How to Learn Chinese and Not Get Discouraged: Where to Start and How to Continue
by Monica Wells
Becoming fluent in Chinese might seem a hard nut to crack - a lot of people tend to get discouraged by the perceived difficulty of the language. But that's what it ultimately is - a language, which is nothing more than a means of communication and simply cannot be really difficult - otherwise it wouldn't serve its purpose. The key to developing the right attitude to learn Chinese is to see it as a different kind of language, not a complicated one.
Chinese - How Hard Is It Really?
When Westerners talk about Chinese, they usually mean Standard Chinese, also known as Mandarin. Chinese is actually a group of related dialects or languages, most of them completely unintelligible to each other. Mandarin is a spoken across most of northern and southwestern Asia - it has almost a billion of native speakers, which is more than any other language in the world!
Many non-Chinese speakers of Mandarin actually point to the logic and simplicity of the language. Consider this: there are no conjugations, no cases, no tenses, no plurals and not even genders. Don't expect long words like 'Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister' (chimney sweep) either.
The only potential difficulty is the tones - Mandarin is a tonal language, which means that words might be pronounced in the same way, but the tone can completely change their meanings. There are four tones in Mandarin and all of them can easily be learned by listening to audio recordings or actual native speakers.
This should suffice to convince you that Mandarin is not such a difficult language and, with a little effort and persistence, anyone could become a fluent speaker.
Learning Chinese - Beginners
* Learning materials - compiling learning materials is easy. You can find them scattered across the web, in stationary bookshops and specialized language learning centers. The thing to remember here is that the textbooks you choose must be complemented with audio recordings - getting yourself acquainted with tones and pronunciation is a must during the first step towards learning Mandarin. For distance learning opportunities, check chinesepod.com.
Learn with regularity - when it comes to second language acquisition, it's better to devote 15 minutes each day than 3 hours once a week in one sitting. In learning foreign languages, regularity is key to making the language a part of your everyday life. Make sure to have some contact with Chinese each day, practice whenever you can.
Make it a part of your life - this is an extension of the previous point: are there moments during your day that are filled with 'dead' time? Fill them up with Chinese. Commuting in a bus or train, for instance, is a great opportunity to listen to some recordings or conversations in Chinese.
Master the vocabulary - building vocabulary is an essential part of learning any language, so set a learning plan for yourself, say 30 new words per week, and stick to it. You can go on about it systematically - learn words from specific thematic areas, using props like flashcards - or un-systematically - through conversations and sentence context. Don't rely on one method only, otherwise you'll easily get bored.
Practice the tones - this is especially important for Western students. Tones need to be practiced ideally form the very beginning. Consider yourself lucky - while Mandarin is a stress-timed language with just 4 tones, Cantonese, another language within the Chinese group, has 9 of them! Study tones listening to others speak and don't worry too much about your own tonal mistakes - they're bound to happen!
Delve into the written word - this is a difficult one. A lot of people think that the spoken word is enough - they just want to be able to communicate, not write novels in the language. In the case of Mandarin, learning the writing system can actually be beneficial - it will reinforce your knowledge of the language. Learning how words are written will allow you to spot similarities with different words that contain the same character, making it easier to remember. A lot of instructors claim that, on the long run, learning to read Chinese makes it easier to learn the language, not the opposite.
Learning Chinese - Intermediate Level
Increase the amount of input - you're an intermediate level speaker now, so finding opportunities for listening and reading should be easier than before. If you've previously read for 30 minutes a day, increase this time to 1 hour. Listen to podcasts, preferably ones that also include a text - it's like killing two birds with one stone.
Learn Pinyin - Pinyin is the official writing system used to transcribe Chinese into the Roman alphabet and learning it will open you up for new opportunities, as well as keep it interesting for you - it's a different medium, arguably an easier one, but the language stays the same. Explore it systematically and you won't regret it.
Practice regularly - practicing Mandarin must still be a part of your everyday routine. Don't rely on lengthy study sessions on the weekend - use your time wisely and you'll find holes in your day, ready to be filled with some Chinese exercises.
Have fun - at this point, you're able to comprehend the spoken word, so it's time to benefit from yoku.com, a Chinese version of Youtube where you can stream full episodes of some entertaining Chinese TV series. Read books and magazines, watch TV and browse Chinese Internet - now it's time to enjoy your language competence!
Travel - traveling works miracles on language acquisition, so if you've got an opportunity to visit China, don't hesitate a second! Chances are the locals will find it hard to understand you, but getting immersed in Chinese culture will only do you good and increase your understanding of the language, which is, after all, a part of culture.
Keep going - at this point in your learning journey, you're more likely than ever to settle and find your inspiration gone. Refresh your outlook on the language, expose yourself to it in ways you haven't done before, talk as much as possible about things you haven't talked before - cultivate your passion for the language and keep it fun.
Learning Chinese - Advanced Level
Meet the speakers - you made it to the advanced level, congratulations! Now it's time to confront yourself with the actual native speakers and appreciate their own way of handling the language - everyone has a different take on their own language and might use words and expressions that are alien to you. This is a great opportunity for appreciating the finer side of Mandarin, with its idiomatic expressions and traditional proverbs, and getting a grasp on different varieties of the language.
Time to read - now it's the right time to enjoy the finest literary creations of the language. Some of them might still pose a challenge - they refer to very abstract and difficult concepts inherent to Chinese culture, but it's only through besting them that you'll get a sense of satisfaction and achievement, crucial for you to continue and perfect your language skills.
Practice your pronunciation and intonation - this stage is also the time to perfect your speaking skills. By now you've probably mastered the tone, but your intonation needs a bit more work in order to feel truly natural. Don't settle - challenge yourself and enjoy the thrills of getting more and more fluent in speaking Chinese!
Learn some slang - now you can also learn some fun vocabulary of questionable usefulness and slang expressions, perfect for enriching your knowledge of the language and guiding you through the meanders of the Chinese culture. It's time to have some fun with the language - you've totally earned it!
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