MY ETHNICALLY CHINESE FAMILY spoke neither Mandarin nor Cantonese at home, and I grew up in Mississauga, Ontario,
with English as my first language. But when I was seven, my parents
suddenly felt guilty their daughter had only an English tongue. I
started weekly Mandarin Chinese lessons. All the other kids in class had
been exposed to the language from infanthood, and just two hours of
Mandarin instruction per week in my otherwise English-language existence
was ineffective. Despite my best intentions, I ended up dropping out in
the fifth grade.
I'm now trying to build a life in China,
and over the years have tried almost everything to become fluent in the
language, including private tutors, self-study with tapes, college
classes, and language buddies. Twenty years after I first set foot in my
childhood Mandarin class, I'm finally on my way to mastering the
Here are the key lessons I've learned along the way. If you avoid my
mistakes, and focus on the steps that really made a difference,
hopefully your journey to Mandarin fluency won't be quite so arduous or
convoluted as mine.
1. Decide whether you are going to learn traditional or simplified Chinese characters.
There are two different systems of Mandarin writing – traditional and
simplified. Simplified characters were created by decreasing the number
of strokes needed to write the character, changing its form. For
example, compare the traditional and simplified characters for fei (to fly):
Today, traditional Chinese characters are mainly used in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.
Simplified characters were introduced in China in the 1950s and 60s to
increase literacy rates, and are the official system of writing in
mainland China, and Singapore. This is also the form of writing taught in Mandarin courses around the world.
People debate whether it's better to learn the more complicated but
beautiful traditional Chinese script, or to follow the widely used
simplified version. I think it's a personal choice, and depends on where
you want to live and why you are learning Mandarin. Do you want to live
in mainland China? Do business in Shanghai? Learn Chinese culture and history? Teach in Taiwan?
It is possible to learn both, but as a beginner you should stick to
one system to avoid confusion. I started out with teachers who used
textbooks with traditional characters from Hong Kong, but I had to learn
from a simplified Beijing
syllabus in university. It sometimes felt like I was learning to write a
new language. Personally, I wish I had always learnt the simplified
script, since my goal was to live and work in mainland China.
2. Invest time and money in an intensive Mandarin program so you have a solid foundation.
This is applicable to most languages, but intensive learning at the
beginning is particularly important for a language like Mandarin, which
is utterly alien to an English speaker.
I failed to learn Mandarin as a child because two hours a week were
not enough to build the foundation. For Chinese, the basics are crucial:
you must learn the four tones (which are often indistinguishable to
English speakers), master the Pinyin needed to pronounce the logographic characters, and grasp other fundamentals such as the stroke order to form the characters.
It takes hours of writing, listening, and speaking to master these
basics. A British-Italian friend of mine studied once a week at a
Confucius Institute in London for eight months with no results. After
only a month of intense classes at Mandarin House in Shanghai – six
hours a day, five days a week – she was writing and speaking like a
Chinese five-year-old, which is progress not to be taken lightly. She
then switched to a less intense daily program, but credits her “Chinese
boot camp” for giving her a great foundation to work from. Even
one-on-one tutoring may not be effective if it isn't a daily ritual.
Check out GoAbroad.com for a good list of schools and programs in China.
3. Become language buddies with non-English speakers who are learning Chinese.
People learning Chinese who aren't native English speakers are great language partners:
1. They are students like you, so you may feel less embarrassed making mistakes with them.
2. You are less likely to fall back on English to communicate.
Swapping English for Chinese as part of a language exchange with locals is fine – but with my Japanese and Korean classmates, Chinese is often our only common language, so we speak it all the time.
There is no need to structure our sessions. We hang out after class
when the material is fresh in our minds, and use all the words and
idioms we've just learned. I don't worry too much about being right or
wrong, but focus on just opening my mouth and trying to use the language
as much as possible, without English to fall back on.
4. Follow a Chinese TV show you like, or listen to Chinese music.
Consuming Chinese pop culture is an enjoyable way to build your
vocabulary just by sitting on your tush, and a great chance to test your
listening and comprehension away from the classroom syllabus.
What you should watch or listen to depends on your preferences and
language level. I'm a child at heart and a big cartoon fan, so I've
gotten hooked on Xǐ Yáng Yáng yǔ Huī Tài Láng (“Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf”),
an outrageously popular Chinese animated TV series. It's intensely
cute, and easy for anyone with a basic grasp of Mandarin to follow.
I suggest focusing on just one particular show or mini-series to
start with. I find I get emotionally involved with the storyline, which
gives me added incentive to keep watching, and it helps my listening
skills to focus on the accents of only a handful of people. One of my
favorite dramas was a 2005 Taiwanese series called “The Prince Who Turns
into a Frog.” With each passing episode I grew increasingly familiar
with the characters' voices, and it became easier to understand their