Chinese can be a complex language for speakers of European languages to learn. Tones, a dizzyingly complicated written language, and absence of structural relationship with your native tongue are three of the reasons to make this one of the most complicated languages in the world.
But fear not! Here are a few tips to help beginners on the path to improving Chinese at a fast(er) rate. Pay attention to the advice below, and you will soon appreciate the wisdom of the expression: 坚持就是胜利！(Persistence is victory).
1. Master Pinyin
Spoken Chinese has only around an eighth of the sound variations of English. This means that there are not a lot of sounds to learn.
Pinyin is the official method used to transcribe Chinese characters (which are complicated to learn) into Latin script (which you already know). Once you have mastered Pinyin, you will be able to pronounce every spoken sound in the Chinese language.
And if you add the Pinyin option to your computer’s language settings, you can type in any Pinyin word and a list of characters with that sound will appear. Typing with Pinyin helps you improve your character recognition, gives you the ability to converse online in Chinese, and provides extra motivation to continue studying.
2. Learn how to read
Occasionally, I have come across beginners who prefer to focus on learning to speak rather than read as well. And for most languages, I would agree this could be a good idea if you just want to master the basics – but not with Chinese.
The reason is that written Chinese contains a great deal more detail than spoken Chinese. Quick example: In English, we have the words ‘He,’ ‘She,’ and ‘It.’ In Chinese, all of these words are pronounced in exactly the same way: ‘tā.’ However, the character for ‘he’ is 他, for ‘she’ is 她, and for ‘it’ is它. If you can only read Pinyin, you will miss out on some very important details.
3. Conquer tones as soon as possible
At first, tones are difficult to learn. But remember what I said about Chinese having only a few sounds? Well, without tones, there is no way to aurally differentiate mā (mother) from mǎ (horse). Unless you want to offend someone’s mother, (or offend someone’s horse) tones are important.
A good way to learn is to practice speaking them aloud to a recording every day for five minutes. After a few months of dedicated practice, tones will become second nature.
4. Watch children’s TV and read children’s books
Learning in a classroom is always different to listening to people speak in the real world. But with simple storylines, basic expressions, and pictures that help you understand plot development, children’s books and TV shows are a great way to immerse yourself in Chinese language situations without actually being in China.
You won’t be able to read every character but this will help improve your listening, character recognition, and even your speaking as you become more familiar with everyday expressions. Ask your teacher if he or she has any recommendations for which kinds of books or shows are suitable for your level.
5. Go to China
Books and TV are a great place to immerse yourself in the language at an early level of your studies. But unfortunately, Chinese is not a language that can be learned and spoken well by the average person in a non-Chinese environment. Fortunately, that means you now have the perfect excuse to go to China!
While you’re there, you will have a million opportunities to catch taxis, order food in restaurants and talk with local people. All these things will drive a dramatic improvement in your Chinese level.
If you have any more tips on how to improve your Chinese level, please feel free to add them below. And in the meantime, 祝你好运！(Good luck!)