Learning Chinese and unlearning English

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The Author Maria Palau is originally from Colombia, and currently working at Metan Development Group Beijing office. She is sharing her experience of working and living in China doing entertainment business as a Colombian woman. Interested? Subscribe here. 

When it comes to China if you don’t know Mandarin you most certainly have to speak English. As in many other countries in the world English is the second language, kind of a universal language between “global” people. In almost all of these countries you can get around with it and in China too. All though at the beginning sounds hard and it actually is a little, mostly because this fearfulness felling we all bring with us, you can in fact live in china for years without speaking a word of Chinese. As soon as you learn the dynamics, you will also understand that, with only a few English words and a lot of mimic, everything is possible here – I have to say this would never be the idea. If you are coming from the other side of the world, the least you can do is go back with a couple of Chinese vocab -.


But this is when your English skills will start to go in detriment.  In spite of how often you will use English while learning Mandarin you will notice how your grammar, pronunciation and, of course, your phrase construction will start sounding like a two year old.  In order for Chinese to understand what your trying to say you will have to start talking like them, and it will sound something like “Me want water” or “Me no like spicy”. And this is not because they don’t learn English well, or because they aren’t trying hard enough; it has a very simple explanation, simpler to understand when you are learning Chinese.


Different from languages like Spanish, Italian, French that come from Latin, or Anglo-Saxon languages, Chinese does not conjugate verbs, or have past, present or future tense, so when they speak other languages they just translate their original phrase to the language they are trying to speak. When I first came here, I was actually really nervous about learning Chinese. I asked myself and of course my boyfriend once and again, “what if I can never learn to speak?” “What if it is too hard for me?” I truly can’t remember the process of learning English, because I studied it since I was 4 all through school, so I haven’t really learned a language before, and I can remember my boyfriend telling me: “Chinese is very simple, they speck like Indians in the wild wild west Hollywood movies”, and they surely do.


It helps me a lot to think this way when I’m trying to speak Chinese. I would say to myself “How will this sound if I was speaking like Indian” and voilà! The phrase comes out just right. It’s in fact really fun to learn the language, even more fun when you can start speaking with your taxi driver or your “Ayi” (is how foreigners call their made), and even better if you’re learning to write it and you start to recognize characters all around in the streets.


Chinese is a language you will never stop learning. It’s a never-ending process. Like a friend once said: “learning Chinese is like trying to cross the Pacific Ocean swimming, you can go fast or slow, but you will never get to the other side”. 

About the author


Metan first launched in early 2009, and since then has made incredible inroads in developing the media market in China. Metan’s flagship series Hello! Hollywood is a weekly entertainment news show, covering Hollywood news, gossip, trends and pop culture. Hello! Hollywood premiered in September 2009 and today reaches a potential…

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