What to expect: When you are learning Chinese

Tips for beginners, from a seasoned student….

13 years ago, I was sitting in my room bored as all get out. I had just finished college and was trying to ‘Live The Life I’d Always Dreamed Of’ because a pretty magnet told me to. I decided it was time to take on a exciting and new hobby. Strange, I know. That moment sparked an interesting inner dialogue…

Me: I should do something crazy… like learn Chinese or something.
Also Me: Yes thats it, I’ll learn Chinese!!!
Still Me: What!?! No way. Chinese is really hard.
Me again: Something being hard is a stupid reason to not do something.
Aspirational Me: Its settled then, we are learning Chinese.

Thus began my adventures in exploring the Chinese language and falling in love with the China. Over the years, I have participated in language exchange, formal lessons, self study, and of course good old on-the-fly learning in the real world. While playing charades to find the restroom is fun, it gets exhausting. FAST. When you are ready to step your game up and learn Chinese, here are the top 5 things you need to know to set yourself up for success.

1. Set a goal!

Why are you learning Chinese?

Do you want to greet your new coworkers? Want to negotiate prices at the market? Do you want to be able to read characters? Do you want to be able to write? It is important to know this up front.

Reading, writing, and speaking go hand in hand but they are all equally daunting. If you want to tackle all three be prepared to feel that you aren’t making much progress at all. Its common to focus on spoken Chinese and most classes offer short introductions to reading and writing to get started. If you decide to take on reading and writing you are going to get a healthy dose of history, strokes, stroke order, and learning the types of characters (pictographs, ideographs and more).

Why is it so important to set a goal? If you want to study and become proficient in French or Spanish, you need about 600 classroom hours. To become proficient in Chinese, students typically need 2000+ hours, as well as 2 years in China. If you have no intention of achieving complete proficiency you can opt for skipping writing and/or reading (learning the fundamentals would still be a smart move) completely.

Perks of speaking Chinese:

  • Chinese businesses are popping up all over the world and demand for bilingual speakers is growing.

  • You can eat anywhere including yummy and very cheap local spots

  • Leave the apartment/hotel without detailed plans

  • Develop deeper friendships with locals (Your new best friend might be the DVD guy, KFC lady, or the late night Dumpling spot you frequent)

  • Transaction times are exponentially faster at the bank and train stations in Chinese (This is worth it alone)

  • You get a better price automatically at the markets

  • Travel to smaller Cities is fun but can be very difficult without some language skills.

Setting a goal for when and how you will need to use Chinese will help you reach your goals faster, and help your teacher guide your lesson plans.

2. Your first hurdle is not the Chinese Tones.

In my first few classes, I learned to introduce myself and maybe 5-10 new vocabulary words in each class. During my lessons, she insisted that I focus build a strong base for learning the language. What this meant is that I spent MONTHS working on the basics:

  • Zhuyin Fuhao (AKA bopomofo or the Alphabet) the syllables which are the building blocks for spoken Chinese.

  • Character strokes and stroke order. Yes stroke and stroke order is important, you might want to consider this if you are considering getting a tattoo. Its pretty obvious if your tattoo artist is copying the character for love from google translate.

  • Character History. Welcome to the wonderful world of China. There is lots of history behind the characters. Understanding history provides key context that makes it easier to remember characters, and the strange (at first glance) pairings of characters to create words or phrases.

Expect that a GOOD Chinese teacher will spend quite a bit of time reviewing the sounds. Be patient and know that if your teacher is still asking you to review them, that you still are not saying them correctly. It will be frustrating, but it is very convenient when people can actually understand you.

!!!! Caution: Many language learning schools (in the interest of keeping you as a paying customer) will move on to the next subject once students show signs of annoyance at the constant repetition. This is not in your best interest. Insist that pronunciation is important and continue until you get emphatic smiles and 非常好 (fei1chang2 hao3 / very good) from your teacher.

3. Chinese Tones

You knew it was coming…

Ones you get the sounds down its time to get down to business. You’ve heard about these tones and they live up to their reputation. Be patient. You speak English and can use context to figure out what people are saying if you dont understand. Context is not quite so simple in Chinese.

Assuming you have mastered bopomofo and do not make the mistake of of pronouncing Si as Shi, the next hurdle is the four Chinese tones. Chinese people think of sounds with different tones as completely different words. If I am a restaurant that serves soup 汤 (tang1) soup and I use the wrong tone I have not mispronounced soup, I have said a completely different word. I might actually asked for candy 糖 (tang2). With any luck, you will be at a restaurant that doesn’t sell candy, and and a kind person will expend some extra effort to figure out what the frustrated foreigner wants.

So lets get specific. You initiate a conversation which includes shi, but you get the tone on one or more of your sentences wrong. The kind person trying to interact with you is mentally scrolling through all of these words in an effort to understand you…

Check out the different tones of the word SHI:
是 shi4: is, are, am, yes, to be
时 shi2: O’Clock, time, when, hour, season, period
十 shi2: ten, 10, tenth, complete, perfect
事 shi2: real, true, honest, really, fruit, seed, definitely
式 shi4: type, style, pattern, ceremony
使 shi3: send,tell somebody to do something, use, employ, make,
师 shi1: teacher, tutor, model, surname

You can see that Shi using the 2nd tone could mean O’Clock, ten, or honest. This is just one example why the time you spend practicing your sounds is worth it. Learn a word without the tone and thats going to earn you lots of blank stares during your travels.

A GOOD Chinese teacher wants you to speak Chinese. You will often come across classes who want you to have fun in class and commit to a 6 month lesson package. Look for someone who will take it slowly with you. Patience is the road to success! I promise when you navigate the tourist areas hearing frustrated foreigners attempt conversations in Chinese and getting nowhere, you will thank me.

4. Location, location, location.

Where on this gargantuan mass of land do you want to go?

The first decision people make is usually the decision to speak Mandarin or Cantonese. Once you have narrowed it down, there is one more step to consider. Where in China would you like to travel? Where will you be living? Get a language tutor or teacher from that area. Even though Mandarin is pretty standard, there are different accents and even different vocabulary just like here in the states. Learning what a bubbler is in your native tongue is much easier in your native language.

When I first moved to China and ventured out to Beijing, I noticed that in addition to a different accent, even the word people commonly used for toilet was different from that I had been successfully using in Shanghai for months. It was a few hours after my quest for the restroom that I remembered I had learned the term preferred in Beijing (a more polite form) but I remember actively choosing to only focus on 1 way to say bathroom in an effort to be efficient.

It is common when traveling across China with Mandarin to need a few days to adjust to the local accent before being able to communicate at the level you are accustomed to. If you already know where you will spend most of your time why not get a teacher from that area. Anything you can do to make your experience easier is worth its weight in pearls.

5. Get to know the Culture!

Chinese culture is unique. Some days you will feel like you are in the upside down from Stranger Things, and other times you will feel like you are in a real life Wonderland. One pivotal moment for me in my life in China happened when I was lost, and late for an appointment.

My taxi driver dropped me off at the address I requested, but it was a HUGE intersection with those maze inspired outdoor plazas on both sides. One thing to know about China is that addresses are not always consecutive or logical. I stood in the plaza and asked a passerby. “Excuse me, Im lost can you help me find X?” my response came in the form of a person physically moving away from me aggressively shaking a hand and head in what was clearly a “No!”.

A family was my next hope for assistance and I slowly approached them and in my most humble body language and tone I said in Chinese…”Hello, sorry to bother you. Can you help me find this address?”. This time my potential saviors patriarch responded in Chinese “Im sorry, I dont speak English” and then rushed off. I muttered to myself feeling a bit defeated, sweaty, and late. “But…but… I speak Chinese”.

The moral of this story is in France or Spain, learning the language may be enough to get you by. This is NOT the case in China. Go back to your training manual and see Chapters 1-25: Saving Face. There have been many times I was out and about and I needed to call a timeout and re-think my approach to a situation based on culture differences. The more you learn, the more you will get out of those shiny new language skills.

So if Chinese is so hard why make the effort to learn it? Over 1.2 Billion people speak Chinese and it is the #1 spoken language in the world. 890 Million people speak mandarin alone which is close to the same number of people that speak English natively, and as a second language. Though this is not the place to get political, China is steadily gaining economic power and running businesses abroad. Speaking Chinese and understanding the culture is undoubtedly and advantage in dealing with those entities.

Learning Chinese is an adventure, and a window into one of the worlds oldest civilizations. If thats not enough motivation then think how good it will feel in the future to have to stop using the phrase “It’s Chinese to me”. Trust me it feels good!!