Four kinds of mistakes that show my process in learning Chinese

“I never ever gonna learn this language” I complain to my room-mate who just came home from work. Mildly smiling she just answers “Ah – it’s one of THESE days.”

Learning Chinese sends me from euphoric moments (“I asked a question today. And I was understood. And I understood the answer! I am so talented I will learn this in no time and soon have conversations in Chinese!”) to these down moments where I am sure, I’ll never ever gonna get anywhere with this language. My ears, my tongue and my voice are not made to recognize or reproduce this language. My brain sometimes simply seems to refuse using the grammar rules.

Focusing only on speaking (no writing or listening) there are four mistakes that feel like they are language-specific and I am happily fascinated at them in times (other times they frustrate me.) but right now, my fascination. As well: They do show I am making some progress. If I would still mess up the first three, no-one would realize I am making the fourth kind of mistake. (Imagine me nodding with a VERY proud smile on my face)

  1. The wrong tone
    Chinese is always referred to having four different tones (let’s see if you agree with me once you finished this column). You kind of have to sing the language and the tones tell you, how. There is the high level tone, where your voice shouldn’t change at all. The rising tone where your voice goes up and you speak somewhat softer. The falling and raising tone where your voice first falls and then rises again. The falling tone where your voice falls and you sound rather sharp. And then there is the “no-tone”-tone. (Yes, the no-tone-tone is the actually the fifth one). So not being used to tones having this kind of meaning I often get them wrong because I forget them. Or I simply can’t do it. Was hard work until I produced an acceptable high-tone for the very first time…
    At the moment I am struggeling the worst with the second tone – so badly, that my teacher looks even surprised when I do it. So many times she looks at me and says “Remember? This is second tone!” and I answer in despair “I remember. I was trying to do second tone!”

  2. The wrong pronunciation
    In Chinese the correct pronunciation of “z”, “zh”, “j”,”g”, “ch” and “sch” is very important to say the word you wanted to say and not something else (or in the best case, some nonsense. If you are talking nonsense, you are at least not accidentally being rude). For an English or German speaker they don’t sound that far apart from each other and I had to practice a while until I was able to produce them on command. I ended up drawing little pictures of the position of my tongue for some of them. But I still mix them up so my teacher gives me a queer look and I know I failed again and start to try different ones…
    On the other hand, some English sounds are hard to differentiate for Chinese speakers. My teacher was astonished that there is a difference in pronunciation between “ring” and “rain”.

    So, as my tones and pronunciation are getting towards acceptable there is:

  3. Grammar!
    When you start on Chinese you think “This is awesome! Grammar is so easy and logical!” And it it. At first. But then you come across “de”, “de” and “de”. Three different words, that do similar things and are pronounced the same way (but the Chinese writing is different). I usually put them where they are not needed or leave them out where they are needed. Basically, they link words together to show that they are related to each other. Like in between “my dog” would be a de. But on other places as well. I still try to figure out why and when and how… But sometimes I get it right and do a little victory dance.

    Ok, and here we go. The fourth-type of mistake you can only do if you get tones, pronunciation and grammar right. You wonder, what that could be? Well… wonder no more:

  4. My favorite mistake the “No mistake-but”
    I learned a new grammar structure or a new expression. I produce a sentence using this new grammar structure. And producing a sentence is a painstakingly slow process but I get there.
    My tones are correct. *throw arms in the air in celebration*
    My pronounciation is perfect.  *bows to the audience in pride*
    All the words are in the order they are supposed to be at. I used all the “de”s I am supposed to and I did not leave a single “de” out. *picture me doing a happy dance*
    Short: My sentence is picture perfect. I am proud. Happy. Until… 
    The BUT comes along: It’s not idiomatic. My teacher leans in, smirks, seems a bit uncomfortable until she says “uhm… we don’t usually say this like that… for this… we would use another structure”

If you are learning Chinese – keep your head up. Accept the beauty of the language, the poetic of the categories of the measure words and embrace the “de”. Actually the “de”s as there are three different ones… but I am not that advanced yet.

And -never forget (while reading this, please imagine me having a slight mental tone to my voice and hysteric laughter at the end): It will get easier – once you start learning the characters.