3 Ways to Learn Chinese Better and Faster
Learning Chinese isn’t easy, or is it?
No matter how long you’ve studied Chinese, there are efficient and not so efficient ways of tackling the language. Since you are already on such a tough journey, why not take the path with the biggest pot of gold at the end?
Some things are much more important to focus on than others when learning Chinese for use in the real world. Why? Because they are help make learning Chinese faster and more efficient, at least in the long run. Let’s take a look:
3 Things you must focus on to get better in Chinese
- Individual Characters
- Sentence Order
Let’s go through these one at a time:
Learning tones well is the key to speaking any dialect of Chinese, and Mandarin is no exception. Drill them into your head. When you are unsure or have temporarily forgotten of how to produce certain tones, practice until you have gotten them right again. Whenever you learn a new word or character, make sure you know the tones that go with it. Relentlessly learn the tones for all new Chinese words and all the tones for old words that you have forgotten.
It is easier for a Chinese learner to guess what you are saying than a Chinese person
To a beginner or even intermediate learner of Chinese, tones seem less important than they actually are. We figure, “if I get everything else right but the tones wrong, Chinese people will understand what I am saying”. If this is what you think, though, you are wrong. To the typical Chinese person, tones are a more fundamental part of language than non-tonal phonemic elements (sounds). Chinese people often understand each other perfectly well even when the non-tonal sounds are wrong but the tones are right. The opposite is not true. Making significant mistakes with tones totally throws off most Chinese people.
This is hard for a speaker of a non-tonal language to really understand. But it’s true. If you want to learn Chinese well, you must focus on tones – whether you are learning Mandarin, Cantonese, or any of the hundreds (thousands?) of ‘dialects’ (other languages) in China.
2. Individual Characters
Is it better for you to learn (including their multiple possible meanings and sometimes pronunciations) individual characters than vocabulary? While in the short run, learning words (most words in Chinese are of the two character variety) will speed up your Chinese learning, in the long run, knowing cold the 3000 or so most commonly used characters will allow you to learn new vocabulary at a much faster rate – and you can often guess the meaning of new words instead of looking them up in the dictionary when you already know the various meanings of the individual component characters.
This is something that I am not too good at – I rarely learn individual characters, preferring to learn words instead. Yet experience has shown that if you want to learn written Chinese well, focusing more on learning characters individually is the best way to go.
And to those who believe that it is more efficient to only study speaking and listening to improve your spoken Chinese – you are right, in the short run. In the long run your speaking ability will trail far behind those who started on the path of becoming literate in Chinese.
3. Sentence Order
The last thing to focus on when learning Chinese is the easiest to get right initially, but perhaps one of the hardest to keep straight in your head.
Unlike English (which, thanks largely to its many permutations and non-native speakers, can usually be understood no matter how badly one messes up sentence order & grammar), Chinese is a language where sentence order, just like tones, must be correct to be quickly and easily understood. The fact is, most speakers of Chinese are Chinese, and so they are used to hearing people who have spoken Chinese since they were little speak Chinese =) Two things that almost all Chinese people get right most of the time when speaking Chinese are tones and sentence order.
So when you mix up the sentence order (usually by putting time in the wrong place), Chinese people get confused. Try not to do this. Chinese grammar is quite simple overall. But it’s not very flexible, especially when it comes to sentence order.
What do you think?
Do you agree with the advice above? Disagree? Have anything to add? Please leave some advice in the comments below.