Quickest Way To Learn Chinese – I learned Mandarin Chinese 50 years ago. It took me nine months to get to the level where I could translate newspaper editorials from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English, read novels and interpret for people, I did it while the tape recorder was on, long before that. The internet age, online dictionaries, language learning apps, MP3s and YouTube.
When I thought about what I was doing, I found that there were six things that helped me learn faster than other students who studied with me. Below I will list each of these tips on how to learn Chinese that you want to apply to your studies.
Quickest Way To Learn Chinese
Start by focusing on listening. Just get used to the sound. You should read what you hear, but do so using a phonetic writing system, such as Pinyin, to better understand what you hear. You’ll have to learn the characters eventually, but you can leave the characters out at first, and instead try to get up to speed on the language a little.
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It’s too hard to start a character if you don’t have a feel for the words, how they sound or how they work together. A new language may at first sound like an indistinct sound. The first step is to get used to the individual sounds of the language, learn to distinguish other words, and even repeat some words and phrases in your mind.
My first exposure to Mandarin was listening to Chinese dialogue, intertext with no characters, just romanticization, in this case the Yale version of romanticization. Today pinyin, developed in China, has become the standard form of romanization for Mandarin. In the Chinese dialogue, the narrator spoke so fast that I thought he was torturing us. But it worked. After a month or so I got used to the speed and liked the language.
On the other hand, I think it’s a good idea to start learning the language with intermediate level texts that contain a lot of vocabulary repetition, instead of texts that are too simple for beginners. Podcasts and audiobooks are great for this. Mandarin Chinese mini-stories on LingQ are examples of the kind of point-of-view stories, with lots of frequent verb repetition, available today. This was not available to me 50 years ago. Watching movies and TV shows is a great way to learn a lot of Chinese.
With this exciting new sense of language and some auditory comprehension, my motivation to learn the characters increased. I want to know the characters to the words I hear and know.
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This is tip number one, focus on listening and pinyin for a month or two.
Learning Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, is a long-term project. It will connect you with the language and culture of the largest 20% of humanity and the greatest influence on world history. For this reason, I always recommend learning Chinese characters if you want to learn the language.
Once you decide to learn Chinese characters, you work every day. Spend half an hour to an hour a day just studying characters. Use any method you like, but set aside a special time each day for character study. Why every day? Because you forget characters almost as fast as you learn them, so you have to learn them over and over again.
You can use Anki like any other modern computer-based learning system. I developed my own field repeater system. I had a set of 1000 small cardboard cards with the 1000 most common characters. I had a square sheet of paper to practice writing this character. I will take a card, and write characters 10 times under one column on square paper and then write the meaning or statement of several more columns. So I’ll take another flash card and do the same thing. It didn’t take long for me to run through the meaning or sound of the previous character I wrote there. I then wrote the character a few more times, hopefully before I forgot it again. I did this for the first 1000 characters. I can then learn them by reading, finding new characters and writing them by hand many times at random.
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As we progress, learning new characters becomes easier because there are many repeating elements in the characters. All characters have “radicals”, components that give clues about the meaning of the character. There is also a character element that implies a voice. This radical is useful to get the character, even if not initially. As with much in language learning, too much upfront explanation is an obstacle to language acquisition. I found that the teacher’s attempt to explain the radical and other elements in the early stages of my learning was not very helpful. I don’t understand them. Only after enough exposure did I start paying attention to the ingredients and it accelerated my character learning.
Focus on the pattern. Don’t get caught up in complicated grammar explanations, just focus on the patterns. When I was studying we had a wonderful book by Harriet Mills and P.S. It is never called Intermediate Reader in modern Chinese. In each lesson they presented patterns and that’s how I got a sense of how the language works. These patterns are the framework around which I can build what I want to say.
I really don’t understand Chinese grammar, or grammar terms, but I’m very fluent. I have seen books that introduce special grammar concepts for Chinese. I don’t think they are necessary. It is good to get used to the patterns that Chinese people use to express things that we express in English using English patterns. The Chinese language has a fairly uncomplicated grammar, one of the joys of learning Chinese. There are no declensions, conjugations, genders, aspects of verbs, compound verbs, or other sources of confusion found in many European languages.
Tip number three is to focus on patterns, write them down, say them to yourself, use them when speaking or writing, and observe them as you listen and read.
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If you want a free grammar resource to supplement your learning, I recommend LingQ’s Chinese Grammar Resource.
Reads a lot If I’m learning faster than my fellow students 50 years ago, it’s because I’m reading everything I can get my hands on. I read more than other students. I’m not just talking about specific texts for students, but about a variety of materials on topics that interest me. I was helped by the fact that Yale-in-China has a great reading series with a glossary for each chapter. We started with learning materials using what is called Chinese Dialogue, then moved on to graded historical texts called 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture.
The 20 lectures were an interesting opportunity for me to learn about Chinese history and culture while learning the language. The book consists only of text and a glossary, without complicated explanations, without quizzes. When I look at some of the textbooks available today aimed at intermediate and advanced students, they are full of boring content about fictional people in China, people at university meeting their friends or going to the hairdresser or ice skating, followed by explanations and exercises. This is not a good idea unless you are interested in this topic.
I ended up with 20 Lectures on Chinese Culture for Intermediate Readers in Modern Chinese from Cornell University. It is a reader with authentic texts of modern Chinese politics and history. Each lesson presents a pattern and reduces exercises and explanations to a minimum. Or maybe I just ignore them.
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Yale has extensive collections of readers on politics, history and literature, all with glossaries for each chapter. This is my study material. The availability of word lists for each chapter ensured that I didn’t have to consult a Chinese dictionary. Before the advent of Alec Tronic or online dictionaries, it was time-consuming and painful to consult a Chinese dictionary. Since we forget many things we see in the dictionary, this is a huge waste of time.
I built my vocabulary with this word list reader and eventually I was able to read a book without a word list, just ignoring characters and words I didn’t know. After seven or eight months, I read my first novel, Rickshaw Boy or 米那祥子, which is a famous novel about life in contemporary Beijing in the early 20th century, written by Lao She.
Tip number four is to read as much as possible. It is much easier to do today. You can find materials online,
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