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29th April 2019
1,367 words / 4 minute read

Yes, you can learn Chinese in 4 months. Well, some Chinese.

“China is a big country, inhabited by many Chinese.” ― Charles de Gaulle

The Great Wall of China

China—and France for that matter — are different places than they were when le général uttered those words. In Purchasing Power Parity terms the economy of the People’s Republic of China is already almost twenty percent larger than the United States. Both of these gigantic nations occupy just shy of 7 percent of the planet a piece, and — officially at least — China is the most populace place on the planet. Of course there is no shortage titbits upon which to positively remark when it comes to the middle kingdom, nor would it be considered a strenuous task to draft an army of China doubters.

Since my first visit to China in 2011 I’d been fascinated by the place, by it’s history, its culture, but most of all by it’s transformation. I don’t claim for a moment to be fluent in Chinese but I’ve had business meetings in Chinese (painfully), can converse with cabbies, farmers, and your everyday Beijing local on a multitude of topics — I’m still learning and always will be. I can understand much of what is going on around me and get the general idea from a trashy Chinese sitcom. Chinese is a tough language, but it is rewarding and it is useful. This post is for beginners, just like myself, who wish for even but a glimpse of this enigmatic world that is China.

What is HSK?

Before I arrived in China in February 2018, I’d been told that HSK IV test was the end of the beginning on the path to Mandarin Chinese fluency. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the standardised Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK) it is the People’s Republic of China’s only standardised test for Standard Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers. HSK stands for Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì, which can be translated as “Chinese Proficiency Test” and consists of 6 levels, each approximately twice as difficult as that level preceding it. HSK IV consists of 1,200 words and has a maximum possible score of 300 where 180 and above is a pass. According to the official HSK website HSK IV is — supposedly — the equivalent to the B2 Level of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEF). However, as a C1 speaker of German, I wouldn’t say that I felt I had the same command of Chinese after passing HSK4 as I did when learning German at the B2 level, or perhaps even at the B1 level.

The aim

I never specifically set a goal of passing HSK IV. What I really wanted was to ask the average Chinese person what they thought about a range of topics, things like the US election, China’s friends and foes, economic growth, Mao, Deng Xiaoping, the West, India, music, technology, sichuan cuisine, the Great Property Bubble of China and well, life in general. HSK IV was a framework within which to learn some of the language but because the test doesn’t actually test your ability to speak (there is a separate HSK test for this which is less widely taken) I focused more on speaking and listening. It was only in the final two weeks before the test that I shut myself in a room and crammed to get as many of the required characters into my head as possible. My aim was to be conversant in Chinese Mandarin, and while I am still only in the beginning stages of that journey, I feel I achieved that goal.

My approach

Prior to moving to China for 4 months I was living in Hong Kong for almost two years working in a large international bank. Unfortunately I squandered the opportunity to learn any Chinese (Cantonese or Mandarin) while I was in Hong Kong, this despite making friends with many Hong Kong locals and PRC’s.

The first thing I did was take a 2 week short course with The Chinese Language Institute (CLI) in Guilin, Guangxi Province in Southern China. I would highly recommend this course although it is slightly expensive, but as you can customise your course here I was able to start speaking with my teachers from day one. While Guilin is a beautiful city with breathtaking landscapes I ultimately decided to enrol in a full-time Mandarin course in Beijing. My reasoning was simple, the word for Mandarin in Chinese is “putonghua” where putong is “common” or “standard” and “hua” means dialect or language. So Mandarin is really just the lingua franca of China, with Beijinghua or Beijing Dialect being considered by many as the most standard form of Mandarin. At this point I must remark that Beijinghua is actually quite difficult to understand and that I was surprised by the clearer accents prevailing in other parts of China once I left Beijing. However, the prevalence of English in Beijing is also lower than Shanghai which is another consideration for Chinese learners. Finally, Beijing feels different, love it or hate it, it is very Chinese and steeped in Chinese culture and tradition with less opportunities to fall back on western comforts than in other first tier Chinese cities.

I enrolled with the University of Business & Economics in Beijing (UIBE). It isn’t the most prestigious University, nor the largest, nor even that nice of a place, but it offers an array of intensive Chinese language programs from Business & Diplomatic Chinese to general courses. The course ran from 8am to 11.20am Monday — Friday and lasted around 16 weeks. The course fee was reasonable at around RMB 12,000.00 for the whole semester. Usually four afternoons per week I would sit down for 2 hours at a time with a private tutor and simply have a conversation.

After 4 months in China, and two weeks before I left Beijing, I sat the HSK IV test. At the time I thought I had failed. Actually I’d achieved as score of 207 / 300 thereby meeting the 180 / 300 pass hurdle. The relief was palpable.

Conclusion

Chinese is a hard language. I put this down to there being basically no passive learning component. For example, if you are learning German and happen to be walking down the street in Vienna and see some bread in the window of a shop you may conclude, with some confidence, that this shop is likely a bakery and so the signage might include the word bakery (Bäckerei in German). This is because German — and most other languages — are alphabetical. The is some method to the pronunciation of Chinese characters too, but it is really just a guide and so learning new vocabulary is slower. That same scenario in the streets of Harbin will simply yield some new pictographs for you to scribble into your phone for translation (OK, so actually 面包店 or MianBaoDian means “Bread Shop” so if you knew those characters you would now know the word for bakery in Chinese — but the point is that as a beginner you might not!). Of course English speakers learning other European languages are also have those friendly cognates. Finally, a lot is made of tones in Chinese, and while I don’t profess to consistently get my tones right, don’t let the tonal aspect of the language deter you. No doubt tones are important but you will get the hang of them and context will help you to determine the speaker’s meaning.

So where to now?

Beijing was a great experience and I got some excellent insight to the political and financial ongoings in the world’s — likely to be — next superpower which I will discuss in future posts. As for my Chinese language goals now I will look to pass HSK V by the end of 2019 although through part time study rather than at UIBE in Beijing! If you are looking to learn Chinese my only advice is don’t over think it, it is hard but I’ve used it in Barcelona, Berlin, Bavaria and even Rome. I even feel a little bit wiser for the experience.