Whether it's for work or you simply want to increase your own knowledge base, you've decided to learn Chinese! Congratulations. Since Chinese is considered a difficult language to learn, you've certainly got your work cut out for you. However, with a little dedication and determination, you can master the language in no time. Below, you'll find some tips on how to start learning Chinese.
The different types of Chinese
The first thing you should know is that while there is only one common written Chinese language, there are around a dozen spoken Chinese languages. The most common form of spoken Chinese, and the official language of Taiwan, is Mandarin. This is the type most people start learning and the type you should probably start with as well. It really depends on why you're learning. Research the different types of Chinese and determine which one you should be learning.
Learning conversational Chinese
In some ways, learning Chinese is easy in the beginning. The reason is that there are no plurals to learn, and the verb stays the same in every sentence. This makes it relatively easy to begin learning conversational Chinese, which is what you should be learning. One way to achieve this is to utilize audio tapes or recordings of fluent Chinese speakers. This can help you get the intonation correct on the different words and phrases. In addition, many audio programs introduce you immediately to conversational Chinese.
Learning in different ways
Some people learn by seeing something, while others learn better by hearing something. It's important to immerse yourself as totally as you can in the Chinese language. If you can find a program that utilizes pictures along with sounds and writing to teach Chinese, you've found a good program. The more senses you use as you're learning, the better and faster you'll be able to learn. Think of a small child learning the English language or their own native language – they use all of their senses as they learn, and they learn quickly. In addition, they have others to communicate with as they learn, which leads us to the next point.
Finding a support system
If you're able to communicate with others who are learning Chinese or who already speak fluent Chinese, you'll pick up on it easier. There are different online sites that teach Chinese and provide support systems such as forums, video chat, or VoIP systems that allow you to communicate with others who speak the language. Whether it's another student you can communicate with, a teacher or a mentor, it will benefit you as you start learning Chinese.
Tips for staying motivated
As you learn a different language, it can be easy to quit if you get discouraged or make mistakes. Create small goals for yourself – like spending half an hour each day learning the language. As you meet each goal, reward yourself. Accept that you will make mistakes and know that it's all part of the learning process. By using these tips, you can stay motivated and learn the language more quickly.
More tips for beginners
Get some materials. Textbooks are okay, as long as they have dialogs with a recorded version.
Do a significant amount of input (reading and listening) with this beginner material. This is the hard bit, where the language gradually becomes less 'foreign' – in other words, you get used to the language. To make rapid progress, try to dedicate at least 30 minutes a day (an hour is better).
Work the language into your life. We are not really an advocate of ignoring your friends and family who don't speak the language, or listening to the language while you're talking to them and while you sleep (per AJATT), or changing the language on your computer and phone into Chinese – this is too annoying for me. Instead, make use of dead time. Do you daydream on the train/bus? Now you listen to Chinese. Do you wait in lines? Now you listen to Chinese while you wait in lines. Do you walk the dog? Paint your house? Daydream? Listen to Chinese while you do these things. You'll see how easy it is. We would estimate that the average person has about 1-2 hours a day of dead time, this meaning time they do NOTHING else. If you studied Chinese only in the time you otherwise would be wasting, you will see massive progress. Now imagine if you fit some Chinese into your free time, too?
Two words. Mini goals. Learn 30 words a week, and then step it up after a couple of weeks. Listen to 30 minutes of Chinese a day – then step it up to an hour incrementally.
Characters. Forget about them for the first month. After that though, they are important. Spend 15 minutes a day learning them. Although it may seem tedious, it's worth learning the radicals first, or as you encounter them – this will enable you to quite accurately guess new characters later on.
Get an SRS. Do your reps daily, and add sentences whenever you can. Also, sentences are better than words, as you learn grammar and new vocabulary simultaneously – it also seems much less boring than just drilling single words. If you have the option/can be bothered, add sentences with audio so you don't get a botchy pronunciation (or just do a lot of listening). Where to get sentences? Mine them from the dialogs in your textbook, from ChinesePod, wherever. Just make sure they are correct!