending on who you ask), including Hokkien (闽南话), Hakka (客家话), Shanghainese (上海话). In Taigu, I get asked by fruit sellers, taxi drivers, and children if I can speak “Taiguhua” 太谷话, a subdivision of the 晋 Jin dialect spoken by 45 million people in parts of Shanxi, Hebei, Shaanxi, and Inner Mongolia; the only sentence that I have retained after 2 years is “wo ke fu (我喝水)”, or “I drink water.” Taigu is located in a valley and was historically separated from other communities, so Taiguhua is vastly different from the dialect in Yuci, located about 45 minutes away, which is different from the dialect in Southern Taiyuan City, which is different from the dialect in Northern Taiyuan City, which is… It goes without saying that there is incredible linguistic diversity in just the 50 or so miles surrounding Taigu, let alone Shanxi province.

Sometimes, characters are really hard to read, but extremely pretty (Qiao Family Compound, Oct. 2015).

Therefore, during my time in China—and in the present report—, I’ve defined Chinese for myself as Standard Mandarin, the variant of Chinese taught at Oberlin and abroad. It is largely based on the spoken Chinese in the northwest provinces, taking a great deal of influence from the vocabulary and pronunciation standards in Beijing. It serves as a lingua franca in Mainland China and Taiwan, and is the preferred dialect outside of Hong Kong for TV shows, movies, news reports, and radio programs. To clarify, when I say Chinese, I am referring to Mandarin, or as I quickly learned upon arrival in Beijing, 普通话 pǔtōnghuà (literally, the common speech) in Mainland China, 汉语 hànyǔ (literally the language of the Han) both in China and abroad, 国语 guóyǔ (literally, the national language) in Taiwan, and 华语 huáyǔ (literally, the language of China) in Malaysia and Singapore. Not confusing at all, right?

As the previous example shows, the various regional, political, and historical reasons and regional dialects influence regional accents of Mandarin. My own Mandarin is influenced by the various Shanxi accents I encounter daily, even though I began learning the more standard, northern-style Mandarin. My current vernacular is a jumble of words I have picked up from Taigu, but also from my travels around China. Every time I have travelled someplace new, I not only have to retrain my ear to understand the local accent (发音), but I also need to be aware of countless regional variants.

Learning a native language is by definition an unconscious process that starts from birth, and as such requires a great deal of external input to override one’s innate sense of what is “right” or “wrong.”As a second language learning starting from scratch as an adult (whatever that means), it’s fun having the option to consciously pick and choose which words consciously enter my speech, actively evolving my own accent (taking into account where I am, which situations I am involved in, who I am talking to, which register to use, etc.). Many of the words I have learned in my textbook sound too formal or bookish (书面), or people flat out don’t understand me when I try to use them, depending on where I am. During my summer language training in Beijing, I was taught to ask my Chinese 同屋 tóngwù (roommate) to help me take the 公共汽车 gōnggòngqìchē; once I arrived in Taigu, my students talked about their many 室友 shìyóu crammed into a single dormitory, and quickly learned how to navigate the 公交车 gōngjiāochē to get around town. In Beijing, you take the 地铁 dìtiě (subway) everywhere; in Shanghai, the 轨道交通 guǐdàojiāotōng is your best friend. I especially love some Taiwanese variants of common words, and often sometimes have trouble remembering to use the less colorful standard word in the Mainland: 红薯 hóngshǔ (sweet potato, literally “red potato”) pales in comparison to 地瓜 dìguā (ground melon), and I usually can only remember to say the Taiwanese 凤梨 fènglí (pineapple, literally “phoenix pear”) as opposed to 菠萝 bōluó.

On the other hand, as a teacher of American English, I encourage my students to pick one regional variant of English and focus on perfecting that. This is both a personal and practical choice. On the personal side, it sounds a little strange to me to hear a Chinese student speaking English with mostly American pronunciation, but British grammar and words, as is often the case of students that learn English through the Chinese education system. As a speaker of Midwestern American English colored by my mother’s Detroit accent and my upbringing in Chicago, I may be a bit biased, though. Of course, to be a proficient English speaker and communicator, it is important to be aware of multiple varieties of English, differences in register, formality, and spoken/written English, etc. However, my personal linguistic experience unconsciously affects what I consider “right” or “wrong”, and my work in the classroom can only do so much. I need to pick my battles, and decide if what my student said was objectively or subjectively a mistake. We four foreign teachers don’t even agree about word choice or pronunciation (see the “Big Biopic: ‘baɪəʊpɪk or ˈbaɪoʊpɪk argument of 2015”), but there are only so many times that you can hear “Have a try!”, referring to the track as a “playground”, “A-P-P”, or someone asking “How do you express ~ in English” before you feel that some intervention is necessary, although these mistakes weren’t large enough to hinder communication. I want my students to feel more comfortable speaking English, but it was difficult to not try and unconsciously force my own English speaking style on my students.

Practically speaking, in a developing country like China, it is an unfortunate consequence of Western influence that speaking English brings power, both in personal and professional settings. Knowing English, especially in a more rural area like Taigu, can give someone a lot of face 面子 and increased social standing within certain circles. A student and I recently took a train ride to Taiyuan, spending most of the hour-long ride talking in English. As we were getting off the train, an older man told my student in heavily accented Mandarin, “Your English is so good! How did you get so good!” Professionally, English has become a necessary tool to succeed. If a student can study abroad—and only a small handful of students either have the connections or funds to study abroad—they can both fulfill their dream of watching an NBA game live, but also return to China with a certain level of social and academic prestige. In order to become a professor at NongDa teachers are now required to publish a certain number of papers in English, must pass yet another English exam (PETS, or Public English Test System), and must spend time studying and/or working abroad. On that same train ride to Taiyuan, I noticed the man sitting across from me repeating everything I said quietly under his breath, using my private conversation as a free English lesson (although, as one of a handful of foreigners in Taigu and living in a beautiful red brick “Foreign Expert House”, not much that I do in Taigu is actually private). As such, being a (white, American) native English speaker in China brings with it a lot of power, for better or worse. As an outsider in China, I can’t dismantle the current system influenced by Western imperialism that emphasizes English, but I can use my power to help students and professors meet their ever-growing list of requirements needed to succeed.

Your Chinese is so good!

If you ask any (non-Asian) foreigner in China if they have heard this sentence, chances are they have; outside of Beijing, whenever I meet someone new and only say hello (你好 nǐhǎo) I’m met with this sentence. I hate hearing this sentence, but have learned to answer with a smile and a short 哪里哪里 or 没有没有 to humbly say that it is not. In China, most foreigners (outside of Beijing) are either tourists, English teachers, or involved in business (as an Oberlin grad, I have no idea what they are involved in… Business? Banking? Marketing?), and a large portion can’t speak Chinese. As a foreigner in China, it is usually possible to find a community of other foreigners to spend time with, making it easy to not learn Chinese.

However, I came to China ready to learn Chinese as a cultural detective, hoping to learn about cultural differences between China and the USA through my every day interactions and eventually adapt as well as possible to life in China. In the West, understanding of China has long been clouded by orientalism and cultural superiority, leading to many cultural misunderstandings. As such, I came to China with a mostly blank slate. Before my time as a Shansi fellow, I lived in France, where I realized that studying a foreign language is the best proxy for studying a different culture, which is usually hidden and intangible. Language acts as a framework through which we can look at culture, by viewing what is— or isn’t— included. In China, Chinese culture is considered a monolithic entity that links the last 5,000 years of history to today. Whereas Modern English has words and expressions from Latin, Greek, Middle English, and Shakespeare, Chinese has 5,000 years’ worth of proverbs, 4 character set phrases (成语chéngyǔ), classical phrases, philosophy (Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, etc.) and idioms. It is this complexity and connection to history that makes Chinese extremely difficult for Americans to learn, and unfortunately lends to the often-held belief that the Chinese language, and Chinese culture, are too complicated for foreigners to understand. But I came to China determined to learn at least some Chinese in order to be a better cultural detective.

In much of the country, especially in more remote or rural places where there are fewer interactions with foreigners, foreigners aren’t expected to know any Chinese at all. I catch people in Taigu talking about me (and my white skin and relatively curly hair) all the time. During my travels around the country, I was often met with tentative and hesitant English from waiters and waitresses who assumed I couldn’t speak any Chinese; I loved responding in Chinese and seeing their look of surprise, excitement, and relief. When I first starting teaching in Taigu, I wanted to use this assumption in class to motivate students to speak English with me and with each other. However, I quickly realized that many of my students had very low speaking and listening levels, but comparatively high reading levels, so this didn’t work as I had wished. Despite what I had seen in many books about English language pedagogy, speaking a little Chinese in class, or allowing my students to explain directions to me in Chinese has been crucial to allowing class to run smoothly and facilitating understanding, especially when an emergency or special situation arises.


Although I have done pretty well studying Chinese since I arrived in China, my motivation has waxed and waned, usually corresponding to linguistic plateaus. My Chinese has improved since I got to China (of course, when you arrive with nothing, it’s only natural to get better), but recently, I haven’t had enough time to meet with my tutor and study Chinese. Instead, I have spent more time hanging out with friends and talking informally in Chinese with them. Finding friends who are willing to speak Chinese to me, and not use me for free English lessons was hard, and was something that I struggled with a lot my first year in Taigu. As my relationship with my friends have grown, however, it has had the opposite effect on my Chinese, unfortunately. As we get closer, I tend to speak faster, making more mistakes and sounding overall more incomprehensible. Finding friends who will correct my Chinese in a constructive way is hard, so we subconsciously switch over to English to maintain the relationship. It’s great for our friendship, but not so great for my Chinese.

To help me study, I put many post it notes with various characters with their pinyin all around the house. [Boom the cat]

My first year of the fellowship, I had two Chinese tutors who I met with 2-3 hours per week. I learned a lot of vocabulary, both from the textbooks we used and from living in China. You learn the strangest vocabulary just by living abroad and encountering words in the uncontrollable environment outside of the classroom. I’ve lost track of the amount of times that we would run across a new vocabulary word in a lesson that I had learned a few months, or even a year, prior. One of the first phrases I learned in Chinese 101 in Beijing was 空气污染很严重 (“The air pollution is very serious.”). It was something that I was often preoccupied with when I first arrived, and it ended up coming up every day in class. It’s not something I have said in a long time.

A visit to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City in Beijing with the Japan Fellows (Dec. 2015) [Chris, me, Ariel, and Chul]

My Chinese is far from perfect, and I am still nervous doing many things aside from ordering food. However, my tutors were invaluable in helping me understand the points in which American and Chinese culture meet, disagree, and cause problems. For example, China is a high-context culture, whereas America is a low-context one. In the USA, what we say explicitly is what we mean, and there are few codes used in order to communicate an idea; in China, a shared cultural context and relationship lead to mutual understanding, and ideas are implied rather than directly stated. As a beginning language student used to a high-context way of looking at things, I was too focused on gleaning the explicit meaning of what someone said to understand the implied subtext. My entire first year, I was blissfully unaware of the unspoken intricacies of saving, giving, and most importantly, losing face. I cringe thinking about how many times I must have accidentally made someone (i.e. my students) lose face, or when I didn’t realize that someone was merely trying to save face when they told a white lie to my face.


As interesting as learning about Chinese culture is, I only have learned about a small fraction in my 2 years. It was naïve to think I could understand everything about the 5,000 years of Chinese culture in only 2 shorts years! In addition, through my study of Chinese, my focus on living in China shifted from being a cultural detective to being a linguistic investigator. Languages are cool, and I love learning languages, figuring out grammatical puzzles and developing a new way of thinking and seeing the world. I’ve learned so much about Chinese grammar and my hand is sore from writing hundreds of thousands of characters. More importantly, learning Chinese has allowed me to reflect on what makes English different from Chinese, and vice versa.

My student, Jason, [second from the right] invited me to a food festival on campus where I could try many delicious local specialties, including wine produced on campus! (October 2015)
Visiting the Dragon Backbone Rice Terrace near Guilin (Jan 2016)
Buying fare cards in Beijing (Nov. 2015) [Theo, Maisy, and Liam]
My student April leads the class in a discussion on the Pros and Cons of owning a pet (March 2016)
My third-year English major students (June 2015)
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