My pre-game talk/musings before I attempt to learn Mandarin as a Chinese-Australian.

Earlier I highlighted my motivation and plans for learning Cantonese, the language of my birth in Hong Kong. So what about Mandarin, its big brother?

Well, Mandarin and Cantonese are closely related, not just literally as two languages in the same family, but in a personal and emotional sense. Mandarin is obviously the lingua franca of Chinese speakers and given that my goal of learning languages has a strong practical element to it (i.e. being able to connect with others, helping my travel, being able to use it in my job), it's a no-brainer to learn. As a Chinese-Australian who grew up mostly in Australia, there's also personal motivation to reconnect with a part of my culture that I put aside when I was younger.

So here are some key points I wanted to jot down so I can look back on this in a few years time when (hopefully) I'm as fluent as a native speaker.

The background and my current Mandarin

Mandarin is an interesting experience for me. Even though I've never formally had classes in it, it sort of makes sense when I listen to it. This is probably because as 2 members of the same language family, the grammar (the structure of words and phrases) is very similar.

I've also noticed an interesting pattern with how I process Mandarin: instead of translating it to my best language (English) like I would do for French or Spanish, I translate it into Cantonese phonetically - i.e. based on sound, I convert what I hear in Mandarin into what I know in Cantonese and see if it makes sense. Which tells me that I'm fluent enough in Cantonese on some level (probably in my vocabulary) to use it as the language by which I understand things, just like I do with English to understand other Roman languages. In practice though, I'm still not fluent enough in Cantonese to really have full-fledged, colourful conversations.

When we get to reading and writing, the story's pretty much the same as it is for Cantonese - i.e. I can't really do it. Cantonese and Mandarin share a lot more in common in terms of written than spoken language and I moved to Australia too early to get a solid foundation in writing and reading.  

What I'm expecting

  • Unsurprisingly, being Chinese and having spent the first 6 years of your life in Hong Kong will probably give me an advantage over someone without that exposure. So I'm expecting relatively quick progress, at least in terms of my listening skills.
  • I'm expecting (hoping?) to see benefits to my Mandarin when learning Cantonese and vice versa, because of how similar the 2 languages are. In fact, as a beginner I'd essentially be learning the same written language, so hopefully I can leverage this for a more efficient learning experience.
  • Unless you live under a rock, you'll realise that Mandarin is becoming a more and more relevant language to know and learn. Therefore, I'm expecting to find a lot of resources out there to help me learn for free or relatively cheap. This is great because that's what WIP is about - empowering others to teach themselves valuable skills.
  • My first stop with Mandarin as it is for Cantonese will be testing the Language Reactor extension, although this will be interesting given that Chinese alphabets are different from Latin alphabets (i.e. what English uses). So I wonder if I'd require not just double subtitles as I did for Spanish, but triple subtitles - 1) the original Chinese subtitles, 2) the Romanised phonetic translation of those Chinese characters (i.e. pinyin), and 3) their translation to English in the Roman alphabet.
  • You may have noticed that I've been working on Spanish for about 2 months now mostly by consuming media in Spanish. If you're also wondering how on earth I plan to learn that, Cantonese and Mandarin at the same time, that was the exact question I asked myself before writing this post. Well, I've prioritised learning languages before I graduate from medical school in a year, and from experience making something a priority is pretty important in following through on it. However, as someone who believes in acknowledging burnout, I'm going to make no promises in terms of milestones that I have to hit by a certain time. If it turns out I really don't have enough time, I'll prioritise Chinese over Spanish in the short-term because 1) I plan to travel to some Chinese-speaking countries in early 2023 and 2) in Sydney, knowing Chinese is probably more useful than knowing Spanish.

In summary

  • Just like with Cantonese, I have both personal and practical motivation to learn Mandarin.
  • Just like with Cantonese, I'm expecting a much bigger learning curve when learning the written language compared to the spoken.
  • Learning 2 related Chinese languages together should hopefully be mutually beneficial for the other.
  • The plan was always to learn several languages at the same time, and I think they key to doing this is to build each of them into my life through a sustainable habit - for example, having a go-to TV show in each language.  

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