Mandarin Chinese is a notoriously difficult language to learn.
When I first came to China in the summer of 2013 I knew zero Chinese, but still I had hope that I could succeed where other language learners before me had failed.
In the beginning I learned the easy stuff. Phrases like “听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng)” for “I can’t understand what you’re saying!” and “没有- (méi yǒu)” for “I don’t have it”.
With time and practice I learned more. However I was still so oblivious in those early days that I would often make some pretty cringe-worthy mistakes. More often than not I would try to bull rush my way through a conversation, speaking quickly and imitating a Beijing accent; hoping that the other person would mistake my incompetence for “a more rustic feel” of the language.
I now look back at this technique and many others similar to it that I employed and see them for what they were: shortcuts.
Shortcuts are useful in that they help produce results quickly. However, in the long run they are like a festering wound. I was like a man trying to run a marathon without any regard for the physical health of his body.
I wrote these five points to help novice Mandarin learners develop good language learning habits. They do not deal with linguistic or grammatical concerns, but rather the types of attitudes and ideas that successful language learners adopt in their pursuit of fluency.
1. Tones Matter
Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language which means that the tone of each word corresponds with its meaning. Maybe in the beginning you don’t want to admit it, but yes, tones matter. A pronunciation error can completely change the meaning of a word.
Some people might disagree with this, but that’s because their Mandarin isn’t that good. Although you can get away with not knowing the proper tone by speaking fast and glossing over certain words, this shortcut will ultimately handicap your progress
The best way to combat this is to focus obsessively on learning each word’s proper tone. That way, people can understand when you want to buy something, and not sell it (see 买 mǎi and 卖 mài).
2. Learn How to Read and Write Characters
The written system for Mandarin Chinese is complex. It uses both character symbols (汉字 hànzì) and pinyin, which is the romanticized form created in 1958 with tones written above the letters- the same one that I have been using alongside characters here.
In the beginning it’s common to say that “I only want to learn pinyin, characters take too much time”. However avoiding the deliberate study of Chinese characters is one of the biggest mistakes you can make when learning Chinese. Not only will you not be able to take any of the advance level tests (HSK for simplified characters), but you will also not be able to chat with Chinese friends online or read any of texts in the target language.
A side-note on reading:
Developing reading comprehension is especially important. It helps you to practice the language without having to find a conversational partner. It also allows access to content that will prove invaluable to you as a student of Mandarin. By developing strong reading skills you will have a unique perspective into Chinese society and culture that is often difficult to find as a foreigner due to an undercurrent of xenophobia (possible without, of course, but still inherently difficult).
3. Work with a Qualified Tutor
There is a certain mythos surrounding those who are able to learn a language purely through self study and immersion. It’s easy for novices to believe themselves “language learning rogues” who will learn the language by “living among the people”. And while participation and interaction with native speakers is certainly important, this belief can be largely damaging to your progress in Mandarin.
Working with a qualified teacher is an effective way to keep your feet on the ground and make steady progress. A good teacher will drill the basics into you early and often. They will motivate you to speak and make mistakes, but will not let you believe that you are invincible.
A personal anecdote:
I was one of those students that didn’t believe I needed a teacher. In the beginning I managed to kind of bulldoze my way through and, as a consequence, I developed a rather gawky, toneless form of Mandarin. At that point in time, many of my Chinese friends told me that I spoke with an incredible amount of slang, which they called 胡同话 hútong huà. (Sidenote: this was/is not a complement).
I eventually hired a teacher and my Mandarin has been all the better for it. There are certainly a lot of positives about self-study, but I have found that a teacher helps me to correct errors that I didn’t know I had. Looking back, I can now also see how they helped me to make consistent progress.
4. Speak slowly and deliberately
A lot of times when we start learning a new language we get very excited and tend to speak very fast. We think that this makes us sound more authentic and like we actually “know” the language. However the reality of speaking quickly in Chinese before you are ready is that you will hear “tīng bu dǒng” much more than if you were to speak slowly and deliberately.
Slowing down when you speak, and putting emphasis on the right tones, helps others to understand you.
A side-note on speaking:
Think about speaking to another person who is learning your mother tongue. Is it easier when they speak fast and try to add their own “flair” to the language, or when they speak to you at an even pace and try to keep things as simple as possible? If you want to have conversations with native speakers, and so make progress, then you need to do the same.
5. Don’t Refuse to Speak English
Another tendency of the fledgling Mandarin student, especially while living in a Chinese speaking country, is to refuse to speak English with Chinese friends. This can lead to some awkward situations that you want to avoid.
The fact of the matter is that many native Chinese speakers have been learning English their entire life and feel very proud of their ability. They don’t necessarily want to make you feel bad about your language level, but it’s slightly awkward and embarrassing when you are trying to have a conversation with someone, and that person insists on using a language they don’t know.
Be tactful with whom and where you practice in the beginning. Don’t, for example, try to respond to your boss in Chinese when she tells you something in English. Have faith that as you continue to study and immerse yourself that your Chinese will blossom like the Beijing Botanical Gardens, Grounds of the Summer Palace, or… well you get the point.
A side-note on no refusing to speak English:
If you work hard enough, then eventually you will find yourself in many situations where the tables have been turned, that is, your Chinese is better than the other’s English. If you don’t understand what I am talking about now, perhaps you will have more appreciation for this point then.
The adoption of these attitudes and habits will help you to improve your Mandarin and get rid of some of those nasty habits that are holding you back from progressing.
Until next time, Cheers and 加油！