How to Learn Chinese – Part 1

Language, Learning

1. Talk from Day 1

How to speak Mandarin is a question that baffles learners early in their Chinese journey. Often, we wait until we think we are good enough and then start to speak Mandarin. However, if you want to learn a new language quickly it’s best to start conversation early! It’s ok to make mistakes as you speak, that’s how you learn. 

Learning to walk involves learning to fall

Mindset is important when learning a language because, like a marathon, it is a long and challenging undertaking. Learning a language requires you to make mistakes, get corrections and learn.

Sure, you might make a fool of yourself or say the wrong thing from time to time – especially in Mandarin. Unfortunately, if you don’t make mistakes you won’t learn – it’s as simple as that. The trick therefore is to start making as many mistakes as possible, as soon as possible and take on corrections so that you can improve.

If find you are not learning as fast as you expect, it is likely because you aren’t making enough mistakes. The fastest way to learn is to increase the frequency of your mistakes and subsequent corrections. This will also make sure you don’t make catastrophically large mistakes later. You can soften the blow by making your mistakes in a controlled environment with a teacher or a friend. 

Online language learning might have you studying from an app or website, but instead of talking to yourself, you need to start having “real conversations” as quickly as possible and get away from the textbooks.

These students (including me) learn grammar, memorize vocabulary lists for tests, and deliver a couple of presentations but very rarely actually talk to someone in that language in a real-life situation. Some may say that the wrong skills are being taught and tested. 

So, it might not be that you “just aren’t good at languages”, but you may not have been taught properly! Let’s flip this. On the first day of study I want you to go and find a Mandarin speaker and say 你好. If you are not sure about the pronunciation listen here and repeat until you think you are close. It doesn’t matter how awful your tones are. Chances are that the person you talk to will be delighted. They may correct your tones, but you can move forward from there. With technology, there’s no need to be in China to learn Mandarin. There are literally hundreds of millions of Mandarin speakers looking to practice a foreign language. If you want to learn a language, you’ll have to get over it and talk to someone. 

2.Work out why you are learning Mandarin

Why learn Mandarin? Specifically, why are you learning Mandarin? Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason on a daily basis to help give you momentum.

Learning Mandarin is not as hard as you might think. However, it does take a while to get to a level where you can communicate competently and even longer to get to anywhere near approaching fluency. It’s a long-haul language for sure, primarily because of the sheer number of characters that need to be learned.

Because learning Mandarin is a big project that will take a considerable amount of your time it’s important to know why you are learning Mandarin. This sounds simple – you want to learn Mandarin so you can converse or perhaps for business or family. China was ranked as the world’s largest economy so learning Mandarin just makes sense. 

Make it real

Students need to set themselves an achievable goal to do well in Chinese.

Take a moment away from your screen with a pen and paper and write down your reason for wanting to learn Mandarin. It can be more than one, but one good reason is far superior to 10 weak reasons.

The simple act of writing down your reason or goal forces you to define your reasons much more clearly than if you keep the reason in your head. Translating your thoughts onto paper forces you to think about the particulars. Just externalizing the reason or your goal onto paper will therefore be a huge step in the right direction.

Make sure it isn’t something indefinite is something like “I want to be able to talk to Chinese people”. A definite reason is like “I want to be able to talk to my in-law’s when they come over for dinner”.

2. Give yourself time

It’s important to have a goal that is attainable within the near future. Too easy and you’ll achieve the target without having really got into Mandarin properly but too difficult a target and you might lose your perseverance. 

An example of “too easy” would be “learn to greet my in-laws”. Once you’ve learned hello and goodbye, you’ve pretty much achieved this one. Conversely, if you want to ready the original texts of Confucius in classical script, you’re in for a tough time. That’s why it’s a good idea to pick something reasonable that will take 6-12 months to achieve. At this point you’ll be immersed in learning Mandarin enough to want to keep going and can set some new targets now that you know a lot more about the language.

Check in here next week for part 2!



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