Chinese seems like the hardest language in the world to master. There are even studies confirming this. It’s only when you really get started with it, however, that you come to realise that those studies are entirely correct. The simple truth is Chinese is difficult. It has tones, characters and sounds that you physically can’t make with your mouth without having to contort it in weird and wonderful ways. All these barriers mean that mastering it is no walk in the park.
Sometimes I wander around Taiwan questioning why I decided to move to a country that speaks the hardest language in the world when I could have moved to France and mastered it in less than six months. Instead, I consistently order ‘sleep’ instead of ‘dumplings’ and tell people about ‘sharks’ instead of ‘rain’. (That’s the difference tone makes in a word.) Fortunately, the Taiwanese, being as lovely as they are, tend to give you the benefit of the doubt and guess what you’re actually talking about. But now and again, you’ll still manage to immerse them in a deep abyss of confusion with your terrible attempts at tones and pronunciation.
I remember in those first few days of touching down in Taiwan, I attempted the coffee order, the most valuable Chinese one can ever learn. I learned the style that I wanted, the size I wanted, how to ask for it hot or cold and I’d even mastered the numbers. I sauntered in confidently to the nearest 7/11 to show off, only to be knocked off my high horse immediately when they asked me if I wanted cream and sugar and I couldn’t even guess what they were talking about. I made the polite decision to smile and go red in the face instead. I also had mastered how to say that I didn’t understand, which is the second most valuable Chinese you can learn whilst living here.
Now, Chinese may well be deemed one of the hardest languages in the world to master, but life in Taiwan becomes a thousand times easier and more convenient if you at least try to learn it. You’ll start being able to read menus instead of just ordering things, ending up with a plate of chicken feet and going hungry and you’ll also start to understand the culture a lot more. Besides, if you’re living in a country that isn’t your own, then the polite thing to do is to give their language a go. After the first few months of learning, things will start to snowball. Those characters start to look achievable and you start to retain things a little more quickly. Some kind Taiwanese person might even tell you that you speak really well. Whether that’s true or not, it’s always nice to be told that all the effort you’re putting in is noticed.
I’m at a point now where I want to continue learning for the foreseeable future. It would seem like a terrible waste of my time to just give up and more importantly, I’d miss the bragging rights. My friends and family back home think it’s the most impressive thing in the world that I can communicate in Chinese, but then again they don’t know that the conversation they have just heard is probably me telling said person that I don’t understand what on Earth they’re saying to me.
About the Author
Ella is an English teacher in Taiwan and has been living and teaching in Asia for the last two years. She has loved seeing kids enjoy learning English. In her spare time Ella has been learning Chinese, climbing mountains and finding hidden waterfalls in Taiwan’s beautiful countryside. You can check out her adventures on her Instagram https://www.instagram.com/ella.watson93/ or read about them on her blog www.byebyeblighty.wordpress.com.