Just how does one pick up a totally alien language from scratch?
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. And I’d say the first step is to get rid of all your fear and preconceptions about learning and studying Chinese.
Begin with an open and curious mind, and you’ll absorb knowledge like a sponge.
So now that we’ve gotten fear out of the way, you’re ready to charge your way across the start line!
How Do I Start Learning Mandarin Chinese?
The Four Chinese Tones
As you may already know, Chinese is a tonal language. Before you panic, know that there are really only four tones to remember, and if you can sing a song (bad singing counts too), you can speak in tones.
Spend a good amount of time listening to and identifying the four distinct tones, and practice these tones aloud. At this stage, it doesn’t matter whether you’re just saying “Ah” in various tones, the most important thing is to get used to it.
Well, because speaking without correct tones could just land you in a lot of confusion—and sometimes even in trouble! You don’t want to be talking about a horse (third tone) when you’re really referring to your mother (first tone). This Chinese Pod page is a good resource on the four tones, with rules and audio.
The Pinyin System
Pinyin is a fantastic invention that should be forever honored as the bridge that connects the English speaker to the world of Chinese. It is the official phonetic system for transcribing the pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Learn how to pronounce Chinese words with pinyin, which gives you the tone of the word. These tones are represented by the direction of the strokes, which you would have come across while learning the four tones.
This BBC language guide is a good place to start your pinyin journey.
Vowels are usually easy to pick up, but what foreigners may struggle with is the correct articulation of the consonants—like “Zh,” “Ch” and “J.” Invest a good amount of time getting your pronunciation right, because a strong foundation will take you a long way.
The Basics: Chinese Greetings and Numbers
Now you’re ready to learn the basics. As with learning any other language, being able to greet and introduce yourself is pretty much your first priority. That, and learning to count.
This is where you bring together what you’ve learned about tones and pinyin. Try reading the pinyin and pronouncing the words on your own, and then listen to an audio clip and see if it matches. If it does, you’re on the right track. Well done!
One helpful tip is to learn the meanings of individual words as you go along. For example, the words 你好—which is a greeting that’s equivalent to “hello”—can be broken down to 你 (you) and 好 (good). Learning individual words in phrases will make things easier since you’ll be able to see the logic, and of course, expand your vocabulary.
Here’s a good guide to learning your basic Chinese words and phrases.
When you’re ready, you can move on to the next step.
The Next Step: Expand Your Vocabulary and Learn the Chinese Characters
You need to be able to read 3,000 Chinese characters to understand the newspaper. It may sound very daunting, but keep in mind that there aren’t any complex grammar rules, conjugations or irregular verbs in Chinese. Life is fair, give and take.
And, as another encouraging reminder, if you can now read numbers one to ten, that’s already ten words in your arsenal!
Here are some tips for you to break down this life-changing task into smaller, achievable goals.
- Learn one topic a week, two words a day. You could make that one topic in two weeks; it’s up to you to decide your learning pace. The main point is to keep it focused and stay disciplined.
- Let the topics flow. Learn to introduce yourself, and then your family. Talk about your favorite food, and then learn how to give directions to the best restaurant. You get the idea. Learning in themes and topics enables you to flow through your learning with ease and structure, rather than picking random words to learn each day that have little correlation to one another.
- Form your own sentences. Soon enough, you’ll have learned enough words to form simple sentences. If you learned about food this week, perhaps you could form the sentence, “The fish is delicious.” Next week, when you learn how to give directions, you could expand on the sentence to say, “You can eat delicious fish in the restaurant at the end of this road.” It won’t be long before you can have a monologue about the meaning of fish in our lives!
Where Should I Go for Some Top-notch Mandarin Chinese Learning?
Learning is everywhere and anywhere. Of course, the most rapid and effective way is to live abroad in China or Taiwan for a good couple of months to immerse yourself in the language and culture. You could choose an intensive study program, or actually live and work there.
But if that’s not feasible right now, then you’d be glad to know there are many ways to learn effectively right where you are.
Where to Learn Chinese Offline
Don’t be too quick to dismiss the textbook as an old and uncool method of learning. They may be old school, but textbooks offer a really solid foundation to your learning—especially if you want to learn how to write Chinese.
Chinese storybooks are also a great way to learn, so don’t be shy to pick up children’s books. However, be sure that you’re reading books in simplified Chinese, as they do in China. Of course, if you want to go all hardcore and learn traditional Chinese characters (which is beautiful by the way), that’s another level of commitment altogether.
Make friends with Chinese people! It shouldn’t be too hard since Chinese communities exist almost everywhere in the world. Nothing substitutes face-to-face conversation. Strike up a conversation on the streets, and you may be surprised to learn that people are generally helpful when they see your sincere intentions to learn. When you head to a Chinese restaurant, order in Chinese and chat up the waiters.
Where to Learn Chinese Online
There are lots of online resources for you to pick up Chinese, many of which are even free. Audio and video tools are abundant, and so are podcasts. The advantage is that you could easily learn on the go with these online resources. Turn your hour long commute (or any form of waiting time) into a Chinese lesson.
Apart from the learning through formal tools online, one way that would really boost your learning is to watch Chinese television, movies, and listen to songs online. These methods help you learn Chinese the way that it’s actually spoken, and also give you a great insight into Chinese culture.
And if you can’t seem to find a Chinese community where you live, you could always make a friend online via a penpal website and start chatting in Chinese! It’s not quite the same, but as a learner, you’ll have to seize every opportunity you get.
Great! But What If I Want to Learn Chinese Really, Really Fast?
You may have heard of people who have developed techniques that allow them to understand and converse in any foreign language within a short period of time, some as quickly as three months.
Well, if you are really serious about your learning quickly, then you may want to read up about how some individuals have managed to hack Chinese. One resource is hackingchinese.com, and it details some methods that a Westerner has used to learn the language quickly.
One point to note, though, is that everybody has their own way of learning. So while you may get some great insights from these sites, don’t necessarily expect the same results—that would only give you unnecessary stress along the way.
Learning Chinese, as with anything in this world, is about patience, dedication and pushing your limits appropriately. But don’t forget to have fun with it, too! Because if it’s not enjoyable, why learn?
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