1. Don't be shy
Language is no different from everything else in life; you learn from your mistakes. But the act of going into the streets or local restaurants and trying to chat is a difficult thing for most people to do. To put yourself out there when you know you're not completely prepared and that people may laugh at you or completely ignore you is daunting and yes, from time to time, this will happen. However, you'll also meet friendly people who will take time to try and understand you and correct the errors you make and your confidence will grow. It will also improve your listening skills, which are often overlooked in the classroom but are so important if you're ever to reach any kind of fluency. There are immersion courses available for those with the time and money to learn Chinese in China itself, which gives you amazing access to the language and no choice but to talk Chinese daily. Those of you not lucky enough to be able to do a formal course can still do this kind of practice; even going to your local Chinese restaurant and trying to have a conversation will really improve your skills.
2. Don't ignore tones
It's so easy to do this! In most cases, when you're a beginner and you're speaking to your teacher or to friends, even if you mess your tones up, from the context of the sentence and situation they will be able to understand what you are saying. This then encourages us to become lazy! The problem comes later when conversations become more complex or you try to have conversations over the phone with strangers who will be less forgiving of your errors. It's much harder to learn the tones later when you're already in bad habits so try and get these right early on in your studies. Listening exercises and talking will help you to pick tones up much easier than trying to learn them from pinyin in a book.
3. Try and immerse yourself
This kind of goes hand in hand with what I was saying in point 1. Getting into the language rather than just reading and writing it will really bring on your language learning in leaps and bounds. Immersion doesn't just have to be surrounding yourself with Chinese speakers. It can be about other aspects of your everyday life, you can download Chinese audiobooks or lessons to listen to in your car or on your daily jog. You can change your mobile phone or your computer to Chinese. You'll be surprised how quickly you can navigate your way through by recognizing characters. You can try reading easy Chinese books when you're on holiday relaxing by the pool. Look at aspects of your daily life that you may be able to integrate with learning the Chinese language and make the change!
4. Don't lose motivation
My top tip here would be to set yourself targets but not time limits. The problem with telling yourself you will study for 2 hours a day, means that you will spend the whole day becoming more and more tired, not looking forward to the looming 2 hours of study that awaits you. If you just tell yourself that you will get out your Chinese books when you get home, the prospect of studying Chinese is much less scary. Maybe you will study for 30 minutes, maybe you will study for 3 hours, who knows, the point is that you got out the books and you started studying without any fear or dread. You don't want to spend your study time clock watching, which is exactly what you will do if you set time limits. The thought of studying Chinese shouldn't fill you with apprehension and you shouldn't ‘make yourself' study when you are tired. Have a power nap before you start or if you're tired in the middle of studies, take a break. There is no pressure. Learning Chinese is enjoyable.
5. Pop culture – music and film
So many language learners have told me that accessing pop culture made a difference to their enjoyment and their improvement. One option is to access Chinese television but this can sometimes be difficult, especially if you're not based in China. I think Chinese films and Chinese music is much easier to find and easier to match to your tastes. China isn't just full of bubblegum pop, there is a huge rock scene and some very famous hip hop artists too. Search for artists in the genre you like and buy or download some music. If you can, find the lyrics in pinyin or characters online and read them whilst you listen as this is a great way to improve understanding and your vocabulary. The same is true of Chinese films; they are available in every genre and there are many lists online of ‘the best' Chinese language films. If like me you like films based on history and culture, try the films of Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige. If you like something more commercial, why not have a look at the films of Ang Lee. Try watching them with English subtitles at first but as you improve, you can look for films with pinyin subs and then eventually with characters.
6. Make friends – virtual or real
I have already said that it's important to talk in Chinese and to make errors. It is also useful to send emails or messages in Chinese and make similar errors. Learning from books means you are put into certain situations and taught certain vocabulary. You learn to talk about family, travel and ordering at restaurants. You complete exercises only based on the vocabulary and sentence structures taught. It's not the same as real life conversations, spoken or written. It can be difficult to find Chinese friends, especially outside of China but it is possible. I spend a lot of my time on social networks and there are thousands of Chinese people dying to make friends with English, French or German speakers. Search for groups on G+ or Facebook as well as language exchange forums. Yes, you may have to spend some time talking in your language but you will also get the benefit of speaking Chinese. If you are at a level to access Chinese social networks, this is even better! Weixin in particular is great for meeting people and practicing your written/read Chinese. Once you have a few friends, why not try and organize a Skype call? Practice your oral Chinese as well.
7. Make use of online resources
You would think this would be too obvious to state but you'd be surprised how many people get lost in books. Yes studying from books is useful but it should be partnered with self study from other resources. The internet is full of podcasts, YouTube videos, games and a plethora of other useful tidbits. It's also great to use the internet to just search for news articles and interesting ‘real life' reading materials in Chinese. Social networks, as aforementioned, are really useful and a great way to relax and make Chinese friends and also a great way of picking up more informal language and local slang. Lastly, the internet is a great resource for answering any questions you may have that your book just doesn't explain or explain very well.
8. Vocab lists, flashcards, stickers
We discussed motivation earlier. Personally, I feel like concentrating on learning a set of vocab per day or per week is much more motivating then saying, I'm gonna study 20 pages this week. Just say I set myself the target of learning about food by the end of the week. I would write out the vocab, and some simple sentences or phrases related to this. That would be my study material for the week. I would make flashcards and then I would carry them around in my handbag for the week and when I'm waiting for the bus or the subway, I'd get them out and have a read through. I may even stick post-it notes with the characters and the pinyin on appliances round the house for the week, such as the fridge or the kettle. Then at the end of the week I would get a friend to test me on the flashcards and I'd pull all the post-its off the appliances and see if I could stick the right ones back on the right appliance. It's fun, I get a sense of achievement and I haven't spent the week with my head stuck in a book. It's especially a great thing to do alongside your regular studies/classes, just to keep building on your everyday vocab.
9. If you're learning characters, don't take shortcuts
Follow the rules. This is tedious and time consuming but sort of like with the tones, it is all worth it in the end. When I very first started learning Chinese, I was taught the different strokes. Then I was taught the rules that accompany the strokes so you know in which order to do them when writing a character. This was before I could even write 10 characters. It made such a massive difference to me. Every character I studied, I learnt the order in which to do the strokes for the character and after a while, the rules became ingrained and I could more of less predict the way to write a character. Although you may find that later in life you write 95% of your Chinese on a computer or a mobile phone, it's still important to know the fundamentals of the characters.
10. Have targets – HSK?
Last but not least, it's important to have targets in mind when learning Chinese. It stops you from becoming lazy, gives you some motivation and allows you to feel a sense of achievement or accomplishment when you complete something. This target can simply be, ‘I want to be able to count from 1-20 by the end of the week' or ‘I want to be able to sing along to my favourite Chinese song by the end of the month'. It doesn't matter how trivial the target seems, it is so important to have a goal in mind. If you're really looking to push forward with your Chinese and maybe use it one day for business or for further studies, you may want to consider the HSK test. Have you ever studied harder in your life than when you were studying for your school or University exams? Having an exam date booked is sure to get you studying and passing the exam will not only give you a huge sense of achievement but also a recognized international qualification. Exams can be taken in over 120 countries all over the world and specialist courses and resources can be found online.