Why do you want to learn Mandarin?

It’s not a simple question to answer, not because I don’t have an answer, but because with any other language I’ve studied I’ve never had to answer it. French is sexy, cool. Spanish is easy, practical. On the other hand, Mandarin is hard, unintuitive.

Or at least these are the stereotypes. So instead of delving into the whys, and inadvertently get pulled into dismantling stereotypes of a language that I haven’t even started learning yet, I just duck for cover:

I want to do it because it’s hard. I want to see if I can do it. And I want to know more about China.  That’s it.

Why Beijing?

We picked Beijing because they speak Mandarin everywhere. It’s not commonly known outside of China, but while Mandarin is the official language, there are many different dialects, local languages and region variances that mean that someone coming from Northern China might speak Mandarin, but someone in the South might speak Cantonese. This isn’t like the difference between Italian and Spanish where a person might be able to apply one language to the other — instead one language is indecipherable to a native speaker of other languages in China.

So we didn’t want to go to Shanghai to learn Mandarin, because the shop owners and taxi drivers and people on the street would all be speaking Shanghainese, which is of course, nothing like Mandarin, although they speak that too.

In fact, Beijing isn’t even the best place to learn Mandarin necessarily because they have a heavy accent that adds an ‘r’ sound to the end of words. We’d be better off further north, in a place like Harbin, where they speak a very clear version of Mandarin. And of course, it’s near Russia and drops to -30 F in the winter. Suddenly the 20-30 F smoggy weather in Beijing doesn’t look so bad.

Will you learn to read and write too?

Yes, that’s the goal.  It’s estimated that in order to be fluent in written Chinese, you need to know 3,000 characters.  The interesting thing is that it’s not a straight line to fluency.  The first 100 characters you learn have the biggest bang in terms of overall fluency and the closer you get to 3,000 then more your improvement drops off.  There are lists of characters by their frequency of use, so if you study the most common ones first, your first 100 represents an overall 42% understanding (for example if you picked up a newspaper and tried to read it).  By 1,000 characters you’re at a whopping 89% understanding.  At 2,000 you’re at 97%.

100 characters → 42% understanding 1600 characters → 95.0% understanding
200 characters → 55% understanding 1700 characters → 95.5% understanding
300 characters → 64% understanding 1800 characters → 96.0% understanding
400 characters → 70% understanding 1900 characters → 96.5% understanding
500 characters → 75% understanding 2000 characters → 97.0% understanding
600 characters → 79% understanding 2100 characters → 97.4% understanding
700 characters → 82% understanding 2200 characters → 97.7% understanding
800 characters → 85% understanding 2300 characters → 98.0% understanding
900 characters → 87% understanding 2400 characters → 98.3% understanding
1000 characters → 89% understanding 2500 characters → 98.5% understanding
1100 characters → 90% understanding 2600 characters → 98.7% understanding
1200 characters → 91% understanding 2700 characters → 98.9% understanding
1300 characters → 92% understanding 2800 characters → 99.0% understanding
1400 characters → 93% understanding 2900 characters → 99.1% understanding
1500 characters → 94% understanding 3000 characters → 99.2% understanding


Since I’m spending 6 months in Beijing or about 180 days, if I learn just one character per day, I’d be at about 50% understanding.  In order to be fluent, I need to aim for about 17 new characters per day.  Even if I fail and only learn half of what I try to memorize each day, I’ll be at 94% understanding when I pick up the paper.

I don’t know if makes a difference knowing these numbers, but somehow they are reassuring to me.  It helps to know that any effort I make will have a big return on fluency from the beginning.

How will I do all of this?

I’m still a writer and photographer.  I’m still a mom.  These are all choices I’ve made over time, but it also means that I have to work a little harder than most people to fit in all the things I want to do.

My Mon – Fri schedule:

5 AM Wake, coffee, shower, breakfast

6 AM Exercise (or staring into space)

7 AM Writing, checking email and answer student questions for my online workshop

8 AM Writing/research

9 AM Writing/research

10 AM Private Mandarin lessons

11 AM Private Mandarin lessons

12 PM Lunch, shopping at the market

1 PM Private Mandarin lessons

2 PM Private Mandarin lessons

3 PM Reading

4 PM Study Mandarin

5 PM Cook

6 PM Watch Mandarin movies + family time

So that’s about four hours of writing a day and five hours of Mandarin.  I’m giving myself the weekends off to explore, take photos, spend time with Drew and Cole.  It’s actually not too bad, because I’ve become quite efficient as a writer (an unintended gift of motherhood) and even when I’m not writing, I’m mentally preparing to write — which is almost 50% of my process as a writer.

In order to give myself this time, I’ve been spending many hours over the past year to automate the technical side of my blog, to kill off projects that were time sucks and to figure out a way to write with a sticky toddler crawling over my head (the key is to stop writing, play with the poor neglected child and once he’s bored with you, run back to your computer like a starving man to bread).

Will I fail?

Yes!  Maybe!  I don’t know!  But really, who cares?  I think it’s going to be awesome.  Well really, I have no idea what to expect, and that’s awesome.

What’s your big goal for 2012?

photos from inyucho & IvanWalsh.com