Manageable Mandarin: A Beginner’s Guide to Learning Chinese
If I could have any superpower, I’d choose the ability to speak every language in the world. Sadly, I’ve yet to be bestowed with this power, but I can at least work toward it slowly. Since October, I’ve been taking a weekly Mandarin course here in Sydney. While I’m far (believe me, very far) from fluent, I’m thrilled that I can now at least hold basic conversations. I even had my first experience using Mandarin in the real world (however briefly) the other week! It can be an extremely challenging language to learn, so for anyone learning Mandarin or thinking of picking it up, here are a few tips I’ve acquired in my nine months of studies.
Find characters intimidating? Start with pinyin.
Pinyin is the writing system that phonetically transcribes the pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. I know some will disagree with me on this one and say that learning the characters and language should go hand in hand, but I found Chinese characters completely intimidating and was relieved that my teacher decided to focus on pinyin spelling instead. Knowing that “nǐ hǎo” (“hello”) is pronounced “nee how” is far easier for beginners than figuring out how the heck to say “你好”!
Don’t fret too much over tones.
Chinese is a tonal language, meaning, for example, saying the syllable “ma” like you’re asking a question has a very different meaning from saying “ma” like you’re making a statement. Mandarin has four tones (high level, rising, falling/rising, and falling), which does not come naturally to those of us who did not grow up speaking a tonal language.
And, yes, tone is essential to learn…eventually. Trying to remember tones while also recalling how each letter is pronounced, what words mean, and how grammar should be structured can be overwhelming. Slow things down for yourself by focusing on forming sentences before you worry about getting the pronunciation exactly right. That’s not to say you should disregard tones entirely, but don’t beat yourself up over mistakes. Once the language starts coming to you more naturally, then you can start improving your tones.
Create mneumonic devices
I love studying Romance languages for all of their cognates with English (“Fast” translates to “rápido,” like “rapid” in Spanish? Too easy!), but, as a vastly different language, Mandarin has few English cognates. This makes memorizing vocabulary a big challenge, which can really slow down the learning process.
Here’s one that I use: “pork” in Mandarin is “zhū ròu” (roughly pronounced joo-roh), zhū ròu sounds like churro, churros remind me of Spain, and Spaniards have a serious love affair with ham. Maybe a bit of a roundabout mneumonic device, but it works for me!
Break down the meaning of words
Mandarin is full of fun etymologies, and understanding the real meaning of some phrases is another great way to get vocabulary to stick. For example, “mǎi dōngxi” means “to go shopping,” or, more literally, “to buy things.” “Dōngxi” also means “east-west,” and that’s no coincidence. Centuries ago, Chinese buildings always faced north and south for the best light, which means a town’s streets – and therefore their markets – ran east to west, hence today’s meaning!
Or, more simply, how about “tiānqì” (“weather”), which can be broken down into “tiān” (“sky”) and “qì” (“air”), or “dàishǔ” for “kangaroo,” which literally means “bag rat”? Definitely an easier way to remember words that may otherwise slip from your mind.
Brush up your skills with apps
Mandarin is a bit too tricky to learn only from a mobile app, but apps are a great supplement to your classes, especially if you don’t know many native speakers with whom you can practice. The two I use most are FluentU and ChineseSkill, but I would also recommend uTalk and MindSnacks.
Practice when you can – and don’t get scared!
This is crucial to learning any language, and Mandarin is no different. Stop being shy about your Mandarin skills, and use any chance you have to practice with native speakers or fellow students. The biggest hurdle in learning a foreign language is forcing yourself to just speak without worrying that you’ll make mistakes. I promise that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself, and you’ll never improve if you don’t start somewhere!
Hope that helps you manage Mandarin! What tips do you have for learning Mandarin or other languages?