Over the past two years or so, I’ve been learning Chinese on and off using various methods of adult learning. I tried Rosetta Stone, I tried buying a textbook with CDs and teaching myself, and I even signed up for a class. I was definitely picking up some of the basics, but I was doing so at a painfully slow rate.
In late January of this year after about 18 months of bouncing around between various Chinese language learning options, it finally dawned on me that I needed to make a change. I’d began my attempt at learning after a trip to China to visit my then-fiancée’s in-laws in Hangzhou. None of them speak a word of English, and I’d promised them—using my soon-to-be-wife as an interpreter—that my Chinese would be “much better” the next time I return. Now, I was less than 9 months away from our next planned visit, and while I’d made some progress, if you look at the amount I’d learned relative to the amount of time spent learning, you’d have to draw one of two conclusions:
- I must have some extreme learning disability, or
- I haven’t been trying all that hard.
Neither of these were conclusions I’d want my new in-laws to arrive at, so I knew it was time for an action plan. I was trying to learn Chinese with a full-time day job and a full-time night job, and for the latter I was also teaching myself how to code, which is a topic for another blog post. Add to that having a social life, and I had more than enough to occupy my time when I didn’t feel like studying Chinese.
Then it occurred to me that the only way I’d succeed at this is if I came up with a system that made me want to learn. I needed a system that was both fun (i.e. interesting enough to be something that I enjoy spending my time doing) and flexible (i.e. able to fit into my busy schedule).
To start, I thought about the core elements of Chinese that I needed to focus on from a learning perspective. Others might bucket these differently, but these were the most logical groupings for me:
- Pronunciation and vocabulary
- Reading and writing
- Speaking and sentence structure
Then, I needed to think about ways to learn and practice each of these things in a way that’s both fun and flexible. This is where I found that having spent 18 months essentially doing trial and error on various methods actually helped me out. If you’re currently getting started with learning Chinese, or any language for that matter, I highly recommend spending some time—maybe not 18 months, but some time—trying a bunch of different methods of learning and reflecting on whether you think they’re enjoyable and sustainable based on your lifestyle.
To give you some ideas, here are some things that have worked for me. I’m still far from fluent, but I’ve been following these methods consistently for the past 3 months, and I’ve already picked up way more Chinese and feel far more confident speaking it than I did after all of my 18 months of trial and error.
Pronunciation and vocabulary (30-45 minutes / day)
When learning any language, you need to have a baseline vocabulary and knowledge of how the words are pronounced if you want to start speaking it. For a Westerner like me, pronunciation is even more complicated in Chinese than in other Western languages because of tones.
I won’t get into what tones are and how to use them, but there are a lot of resources out there which introduce the concept and offer various exercises for practicing how to identify and pronounce each tone. If you’re starting from zero with Chinese, it’s definitely a good idea to familiarize yourself with the tones—here’s a great place to get started—but don’t spend too much time on this step. Knowing the tones is only useful if you know the words they go with.
This is why I highly recommend using a service like Quizlet, which lets you create your own vocabulary flash cards, and it pronounces them for you, too. I’ve been using the key vocabulary from my Chinese textbook to create flash card sets for each chapter.
I spend about 30-45 minutes every day in Quizlet’s “Learn” mode with “Speak it” turned on so that it reads me the Chinese word after I guess it correctly based on its definition. Quizlet’s Chinese pronunciation puts Siri to shame, and I’ll usually repeat the word aloud 2-3 times after correctly guessing the word to make sure I’ve got it. This helps me remember both the meaning of the words and their pronounced at the same time.
If you’re interested in getting started with Chinese, you can check out my flash cards, here.
Reading and writing (30-45 minutes / day)
Unlike Western languages like English, written Chinese usually doesn’t contain any information about how the words should be pronounced. Instead, Chinese characters focus more on meaning.
A basic example is 好 (pronounced hǎo), meaning “good.” 好 is really just two other characters mashed together: 女 (nǚ, meaning “woman”) and 子 (zi, meaning “child”). There are a few explanations but a popular one is that people tend to think it’s a “good” thing for a woman to have a child, hence the meaning of the word.
In any case, it’s impossible to learn Chinese characters without writing them by hand. Writing them by hand helps make sure you’re paying attention to the detail and the nuance behind each character. The problem is that the traditional way of doing this is by filling pages upon pages with the same character until it has been committed to memory. You might do this if you’re in school and you have to, but if you’re an adult with a life, you’ll probably bail on this for more enjoyable activities before long.
I’ve found that mixing it up can be hugely helpful here. If you can learn a handful of new characters at once for over a longer period of time, rather than focusing on a single character per day, for example, it’s easier for your mind to stay interested in practicing.
It’s also very important to leverage frequency lists wherever possible. There’s a never-ending list of characters out there for you to learn, so you need to prioritize the ones you’re going to see most often. I’ve been using the Word Tracer iPad app, which is especially great because, in addition to sorting characters by frequency, it also shows you each character’s stroke order (i.e. how to write it).
Using this app, I set out to commit one page (each page contains 15 characters) to memory every week. Every day, I will copy each word 15 times, enough to fill a single line of graph paper per word. It usually takes about 45 minutes when starting a new page, and by the end of the week, I can typically get through it in about 20-30 minutes. By that point I’m usually good enough with the characters to move on to the next page. This method has allowed me to pick up 60 characters per month with under an hour per day of work.
What’s even better is that every day I look forward to doing this. There’s just enough variety in the characters that it doesn’t feel repetitive and boring, and there’s just enough repetition in doing them every day for a week that I’m committing them to memory.
Speaking and sentence structure (all the time)
When you’re spending so much time focused on learning the raw materials, it can be easy to forget that you need to put them all together if you want to get to fluency. Chinese has a lot of idiosyncrasies in how it’s used in everyday speech, and you can really only learn these things by using them with someone who knows Chinese reasonably well.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m lucky enough to have a wife who speaks Chinese, and since more recently, I’ve started randomly injecting Chinese into our conversations, whenever I know the words to communicate what I want to. We don’t stick to any schedule or regimen, I just switch into Chinese whenever the wind takes me there.
If I find myself in a sentence that I don’t know how to complete in Chinese, I’ll fudge it and come up with some horribly incorrect guess at what the actual Chinese word is by taking an English word and making it sound Chinese. My most recent favorite is “fù” (meaning “fool”, or “crazy”). It’s completely wrong, but whenever I do things like this my wife and I have a good laugh about it which turns practicing Chinese into more of a game than a task.
If you don’t happen to have a spouse who speaks Chinese, I recommend the following (in priority order):
- Find a friend who speaks Chinese and is willing to practice with you
- Sign up for a class that meets at a convenient time for your schedule
- Look online for a speaking partner you can connect with via video chat
Each of these are great options for practicing speech, but again it’s really important that whatever option you choose is fun and flexible. If you sign up for a class and you aren’t joking around with them and having fun every now and then, you probably won’t stick with it. If you get a friend to coach you but he or she can only meet at times that require you to pass on important obligations, you probably won’t keep meeting with them for long.
No doubt about it. Learning Chinese is hard, and learning any language while working full time is never going to be an easy task. It requires lots of commitment and dedication, but most of all, it needs to be something you want to do.
This is the method I’ve found that works for me. If you’re also trying to get started into Chinese, hopefully there’s a tip or two in here that helps you along your way. But no matter what language you might be interested in learning, you’ll ultimately need to find a system that you find both fun and flexible if you’re going to master it.
Learning shouldn’t feel like a chore, and if you work at it a little, it doesn’t have to.