Characters are pictures after all, and although simplified characters are stripped of some etymological magic, they are still crammed with their own fascinating history. Remembering stories comes naturally to humans. Memorizing a quadrillion characters? Less naturally
The Chinese language can drive you crazy, but learning Chinese is not impossible and can be—dare we say it—a lot of fun. Get the lowdown on how to get your Chinese from mamahuhu to chaojiwudi.
1. Getting started
Mandarin is unlike any other language in the world, and approaching it can feel a bit like landing on an alien planet. That’s why Chinese teacher Venus Liu (whose name suggests she is no stranger to things out of this world) of Singapore’s United World College South East Asia finds it important to learn about this complicated country we call China. Once you feel an appreciation for the local culture or history, the language won’t seem so alien.
The language isn’t that hard to crack, points out Wen Ying, teaching director at That’s Mandarin. She explains that the Chinese language is fairly logical. Phrases are composed of two words that work together to create a new meaning. Words like telephone, dianhua (literally, electric speech), and film, dianying (electric shadow), are easier to memorize once you have broken them down. Understanding the structure of phrases and knowing how to dissect them, Wen argues, makes the local language more approachable.
2. Unsavory characters
According to Chinese teachers we spoke with, Mandarin-language learners struggle with these two aspects of the language: the quadrillion characters (okay, maybe there aren’t a quadrillion, but it certainly feels that way) and then, of course, the tones.
When it comes to the characters, you will undeniably have to memorize them—but the logic of Chinese language extends to character structure as well. Liu describes how she introduces the concept to her students, “I always tell my students that it is absolutely natural if they feel it is hard …or maybe weird. However, the Chinese characters, especially the simplified ones, have rules for them to remember: the radical, the structure, the stroke order.” If you break down the characters, it’s easier to find similarities between characters and guess an unknown character’s meaning.
Storytelling is important too. If you are having problems memorizing characters, ask your Chinese teacher to give you a brief history of the character. Characters are pictures after all, and although simplified characters are stripped of some etymological magic, they are still crammed with their own fascinating history. Remembering stories comes naturally to humans. Memorizing a quadrillion characters? Less naturally.
3. The right tone
In few other languages would a poem like this: sishisi, shishishi, shisishishisi, sishishisishi actually make any sense. That’s why Mandarin is so much fun. However, learning the tones and differentiating homophones can be tricky. It takes practice.
Liu has some tricks. The first tone, she explains, is high and remains level. If you sing “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So …” the first tone sounds like the “So” note. For the second tone, Liu recommends raising your eyebrows when you say it. The third tone is admittedly trickier. Liu suggests dropping your chin onto your neck and raising it again when you pronounce this tone. During the fourth tone, arguably the easiest, you should stomp your foot gently. Practicing this will keep you entertained for hours.
Wen’s technique is different. She describes the first tone as singing and the second tone as classic uptalk, similar to when you say “yes?” in English.The fourth tone sounds like an outburst, as if someone had just stepped on your foot. That tricky third tone is made easier by putting together the fourth and the second tone to make the third.
Tones make a big difference. My father learned this the hard way when he asked for eggs after finishing a meal in a restaurant instead of the bill. After quite a few eggy mistakes, he finally got the hang of it. You will definitely have humorous errors of your own, but let them be playful mistakes rather than the reason you quit altogether.
4. Time Yourself
Even though Mandarin may have less conjugation and tense-nonsense than the English language, don’t kid yourself, there is grammar.
Liu explains that issues usually arise when language learners translate things directly from their own language into Chinese. “In Chinese grammatical structure, we say ‘someone at some time/at some place does something’ which is different from English grammar.” For example, a non-native Chinese speaker will often say wo he kafei zai xingbake (I drink coffee at Starbucks); the correct way to say this should be: wo zai xingbake he kafei (I at Starbucks drink coffee).
Another common mistake, says Wen, is to put “if” in the middle of a sentence, like you would in English. “I don’t know if she is coming” should not be wo bu zhidao ta ruguo lai but instead wo bu zhidao ta lai bu lai. Got it?
It’s okay if you don’t. It takes a lot of mistakes before you can truly master the language, so don’t be afraid to make these mistakes. Tao Zhang, a Chinese teacher at Korea-based Kent Foreign School, agrees. “I used to joke with my students, saying it’s good that you make mistakes otherwise I will lose my job!”
When you’ve practiced Chinese for a while and finally start to get good, you’ll notice yourself starting to plateau. Though you don’t get any worse, it’s hard to get any better. Tao has a tip for this: expand your exploration of the language and use new types of media, whether that means reading newspapers, watching television or reading Mandarin blogs.
The truth is, if you are living a very international life, where you surround yourself with international things, it’s going to be hard to learn the local language. Immersion is the best way to get out there, learn new things, try out new phrases. Watch Chinese movies, join a local running club, talk to waiters or taxi drivers. You will only learn as much Chinese as you let yourself learn. China is a crazy place full of interesting people and thousands of stories. The language will give you access to those. Few things in the world could be more meaningful.
Be a good student and study at home, your Chinese teacher will love you for it. Here are some of the best sites online for Chinese learning:
Chinesepod’s podcasts consist of fun, quirky sketches which the two hosts dissect—explaining the new vocabulary and cultural concepts in depth. Free for basic accounts, ¥95/month for an unlocked account.
The Chinese-English dictionary you have always dreamed of, simple and thorough. Sign up to create folders which you can share with other Line Dictionary members. Free.
The HSK Lite App
The HSK Lite app is a handy app geared specifically towards each HSK level. The app allows you to memorize terms, test yourself with creative quizzes, practice stroke-order, or play educational board games. Free.
Quizlet is an amazing flashcard-making site that also lets you play silly, educational games that will drill the Chinese phrases into your head forever. Free.
The Slow Chinese podcasts are articles read out slow and steady on subjects from Taiwanese pop-star Jay Chou to the Beijing smog. Levels are from upper intermediate to advanced. Free.
This site, though ugly, has all the Chinese language tools you may need, from a pinyin editor to a Chinese-name-generator. Free.