Last Updated on December 28, 2022
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How To Learn Mandarin
I studied Mandarin Chinese 50 years ago. It took me nine months to reach a level where I could translate newspaper editorials from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English, read novels and interpret for people, I did this in the age of the open-reel tape recorder, long before the age of the Internet, online dictionaries, language learning apps, MP3 files and YouTube.
If I reflect on what I did, I find that there were six things that helped me learn faster than other students who were studying with me. Below I list each of these tips on how to learn Chinese which you may want to apply to your studies.
My Six Tips on How to Learn Chinese:
Listen to Mandarin as Often as Possible
The first month or maybe two, just focus on listening.
Start out by focusing on listening. Just get used to the sounds. You should read whatever you are listening to, but do so using a phonetic writing system, such as Pinyin, in order to get a better sense of what you are hearing. You will have to learn the characters eventually but you can leave the characters out at first, and instead, try to get a little momentum in the language.
It’s too difficult to start learning characters when you don’t have any sense of the words, what they sound like, or how they work together. A new language can sound like undifferentiated noise at the beginning. The first step is to become accustomed to the individual sounds of the language, to learn to differentiate words from each other, and even to have a few words and phrases reverberating in your brain.
My first introduction to Mandarin was listening to Chinese Dialogues, an intermediate text with no characters, just romanization, in this case the Yale version of romanization. Today Pinyin, developed in China, has become the standard form of romanization for Mandarin. In Chinese Dialogues, the narrator spoke so fast I thought he was torturing us. But it worked. After a month or so I was used to the speed and had a sense of the language.
As an aside, I think it is a good idea to begin learning a language with intermediate level texts that include a lot of repetition of vocabulary, rather than overly simple beginner texts. Podcasts and audio books are great for this. The Mandarin Chinese mini- stories at LingQ are an example of the kind of point of view stories, with a great deal of repetition of high frequency verbs, that are available today. These were not available to me 50 years ago. Watching movies and TV shows is another excellent way to get lots of Chinese listening in.
With a sense of this exciting new language and some aural comprehension, my motivation to learn the characters grew. I wanted to know the characters for the words that I had been listening to and getting used to.
So that is tip number one, to focus on listening and Pinyin for the first month or two.
Devote Time to Memorizing Characters
The study of Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, is a long term project. It will bring you in touch with the language and the culture of well over 20% of humanity and a major influence on world history. For this reason, I always recommend learning Chinese characters if you are going to learn the language.
Once you decide to study Chinese characters, work at them every day. Devote half an hour to an hour a day just on learning characters. Use whatever method you want, but set aside dedicated character learning time every day. Why every day? Because you will forget the characters almost as quickly as you learn them, and therefore need to relearn them again and again.
You may want to use Anki or some other modern computer based learning system. I developed my own spaced repetition system. I had a set of 1,000 small cardboard flashcards with the most frequent 1000 characters. I had sheets of squared paper to practice writing these characters. I would pick up one card, and write the character 10 times down one column on the squared paper and then write the meaning or pronunciation a few columns over. Then I would pick up another flashcard and do the same. Soon I ran into the meaning or sound of the previous character that I had written there. I then wrote that character out again a few times, hopefully before I had completely forgotten it. I did this for the first 1000 characters. After that I was able to learn them by reading, discovering new characters, and randomly writing them out by hand a few times.
As we progress, learning new characters becomes easier because so many elements repeat in the characters. The characters all have “radicals”, components which give a hint of the meaning of a character. There are also components of the characters which suggest the sound. These radicals are helpful to acquiring the characters, although not at first. As with so much in language learning, too much explanation upfront is a distraction to acquiring the language. I found that the efforts of teachers to explain these radicals and other components at the early stages of my learning were not to great avail. I didn’t understand them. Only after enough exposure did I start to notice the components and that sped up my learning of the characters.
Tip number two is to really put a constant and dedicated effort into learning characters.
Recognize Patterns Rather than Rules
Focus on patterns. Don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, just focus on patterns. When I was studying we had a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. Ni. It was called Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese. In every single lesson they introduced patterns and to me that’s how I sort of got a sense of how the language worked. The patterns were the frames around which I could build whatever I wanted to say.
I have absolutely no sense of Chinese grammar, or grammar terms, yet I am quite fluent. I have seen books that introduce special grammar terms for Chinese. I don’t think they are necessary. It is better to get used to the patterns that Chinese uses to express things that we express in English using English patterns. Chinese has a rather uncomplicated grammar, one of the pleasures of learning Chinese. There are no declensions, conjugations, genders, verb aspects, complicated tenses or other sources of confusion that are found in many European languages.
Tip number three is to focus on patterns, write them out, say them to yourself, use them when speaking or writing, and watch for them when you listen and read.
If you would like a free grammar resource to help supplement your learning, then I recommend LingQ’s Chinese grammar resource.
Read More than You Can Handle
Read a lot. If I learned faster than my fellow students 50 years ago, it is because I read everything I could get my hands on. I read much more than other students. I am not just talking about special texts for learners, but rather a wide range of material on subjects of interest to me. I was helped by the fact that the Yale-in-China had a great series of readers with glossaries for each chapter. We started with learner material using something called Chinese Dialogues, then graduated to a graded history text called 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture.
20 Lectures was a fascinating opportunity for me to learn about Chinese history and culture while learning the language. The book consisted only of texts and a glossary, no complicated explanations, no quizzes. When I look at some of the text books available today aimed at intermediate and even advanced learners, they are full of boring content about fictional people in China, somebody at university who met his friend or went to the barber or went skating, followed by explanations and drills. Not a good idea unless you are interested in these subjects.
I graduated from 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture to Intermediate Reader in Modern Chinese out of Cornell University. This was a reader with authentic texts from modern Chinese politics and history. Each lesson introduced patterns and kept drills and explanations to a minimum. Or maybe I just ignored them.
Yale had a wide collection of readers on politics, history, and literature, all with word lists for each chapter. This was my learning material. The availability of word list per chapter meant that I didn’t have to consult a Chinese dictionary. Before the advent of Alec Tronic or online dictionaries, it was very time-consuming and painful to consult a Chinese dictionary. Since we forget most of the things we look up in the dictionary, this was a tremendous waste of time.
I built up my vocabulary using these readers with word lists and finally was able to read a book without vocabulary lists, just ignoring the characters and words that I did not know. After seven or eight months I read my first novel, Rickshaw Boy or 骆驼祥子, which is a famous novel of life in present day Beijing during the turbulent first half of the 20th century, written by Lao She.
Tip number four is to read as much as you can. This is much easier to do today. You can find material on the Internet, use online dictionaries and apps like LingQ.
Get the Rhythm of the Language to Master the Tones
Focus on listening. I tried to listen to whatever content I was reading. Reading helps you learn vocabulary, but listening helps you connect with the language and get prepared to speak. Listening comprehension is the core skill necessary in order to engage in conversation with people.
One of the challenges of Mandarin is the tones. We learn the tone of each character as we acquire vocabulary, but it is difficult to remember these when speaking. It is important to internalize the tones as part of phrases. Listening helps you do this. The intonation and rhythm of Mandarin, or any other language, can only come from listening to the native speaker. You can’t learn it theoretically.
In particular I found listening to traditional Chinese comic dialogues, Xiang Sheng, 相声, a great way to get the rhythm of the language and of the tones, since these performers exaggerate the intonation. Nowadays you can find these online, including the transcripts and even import them into a system like LingQ. This was not available to me 50 years ago.
In fact, there is a tremendous array of listening material available for download on all possible subjects, or you can buy CDs if you are in China. In our modern world, all the material you find on the Internet, or material you may find in CDs, can be converted into downloadable audio files which you can have with you wherever you go on an MP3 player or a smart phone. Constant listening, even for short periods of five or 10 minutes while you’re waiting somewhere, can dramatically increase the time available for learning any language, including Mandarin Chinese.
This was not available to me 50 years ago. I literally had to sit in front of my open reel tape recorder with my earphones on. The situation has changed dramatically. I had to search bookstores for audio content to listen to on my tape recorder. Today there is no limit to the material you can find, and there is no limit to where and when you can listen.
Take advantage and listen whenever you can. That is tip number 5.
Speak a lot and Don’t Second Guess Yourself
The individual sounds of Mandarin are not difficult for an English speaker to make. The tones are a different story. You will need to practice a lot, both speaking to yourself and speaking to others. Practice imitating what you are listening to. Find texts for which you have the audio. Listen to a phrase or sentence, then try to imitate the intonation, without worrying too much about individual sounds. You may even want to record yourself to compare. If you can get “infected” with the rhythm of the language, not only will your control of tones improve, but your choice of words will also become more native like.
When you speak, don’t second guess yourself on tones, or any other aspect of the language. Just let the words and phrases you have heard and practiced flow out, mistakes and all. Every time you use the language you are practicing and getting used to it. If you enjoy interacting in Chinese, if you enjoy getting in the flow, singing to the rhythm, then your Mandarin will continue to improve.
Don’t worry about mastering pronunciation at the beginning. We cannot pronounce what we don’t hear, nor imitate sounds and intonation that don’t resonate with us. In order to build up the ability to hear the language and to feel the music of the language, we simply have to listen to hundreds or even thousands of hours and allow the brain to get used to the new language. You can’t rush this process. Instead you should trust the fact that you will gradually and naturally get better. Therefore whatever stage you are at in Mandarin, just speak without fear and trust your instincts. If you continue your reading and listening activities, and if you continue speaking, your speaking skills will naturally improve.