February 19, 2019

A basic roadmap to learning Mandarin Chinese


Of the popular languages, Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult ones for Westerners to learn and extremely difficult to reach a high level of proficiency in. Learning languages like Spanish is relatively easy for those of us who speak English because of how closely related the two languages are in terms of grammar, vocabulary and even within the cultures there are lots of similarities to be found. This means that English speakers learning Spanish for instance already have a significant head start. However, when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, the situation is different. The grammar, vocabulary, syntax or the logic of Mandarin is nothing like English. Many of the typical language learning strategies are often inapplicable with Mandarin, which is why even the most experienced language learners would find it a challenge.

I’m not saying I found the key to learning high-level Mandarin efficiently, but after almost 12 years of studies and having worked as a Mandarin interpreter for the past 4 years I believe that, by trial and error, I have devised general guidelines that will hopefully save you some time.

It would be difficult to explain in detail what it is that makes Mandarin so hard, but in short, the four pillars of Mandarin difficulty are:

  • Pronunciation
  • Vast and unfamiliar vocabulary
  • Sentence structure and sentence patterns
  • Different cultural norms

The basic order in which Mandarin (or any language in my opinion) should be learned is:

  1. Understand
  2. Speak
  3. Read/type (not very necessary in the first 2 years of the learning process)
  4. Handwrite (not very necessary in general)

All four skills are best to be worked on in conjunction with each other, but if you need to choose one over the other for some reason, you can follow the above sequence.

It might be a bit unintuitive, but the single most important factor influencing your Mandarin learning process isn’t talent, environment or resources but motivation. Correct and lasting motivation is arguably one of the most important factors in order to learn and achieve anything, but this is especially true when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese. It is because it takes a very long time in order to see not just good results, but any results and you cannot expect to achieve fluency in the language in a few months or even a few years. Learning how to speak effortless, correct and fluent Mandarin, as opposed to quick gibberish, will take a lot of patience and a lot of dedication and without correct and lasting motivation you will run out of steam quickly. Therefore it is a good idea have a healthy mix of reasons why you want to learn Mandarin to keep you motivated in the long run. It is also advisable to define your goals at the beginning and have expectations based on those and mentally prepare yourself for and learn to endure a very long way to proficiency and a much-longer-than average way to acceptable results.

Although in my opinion, there are very few good Mandarin Chinese textbooks or online lessons, if I should recommend one, it would be ChinesePod. I am not associated with ChinesePod in any way, I just used their website when I started learning Mandarin and it helped me a lot in learning how to understand the spoken language. On the Chinesepod website you can find a ton of listening material for different levels. A very important step, understanding the spoken language, could in my opinion be done through extensive and intensive listening, which is exactly what Chinesepod is good for. By beginning with absolute beginner material, analyze what is being said word by word in order to train your ear to be able to a) recognize the foreign sounds and b) comprehend the meaning behind them. Repeat and actively listen to one recording over and over again, until you can understand the recording perfectly, which is when you should move on to the next one and eventually move up in levels. It is a boring and repetitive task, but in my case, it’s proven to be more effective than switching to new material all the time.

A common pitfall that language learners face when learning Mandarin is visualizing tones in a form of a diagram, where teachers show students how the first tone is a straight line, the second tone is a rising line, etc. It might be unusual to say so, but in my opinion this is a mistake. In order to really understand how tones work, it is very important to approach them as sounds, not lines or images. The reason is, that learning tones as images will create a very burdensome detour in your brain between the brain's audio and visual parts and will lead to an information overload. This, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons why foreigners fail to learn Mandarin Chinese in general or fail to learn it to a high level quickly and efficiently. I wrote an entire article about it in case you’re interested to read more (https://goo.gl/3UWEFs).

It is an unusual thing to say since virtually all Mandarin Chinese courses and teachers teach tones with the help of tone diagrams and if you’re not ready to change your approach just yet, feel free not to do so. However, keep this information at the back of your mind and if you feel overwhelmed by the language maybe give it a shot. Additionally, tones are important but they are not as important in the early stages of learning as others suggest. This again might sound unusual, but putting too much emphasis on tones at the very beginning is not only a waste of time but also self-detrimental and demotivating. Focusing on tones and constantly going back and correcting yourself while speaking interrupts the state of flow, which is the essence of fast learning. It also creates a very bad habit of constant pronunciation back-checking which literally pulverizes your chain of thoughts. For these reasons I feel, it would be advised that tones be sharpened in the later stages of learning. For those who argue that no one will understand you if you don't get your tones right or that tones are the essence of Mandarin, ask them if they understand a native speaker of Cantonese speaking Mandarin. The reason why I say this is that native speakers of Cantonese notoriously mispronounce Mandarin tones and even though they sound funny to our ears they are perfectly understandable. The reason is, that they use perfect Mandarin constructions and sentence patterns. Neglecting tones and focusing on sentence patterns is a tradeoff of course, but I think it's a good one, since as I mentioned, paying too much attention to tones will cause problems that will eventually lead to a total inability to learn the language in the long run.

When it comes to the structure of the language, although Chinese does not have verb conjugations and articles, like German or Italian, it has an extremely irregular syntax and ways of saying things which, for the lack of a better term, require empirical experience and a lot of practice to master. In other words, there is no book that will teach you how to speak Mandarin correctly, you have to learn it on your own by either physically experiencing every possible sentence or thing you want to say in the real world or learn it by doing a lot of speaking and a lot of extensive listening to native content.

A common misconception about Mandarin is that it is the characters that make the language difficult, however the only requirement for learning characters is time and dedication, where talent doesn’t really play a big role. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, learning characters is not on the table in the initial stages of the learning process, because memorizing the sound, tone, pinyin, and the character for every single syllable in Chinese is an information overload which will only hurt the learning process. If you are fascinated by Chinese characters, like so many of us, learning them will of course be a very welcome enrichment of your learning process, but if you do not feel like learning them, it is not a problem in my opinion, since as a learner, you can use Pinyin (a romanization system for Chinese). Actually, as a total beginner, I would even invite you to write down new words and phrases however you want to not get too confused by pinyin or Chinese characters and move on to these once you’re comfortable with the sounds of Chinese. This is however maybe another paradigm shift for another time. As for the question of whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters, the general rule is - when wanting to go to mainland China, it is enough to learn the simplified characters.

Finally, while practicing and learning the language it is extremely important to always stay curious and look at the results.

2 comments:

  1. With all due respect, I totally disagree with the basic order in which Mandarin should be learned. Not knowing how learn Chinese characters would mean not knowing Chinese language. Chinese characters is the key part of the language.

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    Replies
    1. Hello Yulia. I wrote about not learning Chinese characters as a beginner and intermediate student. Of course Chinese characters are important and I think they should be learned but not as a beginner and intermediate student. Spending too much time learning them when you can barely speak Chinese is very counterproductive.

      I read about 100 books in Chinese and my current reading speed is about 35 pages/hour with not knowing only 0.5 characters per page on average. I am a graduate of the Chinese department did a lot of research on Chinese character etymology, wrote a book about Chinese characters and translated the Art of War from Classical Chinese into Slovak. I'm not saying this to show off, I'm only trying to say that I indeed do think Chinese characters are very important and I have spent a lot of time learning them. I just think I would never have reached this level had I been heavily focusing on learning characters as a beginner or an intermediate student.

      My Mandarin level really started to improve after I stoped learning Chinese characters and many expert speakers of Mandarin like Mike Campbell for instance say the same thing.

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