It doesn’t take a genius to realize that learning Asian languages is a lot more complex and radically different than learning languages that belong to the Latin family.
For one, the writing syntax and in most cases, the alphabetic system is rather similar, and to get decently good at something like Italian or German, one merely need to put a decent level of emphasis on memorizing a large word bank and understanding the grammatical rules and structures.
When it comes to a language like Chinese however, all bets are off. Not only is it written in a way that is completely unfamiliar to a regular person of Western origin, it is spoken in an entirely new way altogether. To a non Chinese person, the sounds of Chinese Mandarin might sound musical but that itself, in fact, is what adds a nuance to the meaning of what a person says, for instance.
The facts mentioned above are also the reason why many people are scared of taking up Chinese or they end up thinking that Chinese is a very difficult language that they will never be able to master. While it may appear so in the beginning, it is not the case at all. Learning Mandarin Chinese is as easy or as difficult as you make it to be.
With that being said, there are a few things that every student of Chinese should keep in mind to make their lives easier.
How to read the Chinese language characters?
The biggest scare a person, who is new to learning Mandarin Chinese faces, is the heart attack they get when they see a bunch of Chinese written on paper or online. To a novice it just seems like a bunch of different symbols. How does one even learn that?
As haphazard as it may seem at the first glance, it is not entirely difficult to understand and memorize the Chinese language characters. While there are tens of thousands of them in existence, only a couple of thousand or so are used in daily communication.
Just like you do not use a large number of uncommon or complex words of the English (or your native language for that matter) language on a daily basis.
The key to learning the Chinese language symbols is a system called Pinyin, which is nothing more than a highly efficient way to learn the Chinese language using the Roman alphabet. A careful study of Pinyin allows a non Chinese person to read, write and learn to pronounce Chinese without the need to learn the complex language characters.
It might seem like a boring, tedious thing to do at first but you will be surprised by the rich dividends it will pay in the long run. Especially when it comes to pronunciation, as it can often be difficult for a Western person to speak Chinese words at first.
Pinyin has about 400 odd characters that are good enough to get a person going and luckily for us all, they can be learned rather quickly.
Chinese language ear training
One unique thing about the Chinese language is that the meaning of a word changes based on how it is pronounced. A word in the Chinese language can have the same spelling, the same pronunciation and yet have a completely different meaning simply depending on the way it is said out loud.
Don’t worry if all this sounds too complex.
It is something like how a regular word in the English language might take upon a different meaning based on how it is said.
A simple word like ‘stop’ could mean different things in different scenarios, depending on whether it is an order, a question or a suggestion.
While this is a very general example, things are much more strict in the Chinese language. They actually have a set system of tones that they follow to decide what a particular word will mean.
There are four tones that you need to keep your ears open for when it comes to the Chinese language.
1) A flat tone (ā) – this is a regular flat tone without any variance in pitch or velocity whatsoever. This is the most common tone you are likely to hear in the west. Think of it as the way most people speak in a professional setting in the western world.
mā (媽) mother
2) A rising tone (á) – this is referred to as the tone that rises from a lower pitch to a higher pitch. This is how it sounds like when you ask someone a question. Repeat a question someone asked you recently in your mind. That’s the tone. Notice the slight upward pitch rise at the end? That’s what we are referring to.
má (麻) hemp
3) A sudden dip (ǎ) – the two tonal changes described above are gradual however this one is a quick tonal change from a high note to a lower one. For example when you tell someone a shocking or a surprising news, they are likely to say ‘What?’ in shock. That’s what this tone sounds like. A quick slide from high to low.
mǎ (馬) horse
4) A lowering tone (à) – this is the exact opposite of #2. In this case the tone dips low instead of rising high. This is the tone you most likely use when giving someone an order or when making a factual statement. This is a tone that has a full stop at the end instead of the question mark. Try and recall how you order a pizza. That is what this tone sounds like.
mà (罵) scold
All this must sound extremely complex and rather intricate at this moment but rest assured that with time and practice this gets drastically easier.
You do not need to develop the ear training skills of a professional musician to master these tones. At first, it is sufficient to just keep an ear open for them.
After all how will you know the different vocal tone changes if you are not actively listening for them?
The best way to learn them is by listening to Chinese songs, watching Chinese films and listening to their radio shows. You could also substitute radio shows with podcasts if that is your thing. Tonal changes are crucial in the Chinese learning process.
Cultural immersion beats all
Ask any language expert and they will tell you that there is no faster way of learning a language than by immersing yourself in the culture of that particular region.
While that can be done at home by using the suggestion given in the last paragraph, the best way of accomplishing this task is to go and learn the language in the country of its origin.
The main idea behind this is to be surrounded by native speakers. The more you hear others speak it around you, the better you will grasp the nuances of the language.
Most importantly, you will be forced to use the language yourself as the number of fluent English speakers is not likely to be as high in a foreign country. When left with no choice, rest assured that you would learn faster and in a more effective way.
A quick way of putting this into action is to take a holiday or pay a visit to China (since we are talking about learning Chinese here).
If you are already taking a language learning course or are thinking of taking one then this will help you immensely. Not only when it comes to learning the language but also with understanding the culture.
Study Chinese in China
There is no doubt however that the best way of learning Mandarin Chinese is to study at a Chinese language school in China.
There are a few good schools around that not only guarantee great education but also reward you with credits that can be applied at your school back home. The Chinese Language Institute or CLI is one such school in the southern city of Guilin that has an impeccable reputation of helping foreigners learn Chinese using a wide variety of innovative methods.
After all what better way to learn a fascinating language like Chinese than to eat, breathe and speak it 24/7.
Lastly, remember that while it might not be the most difficult thing that you will ever do, learning Chinese will still take time and the best way to get on that path is to take one step at a time. Set SMART goals
for yourself and do not expect to become great at it with just a week’s practice.
Be assured that slow, gradual practice will help you more than anything else while rushing through the study process and getting frustrated will do the opposite.
You may have heard things to the contrary but the truth is that Chinese is no easier or no tougher to learn than any language out there in the world. If you asked a Chinese person then perhaps they would have the same view about English language.
Just keep the tips mentioned in this article in mind and you will be good to go.
Good luck learning Chinese! Or as the Chinese say – hǎoyùn !