Absolute Beginners Guide to Learning Chinese: The Start of the Journey

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I recently received an email from a friend of mine who read my blog and really enjoyed it (if you like what I’m doing, let me know! Seriously, it makes my day), but who was still hesitant about making the first step in beginning the journey of learning Chinese, for the simple reason that he did not know exactly where to start. From his message, I understood that he was also unsure about what this journey entailed (for it is a journey, albeit an immensely enjoyable and rewarding one, if done correctly), or what to expect along the way.

This article is for all of you in that very position. This is for all the complete beginners who don’t know where to start, particularly those that are on the fence about whether to start learning Chinese, or any other language, at all.

There are 7 days in the week, and someday is not one of them.

I will break my advice down into Myths, How to Begin, Essential Qualities of a Successful Language Learner, General Tips, and Motivation. This is a long, long, article. I tried to make it as comprehensive as possible. You have been warned.

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Common Myths and Excuses About Learning Chinese
(And Other Languages)
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  1. I’m not talented or smart enough to learn a language. This one is particularly prominent in people who once tried to learn a language, but have since given up. This is common where people have learn a language for many years at school, but who didn’t really learn anything. Now, firstly, it’s important for me to say that your success in school language classes are not at all representative of your actual ability, as these programs are designed to cater for a large class and do not take into account the different ways people learn (which is essential in language learning, where some techniques that work for some simply don’t work for others). They are also generally not very fun, as they tend to be geared toward passing exams and having perfect grammar, rather than actually being able to communicate in the language. Some language classes can be fine, too, but in order to really learn anything, the student is required to venture further and engage with their learning on their own. The only way you can ‘fail’ is if you give up for good. Humans have an inherent ability to learn languages, we have always been good at it. Throughout history, it has been commonplace for people to be bilingual – speaking their mother tongue as well as languages from neighbouring tribes and villages. In fact, the majority of the world today are at least bilingual, if not multi-lingual. And there’s no reason you can’t be, too. ‘Monolingualism’, speaking only one language, is a phenomenon that is actually predominantly confined to the Western world. We seem to have adopted a mistaken belief that learning other languages is both impossibly hard, but also unnecessary for English speakers due to English’s status as the current lingua franca. The truth is that learning a language has never been more important, due to the rise of countries such as China, Brazil and Russia, as well as because of the increasingly competitive job market arising from globalisation.
  2. I’m too old to learn a language. Many people have heard claims that there is a ‘critical period’ of language acquisition, that is generally in the first 5 years of a child’s life (I’ve heard other numbers, too), after which a language cannot be learnt fluently. The reason children seem to be, on average, better language learners than adults can be explained by looking at how children learn languages in comparison to how adults typically learn them. Children live, breathe, play and communicate in the their native language, and are constantly hearing it around them. Adults generally try to memorise verb tables and meaningless conjugations from a dusty textbook in their basement. Given this, it’s unsurprising that many adults have limited success. There are many examples of people who have been able to learn languages to a very high level as an adult. Steve Kaufmann is in his 60s and is still beginning new languages (he knows 12 to date), despite the fact he could only speak English until he was 17. Benny Lewis could only speak English until he was 21, and now can speak a whole host of languages. Both sucked at languages in school. The list goes on. Sure, you can say that these guys spend all their time learning languages, or they are just really good at it, but that’s just not true. Anyone can do it. You’re not too old, you’re just too lazy. (In fact, even lazy people can learn languages).
  3. Chinese is too hard! I could go on for days about how logical and simple Chinese really is once you get your head around it. Chinese is only harder than, say, Spanish, because it is so different to English, in that it has nearly 0% shared vocabulary (while I have seen estimates that Spanish shares almost 30% common vocabulary with English). Chinese is harder in the beginning, but it the long run it makes a lot of sense once you get the basics down, with the exception of characters – those things are, admittedly, often frustrating to learn! However, those too can be learnt with time. For more on why Chinese isn’t that hard, see my guest post on Sam’s blog Lingholic.
  4. Even if it’s possible to learn another language, you have to be immersed in that environment. Although an immersive environment can be a great help, there are also many instances where it fails to make any difference – I’m sure you’ve met immigrants to your country that, despite being there for 30+ years, can barely string a sentence together. This is because they likely have their own sub-community of people from their home country, and therefore there is no ‘need factor’ to learn your language. Indeed, immersion typically provides only two things: firstly, a ‘need’ (sink or swim) element, in that if you don’t learn the language you will be very lonely, and secondly, a high level of exposure to the language (because you will, inevitably, hear it around you constantly). However, clearly, an immersive environment can be recreated at home. Khatzumoto (All Japanese All The Time) listened to Japanese during almost every waking moment for about 18 months, after which he was extremely fluent. Most of your language learning can occur without any human contact at all (by doing passive tasks such as reading and listening, as well as active ones, such as writing). For the speaking part, when you’re ready, you can probably find speakers of the target language in your home city, or you can find them on the internet and talk to them on Skype. In fact, you don’t  necessarily need to talk to anyone until you’re at an intermediate level, see my post ‘You Don’t Need Chinese Friends to Learn Chinese‘. Eventually, though, you will need to make the transition to speaking. Speaking can also be a great way to consolidate words, by trying to use them in a course of a conversation.
  5. I’m too busy and don’t have time to learn a language. This is one of the biggest ones. My solution that should apply to everyone is that even if you don’t have much time to actually sit down and study, you can bet your bottom dollar that you have a lot of unused ‘dead time‘ – that is, time that you essentially waste. I’m not talking about the time you watch Grey’s Anatomy on TV or hang out with friends – everyone needs some down time for their mental health. I’m talking about time lost into the abyss, those minutes here and there that stack up to a monumental amount. For example, walking the dog, waiting in line, taking public transport, etc, etc; in all of these scenarios you could be learning a language, by listening to it on your iPod or whatever. Stop making excuses, you do have time.

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The Real Deal: HOW TO ACTUALLY START LEARNING CHINESE
(a step-by-step guide)
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  1. Learn Pinyin. Unfortunately, you will need to spend a couple of hours in preparation before you get to sink your teeth into the good stuff. What is pinyin? It is the most commonly used system of writing out Chinese using roman letters. For example, 我是中国人 = wǒ shì zhōngguó rén. Each character in Chinese represents one syllable. Notice the little marks above each syllable? They represent the tones. There are four tones in Chinese, and a neutral tone. They are represented by ( ¯ ´ ˇ ` ) above the letters. One thing to be aware of when learning Pinyin, is that it is pronounced not exactly like we would read it in English. For example, zao is pronounced kind of like ‘dsao’. Good news is, if you have an iPad, there is a great free app for learning Pinyin. Check it out! You can also have a look at this online Pinyin table with audio (which you can download).
  2. Find some learning materials. Have a look at my Resources page for some ideas. You’re looking for some sort of beginner textbook to get you started. After that, though, you can probably get a lot of what you need online. Don’t worry too much about grammar, it will fall into place over time. Some things are really hard to translate between different languages, but as long as you understand the meaning, then it’s all good. Recordings of short beginner conversations with accompanying transcripts are necessary, too. If you’ve got the cash, ChinesePod is by far your best bet (I am addicted). You can get free ones from LingQ, but I personally prefer ChinesePod. ChinesePod and a good beginner textbook is all you need really, and if you’re using CP regularly, the price quickly becomes negligible. There’s also some free sample lessons. I talked above about how spending a bit of money can be worth it in order to get the best possible quality stuff.
  3. Get your head around tones. Chinese is a tonal language. Once you’ve got your textbook, and some dialogues, do some listening and see how the tones work. Learning them is really important. Chinese people simply won’t understand you if you don’t learn them, or if you get them wrong too much. Using wrong tones is kind of like putting the emphasis on the wrong syllables in English. I’m not trying to scare you, though. It becomes natural soon enough. Listening a LOT is especially important in Chinese. Once you get to an intermediate stage, you won’t be thinking about individual tones as much, rather, you will become aware of the ‘rhythm’ of the language.
  4. Characters. Forget about them, for now. At the very beginning, it is only necessary that you be aware of them, in that you know they exist. They constitute a challenge that you will need to face though, but never fear! They are quite fun to learn. I would suggest beginning to learn them once you are confident you have the basics down, or about 1 or 2 months into studying. Characters typically consist of a ‘meaning’ part and a pronunciation part. The ‘meaning’ parts are known as ‘radicals’. It’s worth learning them (see this page) as they will help you figure out the meaning of unknown characters. Read about about mnemonics (memory techniques) for learning characters. Olle from Hacking Chinese has a good explanation about what they are and how to use them here.
  5. Find a study technique/method that works for you. As a very beginner, you can start simply and just try to memorise the words in context. Eventually though, you will probably want to get a bit more technical. Consider getting an SRS (Spaced-Repetition Software) such as Anki, which is free. They are basically flashcards, but work using an algorithm which determines which card will be shown. It maximises learning efficiency by presenting a particular card when your brain needs to see it in order for it to be remembered, usually right before you forget it. Another comprehensive method for learning a foreign language is Luca’s translation method (which you can hear all about in his YouTube video). When I can be bothered, I follow a method similar to the one Luca outlines. Most importantly, I never do grammar drills – I am not convinced they work. Even if they do for some people, they suck! They are boring. You can’t force me to do them! I spend approximately 80% of the time I spend ‘studying’ doing nothing but listening. I do this, firstly, because I am a busy person, I’m currently studying Law and don’t have time to sit down for hours on end, and secondly, because you don’t really need to do much more ‘active’ study than that. ‘Passive’ activities such as reading and listening should take up most of your study time, with the rest being devoted to ‘active’ tasks such as writing, translating, shadowing etc.
  6. Listening. I can’t stress the importance of listening enough. It really is the most important thing you can do. Despite this, most people who learn languages in school and University do little to zero listening. The result? They finally get to talk with a native speaker after years of studying their grammar books, and can’t understand a thing that is said to them! Listening builds the foundation for your accent, rhythm, pronunciation, tones, everything! Take ChinesePod, for example. Each lesson contains a conversation that is typically 1 minute long. There is a podcast of about 15 minutes that breaks down the conversation and explains the key parts in a fun and interesting way. I will listen to this once. Feel free to listen to it as much as you want though. I then listen to the conversation typically 10-20 times, but sometimes as many as 40 times – i.e. as many as needed until you understand it.
  7. Mimic. When learning a language, you need to be a copycat. You need to mimic native speakers and the way they speak. A good technique for pronunciation and speaking practice is to play an individual recorded sentence, and then try to repeat it yourself. If possible, record yourself with an application such as Audacity and compare yourself to native speakers. Don’t try to say things really fast as a beginner though! Try to repeat things that are recorded slowly.
  8. Every day. Start small, say with 15 or 30 minutes per day. Just do it for as long as you are enjoying it, actually. The more you do it, the more you will improve. But the more you enjoy it, the more you will do it. It is far better to do 30 minutes a day than to do 3 or 4 hours in a single sitting, once a week. Make it part of your daily ritual! See my post on ‘one month challenges‘ for how to make learning a language a habit. Sure, you will miss days when you are busy. That’s life. I miss days too, everyone does. I just try to make up for it by doing extra the next couple of days. Make goals with yourself!

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Personal Qualities of a Successful Language Learner
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  • They are patient. A good language learner will not get fed up when they aren’t fluent in 3 months. Everyone goes through moments where they want to throw their Chinese dictionary out the window and run naked into the forest. The trick is, um, not doing that. If that does happen, get dressed, wipe away those tears and chill out for a bit. Why not listen to some nice Chinese music? Or just take the rest of the day off and give it another go the next day.
  • They are interested Successful language learners are genuinely interested in the language, and the associated culture and people. Language learning is like a plague. Once infested, the learner cannot help themselves, they must learn. I remember when I caught the disease. It was a difficult time for my friends and family. My girlfriend often has to drag me, kicking and screaming, away from the Chinese podcast I’m listening to. I just can’t understand why she doesn’t want to listen to ChinesePod with me every waking moment. It’s okay, though, I’m recovering well in language rehab.
  • They reject perfectionism. Check out Benny Lewis’ article on perfectionism in language learning. Don’t stab yourself in the heart if you get something wrong. And, most importantly, accept the fact that you will probably never speak the language perfectly. Hey, I still make mistakes in English, as if I’m going to be flawless in Chinese!
  • They make excuses TO use a language, not excuses to NOT use it. Great language learners will not avoid using the language like the plague, and get all shy and cute when there is an opportunity to use it. NO! They will go out in full on gladiator gear and find people to talk to! They go on Couchsurfing and go for coffee with people who speak Chinese! They go to the airport and pretend to be cab drivers so they can drive around newly arrived Chinese tourists until they realise they’re riding in the back of some Chinese-obsessed weirdo’s Holden Barina! Actually, that might be a bit far. (disclaimer: nothing said on this blog is intended to be relied on as advice, should you act on any information expressly or implicitly delivered by means of this blog I will not be held responsible). 🙂

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General Tips For Success
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  1. Have fun. This is the biggest overarching principle of language learning, in my opinion. It is simply SO IMPORTANT to enjoy studying the language. If you don’t, not only will you hate every minute of it, but you will find it much harder to learn, and will likely never reach fluency (you will likely give up long before that. If you do, you won’t notice the time you spend studying, it won’t feel like a chore, and you will be fluent a hell of a lot faster. Seriously, if you can take only ONE THING from this article, I would like it to be the acceptance that it is necessary to enjoy the actual learning process itself. Enjoy learning, and you won’t be so focused on the result (focusing too much on the fact you’re not fluent yet is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy that will prevent you from ever becoming fluent). I really think it is completely impossible for a ‘reluctant language learner’ to become fluent. I’d love for someone to show me an example. Just don’t stress out about it. My Nana is learning French (she’s in her 80s) and I can see how frustrated she gets, even though she has made heaps of progress, and actually really enjoys it. I’m always trying to get her to forget about worrying that she can’t understand much when people speak yet. Seriously, as long as you are enjoying the learning, you are golden.
  2. Manage your expectations. Don’t expect to be conversing like a pro in a month or two. It takes time, but you will see results. Patience is a virtue. If you feel disheartened and feel you aren’t making any progress, or that you aren’t progressing fast enough – have a look at the list of words you’ve learnt. Oh, I should mention, I’m a huge fan of keeping track of words and characters I learn – it’s a huge motivator to see a long list of accomplishments, especially for those moments when you think *shit, this is hard*. What I suggest is creating mini-goals for yourself, rather than having one vague goal of ‘fluency’ (whatever that is, anyway). For example, you might try to learn 20 new words a week. That should be easily done if you apply yourself, and you could push yourself harder than that. Don’t stress if you don’t reach your goal, as long as you gave it your best. If you do reach your goal though, reward yourself! Go eat some junk food, or whatever you kids do these days.
  3. Have the right motivation for learning a language. If you are only learning it to show off on YouTube or in front of your friends, I can’t see you getting far. You need to find an interest in the learning of the actual language itself, the culture, the people, etc. For example, I love the act of learning languages, and I am highly motivated to be able to make Chinese friends and actually communicate with them properly. Also, I want to be a diplomat later, I think, and so Chinese is such a step up. 

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Motivational Quotes For Learning Languages
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Here is a list I’ve put together of a number of motivational quotes said by people far more wise than myself.

  1. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. This is one of my favourite Chinese proverbs, and so it seems fitting that it be applied to learning Chinese. It’s going to be a long road. But it won’t be tedious, not unless you make it tedious. It is perfectly acceptable and possible to learn a language painlessly by doing what you enjoy – communicating, reading and listening to interesting things, watching movies, listening to music, and so on. The first step is the most important one.
  2. “It does not matter how fast you go, as long as you do not stop”. I believe this is another Chinese proverb. Probably from Confucius (a man of Gandalf-like wisdom). As long as you keep going with your learning, and do not worry yourself too much about the end result or how fast you are progressing, you will continue to make progress. Just relax and enjoy learning. It should be fun, and if it isn’t, you’re doing it wrong! Fluency is an inevitable result from the right amount of effort and time.
  3. “The man that says it can’t be done, should not interrupt the man doing it”. Don’t let others discourage you. There are plenty of examples of people that have been highly successful in language learning. The only people that say learning a language is too hard are people that don’t know what they’re talking about. You won’t hear people who have learnt a second language saying that any language, even Chinese, is too hard.
  4. “To chop a tree quickly, spend twice the time sharpening your axe”. (Confucius). This is a good one. When applied to language learning, it basically means that if you want to be efficient, don’t cut corners, as it will take you longer in the long run. For example, develop a decent pronunciation from the beginning (don’t worry too much about your accent though, that will develop over time) as bad habits can be difficult to unlearn. When you start learning characters, spend some time learning the most common radicals (character components that allow you to guess at the meaning of unknown characters). This saying could also be used to justify the spending of a little bit of money to invest in good learning materials. A language can learnt for free, definitely, and there are a great of free resources out there (like LingQ), but it may be worth spending a bit of money where this will save you some time. This doesn’t mean you have to spend a lot, though!
  5. “The one who was born a genius can’t win against the one who tries, and the one who tries can’t win against the one who enjoys.”(Confucius) This is a principle I’ve tried to explain to people for ages before seeing this quote, but Confucius puts it very nicely: it doesn’t matter how smart you are; it is how hard you work that is important. But, even if you bust your balls and work super hard, you will always be second best to someone who loves doing it. It is essential to love the learning process, because then you will be motivated to put in more time, and it won’t feel tedious at all. For me, learning Chinese is, quite literally, a leisure activity. It’s an escape from my ‘real’ subjects at Univeristy. I’m studying Chinese too, but I go far above and beyond what is expected of me, because I love it. If you can love the process, then you will be an unstoppable language learning machine!
  6. You never fail until you stop trying” (Einstein) Well said. This one is kind of like #2. Failure is only when you stop, and as long as you keep going, you just haven’t succeeded yet.
  7. “We breathe in our first language, and swim in our second.” (Adam Gopnik) Don’t be a perfectionist! You probably will always speak your first language better than you speak your second, and that’s okay. Don’t worry if you make mistakes. Also, if you’re white, or black, or whatever race apart from Chinese, you are never going to be mistaken for a native speaker – you are going to stick out like a sore thumb. This is a good thing, because some learners develop an obsession with being mistaken for a native (Like Ramses from Spanish-Only). In my opinion, it is more impressive (if that’s your goal) to speak a language fluently, but with small accent – it shows that you’re foreign, but you’ve learnt the language extremely well. Also, for me, having an accent allows you to keep part of your own personal identity and conversation point, and won’t be a barrier to communication as long as you pronounce things properly. 
  8. “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”
    (Chinese Proverb) There is only so far you can get with a teacher. This applies for other areas of learning too. At some stage, you need to engage and go beyond what is taught it class, that is the only way you can learn. A teacher can provide you lots of great advice and knowledge, but they can’t put the information in your brain. You gotta do the work, don’t wait for a teacher to spoon feed you.
  9. “It’s by smelting that one becomes a blacksmith (practice makes perfect)” This one is a French proverb (c’est en forgeant qu’on devient forgeron) that is the equivalent of the English ‘practice makes perfect’, meaning that you can’t possibly be fluent straight away. It’s a process of getting incrementally better.
  10. “The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.” 
    (Jordan Belfort). This is one of the main messages I want to convey in this article. Stop making excuses for yourself, and give it your best go! Only then will you know whether or not it is possible (hint: it is!).

What are you waiting for?

Author: Dan

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  • This is some epic content! Wish I had this when I started learning Chinese.

    • Thanks a lot, Alan! Keep up the good work with the work at FluentU!

  • Cecilia Miao

    Hi Dan, check out our app, ChineseSkill. It’s great for beginners and intermediates to brush their skills.

  • Brian Bokram

    I have a question. Im at the high intermediate level…or somewhere around there. Anyway, I practice reading a lot with story books and news and also practice listening with tv shows, movies, and the news as well. No matter how much I read or listen though it feels like I just forget the new things i learn after. Therefore I started keeping a notebook writing down the things i learned to remember them and cement them to memory. For a while I felt like I was learning heaps…but then at some point…it just became tedious. I mean there is literally an endless amount to learn…and so writing down thing after thing after thing and not really being able to enjoy the content has sort of caused me to give up academically studying. In this regard, my question is, is this simply an inevitable hard phase before reaching the advanced level that I need to suck up and push through? Or was my method simply wrong, as now that I am at a level where somewhat (although with many wholes) fluent conversation is possible should I put down the books and just be using all I’ve fought to attain to push ahead?

    Could really use your advice…as I am at a standstill…and after reading your article it seems like I’ve fallen into the category of believing true fluency is something unattainable and therefore may never become fluent. Any tips appreciated.

    Cheers
    Brian

  • Koncall

    One of the most important part of learning a new language is to SPEAK OUT! However, there is not much opportunities to speak Chinese with someone who is the native speaker : ( Koncall, a newly released app, is aimed to solve this problem! With that, you can connect with people from China, who is patient enough to talk to! Sign up for our Beta Test and get the first-hand experience of this amazing app
    http://goo.gl/forms/17uZu8dIKN

  • Chin Chin

    There are many websites giving out free lessons out there. You can go for free lessons online first and see if it works for you, I have tried out this site http://www.chineselessons4u.com. There are lots of vocabulary at the end of each lessons and it’s very easy to learn.