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Learn Chinese: My Top 6 Tips

I learned Mandarin Chinese 50 years ago. It took me nine months to get to the level of translating newspaper articles from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English, reading novels, and interpreting for people. I achieved this in the era of tape recorders, long before the Internet age, online dictionaries, language learning apps, MP3 files, and YouTube.

When I reflect on my experience, six things come to mind that helped me learn Chinese faster than the other students who learned it at the same time as me. Below I am listing each of these tips for learning Chinese. Maybe they'll help you study too.


1. Listen to Mandarin as much as possible

Limit yourself to just listening for the first month or two.

Start by limiting yourself to just listening. Just get used to the sounds. You should read what you read too. Do this by using a phonetic writing system like pinyin to get a better sense of what you're hearing. At some point you will have to learn the signs, but you can skip them first and instead try to develop a certain momentum in the language.

The signs are too difficult to learn if you don't have a feel for the words, how they sound, or how they work together. A new language can sound like an undifferentiated noise at the beginning. The first step is to get used to the individual tones of the language, distinguish the words from one another, and even let a few words and phrases reverberate in your brain.

My first contact with Mandarin was Chinese Dialogues, a text of medium difficulty without characters, only with Romanization, in this case the Yale version of Romanization. Today, pinyin, which was developed in China, is the standard form of Romanization for Mandarin. In Chinese Dialogues, the narrator spoke so quickly that I thought he was trying to torture us. But it worked. After about a month I got used to the speed and got a feel for the language.

As a side note, I think it is advisable to learn a language with texts of medium difficulty that repeat a lot of vocabulary, rather than starting with overly simple beginner texts. Podcasts and audio books are great for this. The Mandarin Chinese mini-stories on LingQ with very high repetitions of common verbs are an example of the narratives available today. These were not available to me 50 years ago.

With a feel for this exciting new language and some listening skills, my motivation to learn the signs grew. I wanted to know the signs of the words that I heard and got used to.

So my first tip is to focus on listening and pinyin for the first month or two.


2. Take the time to learn the signs

Learning Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, is a long-term project. It will put you in touch with the language and culture of over 20% of the world's population as well as having a major impact on world history. That's why I always recommend learning the characters if you want to learn Chinese.

Once you make up your mind to learn the Chinese characters, work on them daily. Spend half an hour to an hour each day learning the signs. Use any method you want to do this, but take time each day to learn signs. Why every day? Because you will forget the signs almost as quickly as you learned them and therefore you have to learn them again and again.
You can use Anki or another modern computer-based learning system. I've developed my own distributed rep system. I had a pile of 1,000 small cardboard index cards with the 1,000 most common characters on them. And I had squared paper to practice these signs. I put on a card and wrote the mark ten times in a column on the squared paper. A few columns down I wrote down the meaning or pronunciation of the sign. Then I took another index card and did the same. Before long, I came across the meaning or tone of the previous character I had written down. Then I wrote the character out a few more times, hopefully before I'd completely forgotten about it. I did that for the first 1000 characters. After that I could learn it by reading. In the process I discovered new characters and randomly wrote them out a few times by hand.

The more you progress, the easier it becomes to learn new characters because a great many elements are repeated in the characters. All signs have stems that give an indication of the meaning of the sign. The characters also have components that indicate the sound. These stems help in appropriating the characters, but not at the beginning. As is the case with so many aspects of language learning, explaining too much beforehand is a distraction in language acquisition. I found that teachers' efforts to explain these stems and other components at an early stage of learning were not very much were helpful. I did not understand you. Only after studying the characters enough did I notice the components. This accelerated my learning of the signs.

The second tip is to make a really steady and dedicated effort to learn the signs.


3. Recognize patterns rather than rules

Focus on patterns. Don't get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, just focus on patterns. When I was learning Chinese I used a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni, Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese. In each lesson they introduced new patterns and that's how I got more or less a feel for how the language works. The patterns were the frames around which I could build what I wanted to say.

I have absolutely no feel for Chinese grammar or grammar terms. Still, I'm pretty fluent in Chinese. I have read books that give special grammar terms for Chinese. I don't think they are necessary. I think it is better to get used to the patterns that the Chinese use to express things that we express in English with English patterns. Chinese grammar is relatively straightforward, one of the joys of learning Chinese. There are no declensions, conjugations, genders, verbs, complicated tenses or other sources of confusion found in many European languages.

The third tip is to focus on patterns, write them out, recite them, use them while speaking or writing, and keep an eye out for them while listening and reading.

If you'd like some free grammar material to supplement, I recommend LingQ's Chinese grammar material.


4. Read more than you can handle

Read a lot! If I learned faster than my fellow students 50 years ago, it was because I read everything I could get my hands on. I read a lot more than other students. I'm not just talking about specific texts for learners, but rather about a wide range of material on topics that interested me. It helped that the Yale-in-China association had a great textbook series with a glossary for each chapter. We started with teaching material, called the Chinese Dialogues, and then moved up to a story text, 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture.

20 Lectures was a fascinating opportunity for me to learn more about Chinese history and culture while studying Chinese. The book consisted only of text and a glossary, with no complicated explanations or quizzes. When I look at some of today's advanced textbooks, they are full of boring content about fictional people in China, someone at university meeting their friend or going to the hairdresser's or ice skating, followed by explanations and exercises. They are not very engaging unless you are interested in these topics.

I went from 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture to Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese at Conrell Univesity. This was a text book with authentic texts about modern Chinese politics and history. Each lesson introduced patterns and kept exercises and explanations to a minimum. Or maybe I just ignored them.

Yale had a large collection of textbooks on politics, history, and literature, with dictionaries for each chapter. That was my study material. Because of the list of words per chapter, I didn't have to look it up in a Chinese dictionary. Before Alec Tronic or online dictionaries came out, looking up a Chinese dictionary was quite time consuming and tedious. Since we forget most of the things we look up in a dictionary, it was an incredible waste of time.

I built up my vocabulary with these text books with the word lists and was finally able to read a book without vocabulary lists. I just ignored the characters and words that I didn't know. After seven or eight months I read my first novel, Rickshaw Boy or 骆驼祥子, a well-known novel by Lao She about life in Beijing today in the turbulent first half of the 20th century.

The fourth tip is to read as much as you can. It's a lot easier these days. You can find material on the internet and use online dictionaries and apps like LingQ.


5. Understand the rhythm of the language in order to master the sounds

Focus on listening. I tried to hear the audio for every text I read. Reading can help you learn vocabulary, but listening will help you connect with the language and prepare you to speak. Listening comprehension is the core skill to get into conversation with people.

One of the challenges of Mandarin is the tones. We learn the tone of each character with the acquisition of vocabulary, but it is difficult to remember them as we speak. It is important to internalize the sounds as part of the expressions. Listening will help you with this. The only way to learn the tone and rhythm of Mandarin or any other language is by listening to native speakers. You can't learn with theory.

Listening to traditional Chinese comic book dialogues, Xiang Sheng, 相声, helped me a lot to understand the rhythm of the language and the sounds as they speak with an exaggerated emphasis. Nowadays you can find these online, including the transcripts, and even import them into a system like LingQ. That wasn't available to me 50 years ago.

Rather, there is a huge range of hearing material available for download on all sorts of topics. If you are in China, you can also buy CDs. In our modern world, whatever material you find on the Internet or on CDs can be converted into downloadable audio files that you can take with you anywhere, be it on an MP3 player or on a smartphone. Listening to it regularly, even for a brief five or ten minute period while you wait somewhere, can vastly increase the time you have available to study any language, including Mandarin Chinese.

This wasn't available to me 50 years ago. I literally had to sit in front of my tape recorder with my headphones on. The situation has changed tremendously. I had to go to bookstores to find audio that I could hear on my tape recorder. Today there are no limits to the material that you can find and you can listen to this material anywhere, whenever you want.

Take advantage of it and listen as much as you can. This is my 5th tip.


6. Talk a lot and don't doubt yourself

It is not difficult for an English speaker to make the individual tones of Mandarin. You will need to practice a lot talking to both yourself and others. Try to imitate what you hear. Find texts for which there is also audio. Hear a phrase or phrase, then try to copy the intonation without thinking too much about the individual tones. You can even record yourself to compare the different recordings. If you manage to "get infected" with the rhythm of the language, not only will your control of tones improve, but your choice of words will be similar to a native speaker.

When you speak, do not doubt yourself about the sounds or any other aspect of the language. Just leave out the words and expressions that you have heard and practiced, along with the mistakes and all that goes with them. Every time you use the language, you practice and get used to it. If you enjoy interacting, getting going, and singing to the rhythm in Chinese, your Mandarin will keep improving.

Don't worry about mastering the intonation at the beginning. We cannot emphasize what we cannot hear, nor imitate tones and tones with which we are not in tune. To develop the ability to understand the language and feel the music of the language, we simply need to listen to hundreds or even thousands of hours of Chinese material and allow the brain to adjust to the new language. Don't be in a rush with this process. Instead, you should trust that you will gradually and naturally get better. Regardless of your level in Mandarin, just speak without fear and trust your instincts. As you continue your reading and listening activities and continue to speak, your speaking skills will naturally improve.

You can read more about it here: The Best Way to Learn a Language

My sixth and last tip says that you should just try and then you will understand the rhythm on your own.

Have fun!