Lots of people have the idea that learning Chinese is so difficult or even impossible. Actually, Chinese isn’t so bad! The grammar is super basic (no tenses!) and you can almost put words in any order and it still makes sense. The tricky parts are:
1. The characters- Characters don’t impact speaking and listening, which are the most important things. Also, for basic literacy you only need to know about 3000 characters, 5000 if you want to read a newspaper. Considering that there are over 20,000 characters in existence, that’s not too bad! If you don’t want to, it’s not even necessary to learn how to read.
2. The tones – yes, there are 5 tones in Chinese if you include the “no tone” tone. You can pronounce the same word five different ways and it will mean five different things. Lots of unprofessional Chinese teachers will tell their students “don’t worry about the tones, people can still understand you.” DO NOT LISTEN TO THAT! They say that because the teacher assumes your Chinese will never get good enough to have a large enough vocabulary that people can’t guess what you mean based on context. It’s kind of insulting, right? Do you want to know the trick to getting your tones right? It’s not so hard, but it takes practice. You need to read your Chinese homework OUT LOUD to yourself. Saying it out loud is important. If you just read it in your head, then you’re not making that connection between thinking it and making it come out of your mouth correctly. If you come to a character you don’t know the tone for, then LOOK IT UP. No short cuts!
3. Gigantic amounts of vocabulary – There’s nothing much you can do about this one. Just build the basic foundation you need for conversation and getting daily tasks done and slowly build from there. A good way to build vocabulary is watching Chinese TV or movies because you’ll hear a lot of phrases and vocab that are used in daily life. Especially pay attention to the things that you hear repeatedly.
Other things that will help you on your Chinese learning journey are:
- Having a qualified teacher – There are a lot of people out there teaching Chinese, but just because someone is a native speaker doesn’t mean they actually know how to teach it. Think about if you were to try to teach someone your native language. People ask me questions all the time about English and my answer is usually “I don’t know, that’s just how we say it.” If you’re working with someone who says that to you, then they do not know how to teach Chinese. A skilled Chinese teacher can not only explain grammar and vocabulary in a way that’s easy to understand, but they will be good at knowing what you don’t know and guiding you there to fill in the gaps.
- Being gentle with yourself – You will hit plateaus in your learning. It’s normal. Just keep plowing along and you’ll have a break through. Progress will not always be fast and furious, but even a little bit of progress is progress. You just have to keep going.
Here are some free resources to help you learn Mandarin Chinese!