Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Growing up in Chinese as a foreign adult

Studying a language is quite unique in that it’s the medium through which a number of other skills and talents are channelled through, which means that if you are studying Chinese at anything except a very, very advanced level, all these other things that might be very important in your life will be affected. Chinese will be a bottleneck through which only a limited amount of information can pass, creating tension and frustration, but also potentially making life more interesting.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/CathyK

How funny or smart are you in Chinese, really?

If you consider yourself to be intelligent in general, the likelihood is that this isn’t the way you’ll feel when you speak Chinese, even at an advanced level. Most things related to intelligence is communicated through the use of words. Your family and friends know that you’re smart, perhaps because you’re good at understanding problems and finding solutions. You feel appreciated because of this, but when you start studying Chinese, all this goes away. People might think you’re smart if you learn Chinese quickly, but that’s about the only outlet for verbal intelligence that you have (I’m deliberately ignoring things such as being a chess grand master). Using a foreign language affects your own view of yourself as well as how other people look at you.

The next example deals with humour. What if you’re funny in your native language? Even though you have the wit necessary to be funny in English, it will take a very long time to become proficient enough to allow you to be as funny in Chinese. How often do you find eight-year-old children in your country to be witty in a way that you consider yourself to be witty? Learning something like this takes time and practice. You need to understand not only the language, but the people who speak the language and their culture as well. You need to grow up, in Chinese.

Studying Chinese is like becoming a child again

Children have limited mental abilities and lack experience. Both add up and mean that they can’t discuss everything and they’re only considered smart when compared to other children, not to adults. Studying Chinese sometimes gives me the feeling that I’m a child again. I lose some abilities I have in English and Swedish. Using these languages, I’m quite good at convincing other adults that I’m right, but switching to Chinese, I become eight years old again, barely able to get my meaning across and hardly managing to convince anyone. People listen patiently and understand, but something is still lacking.

Children haven’t yet acquired cultural knowledge to the same extent as adults, and the same is true for Westerners who approach any language firmly belonging to a different cultural sphere, such as Chinese. There are lots of cultural aspects of Chinese we simply don’t know anything about and catching up with adult Chinese speakers in this area probably takes longer than learning the language. This, again, means that we as students of Chinese are more like children than adults.

Children, but still adults

However, no one seriously believes that a foreigner is a child just because he happens to speak like a six-year-old. They can see that you’re an adult, they might know that you have a university degree and so on. Still, consider foreigners in your own country, how often do you really understand what they are thinking when they are struggling to ask for a cup of coffee? Even though we shouldn’t, I think it’s all too easy to treat language learners as children, because from our point of view, that’s what they are.

Having this bottleneck that makes you look like a child can be taxing in the long run, depending a little bit on what kind of person you are. In short, being stripped of some of your most highly valued abilities at the same time as being regarded as a child who doesn’t understand very much by the people around you, is a problem inherent in learning a language abroad. It’s not that people are deliberately mean, they usually do everything they can to help, but the barriers separating you from real communication are just too high.

Swallow your pride and allow yourself to become a child again

The best way to ease pressure is simply to swallow your pride and allow yourself to be a child for as long as it takes you to grow up. Another safety valve might be to talk more with people at home or other foreigners when you feel that the situation becomes unbearable. Just remember that the more you escape this predicament, the longer it will take you to truly grow up in Chinese. Children grow up by being children, they don’t grow up by hiding in a dark corner. Another way of approaching the problem might be to focus more on things that aren’t so dependent on languages. Literature, humour, philosophy, politics and so are based on language;  playing football, hiking or travelling are less so.

So the solution to this problem is quite harsh: suck it up. There are no ways around this problem that doesn’t involve escaping to another language, which defies the purpose of learning Chinese in the first place. Be brave, be strong, but make sure that you can release tension if you need to.

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!


  1. Sara K. says:

    “Still, think about foreigners in your own country, how often do you really understand what they are thinking when they are struggling to ask for a cup of coffee? Even though we shouldn’t, I think it’s all too easy to treat these people as children, because from our point of view, that’s what they are.”

    While I think this is true everywhere to some extent, it is much more true of some places than in other places. I grew up in San Francisco, where 46% of the population was not born in the United States, and that is not including visitors. Thus almost anyone who lives in San Francisco has to deal with foreigners on a frequent basis. That isn’t to say there aren’t people in San Francisco who treat foreigners like children … but most residents have a lot of practice dealing with people who speak English as a foreign language, and are more likely to treat foreigners, even foreigners who are not fluent in English, as adults. In other parts of the United States, of course, the situation is different.

    I also see this in Taiwan. People in Taipei have more experience with and understand foreigners’ point of view better than Taiwanese people outside of Taipei, in my experience.

    I think that, when considering moving abroad, it is important to consider that this particular aspect is going to vary from place to place, and that people should think about what degree of foreigner-familiarity they want to live with.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good point! I grew up in Sweden and even though we have quite a lot of immigrants, it’s nothing close to 46%. Past experiences should influence our way of viewing foreigners quite a lot, so staying in different places in China or Taiwan should be different as well.

  2. Scott says:

    I find the only way for me to be funny in Chinese is to resort to childish silliness or acting the buffoon. Even sometimes using a mock girlish voice. I find the ultra feminine cutesy voice some women use here equal parts annoying and funny. Consequently people will tell me my Chinese is girlish or that my sense of humour is very immature.

    But now I can just say my Chinese is in its adolescence. Thanks for the perspective.

  3. aelephant says:

    The 1st time I made a joke in Chinese was a huge milestone for me. That isn’t to say that my joke was funny or that I’m ready to become a Chinese comedian, just the fact that I was able to express something I thought was clever.

  4. David Feigelson says:

    Olle, humor isn’t really about content. Humor is about timing. I’ve been able to make my Chinese adult English classes laugh simply by using simple Chinese with good timing.
    I think it is too facile to compare adults with children. I am not a child in Chinese simply because my abity to use Chinese is at a low level. I am an adult who has to deal with situations a child never would, and use Chinese. I had an interesting experience when I was in Taiwan. I befriended a man that owned a watch shop and he took me to pick up his son at elementary school. When were all in the car, I spoke at length to the man. He turned to his son and asked him if he understood what I said. His son said no. Then his son spoke at length to his father. The father turned to me and asked me if I understood. I said no. Children and adults speak differently, I think.

    1. Hugh Grigg says:

      I think you may have missed Olle’s point, slightly. You can certainly make a lot of good jokes based entirely on timing, but sometimes wit really does require a sharp grasp of language and a good repertoire of common knowledge to draw on. That kind of humour rarely works with only simple language.

  5. Trish says:

    Great article! I found this to be a major frustration in living in China, and couldn’t stand it after only a month or so of attempted immersion – I felt I was losing my identity, essentially, and it was huge relief when I allowed myself to fall back on English just to maintain my sanity. Different personalities will cope differently with this problem, but I found I couldn’t stand an immersion approach at an elementary/intermediate level of Chinese.

  6. Hugh Grigg says:

    I find I can sometimes manage to be funny in Chinese by basically stealing jokes I’ve heard other Chinese people use in similar situations (if we’re being honest I think that’s how most people manage to be funny in their native language as well). I guess the trick is to try and spend time with funny Chinese people as much as possible.

    It is totally true that you become childish and lose your adult status when using another language. I think I also went through a process where this was quite painful at times, until I arrived at my current attitude which is to just utterly ignore anything like that – mistakes I make, lack of fluency, not being able to find words – and to just keep going without thinking about it. Now I try hard to totally accept the fact that I may sound like an idiot a lot of the time, and allow it to be part of my identity. 😀

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.