How to begin learning Chinese the right way, from someone that did it wrong

When presented with the task of tackling the Chinese language, you’ll likely find yourself overwhelmed. Those Chinese characters are intricate and seemingly nonsensical, the monosyllabic speech form (meaning each character represents only one syllable) makes distinguishing differences in sounds near impossible, and what are these tones everyone keeps warning me about? It’s widely assumed that fluency is reserved only for locals and those devout enough to make the permanent move to the Middle Kingdom, and perhaps even a basic conversation in Mandarin can seem as distant as China itself.

All of these concerns, and all of this confusion, is justified. But I’m here to tell you it’s possible, more than that in fact, it’s probable, if you employ the right attitude and methods. I began learning Mandarin in high school; I was terribly unmotivated and easily distracted as most high schoolers are in LOTE (Language Other Than English) class. My passion for Chinese language and culture, of which the seed was likely planted during that time, didn’t truly blossom until I left high school. Since then I’ve visited China three times on a variety of study and work opportunities, with a consistent motive of improving my language skills. Unfortunately, in my case, it took a long time to unlearn the many poor habits I’d developed from my earlier apathetic years.

What follows is a bunch of advice I would give myself if starting all over again, so anyone reading this can focus on getting better and enjoying the ride.

Break Down Characters

What makes so many people reluctant to give Chinese a proper go is the necessity to learn characters. I can count myself in this group, I considered even attempting to memorise so many symbols an unachievable goal.

However I’ve learnt that characters can be broken down, and when you learn how to do this, you start to see that characters are not as frightening as they appear. All Chinese characters have radicals, which make up a small part of the character. For example, these three characters all have the same wood radical:

树 , 森, 果

shu    sen    guo

These characters mean ‘tree’, ‘forest’, and ‘fruit’ respectively, and they all possess the wood radical ‘木’, which makes sense doesn’t it? Because all three are in some way related to that theme. As I said, all characters have radicals like this, and whilst not all are as immediately recognisable as this example, they all assist in breaking down characters so you can start to see trends and build tools for memorisation.

So don’t be like me and assume radicals to be an additional layer of complexity to the language, harness them to make your life and learning more manageable.

My Chinese character writing practice booklet

Hot Tip: Purple Culture is an example of a functional online resource for practicing characters.

Know Your Tones

Probably my biggest mistake when I first started learning was I underestimated the importance of knowing the different tones. When learning tones in class I would completely neglect the tonal aspect of the new vocabulary, because I thought it wasn’t essential. Whilst this might fly in the very early stages, trust me, it’ll come back to bite you.

Mandarin has four main tones and a neutral tone. For English background speakers this can be hard to get your head around, because our language isn’t tonal. But it’s an essential dimension of Chinese language, as many words have the exact same pronunciation, with only the appropriate tone separating very different intending meanings.

So get into the habit of memorising tones just as you would pronunciation and characters, it’ll save you the headache of having to relearn them once you’ve realised your mistake.  

Hot Tip: Use a four pen when studying and make your own four tone colour code system. E.g. first tone = red, second tone = blue, and so on.

Also, using flash cards is a great way to remember tones for characters. Practice tones one-on-one with a tutor or a friend.

Get used to embarrassing yourself

Learning any language means subjecting yourself to repeated failure and embarrassment. I know this doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement to continue your studies, but it’s the truth, and the sooner you get comfortable with that fact the better you’ll be. What I mean by this is, as you’re attempting to keep up in a conversation, or trying a new sentence of your own, you will inevitably completely stuff up, and feel a bit silly as a result. You have to do this repeatedly if you’re ever going to get anywhere with the language, so if it’s really what you want, suck it up, and try to remember that there’s nothing actually embarrassing about doing your best to learn something new.

Unless you’re like me, and you unintentionally ask for sex when ordering fried rice, in which case, you have the right to be embarrassed.

Don’t do it alone

By deciding to learn Chinese, you’re on your way to being able to communicate with over a billion people whom previously you would not have been able to… sounds pretty cool right? It’s an obvious truth, but it’s worth reminding yourself that a language is useless if not shared.

All the rewards of learning come via the fresh interactions and conversations that you find. Whether it’s a fellow beginner trudging through the difficult early phase with you, or a fluent friend that is willing to correct all your mistakes, sharing the experience of learning will help put your own experience into perspective, and provide external motivation to keep it up.

Hot Tip: If you’re at a stage where you don’t have anyone to practice with, don’t fret! Chances are you can find an in-person tutor local to you, or if that fails, there are options online, such as italki that work just as well.

Immerse yourself

Perhaps the most important one on this list. It may not always be an option for you, but as much as you can, hop across the pond and surround yourself in the language. Doing so acts like a multiplier upon your language ability, I found that in the six months I spent studying in Taiwan, I learnt twice as much as I had in the previous year in class at home. It means you’re constantly hearing practical examples of the language in use, you’re surrounded by characters, and you have the means to immediately employ everything you’ve learnt that day. The truth is every bit of study in the classroom or your bedroom can only get you so far, so the earlier you can get practical experience, the better.

Check out China Options for more tips on learning Chinese, finding scholarships, internships, jobs and more.

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