Over the National Day Holiday I’ve been hosting a few American friends who first arrived in China several weeks ago. Although they haven’t been in China for long, they already understand the vital importance of picking up Mandarin and interacting with locals. They too have realized that the further you get away from mainland China’s Eastern mega-cities, the fewer English speakers you’ll encounter and the more crucial speaking Mandarin becomes.
Despite making these critical realizations, Chinese tends to intimidate newcomers and they weren’t sure how or where to start. Here are 4 proven tips which will set you on a path to master basic Chinese.
Tip #1: Start with the fundamentals
The first thing I recommended to my visiting pals was to learn Pinyin, the official method to transcribe Chinese language into roman characters. This is best taught by a Chinese person because this step involves learning how each syllable in the Chinese language is supposed to sound, and accordingly how to read and write these sounds with English letters. Without pinyin and an understanding of how each syllable is supposed to sound, you won’t be building upon a solid foundation. Learning tones at the beginning is a good idea also, although you probably won’t begin to nail the tones until you’ve spent a considerable amount of time interacting with native speakers.
Pinyin.info – a guide to writing Mandarin Chinese in romanization
Pinyin Practice – Mandarin pronunciation exercises and learning components
Tip #2: Record your progress
The traditional way of going about this tip is to maintain a journal or a book with everything that you’ve learned. For me, I carried a handful of Moleskine notebooks across the country, recording new words, phrases and grammatical patterns. After the word list grew past the first volume, I began scrawling very poorly-proportioned characters that looks like they were written by a Chinese toddler. But over time my skills improved, and as you look back on what you’ve learned previously, your progress will definitely encourage you.
You don’t have to use a notebook, though. Many devices, like an iPod Touch or electronic dictionary, can store thousands of words in organized lists to be reviewed at any time. The choice is up to you whether you prefer the old school or new school methods. There are advantages to both and you might find, like I have, that a combination of both yields the best results.
Studying Chinese with an iPhone – the Chengdu Living rough guide
Tip #3: Interact with native speakers
If you’re fortunate enough to be in China, utilize your prime advantage and make an effort to interact with locals. For those of you who aren’t in China, your task is considerably more difficult.
It doesn’t matter if you’re chatting with a taxi driver about your home town or negotiating over the price of bananas. Interaction is the key and the more time you spend hearing how native speakers communicate, the faster and more accurately you’ll be able to pick it up. First, master the basics which you’ll hear over and over throughout your time in China:
1. What country are you from?
2. Are you studying or working?
3. What do you think of this place?
Once you’ve exhausted these questions to every possible conclusion imaginable, you’ll be equipped to start getting into the interesting conversations.
One additional thing to keep in mind is regional dialects. Depending on where you’re located and the kind of people you’re surrounded by you might be subjected to a lot of whichever dialect is local to your region. In this case you can choose to speak some or much of the local dialect, or avoid it completely.
ChinesePod – free and paid podcast with a lot of useful situational dialogue for all skill levels
Nciku Conversations – hundreds of situational dialogues on one of the best sites for learning Chinese
Tip #4: Find a way to enjoy it
If you can’t find a way to enjoy learning Chinese, the process will be much more laborious for you. Most people who pick it up quickly are passionate about some aspect of Chinese culture or life and it’s the language which connects them to it. For example:
- You’re dying to learn kung fu but local masters don’t speak English. Eager to learn, you train with native speakers and quickly pick up the skills required to aid your training
- You want to do business in China and can’t wait to feel like you aren’t getting ripped off at every turn
- You’re compelled to learn about modern Chinese culture but want to learn first hand. When books won’t get you close enough, nothing but close interaction will do. As your language skills improve exponentially, you gain a meaningful understanding of Chinese culture
- Chinese poetry fascinates you but when you translate it into English, it loses its elegance. Start with simple idioms and your diligence will be rewarded when you’re enjoying more challenging pieces
You get the idea. Having a passion for the language, regardless of what you want it to connect you with, goes a long way.
What has served you well in your quest for better language skills? Is there anything that you wish someone had told you years ago?