So, you’re learning Mandarin Chinese?
It’s been some time since you started, and you’re beginning to feel like it’ll be forever until you can speak Chinese without an accent. You know you can do it because you’ve heard other foreigners speak it well, so you have hope. STILL…“how much longer ’til I can speak and have Chinese people understand me when I speak?” is what you’re thinking, maybe. Well, there is hope for you. Listen up, because what I’m about to say, almost no foreigner has heard before. It’s information that is new, and it is something your Chinese teacher didn’t tell you. Here it is:
Chinese people struggle with Mandarin Chinese, too.
Yes, you can feel relieved that Chinese people also have a hard time learning Mandarin. In fact, in 2010, the Chinese government started to require all university students and teachers to take a Mandarin Chinese Standardized Test. This exam tests people’s spoken Mandarin ability. The examinees must read aloud 100 words and is given a score based off of their performance. As easy as that may sound, it is a challenge for most all test-takers. Prospective teachers are required to pronounce 70 of the words correct in order to qualify for the position.
Almost nobody can get 100%, and the average score is the 2nd Level, 2nd Rank (80-86.99%). As a foreigner learning Chinese, this is great news that we aren’t the only ones struggling with Mandarin.
What’s the problem here? I mean, aren’t native speakers perfect at Chinese?
Actually, no. Part of the problem is the seven base dialects (and their dozens of variations) that have existed in China for thousands of years. Mandarin is only a variation of one of the seven dialects. These seven base dialects are so different from one another, a non-local can only communicate using standard Mandarin. Hence, why “where you’re from” is so, so important to Chinese people–it decides what kind of food you like, your language, heritage on and on. Also, there is almost no way to study dialects because almost no study material exist for learning dialects. Also, people grow up in their homes learning to use a dialect, go to school learning Mandarin, and, at the same time, are required to study English!
Another reason Chinese people can’t get perfect on this exam is that Chinese characters are tricky. The pronunciation of certain characters does not always follow the rules of the language. Instead, students need to invest a great deal of time to memorize how to say certain words.
These are the results of a language, that after thousands of years of being crafted, without any radical changes in its development (very unlike American English and its roots in Latin, with its many turns throughout history for a unique language). The ways of thinking behind Chinese is ancient and was crafted by only the few elite scholars of the past. It requires a flexible mind to master because of these reasons. In some aspects, a student of the Chinese language must consider a much simpler, baser way of thinking to become fluent (think elements: fire, wood, water, etc.). I sincerely hope this encouraged all the Chinese language learners out there to continue in their studies!
(Source: Baidu Encyclopedia: 普通话水平测试）