There’s no doubt that learning Chinese is a challenging endeavor- but if you’re really serious about mastering it, there’s no time like the present. As you get going, you’ll probably find that learning the spoken portion of the language is less difficult than you might have thought, since Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have any verb conjugation or plural construction that makes learning European languages so difficult. The written portion, on the other hand, can baffle even the native speaker.
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Still, if you want to learn Chinese, here are some ways to get started.
1. Take Courses
It seems like a no-brainer, but when it comes to Chinese, there’s a big reason that you need some help as you get started: Tones. In Chinese, words take on one of four distinct tones or forms of inflection, so simply reading the words- translated into pinyin (the Romanized form of written Chinese)- won’t help. You need to hear the words spoken and to have your teacher drill you on the tones, or you’ll say the wrong form of the words and end up sounding really silly. For example, "yan," means salt, but it can also sound like the word for cigarettes.
2. Join a Conversation Group
If you live in a bigger city, chances are there’s a group of people who are also looking to learn Chinese and who meet regularly to practice. Look for conversation groups where you can practice and immerse yourself by checking sites like Meetup.com or Craigslist. Also, check with the language department at local colleges, or ask your Chinese teacher for referrals. Your teacher may even have a group which you can join.
3. Find a Conversation Buddy
Even if you don’t find a formal Chinese conversation group, there’s a good chance that someone out there speaks Chinese and is looking to improve their English. That’s the perfect opportunity to offer a win-win scenario for both you and that other person. You help that person with their English; they help you with your Chinese. Put up an ad at an English language academy or on Craigslist to help you practice.
4. Download Word-a-Day Apps
Learning the Chinese characters and the ‘radicals’ that make up the basics of the written portion of the language can take years, even for the most diligent of scholars. Don’t get overwhelmed though- just take it day by day. Download an app that teaches you how to write or speak a new character every day, and once you learn the basic radicals, you’ll be able to recognize other relevant characters more easily. The Internet is literally crawling with free and low-cost apps to help you learn languages.
5. Immerse Yourself
Sometimes, it takes true immersion into a culture and language to really gain advanced language skills. You could start with a trip to China or Taiwan, where you can take classes and take part in a home stay experience. Another way to go about it is to stay a bit longer. If you’re still in school, look for a study abroad program. If you’re already out of school and working, consider teaching English or getting another type of job in your field, allowing you to live in China and enhance your language skills along the way. Even with that immersion, having a local tutor or conversation buddy to practice with will help you learn as much as possible.
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Learning Chinese- and becoming fluent in the spoken and written form- is no small feat. But by combining all of the methods listed above with books and audio recordings that help you self-study, you’ll be well on your way.
Do you speak any other languages? What is the hardest language to learn? Tell us your thoughts in the comments section below.