By Michael Chimienti
"Wow, you can speak Chinese? That has to be the most difficult language to learn, how did you do it?" If I had a dollar for every time I've heard these questions I could probably quit my day job. Ok, maybe not quite, but my point is that people are often amazed that I can speak, read, and write Chinese fluently. As a native English speaker, the concept of a tonal language was completely foreign to me. In fact, learning to speak in tones was the hardest part about learning Chinese for me. In this article, I am going to teach you what worked for me in my study of Mandarin and what helps me maintain my fluency today.
First off, let me say that I consider knowing 3000 characters to be fluent; this means that if you can read and speak 3000 different Chinese words, I consider you to be fluent due to the fact that you can thrive in an all-Mandarin speaking environment. Writing is a bit more difficult, but in my experience if you can't write 3000 characters you will still be able to thrive in an immersed environment-reading and speaking are the most important skills to master.
My journey began in college; I took two full years (4 semesters) of Mandarin courses while in college. In these courses, I learned the basic radicals, tones, and stroke orders. By the time I was done with these four courses, I could understand about 2000 characters. At this point you might be wondering how in the world you will get started in your study if you have no intention of going to college, or if you have already been there and done that. For those of you in this situation, I recommend a product called Rocket Chinese; you can click here to find out more about it. This program will give you the solid 2000 character foundation that you need to be able to survive in a Chinese-speaking environment. It teaches you about tones, stroke order, and radicals and you'll learn the basic characters you need to know to start conversations with native speakers and get by on the streets of Beijing. The college classroom environment is a great option, but Rocket Chinese will do the trick just as well, and you will save thousands of dollars in tuition fees and will get the results of a college course in a fraction of the time. In my opinion, Rocket Chinese is an incredible value for the money. Here is the link one more time.
Now, in my experience, when studying Chinese in an English-speaking environment, my classmates and I tended to butcher the tones when speaking to one another. Unless you are naturally brilliant with languages, this will likely happen to you as well. Up until now I've been talking about what you can do to be able to survive in a Chinese speaking environment. But now you've done that, and you want to not only survive, but thrive in a city like Shanghai or Beijing. To me, the best way to truly master the language is to live in the environment. I lived in Shanghai for 6 months and it was here that I realized that my "made up" tones wouldn't cut it in the real world. It was in Shanghai during my language immersion that I was forced to learn the tones and really began to master the spoken language. I can recall a time when I said I wanted to buy a present for my mother. Unfortunately for me, the word for "horse" and "mother" are only differentiated by a single tone. When I told the store clerk I wanted to buy a gift for my horse, she looked at me like I had lost my mind. She eventually figured out what I was trying to say, but it was a bit of a struggle. After that, I knew the difference between the two tones.
If going to China for several months to live and work is not in the cards for you, have no fear. A great way to become fluent is to get a webcam and find yourself a language partner. I still do this today, in addition to using Rocket Chinese, to maintain my fluency in the language. A good place to find language partners is through the Rocket Chinese community message boards, or by going to italki.com to find a native speaker willing to help you learn Mandarin. If you practice with them for a few hours per week, you will not only master your tones but you'll learn to speak more comfortably, just like a native speaker.
Once you give yourself that 2000 character foundation, you're already quite advanced in the language; you'll be able to order food at a restaurant, take a taxi, and make a hotel reservation in Mandarin. However, in order to truly perfect your tones and to become comfortable with and master the language, you must either study in China or partner up with a native speaker to practice your skills. That face-to-face interaction is absolutely critical for fluency, and it separates the amateurs from the experts. If you follow this guidance, you will be on your way to becoming fluent in Mandarin faster than you thought possible.