Survival Mandarin – Weeks 80, 81, and 82

Someone came up to me at work the other day and said a sentence in Mandarin. He later explained that his wife is Chinese—apparently, he has also studied the language himself. I didn’t understand, so he repeated it more slowly. I then understood every word in the sentence, which means something to the effect of: “You are able to speak Chinese”, or perhaps, less literally, “Do you speak Chinese?” I had never head this sentence before (which is probably in any phrasebook, but I’ve never even glanced at one), but was nonetheless able to ascertain his meaning.

I actually spent more time this week studying French than listening to Mandarin. Today I was listening to a podcast from Radio France Internationale, as I drove to my farm, about the elderly and nursing homes in China. Several locals were interviewed, and before the translation was read, one could hear the Chinese people speaking one or two sentences. I was happy that I understood several words in Mandarin.

Nonetheless, I doubt I could already survive in China based on my language skills alone. Of course, I never speak, but even my oral comprehension has not reached a level of “survival Mandarin,” after nearly 400 hours of listening. By contrast, I’m guessing that in a day or two of studying Italian, I would reach survival level, and perhaps within 50 hours of studying German. That discrepancy points mostly to the difficulty of learning Mandarin, due to its utter dissimilarity to the Western languages I speak.

It also points to a disadvantage of my experimental method. I presume that with 400 hours of traditional lessons, including the study of phrasebooks and flashcards, I would have attained a survival-level of speaking, though perhaps not of comprehension. Most likely, I would understand people who spoke simple, phrasebook-like sentences in clear, slow, standard Mandarin better than I do now. On the other hand, my comprehension of natural dialogue between natives might not be any better than what it is now—perhaps worse.

In other news, I decided this week that I have been spending too much time making notes of vocabulary words that come up in videos, and then later reviewing them. In the past few months, I have been trying to register an average of two new words per day in my database. Thus, I will now go back to the original goal of just one word a day, which will allow me more time for relaxed, unstructured viewing of new content.

In the next two weeks, I expect to pass the 400-hour mark, or one-third of my experiment. That milestone should inspire me to reflect anew on my progress and the months and years ahead. Stay tuned.

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