If you’re just starting out in Chinese, you may be feeling a little trepidation. Chinese has a reputation as being a pretty tough language to crack, and in some ways, this is true.
However, there are also some very easy aspects to this fascinating language, and if you know how to study properly, you’ll make rapid progress. Here are the most important tips you need to know.
This is the key to learning any language, but especially the more difficult ones. It’s useful to study for 15-20 minutes every day. This way, you will remember the new vocabulary much more easily, the grammar structures will become familiar more rapidly and your ear will become attuned to the music and the melody of the language much quicker.
Don’t memorise lists of words
Many novice language learners believe that in order to acquire a new language, you need to memorise long lists of words – but nothing could be further from the truth. Our brains simply don’t function this way; if you learn lists of words, they will go into your short-term memory where they will stay for perhaps a few days before disappearing. Words in word lists have no context, and even if you do manage to remember them, you won’t know how to use them in a sentence.
We learn new words by seeing them in context. When you meet a new word several times in different sentences and understand how that word functions, it will be sent straight to your long-term memory, right where you need it. Memorising lists of vocabulary is probably the most boring, time consuming and ineffective way of learning a language there is.
Practise out loud
Again, this is an important tip regardless of the language you are learning, but with Chinese even more so. When you practise out loud – either by speaking or even just by reading texts – you train your mouth to pronounce the words correctly, and by speaking full sentences, you help your brain store new words in your long-term memory. (Think how easy it is to learn the lyrics of a song – it’s a very similar process.)
In Chinese, speaking out loud is especially important since it is a tonal language. The meaning of a word can change entirely depending on the intonation, and this is something you will have to work on a lot at the beginning. The only way to do it is to practise out loud.
Chinese has a unique writing system (Japanese also uses Chinese characters), and it is totally unlike learning to write using an alphabet. Again, you need to practise daily; try to develop the habit of doodling characters when you have a free moment to help fix them in your mind.
Find Chinese friends to practise with
Once you have even a limited ability in Chinese, you need to get out there and use it. If you can find native speakers to practise with, it can be an excellent way to cement your progress and improve quickly. If not, there are now many language learning apps that allow you to do the same thing online (Tandem and HelloTalk are two good ones). On the other hand, if you never practise, your progress will be much slower. You learn a language to speak it – so go and speak!
Start your Mandarin study journey here: General Mandarin courses.