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What your biggest challenge learning Chinese?


GaoJinJie

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I've reached a stage at which I can communicate with Chinese speakers relatively well but I can't see progress as clearly as I did as a true beginner. I feel like I am hitting the 'intermediate plateau'. 

 

This has resulted in me thinking much more about how I learn Chinese. In particular, I've been wondering whether people tend to have the same challenges at the same level of Chinese? 

 

Of course, there will be common challenges (e.g., difficulty with tones when you begin learning Chinese) but what about something like vocabulary; when do people have challenges with that?

 

So I figured I would ask here in the forums. It would be a good opportunity for us to share stories and help each other overcome some of these difficulties.

 

What stage of Chinese are you at and what is your biggest challenge with learning Chinese?

 

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I am at an advanced level, and the advantage to that is I can almost exclusively concentrate on usage, which has been one of the biggest challenges since the beginning. It seems like an endless challenge, and as the word suggests, usage usually improves with use. Just a few examples are:

 

1. what verb to use for what situation  For example there are several different verbs that mean to carry, depending on how you are carrying something. Teaching in a Chinese preschool where 3/4 of my coworkers only speak Chinese has really helped me with nitty gritty verb usage, and also helped me get in the habit of using them naturally with direction words such as 起来,下去,etc. 

2. measure words and corresponding nouns

3. which words are too formal for conversational Chinese and belong almost exclusively to the written language. For example there are a slew of function words that are found almost exclusively in written Chinese such as 所 as an object marker, and 则 or  便 for 就.

 

Usage is important if you want your Chinese to sound natural. For beginners, it's important that you don't keep your nose buried in flash cards. Get out and use the language. Real- life practice will pay off over time, especially with regards to usage.

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I'm at an intermediate plateau as well. I have Chinese speaking friends whom don't speak English. For language tasks I do commonly, I have no problem but it's the new situations and the more complex ideas that I want to communicate where I run into trouble.

 

I've also been less active with studying averaging about 4 - 6 hours a week and only 2 of those are with a tutor, though to be fair I spent another 6 - 10 hours a week at a minimum using the language. I pick up new vocabulary here and there from usage and some reading, but at a slow rate. I recognized I need to be much more active if I want to get to advanced Chinese.

 

I've been going back to and working to solidify my grammar as much of my Chinese study has been informal. I'm getting better at putting together more complex phrases accurately.

 

I've also been working at being more accurate with speaking using correct intonation in full sentences. This is a pain and it's been highly frustrating, but I'm starting to make some breakthroughs. Granted, people generally understand me now, but I know there is room to improve. I think it's also helping my tone recognition, when other people speak though I've been able to copy other's tones. I just didn't always know which tone it was without a lot of thinking about it.

 

If I was more motivated, I'd start watching Chinese talk shows and movies more. I'd also read a lot more than I am. I'm using graded readers for those who can read 1200 or so characters.

 

I'm starting to get better at picking up usage as Xiao Kui above talks about. As my grammar improves it's my vocabulary knowledge and my weakness around usage that is holding me back the most.

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What stage of Chinese are you at and what is your biggest challenge with learning Chinese?

 

Late 2015 and so far in 2016 when I look quickly at bilingual signs, my eye is first drawn to the Hanzi and not to the English. It just happened on its own without any specific effort.

 

Also this year I've noticed that I don't have to repeat things as often when talking with locals. And I seldom get that "Are you from another planet?" rude stare when I approach someone with a question.

 

Last year and this year I found I don't have to rehearse as much before tackling new conversational material. Just jump in and rephrase if what I'm trying to say isn't clear first time around.

 

I get the gist of most things I watch on (Chinese) TV at full native speed, though sometimes details are not entirely clear. Always keep my phone-based dictionary handy for word lookups when watching.

 

Where I'm sorely lacking is in reading ability. Still cannot read Chinese stories for pleasure; they remain a grueling chore. Newspaper articles must be "manually decoded" word by painful word.

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I've been milling around in that intermediate plateau for a few years now. My biggest challenge is listening comprehension, by a mile. Reading's fine but still slow, and I have a weird vision problem which is holding things up a bit.

Regarding your vocabulary point: Today in Taiwan, a bloke at Uniqlo told me they won't do returns on the socks I was buying. So many words I didn't know that the whole sentence might as well have been Finnish. I looked like an idiot.

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I'm not sure what level I'm at, but I'm strongest at reading, then listening, talking, and finally writing. At the bottom of the scale is writing by hand. My biggest struggle (because I'm not in an immersion environment) is finding time to settle down with a Chinese book, and then the next big struggle is staying awake when I do so. My best study time is on trains, when there's very little distraction and I have to stay awake. Even then it's tough.

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It's funny how different people can be. Other than that initial phase of learning stroke order1, I find that remembering how to write a word is so easy - relative to listening especially - that it can be done almost incidentally, it seems to me, even almost while resting from the incomparably harder work of listening and conversing, like, "Wah, I'm totally exhausted. I'll do my writing deck now".

 

If I could attack listening and conversation directly, and then learn to read and write those words incidentally as I just said, then I would, as I do believe in that. But I myself can't imagine how to do the former (despite having good threads on the subject here) without looking at words and writing them down, to capture them. And that's my answer to the original question: the hardest thing is decrypting a continuous stream of sound and then replying/answering/arguing back at it with my own continuous stream of sound. I find it hard to believe that this isn't everybody's biggest challenge - especially considering additional problems such as accents and variations in enunciation in the real world, etc. - but I did already acknowledge how different people can be.

 

1And although I don't like mentioning this, the most common use-case of handwriting these days is into a touch screen I think, and the major IMEs are stroke-order tolerant now. Of course, if you can handwrite only to this degree it is a convenient way to look up something you don't know how to say.

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Querido, I certainly agree that different people have different learning styles and that some things may come easy to Mary but not to Mike. I can hear something said casually once or twice today and repeat it for you tomorrow, using the new word or phrase more or less correctly. But when I practice writing characters, I must write each one many, many times and an hour later they are forgotten.

 

I suppose it's also true that environment plays a significant part. I live in China and spend all day, every day interacting in Chinese. Almost never use English with friends or out on the street. So if I cannot understand people and make myself understood, the frustration is intense and it spurs me to take whatever measures are needed to remedy the communication gap. It is always urgent and always a priority task.

 

But when I'm in my apartment alone of an evening, I get lazy. Read English books, mainly use the English-language internet, type posts here in English and so on. Must force myself to read and write Chinese. Do it for a while, then revert to English.

 

I do watch Chinese TV, but aside from sending text messages or QQ chat back and forth to my Chinese friends, English is the default when I am alone. Not too surprising that reading and writing remain my biggest challenge. I shy away from them.

 

Reason would dictate that I would immediately hammer out a plan of attack to conquer the obstacle that reading and writing pose, but I'm ashamed to admit that most of my attempts are halfhearted and lame. Do I really not care about being mostly illiterate? My words say one thing and my deeds say another. We all know that action speaks louder than words.

 

Maybe 2016 will finally be the year I can make some progress and turn this situation around.

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2 years 3 weeks progress.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fBj6zbBA8pA

 

The hardest thing is the Chinese culture. Specially Mainland! I can say a lot but I don't know if I'm crossing the line as I keep my American sense of humor while speaking Chinese

It's easy to get along with Taiwanese.

I don't consider ABCs  or Taiwanese-American culturally Chinese only ethnically since they do a lot of things that I would do if I was them as well.

I don't even like the term ABC! They are simply as American as me and I'm also a minority!
 

Increasing vocabulary seems more difficult than grammar. I can practice grammar patterns until I master them, but it's likely I'll forget words I learned and never used.

I can now follow conversations I am not involved in and I am familiar with the topic!! This is a big motivator because previously on the forum I had mentioned how difficult it was to eavesdrop conversations that you are not part of!   

Again, following movies is difficult, but I can follow 機器貓  to certain extent.

 

I can only hand-write 180 traditional characters. I can read more but this is definitively illiterate. I purposely did this since I never knew I would make it this far in studying Chinese and actually use it. So I put more time in speaking and listening. I don't plan to learn more than 1,200 characters in my life time. Mainly because I use DeFrancis books to learn traditional Hanzi and I can't see myself using another method to learn how to write or a need to know more than what DeFrancis taught, 1,200 characters.

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[bEGIN to abcdefg]:

"I must write each one many, many times and an hour later they are forgotten."

I never practice writing like that. I answer a flashcard, either can or can't, and continue as usual.

Also, as I'm doing these flashcards I'm continually reading the *other* words in my corpus and probably spending a fraction of a second over each one that isn't totally familiar yet ((this is cheating, but real-world cheating, as in the real world (if we're consuming Chinese) we continually see words that will be on our flashcards later)). This is another great reason to take our words from longer pieces, as we can review-schedule a book with hundreds or thousands of different words, and let that stand - as soon as we're able - in place of all of those flashcards we would otherwise be doing. So, maybe it would help if you develop a habit, when you read, of keeping this requirement in the back of your mind - that you should remember those shapes for writing. I do (keep this in mind while I read) because I'm doing my best to hang on to everything.

"type posts here in English and so on. Must force myself to read and write Chinese"

Yes, it's a problem. (And I'll mention it here in this willfully-boring block of text where nobody will notice it.) There was a time when I was at my peak in Mandarin when I was reading/writing a lot of emails and getting pretty credible. Now in Cantonese I'm pathetic again, and this time spent in English is not helping this, yes.

"Maybe 2016 will finally be the year"

Brother, I'm saying the same thing but focused on listening/conversing in Cantonese. Let's wish us luck and hard work, smart work. :-)

[END to abcdefg]

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Thanks for those tips and your words of encouragement, @Querido.

 

#9 -- Pokarface

 

The hardest thing is the Chinese culture. Specially Mainland! I can say a lot but I don't know if I'm crossing the line as I keep my American sense of humor while speaking Chinese

 

Understanding culture takes time, sensitivity and immersion. Furthermore, humor is the hardest thing to get right in any foreign language. If I'm going to try and tell a Chinese friend a joke, I must preface it with a long wind-up beforehand or it flops.

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Time!

 

This is why I want to be a full-time student of Chinese next year. Giving myself more time and making my study the main focus will give me a fighting chance in jumping up the Chinese ladder (well, duh!).

 

I am a bit 工作狂 this year. I do enjoy my job and the high-octane set-up that I have, but it'll be good to step away from it for a year and put Chinese study on the front burner--I am excited about my prospects in following this plan, as I am also hoping that I will directly use Chinese for my future professional endeavors.

 

Warm regards,

Chris Two Times

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What stage of Chinese are you at and what is your biggest challenge with learning Chinese?

 

I feel like I'm comfortably past the intermediate plateau and that is a big relief. I spent a solid couple years there and which I wrote more about here. These past few weeks I've been trying to jump into more native content. The challenge for me is finding something that I actually find interesting, which often goes hand in hand with being intellectually stimulating. I'm currently trying out some edx and coursera courses for Peking University and other Chinese universities but they seem to use so many technical words that it feel not-fun. The first few lessons were great, but once it got past the introductory part and started really teaching content, I felt lost. 

 

On the flip side, if I look at native level children's material there are so many childish words that I don't know, which tends to be even more frustrating. So, in many ways my biggest challenge is vocabulary. My old way of doing Anki no longer seems relevant as I move into more advanced words. I'm finding I enjoy learning in context more. Maybe it's time I return to 《撒哈拉的故事》as opposed to this 3000 word graded reader? I'm hesitant because the graded reader has plenty of words for me to learn, yet, and confidently knowing all of it's contents when it intentionally limits itself to 3000 words seems like a good goal...?

 

My written characters aren't bad and my grammar has improved a lot just due to raw immersion (though it's very informal grammar). I still don't think I could write anything beyond paragraphs in Chinese right now, though. 

 

So, where I'm at right now is just trying to learn something by way of using Chinese. I'm enjoying doing the edX course on intermediate business Chinese at 1.5 speaking speed but I already know how to use phrases like 虽然。。。但是。。。

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In terms of where I am right now, I am basically what most people would consider fluent and/or native-level in Chinese, even though I still have a lot of linguistic blind spots. I do not actively learn and/or study Chinese any more (and I stopped active Chinese language studies around 2011 or thereabouts).

 

However, because of how spotty my Chinese language learning was, I do remember what challenges I faced at varying levels of Chinese, and hindsight is (as always) 20/20. Since I started learning Chinese as a child, I do not have a lot of similar problems that adult learners do in terms of sounding like a native speaker. My tones are fine about 80-90% of the time, and now that I am living in China, I am usually complimented on my amazing English (even though they should be complimenting me on my amazing Chinese).

 

When I first lived in China in 2008, I was at an advanced intermediate level, and my biggest problem at that time was mastering Chinese grammar and Chinese forms of expression. My biggest problem had always been when I express myself, because I basically thought in English, and then did an almost literal translation of my English sentence into Chinese. This then resulted in an incredibly awkward and stilted-sounding Chinese sentence. For whatever reason, the ten year break in Chinese studies was actually good for me, because once I really entered advanced level Chinese, I'd stopped (mostly) thinking in English, and most simple and intermediate-level sentences were expressed in mostly native-sounding Chinese. 

 

In terms of reading, my biggest block at the intermediate/advanced stage was parsing word-breaks, since the biggest stumbling block for me was knowing which characters should be grouped together. At that time, I used to read sentences one character at a time, which is actually counter-productive. I started focusing on what the verb, subject, and object was, and spent about 3-6 months marking them out in my text. I'd circle the verb, draw a square around the subject, and underline the object, and that helped. Then I got more sophisticated with my markings, and parsed out meaning groups, connectors, and so on. I stopped soon after though, because that just made for time consuming reading, but the few months I did that was very helpful in terms of making me more aware of what to look for in Chinese sentences, especially long, convoluted sentences.

 

At my current level, my problems are native-level expression, humor, and common slang terms. I do not worry about vocabulary, even though there are still words and characters I do not recognize in children's vocabulary books. I am more concerned that the vocabulary do know are the ones that I use most often, and I actually started a personal IT glossary for me to use when at work. After all, knowing how to say "gazelle" in Chinese is not relevant to my current job, but knowing how to discuss UI and backend issues is. I recently had to write a bilingual report analyzing the UI of a piece of software, and when I reread it, I started realizing just how awkward my Chinese expression gets when I try to write in long, overly complicated sentences. 

 

For me, my knowledge of literary Chinese, classical Chinese, "fun" Chinese is sorely lacking. However, I tend to be pretty strong in terms of technical jargon (because it is what I do), and in clear, concise (if not particularly natural) expression.

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the hardest part is that when you reach a "decent enough" level, it's hard to keep pushing yourself. i think it has something to do with diminishing returns. lets say you know 4,000 words and your Chinese is good enough 90% of the time. but if you want to be like a native speaker and know 8000+ words (rough example), including proper usage of some rarely used words... it's just an enormous amount of effort for seemingly little reward. i think that's why there are a lot of people who reach intermediate level, but few who go all the way.  

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@victor557 Something else to consider also is: is there a point to get that fluent other than "wanting to"?

 

I can pass as a native speaker 80% of the time, but I doubt I will ever get to that level. I'm at least 20 years behind the curve for a native speaker my age, and that's honestly okay with me. At the end of the day, I think that language is meant to be used, and just studying language for the language itself can only get a person so far. Using a language to communicate is a far more effective use of time, in my opinion. Can you communicate as effectively as you want to? Yes? Then there's no point in pushing yourself as hard, or there's less of a motivation to. If you can't communicate as effectively as you would like, then obviously there's a lot more motivation to study the language.

 

That's why I don't sweat the fact that I still don't recognize many characters around me. I eventually pick them up if they are important enough to me. If a character shows up enough times, I do make the effort to figure out what it is. However, as has been stated previously, if you're using something rarely, then it's a lot easier to forget it. That's why I'm a lot easier on myself in terms of vocabulary at my level. And I honestly think that by advanced-intermediate and advanced level, most people have already reached that stage where vocabulary isn't as important as other things like grammar and expression.

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And I honestly think that by advanced-intermediate and advanced level, most people have already reached that stage where vocabulary isn't as important as other things like grammar and expression.

I guess I've been reversing this. By advanced intermediate I'd think you've spent a lot of time working on grammar and getting a good handle on the more basic vocabulary. Advanced intermediate and beyond seems more like the jump into being able to discuss technical things which demands a rapidly growing vocabulary. Why do you think it is the reverse? Being at advanced low, this would be of some importance to me. Should I push really hard into perfecting my grammar with the words I have as opposed to increasing vocabulary? I was imagining that the nuance would figure itself out with more vocabulary and extensive exposure.

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