Although tough to master, the Chinese language doesn’t have to be daunting. Through patience, practice and persistence, any foreigner can learn Chinese. To guide you toward fluency, here are some language-learning tips used by teachers and road-tested by Chinese-speaking foreigners.
Perfecting your tones is essential in speaking Mandarin and avoiding common misunderstandings. Luanfeng Huang, a teacher at Sinoland Mandarin School, has some simple tricks to help tackle them. To capture the rising of the second tone, raise your eyebrows while saying second-tone words. While using third tone, drop your chin to your neck. Saying, "Go, go, go," in English is comparable to fourth-tone, or try stomping your foot gently for the same effect.
Translator Eric Abrahamsen suggests listening to street talk, and repeating choice phrases aloud. "I once heard a couple of middle-aged women gossiping, and one of them saying to the other: ‘ 那他有什么可不高兴的！(Na, ta you shen me bu gao xing)’ [‘So what’s he got to be unhappy about!’]. I remember the long sound of the 那 (na), and just the whole gossipy tone of voice." Through mimicry, Abrahamsen was able to authentically produce the tones of individual characters, as well as the entire delivery of the sentence, including subtleties like inflection, rhythm of speech and even facial expression. Before long, he could add his two cents at the mahjong table.
Singing is another excellent way to improve your spoken Chinese. Freelance performance manager Kerry Holahan, who began performing Chinese songs in college, explains that traditional singers are expected to perfectly mimic their masters – in Chinese opera, this includes not only every warble but also every movement. To attain proficiency, she had to learn to stop using her own voice, and instead replicate what she heard. "It sounded weird and screechy at first, but they love it, and eventually it didn’t sound so screechy," she said. By trying to adopt a different mindset, Holahan found herself internalizing Chinese more deeply. "If you take a leap of faith to try and put yourself into a different mindset, the language falls into place," she says.
When it comes to listening comprehension, Elena Damjanoska, who holds a BA in Chinese from Beijing Foreign Studies University, suggests plopping down in front of the television. She notes, "Popular TV drama series undeservedly have a reputation of being a form of idleness. However, when learning a new language they can be a very useful tool that not only provides you with a glimpse into contemporary culture of the country, but also is a fun way to learn commonly used phrases and the contexts in which they are applied." One of her favorites is Fendou (奋斗), a TV series about the daily struggles of the young and trendy – it’s been called "The Chinese OC." Damjanoska suggests pausing the video each time you hear a new phrase, copying it down and repeating it to yourself. It may be a tedious way to watch TV, but it beats dry textbooks.
Improving your reading skills is trickier, but following your interests is always a positive first step. Although books are inexpensive, students should refrain from purchasing too many textbooks – you only need one. Huang says there is no perfect textbook, but Conversational Chinese 301 Sentences (published by BLCU) is good for elementary students, and Intermediate Spoken Chinese, and Advanced Spoken Chinese (published by PKU) are good for advanced students. Stay vigilant and keep on studying, or you will have to start again from the beginning. She recommends studying for 1-3 hours a day. If you study for less than a year, focus on speaking and listening before delving into reading and writing.
Lee Ambrozy, who has worked for years as a specialized fine arts translator, recalls that she began with comics. "There are lots of cute Chinese comic books. Even the ones translated from Japanese are fun," she reminisces. Indulging in manga still required perseverance, though. "Early on, reading materials that were not textbooks seemed like a chore," she says. An engaging novel like Jin Yong’s martial arts epic, The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (笑傲江湖) is a nice alternative, but it shouldn’t have you reaching for your dictionary every three characters. Moreover, all extracurricular reading material should have a clear writing style, says Ambrozy. "If you run across an article or writer whose prose just isn’t making sense, just abandon the article and find something that reads easier. The best Chinese writers I have encountered have incredibly clear prose, [while]often the most pointless works of art criticism are filled with superfluous and obscure words." Since the goal is to have fun while learning, avoid the latter like the plague.
Top Ten Tips
Chinese doesn’t have to be difficult if you start with the basics. We asked a few of Beijing’s best Chinese teachers to share their tricks of the trade.
1. Practice, practice, practice. Just like getting to Carnegie Hall, achieving Chinese fluency requires dedication.
2. For daily listening, download a free podcast from ChinesePod, available on iTunes. Visit www.chinesepod.com for accompanying lessons.
3. Make flashcards with the characters on one side, and the pinyin and meaning on the other.
4. Carry a small notebook that you can fill with new vocab from your textbook, phrases from your favorite Chinese TV shows, or lingo you’ve heard in conversation.
5. In the beginning, don’t focus heavily on grammar. Instead, start with one simple sentence structure a day. For example, "Wǒ xǐhuān …"
6. Speak Chinese with your local friends or acquire a language partner. Most importantly, be strict about setting aside time to speak only Chinese. Be wary of bilingual friends who speak mostly English with you – this will not help you learn.
7. Set obtainable goals, such as having at least one Chinese conversation each day with your neighbors, local grocer, or even a taxi cab driver.
8. Watch a Chinese TV show with subtitles. Don’t underestimate the usefulness of children’s programs, such as Happy Sheep and Grey Wolf (喜洋洋与灰太狼 ) or Big Ear Tutu (大耳朵图图), for picking up new vocabulary.
9. Learn a Chinese song. "Two Tigers" ("Liǎng Zhī Láohǔ"), has the same melody as "Where is Thumbkin?" and is a fun, easy song.
10. Practice Chinese tongue-twisters. Start with a basic one, such as: "Sì shì sì, Shí sì shì shí sì." It means "Four is four, and fourteen is fourteen".
1) Rm 702, 7/F, Bldg 9, Jianwai SOHO, 39 Dongsanhuan Zhonglu, Chaoyang District (5900 4648/9) ; 2) 3/F, Bldg 30, Dong Zhonglu, Dongzhimenwai, Dongcheng District (64131547/48) www.frontiers.com.cn
North Wing, 20/F, Yingu Mansion, 9 West of North 4th Ring Road, Haidian District (62800077) www.sinolandchinese.com
Luanfeng Huang studied history at Hunan Normal University and is currently a graduate student at the Department of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language at Beijing Normal University. She also teaches at Sinoland College language school.
Lisa Li graduated from Shandong University with a degree in law. A teacher for five years, she is currently teaching at Yew Chung International School.
Zhili Zhou, a graduate of Beijing Science Technology University, has been teaching for three years and currently works at Frontiers language school.