5 Tips for Learning Chinese

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Today I had my Chinese exam and the frustration of learning all the characters led me to write a post about my experience.

First of all, I want to say that I love learning languages and I am actually quite good at it. In school I learned English (mandatory) and Russian (voluntarily). I especially love languages which use a different alphabets and letters. Hence, I taught myself some Japanese. I just learned Hiragana and Katakana but stopped at Kanji (Kanji are the Chinese characters and therefore much more difficult to learn on your own). I also taught myself some Korean. The advantage of Korean is that it has an alphabet. You can quickly learn the alphabet and the pronunciation. Afterwards you can read everything! There are many websites and youtube-channels where you can learn Korean. I really enjoyed the channel TalkToMeInKorean.

Since I am definitely not fluent in Japanese and Korean, I formulated the sentence as “taught myself some”.

When I started the relationship with my Chinese boyfriend, I knew I had to learn Chinese. We mainly speak German with each other but I want to be able to communicate with his family and friends in China (read more about our international relationship ).

The difficulty of the Chinese language is that there is no alphabet but characters. If you don’t know a character you can’t read it and don’t know the meaning (like Egyptian hieroglyphics). And there are thousands of characters! You are basically never done learning. Another difficulty is the pronunciation. There are four tones and every character has a tone. You basically don’t just say “chinese” in one go but “chi-ne-se” in different tones. Speaking Chinese is like singing. The voice is always going up and down. Therefore, it is really difficult to say a sentence. First off, you have to remember the tone of the character, pronounce it correctly and also hear it correctly in a conversation.

But it gets even more difficult!

For example mā má mă mà have all different meanings! (Mother, hemp, horse, scold. You don’t want to mix up mother and horse…). But you also have to distinguish between zhang, jang, yang, chang etc. Every sentence is technically a tongue twister. But at least the grammar is really simple! (Or else I would already give it up…)

Now, I study Chinese for two semesters and know about 450 characters. You should know between 3.000 and 4.000 characters to be perceived as educated. Well, I am far away from that…

It can be pretty discouraging to learn Chinese. When I watch Chinese TV shows with English subtitles I basically just understand the most basic words. I, you, and, eat, go, together, what, why… I don’t understand the context. There are also a lot of dialects in china what makes it even more difficult!

You make just a small progress. When studying English or Russian you could understand more and faster. You see results faster. I still can’t really speak with my mother-in-law. I am just quite impatient and want to see some results from my effort. I know that practice makes perfect but it seems rather impossible to ever be fluent in Chinese… We need to hang on! Chinese is really unnatural for my ear and tongue, hence it just takes more time to learn! If you are already familiar with Asian languages, it might be easier for you!

Well, I have some final tips for memorizing the characters and improving your pronunciation:

1) take a language course

I don’t think it is impossible to study Chinese on your own. You definitely need a teacher. I first tried to learn Chinese with just my boyfriend and a textbook but I gave up after a few weeks. I needed to be forced to study through regular classes and exam.

2) learning-type

Find out how you memorize things best. Do you have an eidetic memory? Do need to write a character 50 times to remember? A mix of both versions works best for me. I remember visual aspects better but oftentimes I just remember a part of a character, hence, I need to write it a couple times.

3) write write write

You are basically back in first grade. Remember when you had to write a row of a letter or word to practice? I usually make cue cards with the meaning on one side and pinyin + character on the other side (see the picture above). And then I write write write…(now I can’t stop singing work work work work work by Rihanna). By the way, I cut the cue cards out of regular plain paper. They don’t look pretty but work fine. Cue cards can be really expensive!

4) move your head when talking

To pronounce the tones correctly, move your head with the tones (e.g. move your head from left to right and say the character with the first tone simultaneously). It looks ridiculous but it really helps! And you stretch your neck!

5) watch Chinese movies / series / TV shows with subtitles

Your ear has to get used to the new language. Watch Chinese movies about topics that interest you but you have to listen actively. Don’t just focus on the plot but on the language. The next step would be to read Chinese books or magazines (e.g. buy fashion magazine at an Asian store or brows Chinese websites) but that is definitely not possible right now.

I think these tips are also useful for learning other languages!

What languages can you speak or want to learn? Which language did you start learning and gave up on? Why?

P.S.: I don’t recommend the textbook in the picture since it contains a few mistakes. It also oftentimes uses words in a segment which are taught 1-2 lectures later.

See you soon!

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8 thoughts on “5 Tips for Learning Chinese

  1. Go to Taipeh Night Market and start memorizing the names of your favourite dishes. Maybe even some incorrect chinese letters for this dishes. That will be enough to talk to mother’n law. And enough for most Chinese people. Because most Chinese won’t discuss more seriuos topics with you. Especially if they suspect you to understand Chinese, learned in Taipeh.

    Liked by 1 person

      • GREAT! 2/3 of your mission accomplished. The last bit is convincing the the vendor of the price you are willing to pay. You should use a calculator to show the figures. Than you can move in whole of China.
        If you wanna learn the letters: Start discussing with Chinese people alternative spellings of their names.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! I think you’re already having great success. I am a little intimidated by languages that use different characters. I am comfortable in English and get along well enough with Spanish and French. I can imagine learning a language using the kyrillic alphabet. But Asian? That is so very different!
    So, you are doing great!

    One thing that may help you with everyday phrases: ask your boyfriend the switch into Chinese for those. Little things like “Would you pass the salt please” or “Where have I left my keys?”. Only two or three a week that can be repeated so you get used to them. And you’ll understand them even if you couldn’t actively use them at the beginning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Liebster Award! | life as julia

  4. I started learning Japanese at school six years ago, since I’m very interested in East Asia and I realized I’m very good at learning languages. I also taught myself some Korean, and recently I decided to learn Chinese, too. My Chinese course starts next week.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am also very interested in East Asia even before I met my Chinese boyfriend. I am thinking about applying for Japanese courses on top of Chinese! I think for you it will be easier to learn Chinese since you already know Kanji. Maybe the pronounciation will be a little tricky… Good luck and keep me updated 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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