My name’s Chris Kamp. I’m a student at the University of Queensland doing a dual degree in Law and Arts (majoring in Japanese, which I don’t speak terribly well). I started learning Chinese in 2010, before taking a year off to live in Harbin in Northeast China, where I learned to speak Mandarin while trying not to freeze to death. I now work part-time as a freelance translator. I’m also currently the Vice-President for Education of the Australia China Youth Association at UQ.
If you’ve been learning Chinese (or any other language) for any length of time, chances are you will have come across hundreds of these “tips and tricks for learning a language” lists. There are plenty of them scattered across the internet. And it’s a good thing, too- because only a handful of those methods will work for you, and they probably won’t be the same ones that work for your friend, or even you in six months time. There is no one right way to learn a language (though there are a lot of ‘wrong’ or ineffective ways), so take this post for what it is: a list of things that worked for me, one or two of which might work for you. It’s written with Mandarin in mind, but a lot of it would be applicable to other languages.
Before we get into it, a bit about my background. I’m Australian, and didn’t seriously start learning a foreign language until I got to university. I’m still a student (not majoring in Chinese), and also an accredited translator (Chinese > English) doing freelance work. It’s fair to say I speak ‘fluently’, however you want to define that. I started learning Chinese in late 2010, then went to a place called Harbin in northeast China in early 2011, where I lived and studied Chinese for a year. I started out at a language school, then did a semester at a Chinese university. I learned pretty quickly, though much of that can probably be put down to having a lot of free time in a city where it’s too cold to do much besides sit at home and study.
That said, here’s some advice based on my experience.
1. Find a Good Language Environment
There’s no doubt that people living in a Chinese-speaking country will generally learn faster than people who aren’t. If you do have the opportunity to study overseas, choose carefully. Different parts of China and other Chinese-speaking areas have very different accents, environments and lifestyles. Beijing and Northeastern accents are considered more ‘standard’, which is a bit of a problematic concept, but that is generally the perception.
More importantly, though, choose a place where you will have no real choice but to speak Chinese. Smaller cities where there are fewer English speakers are a good bet. It can be difficult to find opportunities to practice in cities like Beijing or Shanghai, where most people around you speak English better than you speak Chinese. There are also a lot of distractions- I know more than a few people who’ve come back from a semester in Beijing without learning much more Mandarin that ‘干杯!’ You can still learn just as well if you seek out opportunities to practice, but it’s a lot easier when you have no choice in the matter.
If you’re not studying overseas, there are ways to replicate a good language environment: making friends with native speakers is the obvious one. That can be difficult, though, because until you speak at a very advanced level, chances are the people you want to practice with speak English better than you speak Chinese. Then, it’s probably best to do a kind of language exchange where you speak English for a set time and Chinese for a set time. Otherwise, people naturally tend to fall into using their best common language for the sake of communicating.
2. Learn Independently
Language classes can be useful, but they’re not enough. Foreign language courses at university (in your own country) are not a particularly good way to learn a language. For a start, expectations are too low. You can pass an entire 3 year degree and still be barely able to communicate in the language. Most people who are genuinely interested in becoming fluent will find the pace too slow, and turn to other methods to jump ahead of the course. People who are having difficult also don’t necessarily get the help they need, and you end up with a few hundred people with wildly different levels of proficiency being given the same qualification.
Also, classes of 20 or more students to a single teacher don’t work well for language teaching. Any in-class practice comes from exercises with other students, which just isn’t that helpful. You’re supposed to help each other learn, but in my experience, there is really no advantage to practicing with a non-native speaker as opposed to a native speaker. They won’t pick up on your mistakes or correct you as well as a native speaker, you’ll end up reinforcing bad habits and, more likely than not, falling back to English rather than trying to find ways to express difficult concepts in your second language. (Full immersion classes at a university in China, or wherever, can be invaluable, and none of this necessarily applies to that.)
So, independent learning. It’s easiest when you have a basic foundation, so classes are a good idea for at least a couple of months. From there, there’s a lot you can do. Flashcards, audio lessons, tirelessly writing characters for hours on end if you have the right kind of personality for that. Reading helps a lot. Textbooks are a good start. Once you’re at an intermediate level, a fun exercise is to slowly but surely work your way through something that is way beyond your level, looking up words and grammatical constructions as you go. Maybe translate it to English, if you’re that way inclined, but don’t get too hung up on the translation as opposed to your actual understanding in the original language.
Also, ‘independent’ learning shouldn’t be taken too literally: a good native-speaker tutor once a week, or a friend or language exchange partner, is almost essential. Reading, writing and (to an extent) listening, you can do by yourself, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who became fluent in a language without speaking it regularly.
3. Learn Characters
Yes, it is entirely possible to learn to speak Chinese fluently without learning to read or write characters. I’ve met one (only one) person who did that. What’s more, if you were going to design a writing system, Chinese characters are about the least efficient one you could think of (Hangul for Korean is at the other end of that spectrum, and English with its bizarro spelling is somewhere in the middle). So it’s tempting to ignore characters, at least at first.
I’d advise against it. It will cripple your ability to actually function in a Chinese-speaking environment, if that’s your goal. Also, reading and writing are valuable methods for learning a language. Finally, because Chinese has so many homophones, characters are often referenced in speech to distinguish between meanings, like spelling out a word in English, but a lot more common. This is especially helpful for non-native speakers, I think. With things like成语 (idioms) especially, I often have no idea what something means when I first hear it. But when I see it written down, or for example someone tells me that 一目了然 contains 眼睛的目 rather than 木头的木, it all becomes clear, so to speak.
4. Perfect Your Accent Early
Some people take the view that, as long as you can make yourself understood, your accent isn’t all that important. That’s a perfectly valid approach. Where you spend your time and effort depends on what you want to achieve. Personally, I wanted to be able to sound like a native speaker, and I’ve largely managed that.
Your pronunciation is something you can perfect early on. I spent hours and days practicing pronunciation using a pinyin chart with audio files for each syllable and tone, as well as looking up the proper tongue position for each sound (a slight grounding in linguistics and understanding of the International Phonetic Alphabet helped, but it’s all pretty basic stuff you can look up). Boring, but it paid off.
Your accent has a big impact on how people perceive you. When I first arrived in China barely able to string a sentence together, I passed for a lot more fluent than I actually was, because whatever I did say, I said with accurate pronunciation and tones. Pronunciation alone isn’t everything- your speech patterns give a lot away too. That’s something you pick up from being in a Chinese speaking environment all day every day, but if you don’t have that, listening to a lot of recorded (natural) dialogue and mimicking it helps quite a bit.
Long story short, if you want to sounds like a native speaker, it’s entirely possible, but it takes a lot of work and it’s best to start early. Whether it’s worth the effort is up to you. I’ve been learning Japanese for a couple of years, but despite the fact that most English speakers would consider Japanese pronunciation ‘easier’ than Chinese, mine is pretty average and probably always will be, simply because I never put in the effort to fix it the way I did with Chinese.
5. Never Trust a Dictionary
…But learn to use it effectively. A lot of simple words (and some highly specialised ones) have an exact equivalent in both languages which works in all contexts. For most words, this isn’t the case. When you’re looking for the English meaning of a Chinese word, this is fine: you look up the word in the dictionary, see a list of probably ten or so English words. You ignore the one or two which haven’t been used by anyone in their right mind since the 18th century, and sort of ‘average out’ the others to get a pretty good idea of what the Chinese word actually means.
In the other direction, it’s harder. If you look up an English word, pick the first Chinese word from the list and throw it into a sentence, you might get some strange looks. The word might mean what you want to say, but be too formal or colloquial. It might be equivalent to one possible meaning of the English word, but not the one you were after. It might be outdated, or offensive, or used only in an abstract sense when you were describing a concrete thing. When you want to know how to say something in Chinese, it’s safest to ask a native speaker. Blindly checking a dictionary might make you understood, but it will rarely give you the most natural expression.
Speaking of dictionaries, for Chinese at least, electronic (including online) dictionaries are vastly superior to paper dictionaries. I had a teacher once who insisted that paper dictionaries were more complete and reliable. It’s hard to imagine how a paper dictionary could be more complete than my handheld electronic dictionary, which contains about 16 paper dictionaries in an easily accessible format (not to mention that searching a Chinese paper dictionary by radical and stroke count is a nightmare). Online dictionaries are similarly brilliant. They’ll give you everything a paper dictionary would, but they are also much more likely to include slang and technical terms which are otherwise difficult to look up, and usually give you example sentences to boot.
For Chinese, your best bets are Youdao (有道), nciku and mdbg. Google Translate can also be a useful reference when used as a ‘dictionary’ to look up single words. Machine translation of whole sentences is still pretty rubbish, as thousands of hilariously mistranslated signs and menus across China can attest.
6. Use Google to Improve Your Writing
Not Google Translate. Just Google. This is a trick I came up with for telling whether a particular sentence or construction is grammatically correct or ‘natural’ in Chinese. I’m not sure whether anyone else uses this, but for me it’s been one of the single most useful study and translation methods I’ve found.
Basically, when you want to check whether something is grammatical and natural-sounding, google it in quotation marks, and see how many hits you get. If it’s not many, chances are that’s not something that people actually say. It works best with small sentence fragments which you would expect to give a lot of hits. An example will probably make this clearer.
Say you want to express the idea “he flew to Beijing”, but you’re not sure on the grammar. So you google “飞了到北京”, and get 8 hits. You also notice that in about half of those hits, there’s a comma after “飞了”, and the second part is basically the start of a new phrase, so that doesn’t really count. So you realise that that construction, although it might not necessarily be grammatically incorrect, is probably not the most natural way to express what you want to say. Next, you try “飞到北京了”, which gets you about 3 and a half million hits. It’s a pretty safe bet that this is a perfectly natural and grammatical way of expressing something, at least. You can then take a look at the sentences that come up, and see if that construction seems to mean what you wanted.
This also works well for collocations. For example, you want to talk about “a grand city” in Chinese, so you look up “grand” in the dictionary. It gives you 宏伟, 伟大, and 隆重. You’re not sure, though, which of these adjectives usually modifies the noun “city”. By searching “一座 … 的城市” with each of these words, you find that the first two both give sizeable numbers of results, while the last gives none. So that one’s out of the running, and for the differences in meaning between the first two, you can take a closer look at the search results. Alternatively, if you just want to know what kinds of adjectives might be used to describe a city, googling “一座*的城市” will give you a few good ideas.
That’s about it. I hope one or two of the suggestions in this slightly rambling post ‘click’ for you and help you pick up the language a little faster. Don’t take my advice, or anyone else’s, as set in stone- use whatever methods work for you. Most importantly, just keep at it. You’re probably making progress, even when it feels like you aren’t, and becoming fluent isn’t nearly as impossible as it sometimes seems. 加油！