Some words of advice for beginner and intermediate learners of Chinese.
Let’s face it. Learning Chinese may not be that easy (or it may!, depending on particular aspects of this language) but it is perfectly doable.
Whether you are a beginner or an intermediate learner of Chinese, you have heard (and probably confirmed, to a certain extent) a lot about how difficult this language might be for English speakers. Judging by the fact that you are reading these guidelines after all, it feels safe to assume that you treated those opinions with a pinch of salt, like you should whenever someone completely unfamiliar with the topic starts panicking and scaring others. If you want to know how to help yourself learn it, read on.
Develop a positive attitude
A word of advice for all learners. Do not get discouraged. You may have heard that a thousand times already but there are still moments when you feel like giving up. Keep going and while learning, do not let your emotions interfere with work. Before you sit at your desk, clear your mind, switch off tiredness, sleepiness, and the possibility of frustration. Think of yourself not as of a martyr but your own master and disciple at the same time. Still your mind. Clean your desk. And walk the new avenues of your brain.
Whenever I learn something on my own or teach somebody I wonder why we do not try to help our own brains a little. It is no coincidence that to get into academic Chinese courses run by many universities candidates must prove their knowledge of Maths. Love it, if you still do not. 10 to 15 minutes per day of solving equations, ideally just before you sit at your Chinese homework, will still your emotions, discipline you and tune your brain to logical thinking.
Use your senses to the full
Playing a musical instrument or singing makes your brain and ear more sensitive to the melody of a foreign language, which is particularly helpful in the case of tonal languages like Chinese. While listening to a recording or practising pronunciation, close your eyes. You will not believe (unless you try) how much more you will hear if you switch off your sight. If visual memory is your asset, make the best of it while memorising vocabulary. Obvious as it is for studying Chinese characters, many students neglect to apply this rule also to learning full phrases, structures and even sentences. Remember that while learning a language you must treat yourself as a child and create new habits. Do not let yourself think: “OK, I don’t have to write that down, I know it,” or “Oh, come on, flash cards, mental maps and drawings? These are good at kindergarten.” Assuming you have just started or have been studying Chinese for no more than 5 years, you are in a language-learning kindergarten.
Increase input from native speakers of Chinese
The ideal situation for learning a language is staying among its native speakers. Get in touch with the Chinese speakers (of the dialect you want to learn) living in your area. You may even try to organise an English-Chinese teaching tandem. This is a great idea for intermediate students as they can practise their conversation skills already, but also beginners will benefit from such contact greatly. Expose yourself to as much input at possible. The best way to do this is reading and listening to original sources on TV, radio, or the Internet. Watch movies from the very start as the visual context in which the language is set makes it easier to deduce the meaning of unknown phrases. Do not worry if at the beginning you do not understand anything at all. With time, you will see that although people can generate infinite numbers of different sentences, some of them recur pretty often in language. That is how you pick up useful phrases of spoken Chinese.
Think of other sources
Great as it is to learn with the native speakers, they usually can correct your mistakes but it is much harder for them to explain you grammar rules, which they simply do not need to know. Therefore, base your knowledge of grammar on books and professional teachers of Chinese who are trained to explain you the rules behind the system. In a beginner’s zeal, do not try to bite off more than you can chew and instead of buying 5 books, get one buy really use it. While choosing the perfect coursebook for yourself, you may want to consult this resource: The best 10 books for learning Chinese
Do not learn vocabulary items in isolation
The Chinese writing system has scared off many beginners but that is probably because they tried to only memorise the characters one by one. It is easier to remember them if you notice that some Chinese characters resemble the objects they represent, as for example mountain, sun, rain or man. Unfortunately, these are exceptions. While learning the majority of characters, create associations, even the wildest ones, to help your brain stick the characters to some images. Also, again, try to use your assets and if you are better at remembering things by seeing them, stick flash cards with vocabulary around your room. Avoid the mistake of placing them in random combinations, though. Create mental maps combining synonyms and antonyms, and characters denoting words from similar thematic or grammatical categories. It is easier to remind yourself of a forgotten word by associations to other words from its category. Finally, instead of learning characters in isolation, immerse them in larger and larger structures and sentences.
Practise pronunciation by chunks
The tones are considered the most problematic aspect of Chinese. It may take time for a beginner to start recognising them in the native speech, which is often more difficult than pronouncing sentences correctly, so do not get discouraged too easily. As for pronunciation practice, there are several rules to follow. First of all, do not rely on the visual representation of the tones provided in many books. Different authors’ systems may be confusing, as can be matching the visual representation of tones with their correct flow in speech. Rely more on your ears and on teachers’ and native speakers’ feedback.The graphic representation is more useful for those who have already practised pronouncing the tones and, having worked out on their own the relationship between the visual and the spoken, only refer to that to check the tones of new words.
Learners on all levels can benefit from programs allowing to record their speech and have it automatically analysed with regard to the tones. Use professional recordings and repeat each word or phrase until it is correct. Dull as such a drill is, it is the best way to practise your pronunciation. Also intermediate or even advanced learners who feel quite confident about their pronunciation should keep practising regularly, as with time our articulators forget the practised habits and our pronunciation deteriorates. Finally, for complicated structures and longer sentences, use the back-drill technique and repeat chunks of the sentence from the back, adding one more chunk per each repetition.
Tame Chinese grammar
Fortunately for English learners of Chinese, the grammatical system of this language does not belong to the hardest ones. Being an analytic language, Chinese features few inflections so just imagine in how much better situation you are, in this respect, to those who are trying to learn Polish or Russian. On the other hand, the vast system of Chinese classifiers may seem a difficult thing to memorise. Although you will notice, or already have, that the two are not the same, Chinese classifiers resemble English expressions like “a flock of birds”, “a loaf of bread”, “a head of cattle”, “a box of chocolates” or “a pack of wolves”. Also the subject-verb-object word order of Chinese is like that of the English language. Knowing these features of Chinese makes it less of a drag for an English learner.
To sum up, there are many facts and techniques which can make it easier to master Chinese. Most of the above rules apply both to the beginning and intermediate learners. Get to know the similarities between Chinese and your language and develop an open attitude to stop fearing the language. Collect good sources, use helpful pronunciation training programs and help your brain by studying Maths and Music. Last but not least, make the best use of all your senses and imagination while studying pronunciation or memorising vocabulary.
The article was contributed by Monica Wells of http://www.bizdb.co.uk/.