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Four Tips for Learning Chinese

Learning Chinese

The following is a guest post from Corinne Dillon, founder of Discover Mandarin, an online Chinese language school.

Many regular readers of this blog are either Chinese speakers or aspiring Chinese language students. For those of you in the latter category, if this is the year you’ve decided to fully commit yourself to learning Mandarin, I want to offer some tips on the best and most efficient ways to do so, based on many years of my own experiences trying, failing, and eventually succeeding in learning Mandarin fluently.

1. Shut the book, turn on the tape: Let’s assume that you’re a busy business or legal professional. Just as you wouldn’t waste time at work on projects that don’t get you any closer to accomplishing your goals – and only mean more time at the office – why would you waste time learning Mandarin the “wrong” way when you could be learning it the “right” way, i.e. faster, better, more efficiently?

I am comfortable using the word “right” because I started out learning Mandarin the not “right” way and had little to show for it in spite of a major investment of time and effort. If you’re anything like I was then – trying to learn from a textbook and spending hours writing and memorizing characters – the best advice I can give you is to shut the book and put the pen down. Your primary objective as a beginner or intermediate learner should be to improve your speaking ability and listening comprehension, two things that are only accomplished by speaking and listening more, not spending time reading and writing. Pick up some Chinese language CDs or subscribe to an on-line service like Chinesepod.com which offers thousands of great dialogues for all levels of learners. Download lessons to your iPod and listen as much as possible – at home, in the car, at lunch – and you’ll see that you will quickly not only get used to how Chinese sounds, but you’ll have memorized whole chunks of dialogue and phrases simply because you’ve heard them so many times.

2. Forget about meaning
: This suggestion, while hard to do, makes a huge difference when it comes to learning Chinese. Once you’ve passively listened to a Chinese dialogue a dozen times or so, start to pause the recording and repeat after the speaker. Do this enough times until you get comfortable saying the dialogue yourself, even if you have little or no idea what you’re actually saying – simply focus on distinguishing sounds and rhythms of speech rather than actual meaning. As soon as you look at the English translation and pinyin equivalent of the dialogue, your ear will shut off and you won’t actually be learning anything because you think you already know it (of course you know what they’re saying – you read the translation!) Instead, struggle with the dialogue – repeat tricky phrases over and over until they start rolling off your tongue. Only then should you look at the translation: when you’re able to repeat the dialogue correctly and with confidence.

3. Be a kid again
: No Chinese child ever, ever memorizes tone marks (those symbols on top of the letters). In fact, if you were to ask your average Chinese person “what tone is this word?” they would have no idea what you’re talking about – they know it instinctively!

Chinese kids learn by simply listening to words spoken over and over again (like we learned English as babies) which is the process you’re trying to mimic by listening to dialogues on repeat. If you can listen to those recordings and pause and then imitate the sound and the way in which it is said, you will develop a great ability to reproduce Chinese and then form those words on your own without the prompting of the tape. In my opinion, foreign students fail to learn to speak Chinese properly because they concentrate solely on trying to memorize tones marks written on paper instead of simply listening to the way Chinese should sound from a native speaker and imitating it.

4. Invest in 1-on-1 lessons:
Once you’ve spent a few weeks learning Mandarin on your own, it’s time to commit to regular, 1-on-1 classes with a professional Chinese instructor. Let me say up front that I founded and run an online Chinese language school that does just that – offers personalized Mandarin classes online. Let me also say, however, that it wasn’t until I started meeting regularly with the teachers who are now my employees that my Mandarin really started to take off. In a 1-on-1 setting, all the focus is on you – improving your grammar, pronunciation, and tones – and you are not distracted by the poor all-of-the-above of your fellow students. Ideally, you are able to shape the curriculum so that it reflects only the vocabulary that is relevant (and immediately applicable) to your profession and interests. Most importantly, it’s the most efficient use of the time you have to study Chinese – your teacher can answer your questions, correct your mistakes, and let you know right away if what you’re saying is what an actual Chinese person would say in any given situation. You can’t that kind of feedback from a textbook!

Many people who have struggled to learn Mandarin will tell you that it’s too difficult to learn. My answer to that is that Mandarin is actually very learnable if you use the correct methodology to do so and can bring you great happiness – the intellectual challenge of learning something new, a sense of accomplishment, and the joy that comes from forming new relationships and friendships with people of a different culture.

19 responses to “Four Tips for Learning Chinese”

  1. Aside from the commercial aspects of the post, I guess I disagree with the overall concept of learning Mandarin this way. 13 years ago when I first came to China, I learned this exact same way. Of course there wasn’t companies like ChinesePod around but there were plenty of books and audio tapes. So, I embarked upon learning as many phrases as possible. Good. I could at least speak some basic phrases and assuming I got the tones correct, people would actually understand what I said. The problem of learning just phrases is there many many different ways of saying the same thing. So, one’s listening comprehension goes down the tubes because someone may be talking to you in phrases you have not learned even though you learned the one particular way to saying what you mean.
    Once I figured this out, I embarked on learning Chinese characters and how to read and later, write. I am a firm believer that you can’t really learn Mandarin without knowing the various meanings of each character even though the character is pronounced the same for the various meaning. The meanings change based upon the use in the sentence. A little complicated but one only needs to learn abut a 1000 characters. The secondary advantage of learning characters is one really obtains an insight into the culture by learning the meanings of the characters.
    I find that most professional educators agree.

    • Totally agree. Once I got comprehension of Chinese characters through programs like Skritter my comprehension went through the roof.
      I know know around 3000 characters and 8000 words.

    • I love how you literally just equate Chinese to its written language, as if that is the most important aspect of it and learning words were impossible without reading. Yet, Chinese people themselves learned Chinese before they could read and write it. “I am a firm believer that you can’t really learn Mandarin without knowing the various meanings of each character” Yes, you are saying we can’t learn Mandarin without knowing the characters – as if the words themselves are inextricable from the characters. That’s absurd. Over a billion people alive today have learned Chinese without the characters.
      I think there need to be better courses that don’t focus on teaching the writing system until the intermediate or advanced stages. If you want to learn reading and writing from the beginning, no problem. But I don’t want that. I already took Japanese in college and dropped it in the second semester because of kanji. Not doing that crap again. My mom is Taiwanese and I *will* find a way to learn this language one day. If I can’t do it on my own, I’ll go to Taiwan or China. I’m sure knowing the writing system is helpful, but it seems like a separate beast to me. I would like to spend at least 5 years speaking the language before attempting to read it.

  2. It’s very true that most Chinese have to really have a long think about it before they can tell you what tone a word is.
    The only problem is we are not used to slight tonal differences, giving different meanings to words that to us, upon first hearing them, sound essentially the same.
    Where possible I’d agree that a person studying Mandarin should find a native speaker… preferably with the correct pronunciation from the Jilin or Liaoning provinces. To have someone from Shanghai or even sometimes Beijing using their local accent to teach Chinese to non-Chinese is kind of amusing and more than a little strange.
    Watching Chinese mainland TV can help with the correct pronunciation, as the presenters still generally required to use a standard accent.

  3. Couldn’t agree more. If any 4 pieces of advice would work, I’d say those 4. Although a general theme would be “don’t be afraid to look or sound stupid. Chinese takes practice and you’re going to have to say the sounds over and over again.”

  4. Point 3 is a very, very good piece of advice. I picked up Hakka (Kejiahua) from my in-laws much quicker than Mandarin by simply absorbing the sound and mimicking. I would sit at the dinner table, listen, catch a phrase. Repeat it to myself. Next time I heard it, repeat it to my wife – who thought I was crazy – and find out the meaning.

  5. I can’t vouch for the specific approach described in this post, but I do urge all Chinese language students to listen carefully to native speakers as a way of improving pronunciation. After three years of Chinese classes in college, I speak Mandarin with good tones, reasonable fluency and only a light accent. Part of it may be innate ability, but an equally important part was listening to recordings and mimicking them.

  6. Dan,
    I’ve been doing this for a while and definitely consider myself someone who knows a bit about this topic. Corinne’s is good but really most people should jump strait to #3 and #4 in this day and age. Language serves one purpose.. to communicate. As connected as we all are, its really a shame if we don’t put our new found skills to work immediately. This about Microsoft Windows. Its an operating language. Most of us learned it by using it. If you want to learn Chinese, put yourself into a situation (whatever that may be) where you can communicate using your Chinese right away. There are so many great online resources out there and from the looks of it Discover Chinese is one of them. Great work Corinne.
    If you’re interested in a few more I posted an answer to this question on Quora a while back as well. Thanks for sharing these tips. Cheers.
    What are the best online services and tools to efficiently learn Mandarin Chinese?
    http://www.quora.com/What-are-the-best-online-services-and-tools-to-efficiently-learn-Mandarin-Chinese

  7. I have to say that I very strongly agree with Mark’s reaction to this post. Anyone who truly is making the decision to actually commit some time to learning Mandarin beyond having a basic conversation, should absolutely not abandon learning the characters. If you fail to learn the characters you are missing a very integral part of the language and one of the things that makes Mandarin such an amazing and beautiful language. The intricacies of the language revolve much of the time around word games with the characters. This can be seen for example the ever popular small talk (through which the Canadian known as “Dashan” rose to fame on the mainland), and the background and etymology of the characters adds a lot to the overall understanding of the language. I have met foreigners in China who have learned in this way (ignoring the characters) and they inevitably hit a wall in how far they can take the level of the language. Then they are faced with the choice of either staying at their current level of Chinese or having to go back to the very beginning and learn how to write the characters for “Ni hao”. Even in day to day discussions with Chinese, it’s not rare to have something explained by telling you which character their talking about (“no no no, it’s the one with the water radical next to it”).
    Also, though I agree that you can’t just sit down and memorize the tones and only read with pinyin, it’s not true that Chinese don’t learn in this way. A Chinese teacher of mine at one point gave me a book to study with, it had the pinyin, tones and characters. As it turned out it was a book that her daughter originally used when she was younger and learning to read in Chinese (she was 100% Chinese from Beijing). Eventually Chinese get to a point where the tones are internalized of course, and though I think the advice of trying to think like a kid who is starting from scratch (i.e. no knowledge of any language) is spot on, it is not true that Chinese don’t learn with pinyin, so as long as you use the pinyin properly and not as a crutch, there is still a benefit.
    I also love ChinesePod. It’s a great service. But it’s mainly great because they give you the characters and dialogue that go along with the recordings and I always try to review the characters after listening to the audio.

  8. Thanks to everyone for their thoughtful comments and for sharing personal insights from your own experiences learning Mandarin. There are clearly many different methods that work for different people.
    Just a quick note to say that, yes, characters are a critical component of learning Chinese and achieving true linguistic and cultural fluency. However, I believe that concentrating on speaking and listening skills first (before reading and writing) actually makes it easier to learn characters later on.
    Students (myself included early on) spend hours learning characters, but what does it really mean to “know” 500, 1000 characters? Can you use those words in a sentence? Probably not. In my case, at least, “knowing” a certain number of characters just gave me a false sense of confidence – a sense that I “knew” more Chinese than I actually did.
    Spend some time learning basic, foundational characters at the beginning of your studies. But this blog post is specifically targeted at more advanced learners and their goal is to communicate better, not write better. And I don’t believe you need to know the character equivalents of all the advanced vocabulary you’re trying to learn. If you’re an advanced learner, there’s a good chance you probably can figure many out intuitively anyway.

  9. Agree with Buck – do learn your characters. I have forgotten arguably a lot of my hand-writing skills, however in many life or business situations, you will need to understand written Chinese. Especially in a negotiation, being able to read contract clauses does make a difference and can decide if you win or not. Whilst it is a heavy initial investment, and can be very frustrating at first, your ability to increase your vocab through knowing characters is immense, because after all the way words are composed in Chinese is very logical.
    Once you know your characters, the biggest issue is the slow reading speed – you will spend an hour reading a small article. How to solve this: read subtitles in movies, start with soap operas where Chinese is easier to understand, or read company websites. For some real challenge watch Japanese or Korean original movies with Chinese subtitles. You will be surprised how fast you become at reading at some stage.
    And yes, one on one lessons are indispensable to freshen up pronunciation and also vocabulary.

  10. My experience in learning Mandarin is similar to what Corrine has advised, and I would add that I spent double-time initially, learning to distinguish tones, via cassette, in a classroom setting. From there I actually went to Beijing and spent full-time in a classroom, for about five months. I realize this is not possible for everyone to do, but I noticed in a classroom setting that some people retain the language better using visual characters, and others retain more orally, through listening. I definately fell into the latter category, so suggest that the best way for an individual to learn Mandarin may also depend on their individual particular learning strengths.
    For me, at times, I actually did exactly as Corrine suggested; listened to a story or dialogue read via cassette, and simply imitated the sounds, without understanding what was being said. I would also listen to the new vocabulary immediately afterward, and imitate it, along with hearing the direct translation into English.
    I think because I have a “musical” ear, hearing Mandarin to me is like listening to a song, so my brain finds it playful and fun, and easy to remember. I can still hear in my head, scripts I learned ten to fifteen years ago, as if I were listening to something like Grammar Rock (I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…). Hearing and imitating the individual vocabulary and repeating it immediately after the word was spoken built a connection between the “song” I had just heard, and the meaning of the words. Every time I listened to it I started to naturally understand more and more of what it meant. It also forced me to pronounce specific words exactly as the speaker had just spoken, by repeating the word aloud.
    I agree that this approach is limited in learning specific sets of dialogue or phrasing, but for me it was a good foundation on which to begin. I could also then read the text that accompanied the story or dialogue. Repeat listening and readings led to decreased dependence on the need to look up characters. Lastly I worked on writing. For me, learning Mandarin is in this order; hearing, speaking, reading, then writing, in fairly separate stages. After I become comfortable, I move on, but periodically read over old material, preferably aloud to exercize my mouth to imitate the tones and words. After I’m in an English speaking environment for awhile, my mouth can get a little “lazy” and just reading won’t help me refresh the memory of pronunciation or tonal accuracy.
    When I speak with my Chinese friends, it helps me even further because I can hear words I’m not pronouncing, with clarity. It jumps out at me. However, being a natural mimic, I do have a strong tendancy to subconciously adapt to what I’m hearing. When I studied in Beijing I won language contests for my clear Beijing accent. Having lived in Taiwan for several years after that, however, I find that my mainland Chinese friend now holds nothing back when he looks at me with tender moderate disgust and says “You speak with a Taiwanese accent”.
    I plan to spend the rest of my life continually learning Mandarin. It’s a fun language. Not the same as learning a romance language, but the extra effort is worth the satisfaction. Some parts are easier (no conjugation of verb tenses), some parts are harder (characters!).

  11. I agree with Kimber that learning “Mandarin is in this order; hearing, speaking, reading, then writing”. Writing should definitely come last. This old essay from the “dawn” on the internet age (12 years ago) has an interesting take on learning to write Chinese in that it is just not that necessary in this modern digital era:
    http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp102_teach_chinese.html
    The basic thrust is that people mostly use computers to write today and that being able to type pinyin and recognize characters should be sufficient. Skipping the writing part will also make learning much faster.

  12. Just a quick comment to reiterate what others have said — I can’t say enough good things about learning 1 on 1 with a tutor. When your brain really struggles to understand and struggles to be understood, it learns so quickly it’s surprising. I spent years listening to tapes and reading textbooks but I think I’ve learned 10 times faster with a tutor.

  13. I don’t have the time today to read all the comments to this guest post and i already know I will write more than i should, but as a chinese learner as of 2004 (i’m 29 today) with a 1 to 1 chinese teacher, I disagree with most of the post. it sounds like an ad. it is an ad. do not abandon the book. doing so takes all the magic, the intimacy, the visual impact from learning the language. you need to buckle down and do it the hard way at least for the first years. then you can go into hard core comprehension at group classes for grammar (how will you avoid grammar with dialogues??) and only when you have a comfortable set of rules and refined backstage work you can start doing it the ipod way. i am very skeptical of the durability, sustainability of all this ipod/pad/nas/content/live/harrisbstaging learning of languages. btw, if anyone like a colleague of mine thinks that studying chinese from home and alone will make you feel at ease when first going to china, be ready to be proved wrong. this language like many others needs focus, attention, practice on paper and such. if you aren’t convinced of this, write back and we’ll discuss.

  14. “Anyone who truly is making the decision to actually commit some time to learning Mandarin beyond having a basic conversation, should absolutely not abandon learning the characters. If you fail to learn the characters you are missing a very integral part of the language and one of the things that makes Mandarin such an amazing and beautiful language…”
    Couldn’t agree more. If you’re going to do it, do it right!

  15. This is a great post. We adults almost forget how we acquire our mother language and forget the fact we “were” the best language learners when we were still children.
    I use the “just listening” method to study any foreign language and it works like magic.
    I’ve also made the 6 rules of speaking Chinese effortlessly and automatically, except the “just listening” rule there is still some rules that Chinese (or any other language) learners should bear in mind, so you can learn at least 3 times faster than average learners.

  16. My comment is about 1-on1 tutoring, because for some people it can be a good thing to do and for others it’s hard as there not enough motivation to do your homework as there are not so many classmates. 

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