Calling Mandarin Chinese a difficult language would be an understatement. So why learn it? For starters, Guinness has named it the “most common language” and is ranked at the top of world rankings for “most spoken languages” by number of native speakers.
It’s also not as hard as you might think. Chinese is a fairly logical language, and words follow a predictable pattern. A common example is the word “train” which, in Chinese, is 火车 (huŏchē). This literally translates to “fire vehicle”. Many words in the Chinese language follow this logical structure.
As long as you use the right strategies and learning hacks, Chinese is not such a difficult language.
Learning Mandarin would not only enable you to speak with 955 million native speakers, but it would also put you in an excellent position to take advantage of the world’s fastest growing economy. China is continuing to rise as an economic and political powerhouse, and learning to speak the local language will give you a major leg up over the competition as you apply for positions in international business.
Once you have decided to start learning Chinese, you must then answer a very important question. How will you do it?
This question is not an easy one to answer. The American education system traditionally does a dismal job of teaching students second languages, and very few millennials graduate high school with a solid grasp of how foreign languages work and how to tackle them.
The tips below are taken from my personal experiences. I studied Mandarin intensively both before travelling to China and after landing a job in the country. This language is incredibly difficult and has a steep learning curve, but if I can somehow manage to achieve fluency, I am confident that nearly anybody can do the same.
Forget Everything That You Thought You Knew
As mentioned above, attending public schools in North America typically do a very poor job of equipping students to learn foreign languages. The majority of the methodology focuses on reading, writing and rote memorization. This is in no way a criticism of the education system or the teachers. It is just the reality that we are faced with when we fill our classrooms with 25-30 students and lack any effective methods for practicing the oral language outside the classroom.
The first and perhaps most important step is to assess yourself and figure out what kind of learner you are.
Are you a visual learner? If you are, you may need to enroll in an online course or use more flashcards to help you associate vocabulary with visual cues.
Are you an auditory learner? If so, perhaps you can rely more heavily on podcasts and recordings to help you retain the language.
Take the time to reflect on your career as a student and work to fully understand what learning methods are the most effective and engaging for you as an individual. Once you have done this, you can begin to design a personalized study plan that will accelerate your progress.
Use Multiple Sources
Just because you are an auditory learner, you should not place all of your eggs into one basket. If you blindly focus all of your energy into one curriculum, you will be robbing yourself of different perspectives and approaches. You may also find yourself burning out more quickly as you get bored of listening to the same podcast or reading the same book every day.
Use more than one resource in your studies. Alternate between different materials so you can keep things interesting and continually stimulate different portions of your brain. Seeing vocabulary words used in different contexts and associated with different situations will help you retain more information.
If you find that you generally have trouble absorbing information, you can also try to imagine situations and use visualization techniques to “impress” new vocabulary terms into your memory.
“How Many Words Are In The Chinese Alphabet?”
This question is one of my pet peeves, and it should be one of yours as well after you have started learning Mandarin. The Chinese language does not use an alphabet. It is not phonetic, and words are not spelled.
Every word has its own unique character associated with it. These characters seem intimidating, but they are not nearly as difficult as people make them out to be. There are roughly 50,000 characters in the language, but you will only really need about 3000 to read a daily newspaper.
Do not let this number intimidate you!
The English language has over 170,000 words in current use according to the Oxford Dictionary, and learning to compose Chinese characters is fundamentally no more difficult that learning to spell.
These characters are made up of “radicals” which are essentially little building blocks. The radicals give clues to what a character means and how it is pronounced. If you can learn how to piece these radicals together, you are in good shape.
Modern Chinese also has a Romanized alphabet called “pinyin” that will be your best friend for the first year or so of learning Mandarin. It is useful, but do not become overly dependent on it. Whether you like it or not, you will need the characters at some point as most Chinese speakers do not use pinyin in their daily lives.
Okay, now that we have covered the basics, we can dig a little deeper and cover some tricks that will enable you to learn Mandarin at a decent pace without losing your mind.
1.) Utilize commute time – There are many sources of podcasts online such as Busuu and Chinesepod that allow you to download lessons after you sign up and become a member. Chinesepod in particular does an excellent job of presenting full dialogs and useful phrases for various levels. If you listen to these podcasts while you ride the subway or while you walk your dog every day for a few months, you will see substantial results.
2.) Social Media is your Friend – Facebook is blocked in China, but there are a lot of great social media apps such as Wechat, Weibo and QQ. Chinese netizens are avid users of these apps and completely willing to communicate with strangers in both English and Mandarin.
If you want some practice with your reading comprehension, you can browse through random updates, or you can have a conversation with somebody and pepper in the occasional phrase or vocabulary word. In the long run, using these phrases in context will help you to retain the language.
If you are feeling particularly brave, you can also post a daily Facebook update in Mandarin to give yourself practice.
3.) Focus on “Chunks” of Chinese – Chinese is a bisyllabic language, meaning that most words are composed of two characters. Thousands of Chinese idioms called “chengyu” are also grouped into sets of four. This being said, learning isolated characters will ultimately prove useless. A better strategy to follow is to learn whole phrases at once. Start with 3-5 word sentences and commit them to memory.
4.) Use your Whiteboard – If you have a whiteboard or something on your desk that you see every day, write a Chinese phrase up there in Chinese characters, and in pinyin. Every time you stop working to stretch or take a sip of coffee, take a peak at the phrase. Before the day is over, you will have a pretty solid grasp on the phrase and the characters will begin to look more familiar.
5.) Daily Chores – This will undoubtedly make me look silly, but when I started learning Mandarin, I used it in virtually every single household chore that I could. When I walked the dog, I told it to “sit” using Mandarin. When I did push-ups, I counted in Chinese. Every shopping list I wrote during my first year in China was written in simplified characters. Slowly but surely, I retained the information and made progress.
Anki is an SRS (spaced-reptition-software) app that uses a learning technique called spaced repetition to improve the amount of information you retain. It’s a very basic application that functions very much like physical flash cards. It’s also available on just about every platform (Windows, Mac OS X, Linux, Android, iOS). You can read more about spaced repetition on Wikipedia.
Anki is a very common tool for people who are learning new languages due to the increased retention rate and the massive amount of free flash card decks that are available via the Anki website. You can find a listing of popular Chinese language Anki decks below.
My two personal favorite decks are The 100 most common Chinese radicals and Chinese Sentences and audio, spoon fed. Both of these decks are geared towards beginners, but provide a very solid initiation to written and spoken Chinese.
I used to think that I was a terrible language learner, but after a few years of persistence and hard work, I learned to communicate effectively in Mandarin. My Chinese reached a relatively advanced level after a few short years. I am thoroughly convinced that having this skill is the primary reason that I was hired as a Marketing Coordinator and soon promoted to Director of PR and Marketing for an international medical center in Shanghai.
The tips above should help you start out and get you to conversing in Chinese at a decent level within a couple years, but it is also important to consider formal education or studying abroad. Living and working in a country where you are forced to communicate in the local language is easily the best way to learn a language, and when supplemented with the tricks listed above, you are guaranteed to make quick progress.
The road from “Ni hao” to fluency is a long and challenging one, but the journey will open doors to an amazing world that will exceed your wildest expectations.
Start now, give it your best, and prepare to open a door to a thrilling new world!