Tips for Learning Chinese Languages

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BEFORE LEARNING CHINESE
1. Decide which language you wish to learn
  • Mandarin is the national language of China and Taiwan, and is the dialect you should choose if traveling to those countries, or if you're learning Chinese for academic/business purposes. China's large population makes Mandarin the most spoken language on the planet.
  • Cantonese is the primary language of Hong Kong and China's Guangdong province. It is also the most common dialect spoken by Chinese overseas. Choose Cantonese if you're traveling to Hong Kong, doing business in Guangdong (a major economic region), or if you wish to speak with the majority of Chinese in the US, UK, Australia, or Canada.
  • Difficulty: Mandarin is more structured and a bit easier to learn, while Cantonese has more tones and an ever-changing variety of slang terms. However, this characteristic also makes Cantonese a rich and enjoyable language to study. While there are similarities between Mandarin and Cantonese (learning one can help with learning the other), attempting to learn both simultaneously would be very confusing and inefficient.

2. Decide whether you wish to learn how to read/write Chinese

  • Chinese characters are not based on phonetics (sounds), so learning how to write does not help you learn how to speak. For travel purposes, learning a handful of Chinese characters will help you to read signs and menus in Chinese, but there is no reason to get too serious about writing if travel is your only objective. Most of the sign/menu characters can be extracted from a simple guidebook.
  • Many people enjoy learning how to write Chinese characters (calligraphy) solely as a beautiful art form.

3. If you do want to learn Chinese characters, choose the appropriate system

  • Simplified Chinese characters are used in China and Singapore. Traditional characters are used in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and will also be seen on most Chinese menus and newspapers found overseas (US, UK, Australia, Canada, etc).
  • Character simplification was part of Mao Zedong's pre-Cultural Revolution in 1960's China, which explains why Hong Kong and Taiwan continue using traditional characters. Because the simplified system is based on the traditional one, many characters are actually exactly the same in both systems.
TIPS FOR LEARNING CHINESE
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 lists

  • 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 Fluenz.

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 requires.
  • 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 efforts. 
  • 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.

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