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I Learnt Chinese In Just One Year – Muffled Mandarin and Giant Dumplings

Beijing Man - Beijing, China 1999 - Copyright Ruth Zannis

The room was old and faded with a dusty blackboard and some broken pieces of chalk the only teaching accessories visible. An older man, I’d like to say with a classic weeping beard but alas just a few whiskers for a moustache, was waiting for everyone to get seated. Calmness was in the air. And then it began.

Prof Li : In Chinese we have four tones. I will write them here:

Mā Má Mă Mà

You must repeat after me: Mā Má Mă Mà

Class : Ma Ma Ma Ma

Prof Li : OK, it is not easy but it is very important you master these tones. Listen carefully and repeat again after me: Mā Má Mă Mà

Class : Ma Ma Ma …

The spell was broken. I never showed up again.

As soon as I returned to France I signed up at the first Chinese class I could find. And then another and another and another. They would repeatedly focus on the four magic “ma”s and try desperately to get us to repeat them tone perfect. The reality being we were all tone deaf. Or were we?

I already knew a bit about learning and a bit more about teaching, enough to know that even if the lesson in hand was important and that this was a classic way to introduce the language, something was still amiss. My mission, or project, was to use my experience with Chinese to make learning more accessible and usable, particularly for those of us on a low-time or no-time time budget.

Here are the first two things I focused on:

Task One: check my hearing

Based on the disaster of my first lesson, I decided to start here. Strange, you may say, as of course we can hear, but the reality is, can we? After all, why so much difficulty repeating professor Li’s four very simple words? Is it not because we couldn’t hear them, each one sounding identical to the other? In fact, how do you expect someone to repeat what they cannot even hear?

how do you expect someone to repeat what they cannot even hear?

So instead of trying to barbarically repeat something I just wasn’t getting, I decided to get my ears in tiptop shape first. The short version of how I did that was by driving my housemates mad playing anything Chinese all day every day for months on end. The long version and science behind this will be given a post all to itself in my Learn Smarter Not Harder series some time soon.

It was fascinating to see how my hearing changed over the months, going from hearing what seemed to be a load of mashed up and unidentifiable sounds to being able to identify sounds, words, sentences and even expressions. And all this without even knowing more than a handful of vocabulary.

Task Two: make dumplings (even if they are very big)

Dare I say, when I mention the word dumplings to my Chinese friends, they start to get excited, at times even jumping up and down. It is not uncommon for me to invite friends over for a dumpling party and more often than not you will find a bag or two of homemade dumplings in my freezer.

First Dumplings - Inner Mongolia, China 1999 - Copyright Ruth Zannis

During my first trip in China, I may have been voiceless, but through food, it was as if I never stopped talking. It was in Beijing that I tasted my first dumplings and in Inner Mongolia that I actually learnt how to make them.

I may have been voiceless, but through food, it was as if I never stopped talking.

On my return to France, while I may have been busy checking out Chinese classes, I was also keen to show off my new (unhoned) skill. I invited some friends for dinner and proudly served up what I thought was the authentic thing. I may have overlooked the fact the dumplings I had made are not usually cooked in a steamer. I may also have been a little too generous on the filling. Dumplings may not traditionally be 6-inches long, but my guests graciously indulged.

Giant Dumplings - Copyright Ruth Zannis

As my Chinese improved, so did my dumplings (if only in size)

Learning a language is not just knowing the words and the grammar. It is also not just knowing about the culture. Rather, it is completely immersing yourself in the experience, integrating it into your daily life. And the best thing is, you can do it here, even when you are outside of the country.


I learnt Chinese in just one year and I’m here to share the secrets behind my success. Passionate about everything learning, I’ve been working in language training, conception and design for more than 15 years, on a corporate, individual and academic level. For more information or to set up a meeting, contact me directly through LinkedIn.

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