- Learn some basic vocabulary. The first thing to do when learning a new language is to memorize some simple yet important words and start practicing with them as soon as possible. Although things like grammar and sentence structure are important, they mean nothing until you develop a basic vocabulary. Here’s a short list to get you started:
- Hello = nǐhǎo, pronounced [nee how]
- Yes = shì, pronounced [sher]
- No = bú shì, pronounced [boo sher]
- Goodbye = zài jiàn, pronounced [zai jee-ian]
- Morning = zǎoshàng, pronounced [zow shan]
- Afternoon = xià wǔ, pronounced [sha woo]
- Evening = wǎn shàng, pronounced [wan shan]
- Head = tóu, pronounced [toe]
- Feet = jiǎo, pronounced [jee-yow]
- Hands = shǒu, pronounced [show]
- Beef = niú ròu, pronounced [nee-oo row]
- Chicken = jī, pronounced [jee]
- Egg = jī dàn, pronounced [jee dan]
- Noodles =miantiao pronounced [miàn tiáo]
- Learn some basic phrases.
Once you’ve built up a little vocabulary, you can start working on some basic phrases and expressions that will help you to navigate everyday conversations. Here’s a few to get you started:
- How are you?= nǐ hǎo ma? pronounced [nee how mah]
- I’m fine= wǒ hěn hǎo, pronounced [wuh hen how]
- Thank you= xiè xiè, pronounced [shee-yeh shee-yeh]
- You’re welcome= bú yòng xiè, pronounced [boo yong shee-yeh]
- Excuse me= duì bu qǐ, pronounced [dway boo chee]
- I don’t understand= wǒ bù dǒng, pronounced [wuh boo dong]
- What is your surname (family name)?= nín guì xìng, pronounced [neen gway shing]
- What’s your name?= nǐ jiào shén me míng zì, pronounced [nee-jee-yow shen-ma meeng zher]
- My name is _____= wǒ jiào _____, pronounced [wuh jee-yow]
- Learn the tones. Chinese is a tonal language, which means that the same word can mean different things depending on the tone used to express them (even if the spelling and pronunciation are the same). This can be difficult for English speakers to grasp, but learning the tones is essential if you want to speak Chinese properly. There are four major tones in Mandarin Chinese:
- The first tone is a high, flat tone. It is expressed in a relatively high voice, with no rising or dipping. Using the word “ma” as an example, the first tone is expressed in writing as “mā”.
- The second tone is a rising tone. It starts at a lower level and gets progressively higher, like when you say “huh?” in English. The second tone is expressed in writing as “má”.
- The third tone is a dipping tone. It starts at a medium level, then dips lower before rising again, like when you say the letter “B” or the word “horse” in English. The third tone is expressed in writing as “mǎ”.
- The fourth tone is a falling tone. It starts at a medium level and gets progressively lower, like when you are giving a command (such as telling someone to “stop”) in English. The fourth tone is expressed in writing as “mà”.
- Work on your pronunciation. Once you have learned the correct pronunciation of the tones by listening to native speakers (Youtube is good for this) and practicing them yourself, you need to work on applying them to words.
- This is essential, as the same word can have a completely different meaning depending on which tone is used. For example, using the tone “mā” instead of “má” could be the difference between saying “I want cake” and “I want coke” — two completely different meanings.
- Therefore, when you’re learning vocabulary, it is not enough to learn the pronunciation, you must also learn the correct tone. Otherwise you could use the word in the wrong context and be completely misunderstood.
- The best way to work on your pronunciation is to speak with a native Chinese speaker who can encourage you when you get it right and correct you when you’re wrong.
- Work on grammar and sentence structure. It’s a common misconception that Chinese is a “grammar-less” language. Chinese has quite a complex grammar system, it’s just very different to that of English and other European languages.
- Luckily, when learning Chinese you will nothave to learn any complicated rules involving verb conjugations, agreement, gender, plural nouns or tense. Chinese is a very analytic language, which makes it quite simple and straightforward in some respects.
- Another bonus is that Chinese uses a similar sentence structure to English — subject-verb-object — which makes translating back and forth between the two languages somewhat easier. For instance, the sentence “he likes cats” in English is translated as “tā (he) xǐ huan (likes) māo (cats)” in Chinese.
- On the other hand, Chinese has its own grammar structures which are very different to those used in English and can therefore be very difficult for the English speaker to grasp. These grammatical features include things like classifiers, topic-prominence and preference for aspect. However, there’s no point in worrying about these things until you’ve mastered basic Chinese.
Learning to Read and Write in Chinese
- Learn pinyin. Pinyin is a Chinese writing system which uses letters from the Roman alphabet instead of Chinese characters.
- It is useful for Chinese language learners as it allows you to get started with reading and writing Chinese without the time involved in learning traditional characters. There are many Chinese textbooks and learning materials available in Pinyin.
- However, it is important to be aware that even though Pinyin uses letters from the Roman alphabet, its pronunciation is not always intuitive to the English speaker. Therefore, it is important to use a proper pronunciation guide when learning Pinyin.
- Learn to read some Chinese characters. Although the ability to read traditional Chinese characters is not necessary for learning Chinese, the idea appeals to many people and makes them feel more in touch with traditional Chinese culture.
- Learning to recognize and read Chinese characters is no easy task. In order to read a newspaper, the average Chinese reader will need to be familiar with about 2000 different characters — and that’s just the beginning. It is believed that there are over 50,000 Chinese characters in total (though many of them are no longer in use).
- The major benefit of learning to read Chinese characters is that you will have access to a broad array of other literatures, including Cantonese, Japanese and Korean — all of which use Chinese characters (or a simplified version of them) in their writings, despite the fact that the spoken languages are very different.
- Learn to write some Chinese characters. Once you have learned to read Chinese characters, you may be interested in learning how to form them yourself. Writing Chinese characters is a complex skill, which requires patience and a touch of artistry.
- The first step in learning how to write Chinese characters is to learn the “radicals” — these are the individual brush strokes that form the building blocks of each character. There are 214 radicals in total — some can stand on their own as individual characters, while others are only used as part of a more complex character.
- When writing Chinese characters, the order of the brush strokes is very important and you must follow a specific set of rules — such as top to bottom, left to right and horizontal before vertical. If the stroke order is incorrect, the completed character will not be accurate.
- Read Chinese texts. If you want to improve your Chinese reading skills, you’ll need to practice a little reading for at least 15 to 20 minutes a day.
- To begin with, you could try using some children’s readers or workbooks (which are nearly always written in Pinyin) to practice your basic reading skills. You should also be able to find some good resources for reading Chinese online.
- You can also try to incorporate your Chinese learning into your everyday life. You can do this by reading the Chinese labels on food products at the Asian supermarket, or asking your server for the Chinese language menu at a restaurant.
- Once your reading becomes more advanced, you could try to get your hands on a Chinese newspaper (which are printed using traditional Chinese characters) and do your best to read through the articles. This is also a good way of familiarizing yourself with Chinese culture and current affairs.
- Write a little Chinese everyday. In order to practice your Chinese writing skills, you should try to write a little everyday, whether in Pinyin or in Chinese characters.
- One option is to keep a small personal diary in Chinese, where you write down simple things like a description of the weather, how you are feeling that day, or what you did. If you’re not to shy about it, you could ask a Chinese-speaking friend or acquaintance to look it over and check for any mistakes.
- Alternatively, you could try to find a Chinese pen-pal to write letters to. This could be mutually beneficial, as you could get some practice writing in Chinese, while your pen-pal could practice their English. You could also ask your pen-pal to include the corrected version of your original letter when replying.
- A last way of practicing your writing is to make simple lists in Chinese, like your shopping list, or to make Chinese labels for items around the house.
Immersing Yourself in the Chinese Language
- Practice with a native Chinese speaker. The absolute best way to learn Chinese is just to speak it with a native speaker — this will force you to think on your feet, help with your accent and expose you to more informal or colloquial forms of speech that you won’t find in a textbook. If you have a Chinese-speaking friend, ask them if they’d be willing to sit down with you for an hour or two each week. They’d probably be happy to help — as long as the coffee’s on you!
- If you don’t know any Chinese speakers personally, you could try placing an ad in your local paper or online forum. Alternatively, you could look into finding a Chinese conversation group or oral Chinese class in your local area.
- If all else fails, you could try to connect with a Chinese speaker on Skype, one who’d be willing to exchange 30 minutes of Chinese conversation for 30 minutes of English.
- Listen to Chinese tapes/CDs. Listening to Chinese podcasts or CDs is a great way to immerse yourself in the language — even when you’re on the go!
- It doesn’t matter if you can’t follow everything that’s being said — just try to be an active listener and attempt to pick out key words and phrases. Slowly but surely your overall comprehension will improve.
- This is a great option for people who have long commutes as they can simply stick a Chinese CD on in the car or listen to a Chinese podcast on the train. You could also try listening while exercising or doing housework.
- Watch Chinese films and cartoons. Watching Chinese films and cartoons is a more fun, relaxed way of immersing yourself in the language; however, it will still help to expose you to the sounds and structure of Chinese.
- Try watching short cartoons or clips on Youtube, or rent a full length Chinese film from your local movie store. You may need to use subtitles at first, but try not to rely on them too much — see how much of the dialogue you can understand on your own.
- If you’re feeling particularly proactive, you could pause the film after particular words or phrases and try to repeat them — this will help your accent to sound more authentic.
- Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. The biggest obstacle that will stand in your way of learning Chinese is your fear of making mistakes. You need to try to overcome this fear — and even embrace it — if you are to reach your goal of fluency.
- Remember that everyone makes mistakes when they are learning a new language, and you are bound to have your fair share of embarrassing mistakes and awkward moments, but this is all part of the process.
- Remember that you are not aiming for perfection when you are learning Chinese, you are aiming for progress. So go ahead and make as many mistakes as you like — as long as you learn from them and continue to improve.
- Consider taking a trip to China. Can you think of a better way to immerse yourself in the Chinese language than a trip to its native land
- China is an amazingly diverse country — from the busy, bustling streets of Beijing to the ancient majesty of the Great Wall. There is something for every traveler — whether you’re looking to immerse yourself in traditional ethnic cultures, to sample the many delicious Chinese delicacies or to travel to the sites of ancient ruins and epic battles.
- Alternatively, you could take a tour of other places with large Chinese-speaking populations, like Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Just make sure that you are prepared for differences in dialect (not all are mutually intelligible) before you book your flight!
- Don’t expect to learn it quickly. Many people have trouble learning Chinese.
- Go to a website that pronounces Chinese words so you know what they sound like and how they are pronounced.
- Chinese is a complex language, so brace yourself.
Learning Chinese can be struggle city. But only if you don’t have fun while you’re doing it!
Get some materials. Textbooks are okay, as long as they have dialogs with a recorded version. If you’ve got the dough, ChinesePod is great.
- Do a significant amount of input (reading and listening) with this beginner material. This is the hard bit, where the language gradually becomes less ‘foreign’ – in other words, you get used to the language. To make rapid progress, try to dedicate at least 30 minutes a day (an hour is better).
- Work the language into your life. I’m not really an advocate of ignoring your friends and family who don’t speak the language, or listening to the language while you’re talking to them and while you sleep (perAJATT), or changing the language on your computer and phone into Chinese – this is too annoying for me. Instead, make use of dead time. Do you daydream on the train/bus? Now you listen to Chinese. Do you wait in lines? Now you listen to Chinese while you wait in lines. Do you walk the dog? Paint your house? Daydream? Listen to Chinese while you do these things. You’ll see how easy it is. I would estimate that the average person has about 1-2 hours a day of dead time, this meaning time they do NOTHING else. If you studied Chinese only in the time you otherwise would be wasting, you will see massive progress. Now imagine if you fit some Chinese into your free time, too?
- Two words.Mini goals. Learn 30 words a week, and then step it up after a couple of weeks. Listen to 30 minutes of Chinese a day – then step it up to an hour incrementally. I’m soon to write an entire post over on my own blog dedicated to explaining the importance of mini goals.
- Characters. Forget about them for the first month. After that though, they are important. Spend 15 minutes a day learning them. Although it may seem tedious, it’s worth learning the radicals first, or as you encounter them – this will enable you to quite accurately guess new characters later on.
- Get anSRS. Do your reps daily, and add sentences whenever you can. Also, I’ve found sentences are better than words, as you learn grammar and new vocabulary simultaneously – it also seems much less boring than just drilling single words. If you have the option/can be bothered, add sentences with audio so you don’t get a botchy pronunciation (or just do a lot of listening). Where to get sentences? Mine them from the dialogs in your textbook, from ChinesePod, wherever. Just make sure they are correct!
If you spend too much time worrying about whether you will ever reach fluency, firstly, that is the time you will be spending not injecting Chinese into your brain, but secondly, and most importantly, it will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy – you won’t enjoy the process, will associate Chinese with stress and essentially never become fluent.
This ‘blind faith’, as an atheist, is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. But you really have no choice but to take my word for it that if you:
- Put in the time (listening, writing and, eventually, speaking)
- Enjoy yourself
- Believe you will become fluent
Then fluency is an inevitable result.
“But, Chinese is such a hard language compared to French or Spanish!”
Don’t get sucked into this idea.
Chinese is not harder, Chinese is just far more different to English than most European languages are. Plenty of Westerners have managed to tame the beast. Off the top of my head, take Steve Kaufmann or Luca Lampariello, for example.
In fact, I would argue that Chinese is actually objectively easier and more logical than any other language I’ve come across (with the exception of Chinese characters – logical in theory, but struggle city in practice for anyone trying to learn it who doesn’t use it every day).
Consider these things:
- Rather than having completely separate words for related concepts, one character in Chinese will represent a ‘concept’ that will manifest itself in a huge number of multi-syllable words, ie:
工 (gōng) – representing the idea of ‘work’, present in other words such as 工作 (to work), 工厂(factory/plant), 工地 (workplace), 工匠 (craftsman), 工力 (craftsmanship), 工业 (industry), the list goes on.
- No conjugations. No tenses. No cases. No plurals. No gender.
Therefore, no memorising ‘je peux, tu peux, il peut, nous pouvons’. ‘Nuff said.
- No long words – say goodbye to ‘anticonstitutionnellement’, ‘Unkameradschaftlichkeit’ and ‘electroencefalografistas’.
I could go on for ages about how simple and logical Chinese really is.
Also, don’t be afraid of tones. They can be learned naturally through extensive listening
If you could speak Chinese, you’d probably be looking as chuffed as this guy.
- This is the best part of the language learning journey. The language is starting to become familiar, and you can start doing fun stuff in the language! Like, watching TV shows from YouKu (the Chinese version of YouTube, but with full episodes) and actually understanding them! Or, reading authentic, interesting content and books. Or making friends, or…
- Get a girlfriend/boyfriend. Now this may be a difficult and in some circumstances unethical task (if you are just using them to practice your 中文). The truth is, that at the intermediate level you need to actually increase the amount of input you’re getting in the language in order to step it up and push through to the advanced level. At the very least, get some friends! If you live in a cultural melting pot (like my own city, Melbourne, or like, NYC, etc) then you should have no problem meeting Chinese people. Or go study overseas (this may not be practical for you – but if you’re at Uni, go on exchange like I am!) Or, hey, why not get some Chinese roomies? Instant friends that have to hang with you!
- Even more important than in the beginner stage, at this level you need to be having contact with the language every day in order to incorporate it into your psychic. This is because the language needs to become part of the fabric of your mind, which is just not possible if you only study on the weekend. There’s a saying that goes ‘learn a language and gain another soul’. This is because you develop a borderline personality disorder when you learn another language – you will find your thinking and personality will be heavily influenced by cultural elements of the target language.
- Don’t give up. At this point, you have got it in the bag! The hard yards are almost over. Like I said, this is the best part, it is all downhill from here. You don’t have to agonise over mind numbingly boring hospital-grade artificial learning materials, and can get onto some juicy stuff. It’s simply a matter of continuing to consistently expose yourself to the language, and talk as much as possible. Language acquisition is a natural process, and we are inherently good at it by virtue of being human. Just don’t stress, it will come!