Many regular readers of this blog are either Chinese speakers or aspiring Chinese language students. For those of you in the latter category, if this is the year you’ve decided to fully commit yourself to learning Mandarin, I want to offer some tips on the best and most efficient ways to do so, based on many years of my own experiences trying, failing, and eventually succeeding in learning Mandarin fluently.
1. Shut the book, turn on the tape: Let’s assume that you’re a busy business or legal professional. Just as you wouldn’t waste time at work on projects that don’t get you any closer to accomplishing your goals – and only mean more time at the office – why would you waste time learning Mandarin the “wrong” way when you could be learning it the “right” way, i.e. faster, better, more efficiently?
I am comfortable using the word “right” because I started out learning Mandarin the not “right” way and had little to show for it in spite of a major investment of time and effort. If you’re anything like I was then – trying to learn from a textbook and spending hours writing and memorizing characters – the best advice I can give you is to shut the book and put the pen down. Your primary objective as a beginner or intermediate learner should be to improve your speaking ability and listening comprehension, two things that are only accomplished by speaking and listening more, not spending time reading and writing. Pick up some Chinese language CDs or subscribe to an on-line service like Chinesepod.com which offers thousands of great dialogues for all levels of learners. Download lessons to your iPod and listen as much as possible – at home, in the car, at lunch – and you’ll see that you will quickly not only get used to how Chinese sounds, but you’ll have memorized whole chunks of dialogue and phrases simply because you’ve heard them so many times.
2. Forget about meaning: This suggestion, while hard to do, makes a huge difference when it comes to learning Chinese. Once you’ve passively listened to a Chinese dialogue a dozen times or so, start to pause the recording and repeat after the speaker. Do this enough times until you get comfortable saying the dialogue yourself, even if you have little or no idea what you’re actually saying – simply focus on distinguishing sounds and rhythms of speech rather than actual meaning. As soon as you look at the English translation and pinyin equivalent of the dialogue, your ear will shut off and you won’t actually be learning anything because you think you already know it (of course you know what they’re saying – you read the translation!) Instead, struggle with the dialogue – repeat tricky phrases over and over until they start rolling off your tongue. Only then should you look at the translation: when you’re able to repeat the dialogue correctly and with confidence.
3. Be a kid again: No Chinese child ever, ever memorizes tone marks (those symbols on top of the letters). In fact, if you were to ask your average Chinese person “what tone is this word?” they would have no idea what you’re talking about – they know it instinctively!
Chinese kids learn by simply listening to words spoken over and over again (like we learned English as babies) which is the process you’re trying to mimic by listening to dialogues on repeat. If you can listen to those recordings and pause and then imitate the sound and the way in which it is said, you will develop a great ability to reproduce Chinese and then form those words on your own without the prompting of the tape. In my opinion, foreign students fail to learn to speak Chinese properly because they concentrate solely on trying to memorize tones marks written on paper instead of simply listening to the way Chinese should sound from a native speaker and imitating it.
4. Invest in 1-on-1 lessons: Once you’ve spent a few weeks learning Mandarin on your own, it’s time to commit to regular, 1-on-1 classes with a professional Chinese instructor. Let me say up front that I founded and run an online Chinese language school that does just that – offers personalized Mandarin classes online. Let me also say, however, that it wasn’t until I started meeting regularly with the teachers who are now my employees that my Mandarin really started to take off. In a 1-on-1 setting, all the focus is on you – improving your grammar, pronunciation, and tones – and you are not distracted by the poor all-of-the-above of your fellow students. Ideally, you are able to shape the curriculum so that it reflects only the vocabulary that is relevant (and immediately applicable) to your profession and interests. Most importantly, it’s the most efficient use of the time you have to study Chinese – your teacher can answer your questions, correct your mistakes, and let you know right away if what you’re saying is what an actual Chinese person would say in any given situation. You can’t that kind of feedback from a textbook!
Many people who have struggled to learn Mandarin will tell you that it’s too difficult to learn. My answer to that is that Mandarin is actually very learnable if you use the correct methodology to do so and can bring you great happiness – the intellectual challenge of learning something new, a sense of accomplishment, and the joy that comes from forming new relationships and friendships with people of a different culture.