We've never met anyone who said learning Chinese was easy, so if you're finding it difficult, you're not alone. For those who didn't grow up speaking Chinese, bridging the linguistic gap is a long journey: If you've taught English here, you can see this exemplified in your students. We surveyed Mandarin learners of various levels on the biggest challenges they face(d) learning the language and how they deal with them. We then took the list to a professional CSL teacher for her input.
English teachers spend time every day speaking English, analyzing English, preparing lessons in English, and being surrounded by others who speak English. After a day of doing this, making the switch to thinking in Chinese is extremely difficult. English teachers are rarely, if ever, forced to speak Chinese and are often requested to speak English exclusively. Thus, any way you swing it, teaching ESL means bad mojo for the CSL student. Avoid it like the plague if your goal is fluency in Chinese, especially if you are a beginner.
Poor Studying Technique.
Studying or using some Chinese on a daily basis to acquire new language items or reinforce what you've already learned is vital to continued improvement. While many books are so unattractive and dull in layout and content that trying to study from them makes you angry, you can find good ones, and for many learners, using an attractive, interesting book helps immensely. Memorizing characters is important at the foundational level, but by your second textbook, try to read for understanding, and then see what you recognize in the following chapter. And remember, a rest after a period of diligent study can make difficult grammar points and bizarre characters suddenly make sense.
"Standard" and "Non."
You study Mandarin, but frequently what you encounter on the street is dialect. While people have mixed opinions about whether or not to study Sichuanhua in its own right, there's never any harm in learning a few phrases to ease communication. Speaking the local dialect indicates that you're not a mere passer-through; it shows intelligence and your willingness to make efforts to adopt customs particular to the region—potentially opening otherwise closed doors. That said, there's little appreciation of dialect outside of the region from whence it came, so it's probably a better idea to keep your yaodeis and xiaodeis to yourself in Beijing.
Unfamiliar Sociolinguistic Conventions.
Getting used to being asked if you've eaten instead of "How are you?" or calling people not related by blood "auntie" or "sister" can feel strange at first, but it's all part of the process. When you're not sure how to get a stranger's attention, a simple "Qǐngwèn..." will usually do the trick.
In addition to the 1.4 billion native speakers here, don't underestimate your Chinese-speaking foreign friends. On top of giving credence to the notion that it is indeed possible for foreigners to learn Chinese, they can often answer linguistic questions from a learner's perspective. There is also the World Wide Web at your fingertips and a broad selection of locally produced textbooks for foreigners studying Chinese available at university or foreign-language bookstores. Restarting on your current level of a new textbook makes for good review. Pocket dictionaries are great on bus rides—what's that character on the bus stop? Got a dictionary, you can look it up.
Learning a tonal language for people whose first language is not tonal requires a big adjustment in terms of speaking. But you can't ignore them in hopes they'll go away. Recognizing that you do in fact use tones in "non-tonal" languages all the time to express questions, surprise, etc. is one of the first steps in mastering them. Use the tones every time you practice, and listen when Chinese people speak, and the intonation will come naturally.
Remembering characters and not being able to "sound out" words is another difficulty often cited by Chinese students, but refusing to learn characters is a dead-end approach. You're surrounded by useful characters every day. Learn a few, and you'll start to see them everywhere. Learn the meanings of the most commonly used radicals, and even when you don't recognize a character you'll often be able to make an educated guess as to its meaning.
Attitude, Lifestyle, and Environment.
As a foreigner living in China you are most likely able to speak English whenever you feel like it. Even though you're living in China and encounter Chinese on a daily basis, you can also choose to avoid it whenever you want. If you need to go to the bank, for instance, you can find a bilingual friend to accompany you, rather trying to handle the situation solo. Don't assume you will "absorb" the language simply by being here; immersion in Chinese takes effort. Focus on traditional methods of learning, and force yourself to be surrounded by the language. Never mind that all those DVDs and bottles of beer reinforce stereotypes of the "lazy, drunken foreigner"; because as an adult the passive language learning center in your brain is basically already defunct, there's no way around putting in the time and effort even when it's painstaking, laborious, and humiliating. For more insight on this topic, try zompist
The Des, the Bas, the Les, and the Mas
Grammar is merely theory anyway—and with the world's booming interest in studying Chinese a relatively recent occurrence, research and materials on learning Chinese as a second language are few in comparison to those for, say, ESL. Time, patience, and a lot of careful listening and reading are probably your best friends here. Just like prepositions in English (for, of, in, on, at, etc.), particles that follow arbitrary usage patterns are the last items second-language learners absorb. The good news is that while their misuse delineates the native speakers from the non-, very rarely will an omitted or extra "了" obliterate your meaning.
Psychological and Social Hangups.
Fear, pride, and dissatisfaction with slow progress. Many people expect you to speak like a native speaker, or they expect you to speak no Chinese; either way, it's difficult to strike a middle ground. It's important to find people who are tolerant of less-than-native Chinese and with whom you feel comfortable speaking. Also remember that a key word like "zhège" used in combination with pointing, asking people to speak slowly ("Qǐng shuō màn yìdiǎnr") and repeat themselves ("Qǐng zài shuō yí biàn"), summarizing what you think you've understood, and asking the meaning of specific words and phrases ("__ shénme yìsi?") you don't understand rather than saying "Tīng bù dǒng" can all help facilitate rather than halt communication.
Previous article: Three things you didn't know about Sichuan peppers
Next article: This Ain't No Flower Boxing: Traditional kung fu in flower town