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Hanyu : How to Lean Chinese, From a 3rd Year Student

Updated on December 15, 2012

So you want to learn Chinese. Good Luck!

Four years ago I had the most wonderful opportunity to go to China and work in a digital marketing company in Beijing. It was a brief five month stint, but I grew a strong liking for Chinese food, culture and the intricacies of their language. When I got back to the states, I hastily sought out Chinese classes far and wide, finally settling for one on the lower west side of Manhattan. Classes are about twice a week, 2 hour lessons.

Three years later.....

I sit here in a dark room, sobbing over my review books and dictionaries. But don't fret. These are tears of joy. After three frustrating and mind-numbing years of breaks or vacations except for the obvious Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Oktoberfest...I think I've finally got a hold on this whole Mandarin thing.

As a testament to this (sort of) accomplishment, I want to recount some of the trials and tribulations I've gone through in leaning this language. In the end, I hope this helps someone avoid pitfalls and time-wasters that I have come across in my own journey.

I can't even explain why I put this one up.
I can't even explain why I put this one up.

Set Your Goals

Like many things in life, if you decide what you want to do early and stick with it, you will go farther, faster. This also applies to learning Chinese. As you may or may not know the term "Chinese language" is an umbrella term for a collection of dialects, accents and regional slurs that are customary to mainland China. While many (like me) decided to learn one of the more popular dialects (putong hua); learning one of the many other dialects is just as noble a feat. In truth, so many foreigners are learning (and mastering) Mandarin now that learning one of the many other dialects might make you look like an awesome cultural savant. Just saying.

So pick a Chinese "dialect" and stick with it. I put "dialect" in quotes because the different Chinese "dialects" are incredibly different from each other; so much so that in many ways they can be considered different languages. In fact, the one thing that connects all of China's "dialects" together is their written word. And there are even some differences in that respect.

Practice The Right Way

And now the pain begins. From a foreigners perspective (especially western foreigners), Chinese will appear downright alien at first. It is in a completely different language family than all western languages and over the course of mmmm... 2200 years or so, it has had time to develop a formidable lexicon of terms, idioms and structures. So how are we going to learn.

Physical Classes:

If you can afford to, I suggest taking classes. A good class with an excellent teacher is worth 20 Rosetta Stone CD's. And taking regular, scheduled classes is a good/rigorous way of of practicing consistently. So do a search for Chinese lessons in your local neighborhood or town. Check out any reviews of any institution offering instruction and their teachers. Try to get a sense if the learning material that they are using is adequate or at an appropriate level for you.

Virtual Lessons:

While on the subject of Rosetta Stone and other computer-based language learning methods; a word to the wise. Be careful! A little before signing up for actual classes I tried out a copy of Rosetta that a friend let me um..."borrow." Rosetta Stone (or at least the version I was using) tries to teach you a language intuitively; by making connections and associations between various pictures. This technique can work in many instances (it is essentially how you learned your first language). However, it is a waste of time trying to learn Chinese this way. Why?

Rosetta Stone tends to be very formulaic in their use of pictures (using the same pictures for Spanish and Chinese). However, their little lesson algorithm fails to account for vast differences between the languages. For instance, because of conjugation learning the different tenses of individual verbs tends to be difficult. While in Chinese, there is no such thing as conjugation and learning the different verb tenses can literally be done in one or two lessons, Yet, Rosetta goes ahead and treats the Chinese student as if he is learning Spanish by spending too much time on verb tense.

Thankfully, there are a ton of other language learning programs getting rave reviews right now. I will list some in the references section along with a few that I use personally.

I'm the year of the rabbit, FYI.
I'm the year of the rabbit, FYI.

A Note on Characters:

You could spend your entire Chinese tutelage memorizing, learning and mastering the English-Chinese mid-language known as pinyin. For the uninitiated, pinyin looks something like this:

Wǒmen huì yìqǐ chī yuèbǐng a, shǎng yuè shénme de

Literally: "We will will enjoy mooncakes and watch a beautiful full moon together." Pinyin can ensure that you get the all important tones and pronunciation right. And that's all fine and dandy. However, at some point you should get a little curious about the actual Chinese characters themselves. As I mentioned before, Chinese characters more or less connect the various Chinese dialects like Shanghaiese, Cantonese, Hainanese, etc. However, learning the characters also serve two other functions (for me at least). A.) They definitely help you to independently learn more about Chinese language and culture. Once the have a firm understanding of the characters and how they come together to form words; you will be able to read the dictionary, get the gist of Chinese articles, etc and B.) Learning the characters actually reinforces words, terms and your mind. For me, it is a visual memory process that allows me to better memorize vocabulary. Your experience may be different.

A Note on Pronunciation: It's actually Important......

As you may already know, Chinese is a tonal language. Putonghua/Mandarin itself has four tones while Cantonese (depending on the dialect) can have up to 9 or 10 different tones. It is often hard for westerners to wrap their head around tones because they seem like a foreign concept, when in fact they are not. Almost every language makes use of tonal changes. English speakers for example have different tones for asking questions and making statements (whether or not they realize it). Chinese speakers just happen to have a much broader use for tones than most.

Of course pronunciation has probably always been the hardest thing for me to master in Chinese. On many occasions I have messed up tones or used incorrect tones altogether. And unfortunately, the tones go a long way toward making any other Chinese speaker understand you. So the best thing to do is practice the tones and actively listen to how words are being said by native speakers. Essentially, you have to get a feel for how the Chinese listen for the different tones used in their language.

Avoid These Pitfalls:

Using Chinese Music to Hone Your Language Skills: I once heard a friend say to me the following..."Try listening to Chinese songs first (the slow ones preferably) to get a feel for the language. It will really help." Not True. Chinese songs are full of strange phrases and idiomatic phrases that will truly confuse the hell out of beginners and intermediate learners alike. If your going to listen to any form of Chinese media, try news reports or news shows first. These programs are meant to be clearly spoken and straight to the point.

Ignoring The Tone System: Ignore the tones at your own risk. I mean, don't obsess over them to the point of paralysis. Cause honestly, a lot of native-speaking Chinese forget to use the correct tones at times. But you should aim to get as many correct tones as possible.

Know The Different Grammatical Structures Like the Back of Your Hand (Assuming you know the back of your hand.): Knowing grammatical structures is key to learning any language. However, in moving from one language family to another, it is doubly important. I say this because many people give advise along the lines of: "learn the vocab first and rest will fall into place." Yet, the amount of difference in grammatical structures between Chinese and English for example can be astounding at times. My advise, give equal weight to learning both the vocabulary and grammatical structures.

Learn More Than One Measure Word: Measure words will be new to English speakers, a probably frustrating. These words are used in conjunction with numerical words phrases and certain prepositions. The structure general goes as such number + (measure word) + item. Liang (两张床). The bad thing is that there are more than one hundred measure words to go along with a variety of different nouns in Chinese. Now there is a caveat. There is a measure word called ge (个), that is most commonly used in Chinese and can be used in most cases when you really don't know what the measure word should be. Yet, this is no excuse for only using "ge." In some instances, using "ge" as a substitute measure word will get you some awkward sideways glances. Maybe even a scowl or two from native speakers. Luckily, I did find a very useful site indicating the top ten most frequently used measure words and their usage. Please see here for details. With these measure words, you should be able to avoid awkward measure word moments.


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    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an awesome hub describing your lessons in learning Mandarin. From my experiences of learning Mandarin which I started to do in 1967, I agree 100 percent with everything you say. I especially like your comments about taking pains to learning characters and treating Mandarin as one of the main dilaects of Chinese which is currently most important. Software programs like Rosetta Stone can be helpful, but there is no substitute for having a live teacher and constant practice. Voted up and sharing.

    • Wesley Meacham profile image

      Wesley Meacham 4 years ago from Wuhan, China

      This is a good hub. I have to agree with your comments on Rosetta Stone. I also found Rosetta Stone akward for other reasons. The program basically teaches vocabulary in what seems like a very random method. You learn the word for apple then man then water and so on none of it seems to have any connections. I've been using Pimsluer to study with and while there are different pros and cons to their approach (I've been told that some of the expressions are a little out of date) they teach you phrases that you can actually use. When you learn new words they go back and teach you how to use those words in phrases you've already learned and with new phrases as well.

      Also, on the subject of pinyin.... Your description of pinyin is very acurate. Personally, I find pinyin useful only in studying and reviewing vocabulary that I've already learned because it helps with remembering tones and pronounciation. However... for every day use pinyin is completely worthless. If you're living in China you will almost never use pinyin. Everything you need or want to read (bus stop signs, books, newspapers, restaraunt menus...) will all be written in characters. Sometimes the characters will be accompanied by horrible English but almost never pinyin. So basically for practical purposes pinyin is pointless.

      Voting up and sharing.

    • jonp31 profile image

      jonp31 4 years ago from Phoenix, AZ

      Enjoyed the read. And, getting a hold on Mandarin in 3 years is quite the feat! Well done, sir. I wish I took more than a semester of formal lessons in school - even though I lived in China for a number of years, some languages are just harder to master through osmosis than others and actual STUDY is almost necessary.

      Finally, I usually recommend this to anyone I know who's trying to learn Chinese so I'll recommend it to you as well - is a great site for practicing listening and picking up colloquial Chinese (you'd probably just look for the intermediate and advanced lessons). They do have subscriptions but most of the resources are available without any subscription at all. I've had a hard time finding listening material that is both fun to listen to and authentic, and they just happen to put both together really well. That's the one reason I couldn't handle Pimsleur ... I think it's great for beginners learning the language and getting the basics, but it sounded so rigid and far from everything I got used to hearing in China. But the Popup Chinese gang do a great job at presenting Chinese as it's really spoken, which I appreciated - and perhaps you will too. Good luck!

      Voted up and sharing.

    • Justin Muir profile image

      Justin Muir 4 years ago from New York

      Thanks You everyone for your responses. Just let me be clear, I am far from mastering Chinese. When I say I have a command of the language, I mean that I can get the gist of most sentences said to me and my general reading comprehension is 不错 (búcuò). Mastery will probably take a good number of years (here's looking at you Paul Kuehn). Also, thanks for all the additional advise. I think I'll definitely try to use Pimsluer more and try (Wesley Meacham and jonp31...thanks). Thanks for the encouragement Arielqiao, much appreciated.

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