Adventures in Mandarin

For the past few weeks, I haven’t traveled outside of Kaohsiung, so I don’t have much to report in terms of travel (aside from getting to know the city better). Instead of doing a travel post, I’d like to use this one to focus on some my explorations in studying Mandarin. NSLI-Y is program specifically aimed at language acquisition, and as I’ve stated previously, I think it’s important to report on that aspect of my life in Taiwan.

I’d like to offer some things that I find helpful for studying, and more importantly would like to request that any of my readers who have studied Mandarin or any language before offer suggestions. I am always on the hunt for new ways to learn. Studying Mandarin will be a life-long journey, and I’d love any ways to make the journey more exciting and interesting.

The photos below were all taken during recent explorations around Kaohsiung. The views looking down on the city were all taken from the observation deck at 85 Sky Tower, the tallest building Kaohsiung and the second tallest building all of Taiwan. Guess how many floors it has.

Taken from the observation deck of 85大樓

Overall, Chinese is going fairly well. I definitely still have lots of rough patches and frequently awkwardly phrase things, but in terms of communication, I’m fairly pleased with progress. The reason I emphasize the word “communication” is that I think you don’t necessarily need perfect grammar to communicate an idea. People forget this a lot when studying languages. They are too concerned with having perfect grammar and accent. While I do think these things are important, those things come with time and the only way to achieve those things is making mistakes. I make countless mistakes every day and instead of letting them destroy me, I learn from them. The most important thing to me at this time is that I can successfully communicate an idea, even if it is nowhere near the same fluency and command of a language that a native has.

A lot of what has begun influencing my thoughts on language learning recently has been the calculus class that I am taking at school. The class is taught in Chinese, and I honestly was scared to take it. I had serious concerns about not understanding a thing the teacher was saying, but I took it out of curiosity.

It is not the hell I feared it might be.

Math, like nearly every subject, is not rooted in the language it is taught in. Rather, it is rooted in the concepts conveyed by the language it is taught in. The reason that I understand my calculus teacher is because she is describing concepts that I have already studied. I do not have to rely on English to understand my teacher at all because I understand the concepts. Those exist in images and feelings, not language. Language is used to convey these ideas, but they are not necessary to solving a problem. Nor is it necessary for me to rely on English to learn the math concepts I have already studied.

Important note — People always seem impressed when I say that I’m taking a calculus class here, but to be frank it isn't that impressive. It isn’t impressive. It is a class I have already taken in America (Cal I), and the only thing difficult about it is learning words like “derivative” and “equation” in Chinese. That’s not to say learning this vocabulary isn’t difficult, but since the words are all concepts I am familiar with, it is no harder than learning a word like “move theater.” If I were taken a higher level class that I’d never studied before, it would be a completely different story.

Realizing math is not rooted in language helped me come to the realize that this applies to every form of communication, where it be talking about what I ate for lunch or what my weekend plans are. This has really helped me transition from having to think through a little English before spitting out a Chinese sentence. Instead, I try to think through the situations focusing on images and emotions rather than words.

One of my biggest struggles with this, however, is that I think in internal dialogue. Regardless of what I’m doing, I rely almost exclusively on words to think through the process. If I’m doing math, I walk through the program using words in my head. If I see a beautiful painting, I rely more on words rather than emotions and images to express to myself whatever I’m feeling. When in a situation where I’m using Chinese, I’m working to switching this internal dialogue to Chinese, but I do find it difficult.

Finding Comfort in Ambiguity

A lot of my interactions in Mandarin, especially for the first half of the program, ended with a certain sense of ambiguity in meaning for me. There are always words that I don’t know, and it’s likely that I will always encounter words that I am unfamiliar with. In the beginning, I focused too much on the individual brush strokes of the sentence when I should have taken a few steps back and looked at the picture as a whole. Of course there would have been gaps in the picture, but a little logic could easily have filled in those gaps because most of the time, people are saying exactly what you think they’re going to say.

When you go to a tea place, they are going to ask you what drink you want, what size, how much sugar you want, how much ice you want, and if it’s for here or to go . They wills say it in that order every single time. You don’t even have to hear them to answer the questions because they never change. The only possible thing that could throw you for a loop is if when you order milk tea and they ask if you want fresh milk or powdered (get fresh, it’s better). The statement “people are going to say exactly what you think they’re going to say” may seem a bit silly, but it’s something that I found profoundly useful now. If it is hot out, you will hear the word hot (熱)about one hundred times that day. If it’s cold and you aren’t wearing a jacket, the thing everyone is asking you about is probably why you aren’t wearing a jacket (外套). Using a little logic can do wonders in picking up new words and understanding.

Another important thing is that you don’t even have to know every word someone says to you to get the meaning. I think people focus too much on knowing every, little word that’s being said at them. Honestly, I sometimes only know about half of the words someone is using depending on the topic. Sometimes its far less, and other times it’s far more. I use those words I do know, logic, and context to get what’s being talked about, and I only ask for a word to be clarified if I can’t figure it out or if it is absolutely crucial to the meaning of the sentence.

If someone said “All of my clothes are old, so I want to donate them all the charity, and then buy new ones” to me in Chinese, I would not understand the middle section (so I want to donate them all the charity) because those words are not in my vocabulary set. However, I could guess that it was some form of clothing disposal since I know the words “clothing,” “old,” “buy,” and “new.” Those four words alone are enough to get the general meaning of the sentence. The ambiguity is fun at times, and I like how it’s like a guessing game trying to figure out the meaning of a sentence. That being said, if the person kept using the word “donate” and “charity,” I would probably ask for the definitions or look them up really quick.


Reading, writing, speaking, and listening are the four major skills in learning any language. The joys of immersion is that listening is a given because it is practiced all the time. It’s passively picked up from constant use. However, I personally feel I took this for granted for a large majority of the program. I though that since I was getting so much listening practice that it wasn’t a big deal for me to use the time I wasn’t studying Chinese to goof off on YouTube and watch English movies/TV.

When I was in America studying French, I took every opportunity I could to consume media in French, whether in was watching documentaries on YouTube or learning the lyrics to a Stromae song. I didn’t think I needed this same dedication since I was living in the environment where I heard it a lot, but I now realize that consuming media in Chinese maximizes my time here, and it is not a waste of time. One of my bigger regrets is not maximizing my time right off the bat.

This is a mistake that I don’t intend on repeating for the rest of my language-learning career.

I’m not advocating for not goofing off with TV and movies. In fact, I think taking breaks are incremental to successful learning. However, I do think it’s better to kill two birds with one stone. Goof off and learn some Chinese while you’re at it. One of the advantages of living with a host family is that we have a television with one hundred channels in Chinese. About two months ago, I spent a good amount of my free time watching TV shows in Chinese. I noticed that, all of the sudden, my listening ability was going way up. I was picking up all sorts of new, interesting words, and I was enjoying myself doing it. I got super busy for a two week period and stopped watching TV, and my listening abilities plateaued. I attribute this directly to not consuming as much media in Chinese, and I’m working to getting back to consuming more media in Chinese.

I have a new found interest in Korean Dramas as a result of watching so much television here. They are dubbed in Chinese here, and they are constantly on. The Chinese is fairly basic, and what I don’t understand in words I can usually pick up from the over-exaggerated acting. Plus, the Chinese versions are available online (, so I can keep up with them even after I’m back in the States. Another of my favorite shows to watch is this talk show with a bunch of foreign guys talking about their life in Taiwan and their Taiwanese girlfriends. The hosts are Taiwanese, and they ask the guys all sorts of random questions about their lives. The show is mindless, but it’s fun to watch. I am still struggling to transfer the words I undestand when said to me into words that I myself use in daily conversation.

Another thing I’ve found useful for boosting my listening skills is podcasts. I have a 30 minute commute to school everyday, and I realized that I could take this time listening to podcasts while on my way to school. My current favorite podcast is called 吃吃喝喝美食我最yin (available on iTunes for free). It’s run out of Taizhong, and the hosts talk about food spots around Taiwan as well as Japanese food. The Chinese is at a good speed for me, and I find the discussions fairly interesting. I’m working to find a new podcast, though, since I think I need to expand my listening skills beyond food vocabulary. I’m very open to suggestions if anyone were to have any!

My last suggestion for listening is asking questions that you already know the answers to. Even if you know why people where helmets when riding bikes or some stupid question like that, it’s useful to ask in Chinese because then you can hear how a native speaker would explain the concept. Not only is it a completely foreign language, but people think differently in Taiwan than they do in America. They come to conclusions that we wouldn't in America simply because their internal logic is fundamentally different. This is actually really problematic for me because people will ask me questions, and even if I know every word, I still don’t know their exact questions because I don’t know the context their getting the question from. Asking questions you know the answer to is a great way to get a better grasp on Taiwanese thought process, but I still get caught off guard sometimes and am completely lost with where people get their thoughts from. A lot of times, it is as if our trains of thought are running on completely different tracks.


Speaking is another skill that I think is easier to pick up in immersion than in a regular class environment. Every new chapter in our textbook offers new topics for me talk about, and there are countless opportunities to practice. However, I am pretty guilty about being a passive listener in a conversation rather than being an active participant. If the conversation is one-on-one, I am more than glad to chat away, but if it is in a large group, I am much less inclined to share my views. This is something I really need to work on, as not every conversation I will have for the rest of my life will be one-on-one.

Something else I think people worry too much about when speaking a foreign language is knowing every word. One thing I really like to do (maybe a little too much), is talking around words that I don’t know. This goes back to what I said earlier about “communication” being my emphasis. If I don’t know a word, I try my best to describe what I want to talk about in Chinese rather than resorting the English.

For example, for the longest time I did not know the subject names (math, science, history, etc.). Instead, if I wanted to use the word “history” I would say “the thing where you study a lot dead people and stuff that happened before.” It’s a rough estimation of the word, and it’s pretty terribly phrased, but it got my point across. My biggest problem is that, once I found a way to talk around the word “history”, I didn’t really have much motivation to learn the word itself, and then I took forever to actually look it up. Another one that took me forever was “library” because I just called it “the place with a lot of free books.” I’m working on getting better at eventually learning the words, but it’s still a struggle.

I think people forget that our English is not even perfect. We have to “talk around things” in English all the time. It just feels so much more destructive to have to do it in a foreign language, but it really is the same thing. I forget words in English sometimes, and when this happens I do the same thing I have to do in Chinese all the time; I kind of vaguely approach the forgotten word and hope someone figures it out.

I really appreciate my host family because they are fantastic about correcting my spoken grammar when it’s wrong. They also tell my how they would a say things and explain why what I said sounded odd to them. I’m sure it’s exhausting for them to constantly correct my weird grammar, but I honestly am so appreciative of it. It helps me get a sense of right and wrong in the language, and it’s really helping me improve.

One last thing on speaking, is that I have noticed that store owners are much more willing to talk to me if I am alone rather than in a group. When I go to lunch by myself, they always strike up a conversation, but if I go out with other foreigners, the store owners become more uncomfortable and do not try to ask use questions. Shop owners immediately assume I can’t speak any Chinese if I’m with a group, but if I venture out alone, they are very opening and welcoming.


Recently NSLI-Y had us take a practice test of Chinese proficiency, and while I did not do miserably on the listening, the reading section completely caught me off guard. It was far above my level, and it served as a wake-up-call as to what skill I need to start focusing more time on.

The reason I have gotten better at both listening and speaking is because those are the easy skills for Chinese (in my opinion). Reading and writing take far more effort to acquire than the other two. When I think back on my reading practice, it’s pretty limited. The only time I read is when I’m doing dialogues for class, and those are mainly for speaking, anyway. Reading is far less fun to practice because it’s more of a solo activity, and it’s hard. I’ve slipped into the bad habit of not working to improve it because it’s not as fun as the other skills. I’ve been trying to change that, recently.

I started by purchasing a copy of Le Petit Prince in Chinese with the goal of reading a chapter a day. I figured that since it was a children’s book, it wouldn’t be that hard. This was a severely misguided venture. The first page alone took me ten minutes to get through because of the obscure vocabulary I had never encountered. It was failed adventure in learning, but I did gain some valuable information from it.

Learn things in a single unit rather than picking out random words to learn.

Language learning, to a certain extent, is a practice in patience. While I would very much like to pick up a newspaper and read it, I am incapable, and I must accept that. I could go through and translate all the words I don’t know, but this would be ineffective. Rather, it makes sense to learn words in context to a unit as a whole. This is the very reason textbooks are organized like they are instead of in sets of unrelated words. Most materials are also far above my current level, and attempting to tackle them would be exhaustive and yield few rewards.

I took a class on learning languages last semester, and one of the things my teacher emphasized a lot is being in an “i+1” environment. That is, be in an environment where the input is just a little above your current level. After some searching around the internet, I stumbled on this source, It has reading practice organized by level. The topics are interesting, and the intermediate material is perfect for my current reading level. Every piece has just a few vocabulary words that I’ve never met before, so I focus my time to learning those new words. I’m hoping doing this practice will help me boost my reading abilities. I’m also still on the hunt for more materials suitable for my current level of Chinese. Improving reading is a slow, steady process, and I must remind myself to be patient. Going through it slowly will yield much more satisfying results.


Writing is the skill that most people fear when learning Chinese, but it is quickly becoming my favorite to study. Chinese characters are beautiful, and each one is like a little picture. I understand their difficulty, but to a certain extent, it their difficulty has a certain allure to it. They come as a welcoming challenge.

Some students of Chinese rely on rote memorization to master characters. They write them one hundred times and then the characters stick. I tried this at first, and I came to limited success. With rote memorization, I was able to learn the characters long enough to pass a quiz, but soon after they slipped out of my memory and I had to waste more time learning them again. Now, I put much more effort and time in learning them the first time, I think this is really paying off.

I have always enjoyed using word associations and funny stories to learn everything from science to English. I will forever that the word for pie (la tarte) is feminine in French because the word tart makes me think of the English slang “tart,” meaning prostitute (and I think you’ll remember it now, too). I’ll leave the image I created to remember it up for the reader to imagine. I remember that cette is the feminine form of “this” in French because it has a tt in the middle, just like the ladies. I’ve learned that the more crude and outlandish the association is, the more permanently it sticks. I’ve employ this same strategy for learning Chinese characters.

Take the character 戲 (xì), for example. I had to learn it for a recent test, so it’s the one that comes first to mind. 戲, in the context of my current unit in Chinese, means drama/play. When I want to recall how to write it, I first think of a female tiger acting in a play. She then eats a giant piece of tofu as part of the play, and then is slaughtered with a dagger thereafter. When I think of this story, I imagine smelling the tofu and hearing the dagger’s scratchy metal. It sounds awful, and I’m sure it makes no sense to the reader, but I’ll try to explain the origin of my story below.

When starting the write the character 戲, you have to start by writing the most of the character 虎, which means tiger. Next, you write the character 豆, which means bean and is a component of the word 豆腐 or tofu. The 豆 is inside the 虎, so it looks like she has eaten it. After that, you have to write 戈, which is the character for a dagger-like weapon. Whenever I need to write 戲, I run through the story I created in my head. I relied on components of the character that I already knew to create a story to learn a new character. I now use this method almost exclusively when learning new characters. It is exhaustive at times, but it’s helping to increase my permanent retention.

Another method I use for increasing permanent retention is spaced repetition. I was getting tired of forgetting characters that I had learned many chapters ago, so I searched through Chinese-language-learning forums and found that a lot of people use the software program Anki ( to convert characters from short-term memory into long-term memory.

Space repetition works by asking the user to give an answer at increasingly long intervals, from days to months. Since last semester, I have been creating flashcards using Anki for every vocabulary word in my chapter, and then I have been using the program to review the words once they have been learned. I am fairly pleased with the progress. There are still gaps in my memory, and I sometimes get lazy about making the flashcards. I think it’s a great way to get the words more permanently in my memory, though.

It Gets Easier with Time and Practice

The speed that I learn anything in Mandarin is vastly different now than it was once I first started learning. I used to get frustrated at how long it would take me to learn a character, but now it is a fraction of that original time because I’v slowly developed methods of learning. Also, the more characters I learn, the easier it is to learn a new one because I have a basis to form new ones out of (see example for 戲 above). The associations for characters come faster than they used to.

Employ What You Learn immediately After Learning It

I think one of the most useful things I’ve found for making grammar stick and be more natural is to use new patterns the day I learn them. The same goes for new vocabulary words. Sometimes, I’ll try to ask people questions that will direct the conversation to a topic that I recently covered in class. For example, when we learned the word for “increase” in the sense of prices, I asked my host parents if gas prices were increasing in Taiwan. Not only is the question of genuine interest to me, but I also get to use new words so they stick. In talks like this, I try my best to use the new grammar patterns I recently learned because it really makes them come more fluidly when I want to draw on them later. This is easily the best way to make things more fluent. I think this is probably one of the biggest tips I can give for anyone learning a language, especially in this environment.

That’s all for now. I’m certain to think of more things I want to add, so I’ll either include them in future blog posts or just tack them on here. I also intend on reflecting more on my experience in the following few blog posts. I have under two months. It’s amazing to think how far it’s gone by and how little I have left. If anyone has any suggestions on language learning, I would love to hear them. I seriously am still looking for ways to get better at learning Chinese and learning things in general.

I hope everyone had a fantastic Easter,

Brendan Farrell Ryan