Not an expert in the Chinese (Mandarin) language by any stretch of the imagination, I’ve had quite my fair share of language instruction classes, from the dull 8 am Latin and Classical Greek classes in my high school years to French, German, Japanese, Mandarin and even Bahasa Malaysia. Plus, probably like lots of you out there, I still do spend quite an awful lot of time memorising, reciting and practicing characters, tones and general unpronounceable pronunciation. So, why not make this a more efficient quest?
The following are some suggestions which might help those of you who are not sure why or where to start from, and those of us who are half way into attempting to achieve at least a sound working knowledge of this fascinating language, if not a full mastery of its many intricacies:
1. Don’t be overwhelmed by the first reaction of most people when you tell them you are about to start learning Mandarin: “it’s too hard”. Yes, the Chinese non-alphabetic pictographic writing system is, to say the least, overwhelming to most foreign students. And if you are not accustomed to invest some serious time internalising the characters through rote memorisation and repeated reading and writing, you may as well not even bother. But if you are prepared and willing, your efforts in this area will be rewarded by one of the easiest grammatical structures in the world: no gender, no plurals and a system of verbal tense much simpler than many other languages in the world.
2. Don’t be overwhelmed by the many local and regional varieties of the Chinese language. Mandarin, the predominant dialect in Northern China, is the easy and clear choice for foreign students (unless you have a special interest in one of the other varieties). Mandarin dominates and is the official language of politics, education, and media in both Mainland China and Taiwan. Mandarin is also one of the four official languages in Singapore and gaining prominence in Hong Kong, a Cantonese-speaking area, since the return of China’s sovereignty in 1997.
3. Yes, be overwhelmed by the sheer level of commitment and determination you will have to dedicate to this task, and enjoy it. For non-native Mandarin speakers, learning Mandarin is a huge undertaking but should also be a fascinating journey. You can allow yourself some space by making the decision to focus on a specific aspect of the language. Perhaps you want to learn how to speak first, and once you feel confident start tackling the written language. Whichever approach you decide on, be conscientious about your work and don’t desist. Practice, written and spoken, is truly key in this case.
4. What will contribute to make your task simpler?
- Tackling tones:
Mandarin, like many other languages of Asian origin, is a tonal language. For us, learners, this means that the pitch used to utter a particular word could (and probably will) cause that word to have several different meanings. One of the most recommended ways to get foreigners used to the tonal system is to utilise audio-based programs to help us reproduce the sounds we hear. Fortunately, in this day and age, there are some good resources available on the net to help us, such as SpeakGoodChinese, a neat tool that gives you the option to select whether you are a male, female, or a child to select the appropriate pitch range and proceed to analyse your use of tones and provide suggestions as to how to keep your tones smooth, how to handle two first tones in a row, etc.
Also, when practicing your tones, read loudly and clearly. Use your listening ability to potentially strengthen your memory, and correct the pronunciation – you will find it much better than reading silently.
- Tackling characters:
Unfortunately, there is no really two ways about learning Chinese characters. Sink your teeth into it (them) and practice writing characters until you learn them by hard. I personally like to use A3 drawing or art pads and write rows and lists of characters until they’ve finally found a place in my stubborn little brain. Rather than writing one word many times before doing the next one, I prefer to write each word once or twice then go through the whole list again. This seems to reinforce the new words more firmly in my memory.
After a while, you will notice that many characters have elements in common, either related to meaning or pronunciation. Note the common elements and use them to help you remember new characters. So you might find it useful, like I do, to group characters by possible associations: antonyms, two-character words that start with the same character, members of a family, vegetables, and any other type of association you can think of. For instance:
报名 (enroll) and 报道 (report)
And remember to pay attention to the structure and composition of characters as well as the stroke order.
Fortunately, there are also endless, free, resources you can use to make this task a little easier:
- Watch movies or TV programs with Chinese subtitles,
- Read Chinese newspapers, booklets and books from your local library or Chinese store,
- Write vocabulary words using index or flash cards on one side with the definition on the other side. I also find the memory game in yellowbridge.com extremely useful and something you can do while commuting to work or even cycling at the gym.
- Surf the Chinese internet: Although Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China, you are free to use their local equivalents,Renren and Weibo. Play with Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, (it might not be all that easy to navigate initially) but you might find sights with similar layout to the English sites which make more sense to you, like Amazon.cn.
- Take advantage of other free learning Chinese resources online:
- The MDBG Chinese-English Dictionary is an excellent, very user-friendly online dictionary.
- Pleco, is a software containing everything Chinese on-the go: from eight different dictionaries, to flexible Pinyin searches, stroke order diagrams, and more.
- For an afternoon of fun games, Games 2 Learn Chinese, includingprintable flashcards.
- Sinosplice, dedicated to address certain key linguistic and cultural issues for foreigners in China, including a section dedicated to learning Chinese
- Tackling pronounciation:
Chinese community classes are a bare minimum to get you talking and drilling with partners and native speakers. You may even want to find a native Chinese speaker to exchange conversation classes with. Many Chinese students would like to practice their English as an exchange to teach you Chinese.
Read out loud, listen to and repeat after tape or online radio, movies and TV programs. Repeat any new sounds as accurately as possible, thinking and pronouncing outside the square of your native language when necessary (in most cases, really). You may even go as far as signing Chinese songs. Why not?
If you are confident enough, take the HSK, a standardised Mandarin exam for non-native speakers organised by the Chinese government.
With six possible levels of achievement, the Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK) is a Mandarin proficiency exam administered in China and abroad, that are designed to test your listening, reading, comprehension, and composition skills.
I find it useful to work towards passing the exam as an end goal but a lot of people aim for Chinese university admission or scholarships.
And to put all those hours, months, and years to the test, travel to China and explore the narrow allies, away from English expats, and let yourself immerse in the ins and outs of this challenging but extremely captivating language. But if you have already and have other suggestions, please share them with us. Happy learning!