|1. Be aware of tones
- Both Mandarin and Cantonese are tonal languages, which means that
speaking the same word with different pitch will give the word different
meanings. Mandarin has 4-5 primary tones, and Cantonese has 6-7.
- Attempts have been made at Romanization (using of the "abc"
alphabet) of Chinese words to assist with language learning. However,
if you wish to speak Chinese with proper tones, it is highly recommended
that you use an audio-based program and focus your
efforts on reproducing the sounds that you hear. Romanized/written Chinese
only provides an approximation until you become familiar with the actual
sounds. It's for that reason that I chose to use audio and "natural
language" Romanization, rather than a have students learn a complicated
pinyin system in my lessons.
2. Learn Chinese in phrases rather than memorizing vocabulary
- Building vocabulary by learning phrases that contain vocabulary will
help to make your communication understood by context, even if your
tones are a bit off at first.
- Chinese, like other languages, has many words that have the same/similar
meaning but are used in particular contexts. Therefore, most students
will find it more efficient to learn vocabulary "in context",
meaning in phrases where the vocabulary is used.
- Unlike some other languages (such as French or Spanish), there is
absolutely no connection between English and Chinese vocabulary (aside
from random coincidence and a handful of English words that younger
Chinese have adopted). This makes memorization of individual words more
challenging, and less efficient than learning Chinese in phrases.
3. Do not put too much emphasis on grammatical rules
- The complexity of Chinese vocabulary is partially offset by the simplicity
of it's grammatical structure. And in languages full of exceptions-to-rules
(especially in Cantonese), you'll advance more quickly by absorbing
a "feeling" for grammatical structure through practice and
exposure, rather than intellectual understanding of rules. It's simply
more effective to learn how to speak Chinese in the manner that a child
learns to speak and language - by listening and repeating what you hear
over and over. Imagine asking a 7 year old if a noun goes before
a verb -- they probably won't know, but they will be able to
say a sentence correctly.
4. Focus on frequent exposure
- A real key to learning Chinese is repeated exposure to the language.
In the beginning, this means listening to your audio programs/lessons
as often as possible. Soon you'll notice your ability to distinguish
and reproduce the tones of Chinese becoming more honed, and you'll speak
with proper grammar because it "sounds right". There is simply
no substitute for frequent practice when getting started - you won't
learn these skills from a book. Listen in your car, while you work out,
or set aside some time each morning and evening to immerse yourself
in the audios. If you have trouble concentrating, you might be better
off with a more interactive program like Pimsleurs, Rosetta Stone, or
5. Have fun!
- If you enjoy learning a language, your mind and efforts will be more
focused and you'll learn much faster. A friend of mine took 4 years
of Spanish in high school, hated it, and cannot speak a word today.
However, she decided to learn French on her own and can speak with conversional
fluency after just 6 months! I see the same thing with people who are
really motivated to learn Chinese.
- If you think it would be enjoyable, join a Chinese language group.
But only stick with them if they actively work on practicing Chinese
- otherwise you'll be better off using that time to study on your own.
Conversational Chinese classes at community colleges can also be fun
(conversational classes tend to be more practical, and are usually attended
by students with sincere interest).
- With an abundance of Chinese studying overseas, you might try language
exchange with ESL students that wish to practice their English, in return
for help on your Chinese. If that's not possible, find some Chinese
chat partners online. Skype
makes real-time voice chat easy.
- Watch movies in Chinese. There are loads of great Mandarin movies
from China, and Hong Kong (Cantonese) has one of the largest film industries
in the world. Watching movies was my primary method of learning English,
and I've heard of many students reinforcing their Chinese language efforts
in the same way.
- Get a tutor! Yes, that's a shameless plug
for myself -- but of course you have other choices as well. Any form
of one-on-one instruction is usually going to be more effective than
a group setting, and more fun if it's someone that you click with. So
if one tutor isn't working out, try others until you find someone with
whom you feel comfortable. Working with a private tutor who gives assignments
can also provide some much needed motivation that learning a language
- Plan a future trip to China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong, and make it your
goal to gain a certain level of proficiency by that time.
6. Find the learning style that works best for you
- Although I'd love to say that my Chinese lessons and tutoring are
all you'll ever need, the truth is that different people learn more
effectively with different methods. Exposing yourself to multiple programs,
a variety of Chinese voices, and even hearing the same phrases spoken
with slightly different wording will all help to accelerate your learning
- In general, to really learn Chinese, you'll want to find programs
that provide a good amount of material. Although your local bookstore
may have several "learn Chinese fast" programs with 1 or 2
audio CD's of basic vocabulary, those aren't going to do much for you.
Read reviews on Amazon, but check your local library before spending
a lot of money.