Catching the Mouse

What is the best method for learning Mandarin? Well, there isn’t one. But there are a number of options open to suit various levels, reasons for learning, and lifestyles.

Ever so slowly, I’m getting accustomed to the fact that I’ve become somewhat of your resident expert on language learning. I guess it comes with the territory that I would get these kinds of questions more and more often lately: So, what is the best way if I want to acquire some basic Mandarin/improve my language skills? Should I find a private teacher or should I go to school? Do I choose a local language academy or is it better to take a university course? Maybe studying online is a more efficient solution? How about all those language learning apps or gadgets, which one is the best? Or maybe I’d be better off just watching Chinese soap operas?

Not that anyone actually cares to listen to my wise words of advice, mind you. I’ve come to realize that, once you start asking these questions, it probably means that you’ve already made up your mind and have an answer at hand, a solution that you know might work for you. So, what you really need is for someone to validate your choice, to tell you that it’s a perfectly sensible decision and reassure you that it’s going to work. And let me tell you, I’m more than happy to oblige.

Of course you should find a private teacher and enjoy the luxury of studying one-on-one, at your own speed and leisure. It’s such a flexible and—luckily for us Dongguaners—still cheap solution.

Of course enrolling at the local university is the only serious way of learning Chinese. Yes, it means long hours and requires tons of dedication, but imagine what enormous progress you’ll make when taught by expert linguists, in a true academic environment!

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a black cat or a white cat, if it catches the mouse, it’s a good cat.” Yes, Mr. Deng, I totally agree with you!

Of course your neighborhood language academy is the right place for you. You’ll love the relaxed atmosphere that those experienced and enthusiastic teachers manage to create. What could be more fun than studying among friends, just for the joy of it?

Of course you should peruse all the wondrous new apps and podcasts out there. The internet is such a treasure nowadays and, courtesy of our inseparable best friends—the smart phones, it’s now all at your fingertips. A couple of minutes on your commute or a few moments during lunchbreak every day can make all the difference in the world.

Of course you should buy that fancy new iPad Pro with the special pen, dear (this one is aimed directly at my husband). I’m sure it’ll help you organize your study notes so much better and give you a head start with your first tentative Chinese characters.

Of course watching local television could turn out to be the very ticket to advancing your Mandarin studies, especially if you happen to find a program that is interesting enough and not too demanding linguistically. After all, just look at all the young Chinese who’ve picked up passable Korean just by following their favorite soap operas.

Yes, of course you should do any, or even better, all of these things! As soon as possible. “Just do it!” as the old Nike ad goes…Whichever method you choose though, just make sure to stick to it for a while. Or never mind, you can switch to another one, just keep going.

I myself, have tried quite a few of the above and, in all honesty, I haven’t always been entirely happy with my chosen path. Occasionally, exasperation would creep in and I’d question my choice and wonder whether the results would have been be better if I’d done it all differently from the very beginning. And yet here I am, after years of meandering among various study methods, a tiny miracle has finally occurred: the other day, visiting an exhibition featuring Dongguan’s glorious years of reform and opening up, all of a sudden, I found myself being able to read and understand a Deng Xiaoping quote: “不管黑猫白猫, 捉住老鼠就是好猫.” “It doesn’t matter whether it’s a black cat or a white cat, if it catches the mouse, it’s a good cat.” Yes, Mr. Deng, I totally agree with you!