I’ve had a complicated relationship with Chinese languages. I learned my first Mandarin words 15 years ago when I was in junior high school. I managed to remember a number of words and expressions but never really got to any point where I could say I was actually studying the language.
Then came Cantonese. I was enamored by Jet Li’s early kung fu flicks as a teenager (which also kindled my interest in Chinese kung fu), so I naturally started picking up words from movies like Shaolin Temple and Fong Sai Yuk. But as with Mandarin, I didn’t progress much.
So neither my Mandarin nor Cantonese improved. I was learning more Cantonese, but since my learning materials were almost exclusively limited to movies, I had problems constructing sentences of my own, and never quite felt confident about using Chinese grammar correctly. I could only mimic phrases I kept hearing on the screen like 你死啊 or 我去練功.
My Mandarin was worse. I didn’t watch movies or TV shows in Mandarin so I was only collecting random words from websites—in written form—so my tones were wrong.
In Chinese, a word like shui jiao can have numerous meanings based on how it’s pronounced. By using accent marks, or diacriticals, in Latin alphabet based Chinese (a.k.a. pinyin), we can represent Chinese words phonetically. For example, shuì jiào (睡覺) would mean to sleep, whereas shuǐ jiǎo (水餃) would refer to boiled dumplings.
In the end, I gave up learning Chinese altogether. The complicated tonal system was too intimidating for me to be motivated to continue.
So until June 2011 my knowledge of Mandarin was obsolete. If I had met a Chinese-speaking friend in college and said Wo bu zhi dao, he would’ve understood me only because it was too obvious. Saying anything other than that would’ve confused him.
When I joined the military I ended up having a lot of time to kill during the evenings so I wanted to make better use of the free time, so I thought I might as well start learning a foreign language. Since I had had some former experience with Spanish (I was quite satisfied with the results I gained from the Pimsleur Spanish language program), I took up Spanish again.
But later I got the idea to give Chinese another shot. And although Spanish was interesting and yielding good results, my gut told me I should rather invest that energy into my long-lost passion. It was just a matter of taste for me. Chinese just resonated better with me, and I’ve always felt that knowing a little bit of some form of Chinese would enrich my linguistic appreciation the Japanese language mainly through etymology and other similarities.
So I began to look for free online lessons on YouTube. Had I not found these free Chinese courses (taught in Japanese), I don’t think I would’ve continued. I’m grateful to have had access to such a wonderful resource.
But what originally kept me studying was the distraction-free time I had while serving in the military. That enabled me to develop a habit. And now that I’m working full time, I still have an enduring urge to keep learning more.