Category Archives: Mandarin

Where to learn Mandarin?

With the recent events of the husband of one couple who was deported from mainland China for five years while in the last stretch of language school, the following question has been proposed to me many times in some fashion: “Should future missionaries to China study the language in the mainland or should they study outside of the mainland and once finished they move to the mainland?” It is a good question to be considered!

(For the brief answer, just read the bolded parts.)

Note: This is common in missions, to study the language in a different place than you are going to start your ministry. It can be a different country, or it can be a different city.

I have thought about it awhile and given different answer at different times, but now I will attempt to explain my opinion. And it is just that, an opinion.

First, without considering the risk factor, let’s answer the question: “Where is the best place to learn Mandarin Chinese for those desiring to work in the mainland? I think that Northeast China is the best place to learn Mandarin Chinese for those who want to work in mainland China.

Here are a few reason:

  • It is known for having a standard accent.
  • You can easily accomplish full immersion.
  • There are not a lot of English speakers in comparison to other places.
  • Finding a school and language tutor is easy and cheap.
  • They use only simplified characters for reading and writing.

I also chose the Northeast because other parts of China are known for having non-standard accents and large pockets of minority groups that speak other dialects/languages than Mandarin Chinese.

Therefore, considering language learning only, I believe the best place, to learn Mandarin Chinese, is Northeast China (for those wanting to do missions in the mainland).

Second, let’s consider places outside of the mainland that are possibilities for future missionaries to move to and study. I will list the countries from worst to best and mainly just consider the ability to learn the language there and not anything else.

  • United States, Canada: Find highly populated areas of Chinese people to try to immerse yourself. Hire a language tutor and enroll in a language school through a culture center. I think this is the worst place to learn because full immersion is hard to come by if not impossible.
  • Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia: Same thing, find the highly populated areas of Chinese people to try to immerse yourself. Hire a language tutor and enroll in a language school. This is better because there is a higher density of Chinese people, but it still isn’t full immersion (that I know of).
  • Taiwan: This is the best place to learn Chinese outside of the mainland because, for the most part, everyone speaks Mandarin Chinese. Some older people might only speak Taiwanese, but you can easily be fully immersed in the language, find a language school and tutor. The main difference would be in accent and the use of traditional characters versus simplified characters.

So, yes, there is a place outside of mainland China that offers everything a person would need to learn Mandarin Chinese fully. Considering language learning only, I believe the best place, to learn Mandarin Chinese outside of the mainland, is Taiwan.

Third, let’s consider the risk factor. The risk factor is: the risk of being deported from China while in language school and before you have started your ministry. Obviously the risk of deportation is something every missionary to China must face, or no one would ever come to China. The part that is in question is: when is the best time to take the risk? In language school or after language school…that is the question!?!

We will start with the “after language school” option. This means that a missionary will find a place outside of China to learn the language and when he is finished learning the language (around two years or more), THEN he will move to mainland China to start his ministry.

Here are the pros:

  • You ARE guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.
  • You can gain a level of Chinese fluency if you choose the right location.
  • You DON’T have to live with the restrictions of the mainland.

With these pros also come the pros of the country you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Here are the cons:

  • You are NOT serving in mainland China for a long period.
  • You WON’T learn the culture of the mainland while in language school.
  • You WON’T learn how to do ministry in the mainland while in language school nor learn to overcome the fear factor.
  • You WON’T gain a better level of Chinese fluency when considering accent, characters and “the way mainlanders talk”. You have to transition from traditional to simplified characters. You will spend time once you arrive in the mainland making these changes, of which, none of these are impossible; it is just an extra step.
  • You can be doing ministry as your language progresses, but this might be a deterrent to leaving that country and moving to the mainland.
  • You may never leave there and move to the mainland because you have setup life there for two or more years.

With these cons also come the cons of the country you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Next is the “in language school” option. This means that a missionary will find a place inside of China to learn the language and when he is finished learning the language (around two years or more), THEN he will start his ministry.

Here are the pros:

  • You ARE serving in mainland China from the start.
  • You WILL learn the culture of the mainland while in language school.
  • You WILL learn how to do ministry in the mainland (a closed country) while in language school and learn to overcome the fear factor.
  • You WILL gain a better level of Chinese fluency when considering accent, characters and “the way mainlanders talk”. You will NOT have to transition from tradition to simplified characters. You will NOT spend time once you finish language school making these changes. You will NOT have an extra step.
  • You can gain a level of Chinese fluency if you choose the right location.

With these pros also come the pros of the city you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Here are the cons:

  • You are NOT guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.
  • You DO have to live with the restrictions of the mainland.

With these cons also come the cons of the city you choose to move to, which would be different per location.

Adding in Other Factors:

The “convenience of life factor” (depending on location) can also be seen in two lights. First, the positive: Moving to a nice country outside of China helps the missionary to slowly adapt instead of jumping in head first. It means going from “American convenience” to “like American convenience” to “not like American convenience”. It is a slow and helpful transition. Second, the negative: Moving to a place of “like American convenience” could be a deterrent from moving to a place that is “not like American convenience”. It is a hinderance instead of a help. It is hard to move from better to the worse. Some won’t make the move.

The “cost factor” means: can you afford to live in one country and then at the end of around two years sell everything (or ship it) and move to the mainland?

When you make a comparison, it seems clear that the best place for language school is mainland China EXCEPT you are NOT guaranteed 100% to not be deported from mainland China.

I think, at this point, I should clarify a couple of misconceptions:

  • Learning the language in the mainland doesn’t mean you will be deported, but that there is a chance. You also have the chance to finish language school and start a ministry without ever being deported.
  • Learning the language outside of China doesn’t mean you won’t be deported once you move to the mainland. It is possible to be deported within your first month in the mainland. Thus, you will never really do ministry in the mainland. (Nor does it mean you will be deported when you move to the mainland.)
  • Deportation is something that does happen every year, but there are thousands working in Christian ministry in China who never get deported. Your chances seem higher if the ministry has a more bold approach to ministry. But as with most things in China, each place is different, and circumstances are different.
  • It is “timing,” which is something you can’t control. You can’t know when the “bad timing” is, you can only move forward with what you know to do. The risk of “bad timing” might be able to be delayed, but it can’t be done away with if you want to work in the mainland.

So where does this leave us? Here is my conclusion:

Go where you want to go!

It is that easy. Which of the options sounds best to you? Which one seems to have fewer hindrances? Are you willing to take the risk for the benefits? Are you not willing to take the risk for the benefits? Are you willing to eventually move to the mainland no matter what? Will you be sidetracked by moving to another country?

Outside the mainland” means you will be guaranteed to finish language school without being deported from the mainland, but there is a temptation of staying in that country and never actually go to the mainland as a missionary.  Once you move to the mainland (if you do) to start your ministry, the risk factor is “in play,” and you could be kicked out any time.

Inside the mainland” means during language school there are many benefits and you can be doing ministry among the mainlanders as your language progresses, but also you take the risk of being deported.

Here is the struggle between the decision: If you study the language in China, then you have a chance of being deported. If you study the language outside of China, then the temptation is to never leave where you are studying and go to the mainland.

So the concerns with both is that you won’t stay in or make it to the mainland.

The decision might be easier if we could put a percentage on the “chance,” but we can’t. It is 50/50 no matter where you go. A guy doing language school in the mainland might last longer in China than the guy who did language school outside the mainland. Or vice versa. We don’t know.

We have to decide to trust the Lord with this decision and not be worried about or make decisions based on tomorrow’s unknown or fear. In my opinion, if you really want to do missions in the mainland then lean towards the mainland, unless directed otherwise.

The real questions to be asking:

  • Is there a place you can properly learn Mandarin? Where?
  • What country do you want to serve in? Which path best leads you there?
  • Is there a missionary there that can mentor, help, and guide you? Who? Do you want that?
  • Is there a ministry you can serve in? What? Where?
  • What are the financial cost involved? Can you afford it?
  • What are the risks? Will you trust the Lord no matter where you go?

Go where you want to go!

What is “pinyin” and why is it important?

“Pinyin” is the way that Chinese characters are transcribed into latin script. It is the Chinese alphabet system. This systems sets a standard of pronunciation and tones (something characters don’t do).

For an English speaker learning Chinese it is a huge help when learning to speak Chinese. I have found that it helps us leaners in the following three ways:

Reading – You can start to read Chinese almost instantly (almost). When an English speakers looks at a word written in Chinese they are dumbfounded. They don’t even know where to start. With pinyin, they can make an intelligent guess. After some basic training in the difference pronunciation of familiar letters and how tones play a role in the words, an English speaker can read a sentence in Chinese, even if he doesn’t understand the meaning of the sentence.

Remember Tones – When you write pinyin you write the tone marker above the word. This help you to remember the tone of the word. Also, when reading pinyin, you know exactly what tone to use because it is indicated above the word. After reading a lot of pinyin you can start to see the tones in the same way you see the spelling.

Writing/Transcribing – When you first hear words in Chinese and you don’t know the Character, how can you write it? Using pinyin, you can write the pronunciation and tone. It doesn’t matter which “character” you have written because the pinyin spelling will be the same if it is the same pronunciation and tone.

If you are learning Chinese, I would urge you to be strong in pinyin. It is more than for beginners use! They have the Bible in pinyin and print books in pinyin at a pretty high level. You can use it for a long time.

The downside is you don’t have the character that shows the different meaning for a word with the same pronunciation and tone… but this is the same problem with spoken Chinese and can usually be overcome with context in met cases.

Why is Mandarin So Difficult? (Chinese Basics)

Chinese is consider (by most) to be one the hardest languages for a native English speaker to learn. There are several reasons for this. Below are four of those reasons.

(1) Tones. Chinese is made up of four tones: high, rising, dipping and falling. Each word has the possibility of being pronounced with the different tones or even with “no tone”. The tones a very important because it changes the actual meaning of a word. There are rules that help guide the way you use tones when combining multiple words together. A tone on one word can change when you combine it with another word.

(2) Pronunciation. The are several sounds in Chinese that we don’t have or use in English. Even within China you will find variation on how things are pronounced and find that each city has it’s own ways of pronouncing certain words. But learning the standard pronunciation will take constant correction.

(3) Characters. Writing characters is just as foreign to an English speaker as learning to speak with tones. Each character has isn’t own stroke order in the way that it is written. So you must be able to recognize the character, how to write it, it’s meaning (or multiple meanings), it’s pronunciation, it’s tone and how to use it correctly and grammatically.

(4) Grammar. Some say that Chinese grammar is hard while others say that it is easy. I would argue that using correct Chinese grammar is hard. Grammar is what makes the language work and what makes a vocabulary list come alive and usable. I have found that several times I understand all the words in a sentence but still didn’t understand what it was communicating.

Even with these four areas of difficulty, the good news is that you can learn Chinese. Anyone who is humble and willing enough to spend the time to study Chinese will find victory in each of these areas.

How Many Unique Characters are in the Chinese Bible?

As I started to consider Chinese characters, one of the questions that I asked is “How many Chinese characters do you need to know?” After doing some research I found a basic consensus at around 3,000 characters and then linked to a page that had its own research on the subject. You can read that post here. At the end of the post I asked another question “how many individual characters are in the Bible?” That questioned was left unanswered…until now!

I finally found a program that was able to give me the unique character count from a Chinese text and could handle the size of the Bible text without crashing. Also, I had to find a copy of the Chinese Bible that I could copy into the program without any marginal notes or topic headings the might not be in the original text. I finally found a copy of the Chinese Union Version that I could download and import into the program. Here are the results:

Total Characters: 929,990

Unique Characters: 3,001

Total Words: 715,662

Unique Words: 8,704

In my ponderings, I asked several Chinese people how many unique characters they thought would be in the Bible. Most of them said they wouldn’t have any idea, but if they had to guess it would be 8, 10, or 20 thousand unique characters. You can tell that I am happy to discover the number of unique characters is only 3,001!

Another interesting find is…there are 176 unique characters, used at least 1,000 times or more, that make up for 617,999 of the total character count. That means if you know these 176 unique characters you can read 66% of the Bible.

Note: When using a program like this, it doesn’t always pair the words together correctly, so there could be some problems with the exact accuracy. These numbers are presented so the student of the Chinese Bible can have a basic understanding of how man unique characters are in the Chinese Bible.

How many Chinese characters do you need to know?

I probably know less than 200 Chinese characters at this point. I started learning not to long ago and I have been amazed at how knowing so few can go so far. I am hoping to start adding a daily regimen of characters to my already busy learning cycle in October, so I have been doing a little research on the internet. I came across this chart and it blew me away. If it is accurate then it definitely helps prove that characters aren’t the main reason Chinese is so hard! I am not saying that learning 3,000 characters is going to be easy but if you can understand 90% of written Chinese with just 1,100 characters, that seems pretty amazing.

According to the statistics, a knowledge of a given number of the most common characters should result in the following estimated understanding of the Chinese language:

100 characters → 42% understanding 1600 characters → 95.0% understanding
200 characters → 55% understanding 1700 characters → 95.5% understanding
300 characters → 64% understanding 1800 characters → 96.0% understanding
400 characters → 70% understanding 1900 characters → 96.5% understanding
500 characters → 75% understanding 2000 characters → 97.0% understanding
600 characters → 79% understanding 2100 characters → 97.4% understanding
700 characters → 82% understanding 2200 characters → 97.7% understanding
800 characters → 85% understanding 2300 characters → 98.0% understanding
900 characters → 87% understanding 2400 characters → 98.3% understanding
1000 characters → 89% understanding 2500 characters → 98.5% understanding
1100 characters → 90% understanding 2600 characters → 98.7% understanding
1200 characters → 91% understanding 2700 characters → 98.9% understanding
1300 characters → 92% understanding 2800 characters → 99.0% understanding
1400 characters → 93% understanding 2900 characters → 99.1% understanding
1500 characters → 94% understanding 3000 characters → 99.2% understanding


Another thing that I want to know, but can’t seem to find, is how many individual characters are in the Bible? I know there are plenty of characters that aren’t in everyday use so they might not be in a list of the 3,00 most common characters, but I wonder how many? If you know that answer to that question, please let me know!

Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese

My co-laborer over at the Gospel in China blog recently finished a short series on the “Do’s and Don’t or Learning Chinese.” He has been one of my mentors in learning the Chinese language and I appreciate and value his advice.

If you are interested in learning Chinese, then these four post are definitely worth your time.

Do’s and Don’t’s of Learning Chinese





How long does it take to learn Chinese?

This is a great and scary question to ask. Great because it puts some accountability to the learning process and scary because it puts accountability to the learning process.

The following answer comes from Wikibooks about language learning difficulty for English speakers. They first preface the answer by stating:

“Many people wonder how long it will take them to become proficient in a certain language. This question, of course, is impossible to answer because a lot depends on a person’s language learning ability, motivation, learning environment, intensity of instruction, and prior experience in learning foreign languages. Last, but not least, it depends on the level of proficiency the person wishes to attain.”

Chinese follows under the following category:

“Category III: Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers 88 weeks (2200 class hours) (about half that time preferably spent studying in-country)”

Also note that the following ranking is by the The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State and these students usually have the following characteristics:

“…are almost 40 years old, are native speakers of English and have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than six. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with three or four hours per day of directed self-study.”

I think the amount of time for each person is going to be different but it is good to have a standard that we can measure our progress by and stay accountable as we learn. This seems to be a good place to start or at-least reference.

If you have learned or are learning Chinese, how long do you think it takes to learn? Do you agree with this categorization?

Dreaming in Chinese

I had my second dream in Chinese last night. I aways heard that if you are dreaming in the language that it is a good sign. Well, in both of my dreams I wasn’t speaking fluently and woke up with a headache because I was trying to figure out what to say. I think my brain associates headaches with Chinese.

In this dream I was visiting a Chinese church in America and was looking for the pastor. I asked someone where the pastor’s room was in Chinese. Yea, I actually said “pastor’s room” in Chinese. Weird.

But, in my first dream, I don’t remember everything I said, but I remember Jake being there and correcting everything I said. (Good thing he doesn’t do that in real life.)

Dreaming in Chinese, Yep! A sign of fluency, Nope!

Sermon Sample

There is nothing like making a really long blog post by copy and pasting sermon notes into it! I refrained from posting the entire sermon here and just selected a few parts. Though you won’t understand it (most of you), it shows you what we are doing. All of my notes are in Chinese pinyin.

I preached my first sermon from John 3:16:

yuēhàn fúyīn 3 zhāng 16 jié : shén ài shìrén , shènzhì jiāng tā de dúshēngzǐ cìgěi tāmen , jiào yíqiè xìn tā de , bú zhì mièwáng ,fǎn de yǒngshēng

From this verse I preached a basic outline on “Is the Gospel important?” and gave points to why the Gospel is important.

dìyī diǎn , fúyīn zhīsuǒyǐ zhòngyào , shì yīnwèi shén ài nǐ 。
First Point, The reason why the Gospel is important is because, God loves you.

dì’èr diǎn , fúyīn zhīsuǒyǐ zhòngyào , shì yīnwèi yēsū wèi nǐ ér sǐ 。
Second Point, The reason why the Gospel is important is because, Jesus died for you.

dìsān diǎn , fúyīn zhīsuǒyǐ zhòngyào , shì yīnwèi nǐ kéyǐ zuì dé shèmiǎn 。
Third Point, The reason why the Gospel is important is because, Your sins can be forgiven.

After a short explanation of these points, closing and prayer, I was done! I hope this little sermon sample shows you what we are doing and encourages you pray for us more (so we can be doing this all the time)! Thanks for your prayers!

Learning to Speak Chinese

Learning Chinese has definitely been a tough challenge thus far. One of the things that has become strongly clear to me is the way that we are going about learning Chinese. After talking to many students it seems that our method is slightly different.

What is the difference? We are not putting our focus, effort, and energy into the Characters but rather on speaking, pronunciation, tones, and language patterns.

Why? The family whom we are working under and whose language school we attend encourage this method. Through their own experience in learning Chinese they found that too much time was spent in the beginning stages for most learners and it hinders their speaking ability. Therefore, our school’s focus is on spoken Chinese and each class, 4 hours in length, is mainly spoken with the use of pinyin.

This method makes perfect sense to me since if follows the basic learning pattern of a child that is learning to speak. For example, my daughter who is two years old can talk your head off, though she knows nothing about reading and writing. She has been listening ever since she was born and started saying her first words several month after that. As her language develops she will learn to read and write. As an adult learning, we don’t have to follow this basic pattern, but it does seem advisable. We desire in a very child-like way to listen and speak then in due time read and write.

Two language books caught my attention when they seemed to agree with this method (as it doesn’t seem to be very common). They stated the following:

“Since characters are not phonetic and the emphasis of this or any other beginning course for adult learners is on speaking or communicating, character learning and writing are not given priority. To spend too much time on character writing at this stage would consume too much time that should be spent building a solid foundation in pronunciation and the basic sentence patterns used for various communicative functions. It is advisable that serious study of characters for adult students should follow a comfortable command of pronunciation, basic vocabulary, and basic sentence pattens. In spit of all this, you may find it very hard to resist learning some characters when you study the language. Feel free to pursue if you have the urge as long as you do not lose sight of the main goal at this stage.” [1]

“Those who are learning a language with a different set of symbols for it’s writing system … will need to use a phonetic writing system for a longer period of time. In this case, don’t learn the writing system until you have used the Learning Cycle four to six weeks or longer. By then, you will be comfortable with the different sounds, and it will not be difficult to learn the symbols as they are used.

If you are learning a Chinese language where the writing system represents ideas rather than sounds, then you will need to use a phonetic system of spelling for much longer period of time.” [2]

We are thankful to be working with a great family who has helped us get a proper understanding and basis for learning this language. Their language abilities are clear when you see them effectively communicating with those around them. Your continued prayers are appreciated as we are still in the early stages of our language acquisition.