Learning Chinese: Tricks of the Trade

Written by Amanda Johnson (Kalamazoo College), Student Correspondent Chinese Studies & Internship in Beijing, Fall 2015

When I started studying Chinese over two years ago I don’t think I fully understood the difficulty of the language I was beginning. For me, I was simply excited to begin studying another language and learn more about the culture and history of China. Over the past two years I have developed a few different ways to help me study Chinese, some have been more effective than others. While I have been here in China I have developed a few more methods of learning Chinese. But the reality is that not all methods of studying work for all people. Because we are wired in different ways, some methods may work for one person extremely well and be ineffective for other people.  In order to create recommendations of potentially helpful study methods for Chinese language learners I have partnered with Dr. David Moser, Academic Director of CET Academic Programs Chinese Studies in Beijing. We have attempted to compile suggestions of language learning methods that could be of help to students wherever they are in their Chinese learning journey.

Talking with Dr.David Moser

Talking with Dr.David Moser

Learning characters is extremely important in the Chinese language learning process, and developing a methodology to learn to recognize an increasing quantity of characters is vital. For me, I have relied heavily upon hand written flash cards for each character I have learned. If I know a character, it probably has a corresponding flash card somewhere in my stack of flash cards. I write the characters on one side of the card, the pinyin on the other, and flip that same side over and write the English upside down on the same side as the pinyin. I then use the cards to test myself and if I don’t know the characters I write them over and over to help my memory. I have friends that have a similar technique with electronic flash cards, which if you’re tech savvy, it can save time and paper. When it comes to learning strong vocabulary, make a list of “not to forget” characters that you save on your phone, tablet, or small notepad that you carry with you. Then review those characters while waiting on the subway or at the doctor. Whatever method you select for learning characters should work for you, but ultimately, the more you are exposed to characters the better you will remember them.

In order to really develop your Chinese, it is wise to pick a “domain” with which you can both gain foundational Chinese and become a talented communicator within that topic. For instance, I am interested in economics, therefore I ought to develop my Chinese vocabulary within that topical area as much as possible. By reading and listening to things that interest me, I develop a vocabulary that allows me to communicate at a high level with Chinese people who share a similar interest. Through gaining skills within this topical domain, I naturally will gain the grammatical foundation necessary to communicate within any topic, and therefore, I can easily expand into other topics. Furthermore, by becoming talented in a specific area you can become a unique “bridge” to further understand that topic from the Chinese perspective. If you are worried about learning a specific topic because you will have to continually look up words as you are reading or listening, don’t be so concerned! The digital age has brought so many useful tools to help you study whatever interests you in Chinese.

Although the tools that technology has given us to study Chinese may seem like you are “cheating” as long as you aren’t taking a graded test, these tools are not cheating! Using these tools can help your language level reach new heights, and in all honesty, by not using these tools you are short-changing yourself and your language progress. One of the best software that exists is Pleco, it is an app available for both iPhone and android based phones and can also be used in web browsers. In order to fully utilize all the services that Pleco has you do have to buy the premium package which runs around $30 USD, but it is certainly worth the price. If you purchase this premium package you have the flashcard tool, document reader, text to speech reader and more. All of these capabilities will allow you to further your Chinese. With the document reader you can use it with electronic readings to gather unknown character definitions faster. Again, using this resource is not cheating, it is an intelligent mechanism to maximize the time that you put into studying Chinese.

All smiles with my roommate

All smiles with my roommate

Although this might be obvious in learning any language, especially when learning Chinese, maximize the time spent with native speakers. Because Chinese is a tonal language, it is vitally important that you speak in Chinese with native speakers as often as possible. As you progress in Chinese, it is especially important to pay attention to the way they speak and their colloquial Chinese. Record them saying things in Chinese and practice saying tones correctly. Even with many methods out there and technology becoming increasingly helpful, native speakers are the best resource for learning Chinese. Sometimes native speakers may be hesitant to correct your incorrect pronunciations or usages of grammar, but you need to encourage them to do so. Their assistance in this certainly helps you improve the quality of your Chinese as you expand your grammatical and vocabulary repertoire.   Language partners or native speaker friends may be worried that their corrections may cause embarrassment, but you need to assure them that their corrections are appreciated. Furthermore, losing face is a part of learning Chinese. As a Chinese language learner you need to be okay with frequently losing face, it is simply a reality in learning the language. Their assistance in this certainly helps you improve the quality of your Chinese as you expand your grammatical and vocabulary repertoire.  Take note of the corrections and make sure to implement them. No matter where you are, do what you can to frequently interact with native speakers. But of course, it is best to go to China to increase your interactions with native speakers. Whether it be to study or work in China, just being in China will give you opportunities to increase your interactions with native speakers and in turn increase your language skills.

All of these methods and suggestions are towards increasing one’s ability to speak Chinese, and as I mentioned before, each individual will have varied levels of success with each method. It is also important to mention that just taking Chinese classes is not enough to learn Chinese. You have to be your own best teacher and push yourself to independently study and engage with the Chinese language. Whether it be watching Chinese children TV shows on the internet, reading Chinese articles on the topic of your choice, or meeting weekly with a language partner, you have to be the one to drive your progress in the Chinese language. Chinese classes give a wonderful foundation, but the classes in and of themselves cannot place you at the level that you need for Chinese to be of benefit to you or your career. Furthermore, before you begin studying, you must be willing to be in it for the long haul. Chinese takes years to learn and for it to actually be of use in a career, life, or business enterprise you must be at a high enough level to be proficient in communication. If you aren’t willing to put in the hours and years it takes to learn, it is best to find a good translator rather than wasting time. Learning Chinese may not be for everyone, but if you employ effective methods the challenging process can produce results in the form of language progress, a deeper understanding of yourself and an increasing appreciation for Chinese history and culture.