Spend more time on the toilet
Plan a vacation
Have more fun
Not your typical idea of learning Chinese? Think again! Learning a new language is always a challenge, but when you’re eager to learn it (and I think most of you are), you shouldn’t let a prevailing misconception like “Chinese is the most difficult language in the world” get in your way. Just go for it!
Don’t let misconceptions like “Chinese is the most difficult language in the world” get in your way. Just go for it! [Tweet this]
Different isn’t necessarily difficult
Granted, Chinese is different. But that doesn’t immediately mean it is difficult.
What’s the big difference?
- It sounds a bit weird
(because it’s a tonal language)
- It looks a bit funny
(when you see the characters for the first time, you can’t make out anything at all).
But don’t let looks deceive you. Once you’ve peeked behind this seemingly impenetrable exterior, you will find a somewhat logical and grammar-friendly language looking (and talking) back at you.
Once you’ve peeked behind the exterior of Chinese, you will find a logical and grammar-friendly language looking back at you [Tweet this]
Okay, where do I start?
Even when you’re learning Greek or Russian, you can at least start pronouncing some words after you’ve mastered their alphabet. Not so for Chinese. While they do have a somewhat phonetic based writing system (拼音 pīnyīn, literally= piece the sounds together or spell the sound), it’s almost never used in daily life. It’s a textbook language, which you, ironically enough, can’t learn from a textbook alone.
Ready for your kick-off? Go!
1. Do it everywhere
It’s a cliché, but it’s true. You simply can’t learn a language without any practice. Especially the Chinese writing system, as it differs completely from the alphabetical western languages, takes some getting used to. So buy a little pocket drawing book and start practicing those strokes!
On the train,
in the restaurant,
during boring classes (not the language courses of course!),
in the car (please let someone else drive, though),
and so on…
You name it, you practice.
2. Really everywhere?
Hang a big paper on your toilet wall. Impress your house mates with your knowledge of Chinese characters. You’ll see you will get the hang of it real fast. You will get used to the order of the strokes, to the logical build-up of the characters (radical-phonetic for instance) and they will become more beautiful to look at.
3. Except maybe…
When I said practice everywhere, I was particularly speaking about the writing (and reading) part. Concerning the spoken part, that’s something totally different. If you want to master the tones, you’ll have to practice them out loud.
I remember my first weeks at university, when I was trying to practice my tones and pronunciation at home while my father was working on his desktop in the same room. “ ā, á, ǎ, à, jī, qǐ, xì ”. He started laughing and said it sounded like a was sneezing the whole time. You can imagine I practiced my tones and sounds in total isolation for a while.
4. But still…
You’ll need some feedback. Especially on your tones. So if your language course doesn’t provide you with a speech teacher, you better find a Chinese friend or teacher to help you with the tones and sounds. This too will take some practice, but once you’ve mastered them, there’s no way back.
Conquering Chinese tones may take practice, but once you’ve mastered them, there’s no way back.[Tweet this]
Once my fellow student made a phone call to a Chinese travel agency, and they didn’t believe he was a foreigner because he spoke too ‘Chinese-like’. Could you imagine getting a bigger complement?
5. Bottom line: have fun!
While doing all the stuff I’ve mentioned above, you most of all can’t forget to have fun. When practicing my characters in public places, I often got in contact with other people who where curious of what I was doing. It opens your horizon, brings in new opportunities. Enjoy it. Even when it does keep you from practicing just that bit more.
And while I said I was taken aback by the reaction of my father at first, at one time, when he was again working on his desktop in the study room, I said: “Dad, I will start sneezing again. Please don’t pay any attention to it”. We just started laughing and I could go on sneezing out my sounds and tones. It’s weird. It’s funny. Just smile and get on with it.
6. Keep on having fun
And that’s the most important tip I can give.
- Never start seeing it as a struggle
- And give yourself a goal or a reward
- Say, a trip to China
- Or a Chinese girl/boyfriend?
- Or just real good authentic Chinese food from the restaurant in your neighborhood.
- Or maybe a cheap(er) iPhone from a Chinese website?
There are numerous possibilities. Pick one, try to achieve it and then pick another one. Just remember to keep on having fun. Next time I’ll give you some practical tips about how to survive your first days in China.
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