I often get questions about how I picked up Chinese so quickly, and I think it came down to a few key reasons-
– I knew I had just 6 months until I would be on a flight to China.
– I learned to pronounce and speak first with very little writing.
– I was fully committed to practicing every day.
Knowing that my flight was already booked and I would be there for the spring semester of my junior year of college, I had no choice but to learn. It’s hard for me to think back, but at that time I probably knew no more than ‘hello’ nǐ hǎo (你好).
Step two after booking the flight and deciding to just dive in was to figure out how to start learning this strange and totally foreign language, one that people day is one of the most difficult for an English speaker to learn
I asked my good college friend who’s parents are native Chinese to give me some Chinese tutoring. The two hours of lessons I got from her were immensely valuable and I think her method is how all Chinese courses should begin.
It was so simple. Just start from the basics. The consonants, vowels, and tones that make up the mandarin language. Coming from Spanish classes, it seemed almost silly. I mean, I know how to say x, c, u, and r. (we were using standard pinyin). But actually, no. Chinese has nothing to do with the Arabic alphabet we use for English and Spanish. Pinyin just uses them as convenient placeholders.
To learn Chinese properly you need a whole new arsenal of sounds. Consonants are slightly different than you expect them to be, same with vowels and their combinations. Then to compound that, vowels have to be pronounced in one of four tones.
Tones are the intonation that you use – like how you raise your pitch in a question in English but for every word there are different intonations even within the same sentence. Next time you hear someone speaking Chinese, pay attention to the way their voice rapidly rises and falls.
Tones can be thought of as part of the alphabet in the way that using a different tone changes a word completely. It would be like the difference between desk and dusk- if you think of the vowel in this example as the “tone” of the word. They’re indicated in pinyin by marks in the “shape” of each tone – they look like what the tone sounds like. For example, in “nǐ” your voice goes down in the middle of the word then comes back up, while in “zài” your voice starts higher and comes down at the end of the word.
Anyway, confusing as that might sound, there are not that many consonants and vowel combinations in mandarin, and only four tones (compare to Cantonese’s 9 tones). So it’s actually perfectly reasonable to practice them all. It is absolutely critical if you want to speak so locals can understand you, and is the main sticking point for most Americans learning Mandarin.
Your American accent can get you by in Mexico with Spanish, but Chinese people will have no idea what you’re saying if you pronounce pinyin using English letters and ignore the tones. It will literally sound like pure gibberish, except maybe to the most seasoned Shanghai waiters and Beijing tour guides, who are basically reading your mind at that point.
Once you’ve gotten your mouth familiar with producing the new sounds, you can then link them together to form words. Luckily Chinese words are very simple in construction. Usually just one consonant followed by a vowel pair, and sometimes ending in n or ng . xiàn zài nǐ huì shuō hàn yǔ le. (现在你会说汉语了) Words are almost never longer than 5 letters, all are just a single syllable, and there are few irregularities.
By practicing the sounds and linking them to produce words, you will be speaking better than most first-year Chinese students from traditional classrooms. That’s in your first day.
Don’t worry that you don’t even know what any words mean yet. Those you can pick up using flashcards of the 200 most common spoken Chinese words. At 10 per day you’ll have enough vocabulary in a month to get by and communicate. I can’t stress enough that by waiting for this step until after you’ve mastered pronunciation, you won’t have and bad habits to get rid of, and you’ll be understood, even if just reading pinyin straight out of a guidebook.
Grammar is so simple in basic spoken Chinese it can almost be an afterthought when trying to learn quickly. Just put the words together in roughly the same order you would for English, but say the time up front if you’re not talking in present tense. “I yesterday go pool swim.””I tonight want eat fish” It sounds comical when transcribed, but that’s just the way Chinese sentences can be constructed. No verb conjugation? Hooray!
Of course this is a highly complex language, with various grammatical structures and words with depths of meaning, which change based on context. As a non-native speaker you could study it for the rest of your life and still have more to learn. But that’s not our goal here.
In all seriousness this is all you need to begin speaking Chinese. Speak with the locals. Notice how they string words together, with phrases and shortcuts. Tune your speech to the local accent where you’re staying. Chinese is highly localized so don’t be afraid of you spent a lot of time learning pronunciation and the people are saying it a bit different. The goal is comprehension at first, and everyone will understand standard mandarin. But keep a flexible ear as you meet people from around the mainland. Pronunciation varies widely, even more in one country than English dialects do in the entire English-speaking world.
Once I had these basics down, the third factor was repetition. Luckily at the time I had the perfect scenario for daily speaking practice. I was working as a real estate leasing agent near Boston, and had about an hour commute by car each day. Broken into half hour segments it was the perfect amount of time to focus and the added benefit of being in a car by myself was that I could speak out loud and practice without making a fool of myself. I put on podcasts by Chinese Pod and would repeat the phrases at normal speaking volume, trying to match the tone and cadence as best I could to the dialogue.
It was as close as I could get to hearing Chinese in real life. I found that Chinese movies were too fast and contained all kinds of completely useless vocabulary. Um, when do I get to say my Jade Sword is invincible?? Still waiting for the chance… Same uselessness goes for programs like rosetta stone. Although I never have forgotten how to say kangaroo, which was repeated like 15 times in lesson 2, I’ve never used it in real life. It’s dài shǔ （袋鼠）. “Pocket-mouse” for those that are wondering.
After all this prep, landing in China was smooth and I immediately got into conversations with the cab drivers outside the airport, laughing and joki…. Wait – back to reality – it was still super tough!
They speak fast, use slang, and have weird dialects and accents. Reading characters is an entirely different beast, better suited (actually, designed) for classroom learning, and they’re everywhere. No English on the signs.
My first restaurant experience after I got to Nanjing University was with a Chinese-only menu and I was totally clueless along with my new semester abroad classmates. But despite being almost completely illiterate, with my newly gained speaking abilities I was able to order some soup and chicken for the table, along with some tea. Some simple things I was sure they would have. After a broken exchange with the waiter, only catching about half of his most strained simple Chinese, we got our food and didn’t end up starving to death.
And it was uphill from there. I mean like pedaling up hill in first gear. Difficult but once you gain momentum you can increase the gear. Improvement was mostly in recall and getting more comfortable with the standard pace (fast) and understanding what was spoken to me.
Most of my classmates dwarfed my vocabulary by hundreds of words, but when they tried to speak their book-learned phrases, they fumbled and often couldn’t get their point across. When I spoke Chinese, though it was slow and clunky with basic words, people understood. That’s what made all the difference.