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I have to admit, I’m not the best student. I’ve been in China for a number of years, and I’ve learned a lot of lessons that I wish I’d known before I started learning Chinese.
For a start, I wish I’d been more disciplined, because what I found was that unless I actually opened my ears and listened to this language, I would never actually learn anything.
To help those of you who are maybe new to learning Chinese, are considering studying a new language or even just need a push in the right direction, I’ve come up with some suggested do’s and don’ts I wish I had known a long time ago. I feel as though my studying would have been smoother, more enjoyable and my Chinese would have progressed way quicker!
My list obviously doesn’t need to be followed to the letter, and you probably all have other do’s and don’ts that you would like to share with fellow learners. If you would like to share any ideas, please share them in the comments below! Also, I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with my list, it’s just based on my (and my friends/ colleagues/ and other Chinese learners) experiences, but they might not fit everyone.
To keep things positive and to move forward with our Chinese learning, I’ve got more do’s than don’ts.
Here’s my list to help you find the best way to learn Chinese:
DO…learn to read and write
If I’d have known this a few years back, I wouldn’t feel like I’m now back in kindergarten learning to write ABC again. I can’t stress enough how much more difficult it is to learn to read and write all those characters you are now able to speak. So many people are put off from learning to read and write Chinese characters, including myself, because it’s ‘too hard’. Since I started learning to read and write Chinese Characters, I’m way more excited about learning Chinese. That probably sounds a bit strange, but I find learning and understanding characters so interesting! Characters are made up of smaller ‘parts’ known as radicals (that you can read more about here) that help understand pronunciation and meaning. Although, I don’t suggesting learning characters as soon as you begin learning to speak, after a month or so, you could begin to learn some basic ‘pictograph’ characters to get you started.
If you’re not convinced, take a look at some other reasons why Characters are great!
DO…get a teacher
I think until I got a teacher, I wasn’t disciplined enough to focus on seriously learning Chinese. Once I finally got a teacher, it was a bit disheartening to realize my tones were atrociously bad and I basically had to start from scratch. Now obviously that’s my personal experience, and I do know a lot of people who’ve learned Chinese, although not fluently, without formal classes, I believe getting a teacher can really benefit your Chinese learning. Not only can they guide you in the right direction, and give encouragement, but they’re also someone to practice speaking with! A teacher doesn’t have to be someone who works in a school either, they can just be a friend or a colleague (one that speaks Chinese, obviously). On a side note, a lot of men I know here who’ve had Chinese girlfriends, have great Chinese, although I’m not suggesting you go on the hunt for one just to improve your Mandarin!
DO…immerse yourself in the Language
If you have an opportunity to come to China to travel or teach, then take it! Nora and I record a weekly podcast where we talk about living in China, so if you’re interested in making the move over here, have a listen! Seriously though, plonking yourself (for a short time) in a 2nd tier City here in China, is probably gonna not only improve your Chinese, but teach you some valuable lessons about culture and Chinese people! You might have to go without some home comforts, but your Chinese will be great!
Of course, if you can’t get to China right now, there are still plenty of ways in which you can become more immersed in Chinese. You can visit your nearest Chinatown or local Chinese restaurant. There you can listen to them speak, try and read the Chinese characters on the menu and even try and order your food in Chinese. Nora strongly recommends watching game shows and reality TV shows to improve your Chinese, although movies are great too! Finally, make some Chinese friends!
DO…make time to study
Even if you don’t have a lot of free time, it will really help your studies if you’re able to put time aside each day to learn some vocabulary. Why not use your commute to review some flashcards, or take 10 minutes of your lunch break to practice writing some characters. This is my current study schedule:
One 1 ½ hour Chinese class per week where I might get 20 – 30 new vocabulary words for speaking and around 20 characters to learn to read and write. I then add those words to a new flashcard list in my Written Chinese Dictionary app. Either on my way to work or if I take a break at work, I use the ‘study’ function to learn the vocabulary words, first beginning with Chinese – English and gradually making it more difficult to English – Chinese. Also, each day at work, I take a break in the afternoon when I try and complete the Daily homework. I have a notebook I keep by my desk where I write the character, pinyin and meaning and then find the top 2 or 3 bigrams since these are extremely useful. Then I try and use the character to write 1 or 2 sentences. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to be able to write all the characters without checking the stroke order, it’s more about just practicing writing and using correct grammar! I share my homework on the dictionary, and wait for Chamcen 老师 (lǎo shī) to tell me where I went wrong! Finally, when I get home, I practice writing the 20 or so characters for about 10 minutes. I don’t do this every night, but I try and mix it up by using my hanzi note book, my ‘magic’ writing mat and also using my mobile to write the characters. Overall, I spend around 20-30 minutes a day studying, in 10 minute slots.
My method might not work for you, find out how my colleague, Mike studies Chinese!
DO…learn about Chinese culture
A few months ago, I had some great classes from a local non-profit organization where the teacher taught a lot about culture, specifically geography and food. Learning just a little about Chinese culture can actually teach you a lot about the language. Once you begin to understand about China and its traditions, both the spoken and written language will probably make a lot more sense. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to pick up a hobby too. You could learn to play Mahjong, learn about Chinese tea or how to cook Chinese dishes!
DO…look at the Traditional Characters
As you might already know, Chinese characters have changed considerably since their beginnings, but looking back at Traditional characters, or sometimes even further back, can help us get a better understanding of a specific character. Some simplified characters bare very little resemblance to their traditional counterpart, which is why many people find traditional characters more beautiful and also informative. There are great books out there that teach a bit about the etymology of a character. I especially like ‘Fun with Chinese characters’. You can find links for the whole series here.
You can see both simplified and traditional characters in our Online Dictionary, just tap the button to flip between them quickly!
I can’t emphasise enough how essential radicals can be to your Chinese learning! I kind of have a strange obsession with radicals, because I love making connections between characters with similar radicals. Not only are radicals the ‘building blocks’ of characters, but they will also make your learning both more interesting and easier. Recognising some radicals will help you understand both the pronunciation and the meaning of a character. You’ll also begin to look at a character and associate it with a specific area. For example, characters that have 2 strokes on the left side, like this: 冰 (bīng) are associated with ice. The following characters all have the ‘ice’ radical on the left side of the character so this means they are all ‘cold’ in someway: 冷 (lěng – cold) , 冻 (dòng – freeze) and 凝 (níng – congeal).
DO…listen to different regional accents
You’ve probably listened to the mp3s that come with your textbook and know the typical Beijing accent. But if you’re going to travel around China, or communicate with Chinese people, chances are they won’t speak like a Beijing-er. For example, in our city of Shenzhen, there are lots of people from Hunan, although if you take what they say to be true, they’re actually from ‘Funan’. Hunan people, speak ‘H’s as ‘F’s, and it doesn’t stop there. Many other Chinese accents have similar differences compared with the standard Beijing accent you might only have heard. Try and listen to Chinese podcasts and regional TV shows to listen to different accents. These resources are easy to come by and will probably be free! You can use LizhiFM to download Chinese podcasts and there are a variety of video streaming sites such as YouKu and Viki.
As I mentioned previously, in the early days my tones were terrible, and I quickly realized that context could help me get away with it! However, trying to cop out of learning tones has only my spoken Chinese sloppy, and yet another thing I now have to go back and learn from scratch! You can try out Tone trainer to practice listening to the different tones; once your ear becomes accustomed to the 5 dfferent sounds, it will be easier to speak them yourself. Finally, our Online Dictionary has audio files for each character and bigram to help you learn from pronunciation and tone.
Now let’s look at some ‘don’ts’ for learning Chinese, most of which I’ve been a culprit of myself!
DON’T…learn each individual character
Seriously, the idea of initially trying to learn every individual character gives me nightmares!
If you’re learning to read and write Chinese characters, forget this idea that you should start from scratch with each individual character. It makes more sense to begin learning with bigrams. A bigram is a 2 character combination that basically makes a ‘word’ in Chinese. The meaning of a character can sometimes be vague and it can be daunting to know how to use it. Once you begin to learn Chinese bigrams, you’ll start to recognize and understand individual characters much more!
DON’T…be so serious!
Use games, get a hobby or listen to Chinese music! Using a book and a dictionary is not the only way to study; there are so many great resources and tools out there to make learning fun! Written Chinese has its own game, Chinese Match Game Mobile App, that you can check out here.
There are plenty of hobbies that will help you learn Chinese. Nora recommends finding a calligraphy class, or learning Mahjong with Chinese people without speaking English (if possible!) Listening to music or watching Chinese tv shows or movies, can be a brilliant way to practice your listening and reading skills (from the subtitles), and the best thing is, many of these resources are free! Finally, I suggest learning some Chinese slang, which can give you an insight into contemporary Chinese culture and mindset. Plus, they can often be pretty funny and they’ll impress your friends!
My final, and possibly most important point is
DON’T… give up!
I’d like to preface this final comment, by congratulating all of you for sticking with learning a language. If you’ve gotten this far, then I really hope that you continue to enjoy learning this great language!
I think that once you have a method to learning Chinese, you’ll realize it’s not as difficult as everyone told you. Yes, it has tones, and you don’t recognize the written language, never mind write it, but many people have learned Chinese, and many fluently enough to communicate as a native. Learning a language should be a bit of a challenge anyway, otherwise where’s the fun?!
If anyone of you out there have any issues, or are feeling complacent or fed up with Chinese, leave us a comment below and we’ll try and offer you some advice. The same goes for any of you who can offer any suggestions on how to remain involved and interested in learning Chinese!