According to many people, learning Mandarin Chinese can be a huge feat that takes many years of practice before you can start seeing any progress, let alone be able to converse well with native speakers.
They say that the tones are hard, the writing is hard, and the pronunciation is hard. But I would beg to differ.
Although Mandarin might not be as easy to learn for native English speakers as French, Spanish, or German might be, learning Chinese also doesn’t have to be a scary experience either.
Here’s four steps I believe you can take to get you from not understanding Chinese at all to speaking Mandarin quite well.
Step 1: Repetition
When learning how to speak Chinese, or any language for that matter, the first thing you need to do is to not actually speak at all. This might seem a bit contradictory to say this, but it’s true.
What you really need to do is just listen, and listen many, many, many times over. Repetition is key, and improving these skills through repetition is really where you need to start.
Do you remember taking high school language classes, only to graduate and not actually be able to speak or write whatever language it was that you were (apparently) learning?
For me it was French. I took it from Grades 5 through 12, barely being able to form a coherent sentence until my last year, and then only at a marginally better rate because we finally had a decent teacher.
The reason the teacher was “decent” was because she actually spoke to us in French! Previous to her, most of my teachers only uttered vocabulary words or specific key sentences in French that we were learning, but never spoke freely to us in the language.
This caused us to be very good at basic French grammar and conjugation, but not at much else. We had no idea what the “flow” and the “sound” of the language was really like because we were never really hearing it on a daily basis.
Think about how a baby learns. Babies never learn languages firstly by speaking (simply because they physically can’t), but instead they just listen, and listen for months and months before ever being able to utter anything coherent.
Now, I’m not saying that you need to listen to Chinese audio for months on end before you start to speak. Babies have to go through this extensive listening process because they physically can’t speak at first.
You will be able to excel in Chinese far before months and months (or years!) have passed if you simply practice repetition. You should put a serious emphasis on just listening in order to understand what the language really does sound like.
For Mandarin Chinese, you’ll hear the ups and downs of the tones, you’ll hear the unique sound combinations, and you’ll hear how some of the tones change when placed alongside words with other tones. Additionally, you’ll also hear how words aren’t actually pronounced as clearly in real life as your textbooks claim them to be pronounced.
This is the problem with adopting a purely mechanical view of a language; you don’t learn how the language actually works unless you practice it over and over again.
Your textbook may say that a word is pronounced a certain way (and it probably is, at least officially), but it’s no indicator of whether that’s actually how people in real life pronounce that word.
Slang, slurring, and laziness when speaking are all real life factors that aren’t reflected in most textbooks.
So listen! Get a feel for the language. If you have audio recordings, listen to them over and over again. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand them the first time around, and it still doesn’t matter if you don’t understand them the 20th time around.
Just know that at some point you will realize that you suddenly recognize one word that you never understood before, then you’ll realize that you understood a whole sentence (even if it’s just a short one), and then you’ll realize that you actually understood half of the whole recording.
One day soon you might even be surprised at yourself when you realize that you now understand the whole thing.
If you’re wondering where to get such audio recordings to listen to over and over again, I’d suggest starting with either Rocket Chinese, ChinesePod, or ChineseClass101. They’re great resources that have been developed extensively over time for this exact purpose.
Step 2: Utilize Your Time
How many hours do you have in a day? Obviously, it’s 24.
And that’s a lot of hours, but I’m often surprised when people claim that they don’t have enough time in the day to do what they need or want to get done.
If you’ll allow me to comment, I have noticed two common things people do that usually keep them from achieving their goals.
- People waste a lot of time doing things they shouldn’t be doing.
- People waste a lot of time doing nothing at all.
Point number 1 goes something like this.
When I was a student in university, I used to tell my friends why I couldn’t go out with them on a particular night because I needed to study. Studying is important, right? I certainly thought so, and I really intended to do it!
But it was interesting to see what often happened once I sat down to work: I’d get distracted. Facebook was always more interesting than doing a set of math problems. Even staring blankly out the window was often more enticing than reading 50 dry pages of some textbook I didn’t care about.
Do you do this too? What do you do when you actually sit down to study your Chinese? Are you distracted by Facebook? Or Twitter? Or something on TV?
Or do you not even make it to your desk in the first place? Do you tell yourself that you will study Chinese at some point later today or tomorrow, but never actually say when, and never actually do it? Maybe you’ll do it for sure tomorrow. After all, that next TV show is way too good to miss.
Organizing your time (and life!) is one of the most important things to know how to do, and this extends to language learning as well.
Nothing can be learned if you don’t actually allow yourself the time and opportunity to learn it. Nothing is wrong with Facebook, or Twitter, or television, but these things are only good if they’re not the major things ruling your time. That job is reserved for you.
Point number 2 from above goes like this.
You’re waiting in line for a coffee, perhaps at Starbucks. What are you doing? Maybe a bit later you’re waiting in line to purchase your groceries at the supermarket? What are you doing? Then perhaps a bit later your TV show has been interrupted by a commercial. What are you doing?
Probably nothing, right? Staring at the person/thing/screen in front of you? If each of these instances happened only five times a day for five minutes each, that’s 25 minutes that you could have been reviewing a list of new Chinese vocabulary words.
But there’s probably even more dead time in your day than this. If you commute to work, your drive or bus in to the office likely takes from 15 minutes to two hours (yikes!), and that’s a lot of time that you could be playing some Chinese audio either through your car speakers or on an iPod.
And what if your commute is this amount of time back home at the end of the day too? That means you have doubled your use of dead time each day to engage your language learning.
Of course, you may have other things that you would like to do during this time, such as listen to the news, listen to music, study for an upcoming test, or anything else.
But the point is that this time exists, and I would bet that you’re not using it as well as you could. I know I don’t a lot of the time, but I try my best. It’s a great way to find extra “alone time” in the day and get stuff done!
Step 3: Don’t Stress! You Have Plenty of Time
One of the biggest obstacles to learning anything successfully is ourselves. We’re impatient immediately, we’re dissatisfied easily, and we give up quickly.
And this usually occurs because we get stressed out. We realize that a task like learning Chinese is actually pretty tough, that it won’t be learned quickly, and that, heaven forbid, we might actually have to put in some effort!
These are the obstacles you want to try and keep to a minimum if you’re going to learn something new, and learning Chinese is no exception.
I should know. The impatience that I used to (and sometimes still do) have when learning something new was insane! I always have to keep reminding myself that nothing worth learning well is learned in a day.
I have to tell this to myself over and over again every time I learn something new, which is quite often, because I love learning, whether it be to improve my language skills or any other number of things.
When I feel that I’m not actually learning anything or making any progress in my learning, I need to take a step back and remind myself that daily progress is sometimes difficult to see.
Improvement is apparent over time. Adding stress to your daily studying routine never helps the actual learning process. If you’re anything like me, you just have to keep reminding yourself that progress will be made little by little, even if it’s not immediately apparent.
My (and your) task at present is just to study what needs to be studied today, and that’s it. Doing this over a long period of time (weeks, months, and years) has the ability to produce amazing results.
So keep at it. You have the time. You certainly have the ability. Take things slow. Don’t stress. Become awesome at Chinese little by little.
Step 4: Read as Much as You Can
It’s difficult to read in another language, especially if you’ve just started and can barely pronounce the words. But my advice would be to try anyway.
Remember step 1 above about constantly repeating your audio input so as to get a solid sense of how Chinese sounds? This is also necessary for learning how to read well. Repetition from reading many, many sentences will make you a good reader. Unfortunately, nothing else does the trick.
This doesn’t mean you have to read classic novels in Chinese, or even modern novels for that matter. You don’t even have to read simpler teen fiction.
A Grade 1 level reader may be sufficient enough to get you started. And don’t feel bad about it. Read it with pride. Who cares that it’s at a Grade 1 (or lower) level? At least you’re making progress. Remember step 3? Don’t stress out about it.
Kids learn the flow of a language through rhyming, lengthy sentences, and exposure to new patterns of language, all things which can be accessed in children’s books.
You could try your local library to get some kid’s books in Chinese, but this website (the International Children’s Digital Library) might give you an online equivalent of what you’re searching for as well. Although children’s books in multiple languages can be found here, there is also a wealth of Chinese titles that will be sure to get you comfortable with learning Chinese at a basic level and beyond.
You might also want to read this great article from Hacking Chinese called How to Improve Your Chinese Writing Ability Through Focused Reading. Lots of useful information over there!
So that’s it! Four simple steps to get you started (or restarted) if you’re having trouble keeping up with your Chinese study. It’s not easy to learn Chinese, but it also doesn’t have to be overly frustrating. Just take it slow, enjoy the process, and see the neat places it takes you.
You may have noticed that I didn’t mention anything here about practicing your speaking skills in Chinese. That’s because I believe that at least when first approaching a new language, the above steps are most important in order to help you build the best foundation for yourself as possible.
Once you’ve done that, you can move on to practicing your speaking. I’ve also written about a good way to do that in another post here.