Learning Chinese

a rant by

Al Wong

August 23, 1998


Recently, I have been taking classes to learn Mandarin Chinese. While I have taken foreign language classes before (Spanish mostly), Chinese is a language that is decidedly different. This is a rant on how Chinese language classes are generally conducted. I think Chinese Americans who are born in the USA and are also trying to learn Chinese will relate to this rant very well. While these comments are especially directed towards Chinese teachers and how they teach their classes, they are also directed towards overseas Chinese living in the USA who:
  1. look down on people who cannot speak Chinese fluently.
  2. yet are unable to speak English properly themselves.

What bothers me in all the Chinese classes I have experienced (5 classes) is the emphasis to speak like a native. The motivation being that native Chinese people will look down on you if you sound like anything less than a native. I say this is a wrong premise and an almost impossible goal. My reasons are below.

As stated before, I have also takened classes in Spanish. The funny thing about native Spanish speakers is that they universally appreciate you attempting their language no matter how badly you speak it. Some will even try to help your pronunciation. This motivates learning and the spread of their language and culture.

On the other hand, Chinese people will coldly put you down if you mispronounce even a single word. This deters learning and contributes to racism as fewer people will attempt the language. Ignorance of the language and culture results and leaves room for stereotypes.

Speak Like a Native!?

What is so good about speaking like a native anyway? Suppose I walk into a local Chinatown store and sound like a native.

  • Will I get a discount for general merchandise at your store?
  • Will I be invited to your house for dinner?
  • Will you introduce me to your single daughters?
I don't think so.

In fact, there is really no good reason to sound like a native. Even if you can say a few sentences like a native, sooner or later you'll be tripped up.

Is it better to be upfront about it now or have yourself exposed later?
Think about it.

Tit For Tat

Overseas Chinese people who come to the USA and learn English don't sound like native English speakers. Even people who live here for 20 years or more don't sound like a native. Some of these people take voice lessons for months/years and still don't sound native.

All the Chinese teachers I've experienced (5 classes) are far from being native English speakers. Is it because English is harder to learn than Chinese? I don't think so.

Shouldn't these people be expected to speak English like a native as well? Do you think they care if they sound like an American native? Will they make the effort? No? So why should you speak Chinese like a native?


What are some of the obstacles in trying to speak like a native Chinese? These are the ones I know offhand. There are probably more.

Define Native Speaker Please

What the hell is a native speaker anyway??? If you ask three different Chinese teachers how to pronounce a given Chinese character, you'll get three slightly different pronunciations! Yet they all are native Chinese speakers!

One can conclude there are regional differences just like in the USA. Consider the US Southern, New England, Mid-West and Californian accents. So sounding like a native in one region will make you sound like Joe Hick in the next. This is ridiculous.

Foreign Accents

An accent is basically the rhythm in which you speak a language. Each language has its own native rhythms. It is almost impossible to get rid of the accent in your mother tongue. Unless you can do that, you'll never sound like a native speaker in a foreign language.

Age Myth?

I am also told unless you started learning a second language before puberty (10 years old or younger), the odds are you'll never really learn the language.

I personally don't believe this. Adult language classes are conducted much differently than children language classes. In children language classes, there is much more repetition and they go much slower. I feel if adult language classes were conducted similarly, adults would learn just as fast.

Dated Material

The Chinese textbooks use jargon that is at least 20 years old. Usage of nouns for professions like medical doctor (Dai Fu) are no longer in modern day use. Using dated jargon hardly marks one as a native speaker.

American School Chinese

Besides being dated, another thing wrong with Chinese classes is the textbooks don't teach you how to speak like a native anyway! You learn what I call American School Chinese which is different from the Mandarin Chinese used in Taiwan or in China!

In fact, I can now tell if a Chinese has been educated in Hong Kong School English. It's the way they pronounce their words and their usage of words that gives them away.

I understand a similar thing is happening with French taught in American schools. French is another language where they are very particular about pronunciation. However American School French is different from the French spoken in Canada and in Europe.

Getting the Message Across

I believe I have proven my case that it is not necessary to sound like a native speaker. Getting your message across is much more important, if not THE most important goal.

I figure it'll probably take me a very long time to sound like a native Chinese speaker, if at all. But I will make myself understood first. Who cares what native Chinese speakers think anyway?

My Writings

Write to me
Last updated : April 30, 2001
Copyright 1998-2001 by Al Wong, Los Angeles, California, USA