Are you feeling 难倒 (nán dǎo — stumped) over learning Mandarin Chinese?
That’s understandable: It’s tough enough to grasp concepts of 拼音 (pīn yīn — Chinese romanization) and the basics of Chinese traditional or simplified script.
And learning how to actually understand when you hear someone speaking Chinese, or to even speak Chinese yourself, is a whole other ballpark of tough.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning how to speak and listen in Mandarin Chinese can actually be extremely easy.
Think of all the major roadblocks that have stumped you during previous attempts to learn the spoken language—like the whole tone thing, the speed at which native speakers talk or the massive number of different dialects and accents.
Once you tackle these roadblocks head on, you can make some very serious (and very quick!) leaps in learning how to speak Mandarin.
In fact, you can easily improve how you speak and understand Mandarin in less than a month.
Still not convinced that learning how to speak Mandarin Chinese is necessary and totally doable? Here are some reasons why you shouldn’t just focus on reading and writing.
What’s the Point of Learning How to Speak Mandarin Chinese?
- Not many native Chinese people know English. If you’re learning this beautiful language for travel, you’re going to need to know how to say something other than 我不懂 (wǒ bù dǒng — I don’t understand), especially if you’re going to be ordering food over the phone or asking for directions. Out of a total of nearly 1.3 billion people, only around 10 million Chinese citizens speak English. Plus, it’s just kind of respectful to attempt to speak the language of the place you’re traveling to.
- Even if you’re a master at reading and writing in Chinese, that won’t always help you. Sure, road signs will be easier to navigate. But being able to actually ask for directions and greet people is a must if you’re planning on traveling.
- It’s fun. Mandarin Chinese is one of the most unique spoken languages around, and it’s genuinely exciting to learn!
- It’s the biggest language ever. Around 2 billion people speak some form of Chinese, and just under 1 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese. Mandarin is used outside of China in countries like Singapore, Taiwan, Indonesia and Mongolia. You could seriously expand your travel (and career) prospects by learning how to speak Chinese!
- You’ll make a lasting impression. Whether you’re traveling or moving abroad to China for work or pleasure, you probably don’t want to be totally isolated. You also probably want to learn more about modern Chinese culture. By getting a grip on the spoken language, you can actually make friends and form connections with people while abroad.
While all of the following tips will help you learn how to speak Mandarin more fluently, it’s important to understand that a hefty dose of study and practice (around 30 minutes of study and 1 hour of practice a day) is what will drastically improve your speech in such a short amount of time.
Without further ado, check out our guide to speaking Mandarin Chinese like a pro with these super helpful tips!
Speak Up! 4 Tips to Improve Your Mandarin Chinese Speaking Skills
1. Gather the Right Materials
Learning how to speak a language is different from learning how to read and write in a language, particularly when it comes to a language like Mandarin. The materials you need to learn 汉字 (hàn zì — Chinese characters) will differ somewhat from the materials you need to learn how to speak and listen in Mandarin.
To improve your Mandarin speech, you only need a plain ol’ notebook and access to YouTube.
Better yet, get yourself a free trial of FluentU for YouTube lessons with a huge learner twist.
FluentU makes it easy to follow along out loud thanks to interactive subtitles, full transcripts and a quiz/flashcard system that combines videos with spaced repetition for the best learning experience!
When I first started learning Mandarin, I used two separate notebooks for practice. One was for practicing pīnyīn with the respective hànzì, and the other was for just pīnyīn sentence-building, so that I could practice my speech. You can do the same. Fill this second notebook with phrases that you personally use often, along with other phrases that are commonly used in everyday life.
So much of learning to speak Mandarin has to do with listening. The idea is to mimic the speed and accents of a native speaker—and what better way to learn is there besides watching TV?
If you don’t have a Chinese-speaking friend (yet!), then watching Mandarin-language television shows and movies will be extremely helpful.
For example, I was able to get the hang of tones and the speed of Mandarin speech by watching the Taiwanese TV drama 惡魔在身邊 (È mó zài shēn biān — “Devil Beside You”). And by “watch,” I mean I binge-watched the whole thing in a week!
Though entertaining and the result of having no self control, that week was actually incredibly educational. Speaking Mandarin stops being theory and becomes real when you listen to others speak it.
2. Understand Tones the Easy Way
You’ve probably heard that tones are a huge part of Mandarin Chinese speech. That’s quite the understatement. I mean, check out all these variations of ma:
- 妈 (mā) — mother
- 骂 (mà) — scold
- 马 (mǎ) — horse
- 吗 (ma) — equivalent of a question mark (?) for formal questions
- 麻 (má) — hemp
All of these words are said with slight tonal differences and all mean vastly different things. You definitely don’t want to accidentally call your mother a horse, so you’ll need to understand how tones work and how important they are.
English speakers are used to having words that sound phonetically very different. Mandarin has no such luxury, so we’ll have to dive into what these new tones actually sound like. Luckily, they sound just how they look.
When reading from left to right, the direction the tonal symbol moves should be mimicked in your speech:
- 妈 (mā) — mother: This variation of ma should be said flat.
- 骂 (mà) — scold: The tone begins high and ends low, meaning there should be a sharp drop in your voice.
- 马 (mǎ) — horse: This tone starts high, drops, then goes back up again.
- 吗 (ma) — equivalent of a question mark (?): There is no tone for this word.
- 麻 (má) — hemp: This tone starts low and rises.
This is tricky to get the hang of at first if you speak English or any other non-tonal language, but practice makes perfect.
3. Practice Speaking!
Now that you’ve got the materials and a basic understanding of tones, it’s time to get to work practicing. There are many ways you can practice speaking Mandarin:
- Find a tutor. If you’re really struggling to get your speech up to par, a professional tutor who speaks Mandarin fluently should be able to help. If you want an in-person tutor, check out Wyzant, which can help you find a tutor in your area (or online). Another great option for online tutors is Verbling.
- Make a Mandarin-speaking friend. This is by far the best (or at least the funnest) method for learning how to speak Mandarin. A native speaker can help you become more fluent and can point out errors in your tones. Plus, you get a new friend! Heck yeah!
- Language meet-ups. Tandem meetings simply involve meeting another person who speaks the language you wish to learn (usually a native speaker), and getting together to talk. You help them learn your language, and they help you learn theirs. Plus, it’s usually free.
- Talk to yourself. Weird, right? Talking to yourself and repeating short passages is one of the best ways to strengthen your Mandarin if you can’t do any of the three other methods.
At first, speaking may be uncomfortable to do regularly, especially if you’re not proud of how your Mandarin sounds. Nevertheless, it’s very much a necessity. How else will you be able to hear your progress if you don’t actually practice speaking?
And over time, as you progress and improve in your skills, you’ll likely find yourself enjoying it.
4. Don’t Beat Yourself Up
If you’re going to walk away with only one thing, let it be this: Your Mandarin will probably never be perfect, but it’s not your fault, and you definitely shouldn’t give up.
If you’re an adult learning a second language, even if you immerse yourself in that language for years, you’ll probably still have at least a slight accent or say particular things in a way that makes it clear you’re not a native speaker.
For example, native Mandarin speakers (as well as Japanese) cannot easily distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds in English because they are phonemes that are incredibly difficult to change in the mature brain. Similarly, native English speakers can’t always easily learn foreign phonemes because the brain isn’t very receptive to them.
Learning Chinese speech is going to endlessly surprise you. Even if you master sentence structures, order and tones, you’ll still encounter phrases in Mandarin that don’t make a lick of sense. That’s alright.
Mandarin Chinese is statistically one of the hardest languages to speak, if not the most difficult of them all. It’s important to forgive yourself if you run into roadblocks—learning any language has its difficult moments!
By applying these tips to your Mandarin Chinese learning routine, you’ll see improvement in your speech in no time!
Em Casalena is a published author, freelance writer and music columnist. They write about a lot of stuff, from music to films to language.
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