What I Learned from 300 Days of Mandarin

One chilly afternoon a year ago, I decided I was going to learn Mandarin Chinese.

There was no obvious motivation for my decision ― I didn’t know anybody well who spoke the language, my family had no ties to China, and I had no prior knowledge ― but, I had a computer, no commitments for the rest of the night (a rarity), and time to kill.

And that was all I needed. After flipping open my laptop to do some quick background research, I downloaded Duolingo (the only app I knew for language learning at the time), began the English to Mandarin course, and embarked on a 300-day journey to learn the basics of Mandarin. I knew from my initial research that it was a difficult language to learn and a harder one to master, so I set a goal of 15 minutes a day. I killed that goal ― overall, I estimate I averaged close to an hour of daily practice and recitation.


Long time no see

Mandarin Chinese is a fascinating language. Unlike other languages regularly taught in school like Spanish, French, or Latin, Mandarin uses characters (see above) to represent concepts, rather than letters. What's the difference, you may ask? In most letter-based languages, 30 to 20 letters combine to form words, which convey ideas. In character-based languages, there can be tens of thousands of characters, each conveying its own idea. The cherry on top is that how characters appear rarely correlates to what they convey or how they sound. If three year-old you thought learning 26 letters was hard, imagine thousands of characters!

But, as I started learning my first few characters, I found that the rote memorization of characters wasn't as bad as I thought. If you stretch your imagination a bit, you can tell a short story with each character to help remember them better.

zhōng màn

The words below the characters above are Pinyin, a "go between" between English and Mandarin that help English speakers pronounce characters.

For example, take the first character above, pronounced "zhōng". I remember it as a bell with a crack down the middle ― the bell helps me remember the pronunciation, "zhōng", and the perfectly centered crack helps me remember the meaning, "middle".

I remember the second character, "màn", as a man in a suit of armor blocking the way remembering the man helps me recall the pronunciation, "màn", and the clunky armor reminds me of the character's meaning, "slow".

The last character, "hē", appears to me as an office water cooler with a stack of cups to the left. The water in the cooler conveys the meaning, "to drink", and I like to think of the pronunciation, "hē", as one of the gurgles in the machine as it dispenses.

Okay, maybe the last one was a bit of a stretch trying to come up with stories for each character can feel like trying to finding meaning in a ink blot test, and sometimes I have to just memorize but overall, the characters with the stories behind them were the ones I remembered the best.

Coming up with stories was fun, and the fun was what motivated me to continue.

But, as three hundred days came and went (I soon realized that using only Duolingo wasn't quite cutting it), and as I dug deeper into the foundations of the language and my daily practice sessions went from flying by to dragging on, I realized I wasn't having fun anymore.

So, I stopped.

After doing some reflection, here's what I learned:

  • While planning is helpful the majority of the time, sometimes spontaneity can give you the kick to get going. As celebrity Shia LaBeouf famously said, just do it!

  • If you can't find significance, make your own. Fun makes time fly, and stories can make work more engaging.

  • Realize when you need to take a break. If you're not having fun anymore, think twice about your situation.

Will I ever return to Mandarin? Perhaps. I'm nowhere near full understanding of the language, and while my written skills are passable, my listening and speaking are almost nonexistent; I would like to become fluent eventually. Regardless, I'll take my takeaways with me.



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Photo Credit: Original Screencapture (Sun Tzu's The Art of War)