Chinese Corner

Learning Chinese11 min read

FAQ and tips for those seeking to study Mandarin

We’re back from summer break, and in anticipation of the new academic year to come (albeit a socially-distanced one for much of the world) we’re giving some tips on Chinese learning. Whether you’re looking to pick up Chinese, or brush it up, here are some pointers. – Alec Ash

First things first. How long will it take me to learn Chinese?

If you are living in China, two years full-time study is enough to get good conversational Chinese from scratch, as well as basic reading and writing. That is, you will be able to hold a conversation about pretty much any non-specialist topic, as well as write and read texts and emails – i.e. you can operate in Chinese, albeit awkwardly. Even part-time study for a couple of years in China will give you a good enough foundation to build on with self-study after. If you’re learning outside of China, double that time to get the same results. Being immersed in the language environment is a huge boon.

One year, I’m sorry, just isn’t enough, even full-time in China. You’ll end the year with a half-formed feel for the grammar, big vocabulary gaps, and weak tones. If you’ve already committed to one year of study, be patient and make it two, or at least three years outside China.

Should I learn Chinese characters (hanzi), or just pinyin?

Some new students choose not to learn to recognise and write hanzi. It’s very time-consuming, and depending on what use you plan to make of your Chinese, you might only need to be able to speak and understand it. That frees up a whole lot of study time – but be prepared to get frustrated when you can’t read a simple road sign or menu. Here are are three arguments for learning hanzi:

  • The process of studying characters helps you understand the nature and grammar of Chinese, where every syllable is a concept.
  • It vastly opens up your horizons for interaction, from sending and receiving texts, to going on Weibo or ordering goods on Taobao.
  • Chinese characters are beautiful, not to mention an integral part of Chinese culture, and it’s hugely edifying to have cracked them.

But do I have to remember how to write them as well as recognise them?

It’s much easier to learn to recognise Chinese characters than to remember how to write them by hand. Plus, if you can recognise a character and know its pinyin spelling then you can type the pinyin on a computer or your phone, then choose the correct character. That’s how most Chinese do it, and many of them have forgotten how to hand-write lots of characters too. So to begin with, don’t kill yourself learning to write characters by hand from memory – just focus on recognising them and getting the tone right.

Of course, it helps you to recognise characters if you’re written them over and over yourself. Chinese say that once you have remembered how to write a character seven times, you will never forget it. But hand-writing characters for hours a day is not the right way to go.

How many characters do I need to learn?

You need to know about 2000 characters to have good intermediate Chinese, of which only 400 or so are used really frequently. That’s plenty to cover almost all situations (and if you want to go the extra mile, 3000 is the number generally cited as enough to read a Chinese newspaper).

There is no quick or easy way to do it: the process of learning characters is akin to bashing your head over and over with a very beautiful ancient brick. Remember that Chinese schoolkids take years to learn hanzi themselves. Again, don’t cram. The best way is to use flashcards. You can make your own, or buy a book of 2000 or so detachable HSK flashcards. This way, you can study a little bit every day, which is how long term memory forms. I’ve been learning Chinese since 2008, and I still have a trilby full of flashcards on my desk, from which I randomly take characters and test myself. Don’t neglect to learn the tone with each character! And it’s important that you’re not only learning single characters, but connecting them to the common words they appear in (which are almost always two characters long), as well as forming sentences with those words in your mind as you study.

This tones thing. How do I master it, and the pronunciation?

Tones, and the difficult pronunciation of some phonemes in Chinese, is the other big hurdle to overcome. But unlike characters, this will come to you naturally. My advice is simple: don’t try to actively learn pronunciation, just monkey-hear-monkey-say your way to fluency in a messy, slow, natural way. If you aim to speak and listen to Chinese every day – with teachers, language partners, strangers on the street, podcasts and videos – you will find that your pronunciation gets better on its own, as if by magic. It’s the same way a child learns the sounds of a language, by listening and imitating.

So don’t fret when you realise how terrible your pronunciation and tones are to begin with. Just keep on memorising vocabulary and the tone for each character, while learning how to use them in sentences. Talk loudly and confidently without worrying about your mistakes, listen closely when native speakers talk, and monkey their pronunciation quietly to yourself. When they use a word you know, say it under your breath to yourself, imitating not just their tones but their intonation. Do the same when listening to Chinese podcasts and watching Chinese movies. Slowly, your Chinese will begin to sound more like theirs.

Will I be understood if I get my tones wrong?

Yes. Chinese will understand what you are saying from the context, although try to get the tone right when using single vocabulary items, such as place names, menu items, and above all when asking for a pen (google it). Even advanced Chinese students still guess at tones they’ve forgotten – I know I do – and it’s fine to blag or use neutral tone for ones you’re not sure of. In a way, what’s more important is to get a feel for natural intonation and rhythm. No one wants to sound like a robot, pausing to think about the tone between each syllable. Speaking at a natural pace, and confidently, is often more important for comprehension. Also note that each syllable in Chinese is a distinct, rounded shape: don’t slur them together.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put effort into getting your tones right, of course – correct tones makes the difference between being intelligible and being intelligent. One helpful hack to get a grip on the tones, to begin with at least, is to think of them as an equivalent intonation in English. Second tone is like asking a question (“really?”). Third tone is as if you’re doubting something (“reaaally?”). Fourth tone is scolding someone (“really!”). First tone is like you’ve just been kicked in the balls (I’ll let you imagine that one). Learn it that way as you study on your own, then as you practice saying the characters and words in context, your tones will improve.

What do I need to know about accents, and regional dialects?

Ah, dialects. There’s an awful lot of them in China, and some of them sound absolutely nothing like standard Mandarin (普通话 putonghua). The good news is, unless you’re living or plan to live in a particular region and want to pick up its culture, it’s best just to ignore them. I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is that in modern China, you will always find someone (under the age of 50 at least) who speaks the “common tongue“.

Cantonese (粤语 yueyu or 广东话 guangdonghua) is exceptional in that so many southern Chinese around Guangdong and Hong Kong speak it over Mandarin that is sometimes thought of as the “other Chinese.” As we’ve noted on the site, Cantonese is best thought of as a separate language rather than a dialect (the same might apply to Hokkien and other so-called dialects). Learning Cantonese, with its six tones (nine by some measures), is infamously difficult to learn – and most understand Mandarin too now, although it occasionally gets you dirty looks in Hong Kong – but a window into a different Chinese culture that is a worthwhile challenge.

As for accents – the perennial problem for standard English-learners who go for a holiday in Scotland – most of the time you’ll figure out what they mean somehow, often simply by asking them to say it slower, or clarifying a word they used in a different context. If you’re in Beijing, though, do learn the Beijing accent (or is it dialect?), er hua, so you can sound like a pirate when you tack an arr sound on the end of words.

You haven’t mentioned grammar yet. Is it because it’s crazy tricky?

No and yes. The obvious but important thing to remember about Chinese is that it’s a completely different system to Western languages, and the syntax mostly differs. So don’t try to translate an English sentence word for word into Chinese in your head; you have to build it from scratch in Chinese. There is no verb declension, and no different endings for past and future tense. The word order is can be more flexible too. Yet there are some entirely new grammar concepts to grasp, such as how to use particles like 了 (le) to indicate completed action and 的 (de) to indicate possession.

The best way to grasp these grammar rules, as in any language, is to be mindful of them as you construct and understand actual sentences. Learning the rule is only the beginning – you didn’t grasp your native grammar in terms of rules, after all. Keep coming up with new examples to use adjectives, adverbs, tense and all the rest of it, and slowly you will develop what Chinese call “language feel” (语感 yugan) – a natural feel for what word goes where, without having to think it through so much. Again, listening to and repeating to yourself the sentence structures that native Chinese use is invaluable. (But avoid doing so from newspapers and TV news, as their sentences tend to be long-winded, in the Soviet tradition.)

So, how do I go about getting this “language feel”?

Through patience and focus. When you speak Chinese, talk confidently, without worrying about getting it all right. When you listen to Chinese, concentrate and ask for a repeat if necessary, so you can break down a sentence and really understand how it works. Then repeat it yourself, or try to use those patterns with your own examples. Watch movies on streaming services such as iQiyi and Youku and pause them to follow along with the subtitles. Listen to Chinese study podcasts such as Learning Chinese Through Stories and Popup Chinese, and repeat to yourself the phrases, intonations and structures that they use. When you pass a street sign, try pronouncing it to yourself (and do the same with large numbers, which are tricky to get down with their multiples of 10,000). Scream in Chinese when you stub your toe or have an orgasm. (OK, maybe not the last one.)

Is there any software that can help me learn quicker?

Lots, but there is only one that you really need. If you have a smart phone, download Pleco immediately. It’s a dictionary app and so much more. Once you’ve got it, purchase the simple starter pack add-on (the NWP dictionary add-on, the flashcard add-on – indispensable for testing yourself on characters while on the subway – and the document reader add-on, which makes reading Chinese texts easy with hover-over definitions, as well as optical character recognition for deciphering your next text-only menu). If you’re at intermediate level, also get the ABC dictionary add-on for more depth, and the Outlier Linguistics add-on for historical evolutions of characters such as this one.

Can you sum up the most useful advice in five bullet points?

Alright, here are a few tips and maxims to remember:

  • Learning Chinese is riding a bicycle not taking a bus. Take it slow, but keep moving, don’t stop and start.
  • Don’t cram characters and vocab in long sessions. Instead, test yourself on them in idle moments.
  • When listening to native speakers, repeat their formations and intonations quietly to yourself.
  • Get in the habit of looking up and reading out phrases and words that you come across out of the classroom.
  • Speak confidently and loudly, even if you know you sound like an idiot. Correct pronunciation will evolve.

Any final words?

It will seem that the horizon of good Chinese will never arrive. And like any horizon, it never does. There’s always something to improve. Give yourself manageable goals. Keep plugging at it every day, push yourself to speak faster and listen to faster dialogue. We know it’s hard, but Chinese isn’t a black magic, and speaking it is great fun. ∎

A version of this post first appeared on the Anthill.