Most people’s response when I tell them that I speak Chinese is that I must be very clever. Much as I hate to deflate that balloon, I’m not. I just have a lot of patience and lived in China for many years. Learning Chinese is much easier than people imagine; it simply needs to be approached with the right mindset and the determination to learn. Here are some tips to get you on the path to learning Mandarin.
To Write or Not to Write
People are often put off the idea of learning Chinese because they can’t imagine ever being able to write the characters. Although it is great to be able to read and write Chinese, it is not necessary to learn characters in order to be able to speak. In fact, many foreigners living in China speak excellent Chinese, but cannot read or write. Decide what your priorities are. If you want to become fluent and immerse yourself in Chinese characters, then you will need to learn them at some point. Otherwise, you can easily learn to speak Chinese without being able to read it.
Learning Sounds and Tones
Each Chinese character represents a sound, which is represented by “pinyin”, a romanisation system. Each sound has a tone, of which there are four (plus a neutral one): one that rises, one that falls, one that falls then rises and one that maintains a high level. This may sound complicated, but there are limited sounds that can easily be learned – although listening to BBC commentators misprounouncing Chinese names during the Olympics may make you think otherwise. It does require hard work to learn the sounds and tones, but a couple of months with a good teacher (or CD) is enough to get them under your belt, and then you are well on your way to speaking Chinese.
Now this is the great bit. Chinese grammar is limited. There are, for example, no changes in verbs depending on whether it is past, future or present. Tense is signified by the addition of a word indicating time or by the context of the sentence. This makes Chinese much easier to learn than, for example, French or Russian – a basic vocabulary can see you go a long way. That isn’t to say that Chinese doesn’t have complexities – it does – but you can avoid most of these until your language skills are stronger.
Repetition and Determination
Like most languages, there is no need to be “clever” to learn Chinese. What it does require though is patience, particularly if you want to learn the characters as well. I spent much of my first two years learning Chinese repeating vocabulary and testing myself using flashcards. This may not be necessary if you only want to learn the basics, but a certain amount of determination and repitition is needed nevertheless to ensure that the words and sentence patterns stick in your mind.
Find a Chinese Environment
Like any language, it is much easier to learn if you are hearing it all the time. That doesn’t mean moving to China, although that would of course help. Many cities have China Towns, although you will need to make sure that what you are hearing is Mandarin. If you think Chinese sounds unpleasant, it could well be because you’ve heard it in your local takeaway, and the chances are that it will be Cantonese or a Chinese dialect and not Mandarin. Spoken in its purest form, Mandarin is a beautiful, soft language that rises and falls according to the tones. Watching Chinese film or listening to Chinese radio is another option. And nowadays, it is easy to buy Chinese language CDs and DVDs on the Internet.
Learning Chinese may initially seem daunting, but it is incredibly fulfilling when you are able to speak to someone and be understood. And with around a quarter of the world’s population being Chinese, communicating in Chinese may not be as remote as you much think. Zhu ni hao yun! Good luck!