Learning Mandarin is a step-wise process that involves a focus on communication.

How to Learn Chinese – Part 2

4. Keep Reminding Yourself

In part 1 we established that it is important to decide why you are learning Mandarin. But it is not enough to decide why, you need to remind yourself of your motivations daily, especially when it’s tough. Write your reason down and put it up somewhere where you can always have sight of it if you need to. Set your desktop wallpaper to an image containing your reason.

Starting to learn any new language without a good reason to do so likely lead to failure. Take 5-10 minutes right now to work out why you want to learn Mandarin. Refine the reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason daily to help give you momentum.

5. Pronunciation and Pinyin

Before tackling Mandarin characters make sure you have a firm grip on pinyin pronunciation and the tones. Trying to juggle the pronunciation, tones and characters at the same time is quite a task. Take the journey step by step by tackling each skill individually and then combining them.

If you’ve started learning Mandarin, you might know the horror of the first chapter of a Chinese textbook. Most textbooks start with a brief introduction to pronunciation and the tones and then immediately start throwing complete words and dialogues at you. Before you can even say your first word – which will likely be 你好 – you need to understand pronunciation, tones and identify characters.

This is a lot to take in during your first ever lesson. Chinese is very front heavy in terms of difficult content. The traditional textbooks do not help to soften the blow. That’s why at the Agape School of Education, we use unique and customized materials that we’ve trialled and tested. 

The other unique aspect of language courses at the ASOE is our focus on communication. Our students first get a firm foundation in pronunciation. Then we add the tones. Once you are familiar with the pronunciation and tones, you can start communicating and having a bit of fun with the language. Finally, wetackle the characters.

Trying to deal with pronunciation, tones and characters all at the same time is a nightmare. It’s certainly possible, and it’s the way we’ve all been learning for the most part. But it’s something that needs to be fixed to help ease the path towards learning Mandarin.

Starting to learn any new language without a good reason to do so likely lead to failure. Refine your reason to make it definite and attainable and then make sure you see your reason daily to help give you momentum.

First things first – Pinyin

First, get a good grasp of pinyin. In short, get yourself a pinyin chart and work on recognizing and being able to replicate all ~440 of the sounds. 440 isn’t too many because the vast majority are very simple and if you are an English speaker you already know the equivalent sounds. Instead it’ll be a small minority that will pose much of the difficulty.

Working with a teacher is the best way to do this. A couple of hours just drilling the pinyin table, getting corrections and improving your pronunciation is a great investment of your time and energy early on in learning Mandarin. This should only take a few hours – I’m not advocating ignoring the tones and characters for weeks and weeks – this is just the first few hours of your Mandarin education.

Tones, tones, tones, tones

Once you’ve got a grip on the basic pronunciation it is time to add the tones. The basic idea is to go through the pinyin table again but adding the tone sounds until you can replicate them all. Again, this might take a couple of hours to really nail but it’s a wonderful investment.

After this it is time to move away from isolated sounds. This requires knowing a little about tone change rules (especially the 3rd tone) which is a stumbling block for early learners. This is just something you need to learn and practice I’m afraid. Thankfully, there are only a couple of rules.

It’s possible to do all of this in person with a teacher, a pinyin chart and word lists. This is the best way to get human feedback. Without feedback there’s no way to correct your errors.

Once you have these skills nailed down you can begin to communicate with people. Communicating should be prioritized over the characters for now. Being able to have fun with the language by chatting to people, listening to music and other non-character-based methods is important.

Learning the characters is a more solitary process for the most part. Just you and your paper or Spaced Repetition System, drilling and memorizing them. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the characters – don’t worry! – so enjoy your time without the characters for now and use this time to get a real feel for the language.

There are lots of other resources on this site about pronunciation and tones. For now, work with a pinyin chart with a native speaker to get the basics down before worrying about all the small details.

Check back next week for part 3 of how to learn Mandarin where we will focus on tones!

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