My Mandarin-Acquisition Wilderness Trek

Learning a new language is fun and rewarding on many levels, yet relatively few people do so unless circumstances require it[1]. The main reason is that language acquisition is hard and demands time—a lot of time. It is psychologically difficult not only because it requires perseverance, but because progress is incremental. You can go days at a time without noticing much progress, making it hard to stay motivated.

Tackling Mandarin is particularly challenging. According to the State Department, it is a Category 4 language and thus takes nearly four times longer to learn than a Western European language[2]. Obviously, Mandarin acquisition is no walk in the park; it’s more like a cross-country hike. I love hiking, and the longer, the better. However, on long nature hikes it is reassuring to have a guide or GPS and a good map—or at least a well beaten trail.

On my Mandarin-acquisition trek, by contrast, I’m trailblazing. There are no signposts, and some sober people tell me that I cannot even get to my destination the way that I’m going. I’m walking all alone (though I was bringing my daughter along for a while). What makes it most difficult, however, is that I’m walking so little each day—just 35 minutes on average. Thus, not only is my destination very far off, across an uncharted wilderness, but I realize I will take many years to get there, if ever. It’s reminiscent of the title of one of the first movies I watched in Mandarin, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles.

If I didn’t have extensive experience with foreign languages, and a strong belief in my language acquisition theories, I would likely have given up already. Like many things in life—the really good things that take a great deal of time and effort to attain—you just need to have a little faith. Faith isn’t blind pursuit; it is confidence in things unseen. When pursuing a long-term goal, day-to-day circumstances—especially the lack of apparent progress—can be discouraging. Thus, once you’ve charted a course, as wisely as you can, you need to have faith and just keep walking.


[1] Even then, many people, such as expatriates or immigrants, manage to avoid learning more than the basics, year after year.

[2] Some argue that Mandarin is significantly more difficult than other Category 4 languages and should be a in a separate category.