Top Ten Tips for Learning Chinese
This is the ‘Letter from the Editor’ chapter of LTL’s free eBook How to Learn Chinese. In this eBook LTL Mandarin School asked 10 Chinese learning experts to give their best tips on how to get the most out of your time studying Chinese. This chapter outlines LTL founder and director Andreas Laimboeck’s journey from someone who struggled with learning languages to becoming a Mandarin Master.
I almost wasn’t able to graduate from high school because of my low English marks. When I did, I had already been kicked out of Italian for poor performance. A few years later my Chinese University wouldn’t give me a graduation certificate for my language course because my exam scores were too low.
Some people are talented language learners; unfortunately I was never one of them.
Yet today I can read a Chinese newspaper, understand Chinese movies, and Mandarin is my daily working language. Some people just naturally recognise tones and some remember characters by just looking at them. I never did, and it took me a long time to figure out how to learn Mandarin. Once I did, I was finally able to master the language. However, I could have learned it much faster if someone had just told me how I should have done it when I started. Everyone is different – however here are the ten tips I wish someone had given me when I started learning Mandarin in China.
While studying at my Chinese university, I tried practicing my language skills with the school secretary every day, and once she heard that I was not given a graduation certificate, she was so outraged that she simply went into the office, printed one out, stamped it and gave it to me. There is always a way in China.
1. Learn your tones properly at the beginning
Characters, vocabulary, grammar etc. simply get better over time. Tones however do not. Once you learn them wrong, they will simply stay wrong.
2. Live with Chinese people who want to be friends with you
This one I kind of knew when I started, but it took me six months to finally find such a flatmate – and compared with most of my classmates I did pretty well. In China most people see sharing a flat as a rent sharing agreement and not much more. Most see no reason to consider yourself friends with someone just because you live in the same flat, or even have any kind of communication.
It took me moving apartment five times and a long time of unsuccessfully trying to invite my flatmates for dinner before I found two guys from Anhui who did not want to practice their English with me, but were still willing to develop a friendship.
3. Try to understand characters, not just rote memorize them
Just like how an image of a character takes up more memory space on a computer than a word document describing that same character, I found it much easier to remember a character once I turned it into a story.
Start learning radicals from the beginning, so you know the building blocks that characters are made up of, and then make yourself stories for each character that helps you to remember it. If it is not obvious make up your own story.
For me, the more stupid the story, the better it worked. Use stories you can remember and don’t worry too much if they are linguistically correct.
4. Speak Mandarin from day one
Like most people learning Chinese, I really wanted to practice my Mandarin. However, when I started I quickly realized that many people did not understand what I said, and when I listened to Chinese people talking I understood almost nothing.
My conclusion was that I needed to first learn more Mandarin before I could start speaking it. That was wrong!
Speak and listen from day one. Once you learn 厕所 (cèsuŏ – toilet), ask in every restaurant where the loo is – regardless if you have to go or not. When Chinese people speak, do not tune off, but listen. Try to recognize words you know in the conversation.
5. Change your phone to Mandarin
It might sound scary, however you will be surprised how well you can navigate your phone by just looking at the symbols. You will never forget the characters for 电话 (diànhuà – phone), 信息 (xìnxī – sms) again. Once you’ve mastered that, do the same with your computer.
6. Chat with random people on the internet
Use the friend finding options on QQ and WeChat to chat with whoever is around in Chinese. Chatting is a great way to practice your characters, and it gives you the time to look up characters you don’t know and memorize them. It can also be quite fun.
7. Messages in Mandarin only
If the person you are sending the message to does not speak Mandarin, too bad for them. We are in China and in China we speak Chinese – let them use translation software to figure it out. If they care about you they will. If they won’t, then they probably weren’t worth talking to in the first place.
8. Do not spend your day surfing non-Chinese language websites
Switch to Chinese Social Media, websites and newspapers. The New York Times and BBC both have Chinese language websites (you need a VPN) which will give you all the information you need in Mandarin. It might take you half a day to read an article, but it is worth it.
9. Do not speak English with Chinese people, whatever your or their language level
If a Chinese person really speaks such good English that you cannot convince him to switch to Mandarin, then either wear him/her down over time, or find another friend.
10. Have fun, love China
Know that everyone else struggled just as much. I have never met a single fluent learner of Mandarin who did not at least once (in most cases many) times want to give up. It’s human nature – it’s not meant to be easy but the rewards are oh so great at the end of the road!
It is part of the game and as long as you keep speaking, listening and learning you will learn Mandarin.
Follow the tips above, and do what works for you. Some of the ideas above might not work for you, but some will, for sure. If you have your own successful methods, stick to them and the most important thing out of everything…
NEVER GIVE UP
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