How to Learn Chinese: A U.S. News Guide

Chinese, the most commonly spoken language in the world, is challenging to master. Rather than an alphabet, Chinese has thousands of characters. On top of that, the language is tonal, so how you speak a word can completely change its meaning.

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So, why learn Chinese? For one, China is a critical player in the global economy and world affairs. Also, the country has a fascinating history, and its culture and cuisine have long influenced its neighbors and the West.

“It is an entirely wonderful, rich culture,” says Carrie Wiebe, CV Starr Professor of Chinese at Middlebury College in Vermont. “If we don’t learn Chinese, we’re really blocking ourselves off from vast amounts of human information and culture and beauty and depth of thinking that Europeans have just not traditionally been aware of.”

Learning how to speak Chinese, especially the national language Mandarin, can prepare you for careers in international economics or world affairs. Not to mention, knowing the language makes traveling throughout China easier and more enriching. In my case, I learned conversational Mandarin while teaching English in northern China.

Like any skill, learning Mandarin requires practice and self-discipline. Here are some strategies you can use to learn the language more quickly and easily.

Mandarin has five different tones:

  1. A high and level tone.
  2. A tone that rises slightly.
  3. A tone that falls then rises.
  4. A tone that drops from high to low.
  5. A neutral tone.

When speaking Chinese, how you pronounce each tone can change the meaning of a word. For example, “mā” with the first Chinese tone means “mom,” but with the third tone, “mă,” it means horse. Learning Chinese tones is essential, and there are many techniques you can use:

  • Practice with native speakers. Encourage them to correct your pronunciation. Also try mimicking how they pronounce tones. If you don’t have a partner, Wiebe recommends recording yourself speaking and then playing it back to check your pronunciation. Isolation or comparison drills are also a good method for practicing pronunciation. According to Wiebe, repeatedly listening for and identifying a specific tone and comparing two tones to find the difference are simple but effective techniques.
  • Watch and listen to native speakers. Improve your pronunciation by listening to popular YouTube channels like ChinesePod, Yoyo Chinese and Learn Chinese Now. Or, watch your favorite shows on Language Learning with Netflix, a Google Chrome extension. It highlights phrases and words and lets you watch programs at your own speed. Another option is to turn on subtitles and audio while watching English or Chinese films and shows. Wiebe suggests starting with Chinese-language movies such as “To Live,” “The Blue Kite,” “Hero” and “Eat Drink Man Woman.”
  • Listen to Chinese music. A fellow expat in China once recommended I pick a song and study the lyrics and melody. Music can help new Chinese speakers learn the language’s different tones, says Jun Yang, director of the Chinese Language Program and senior lecturer in Chinese language at the University of Chicago’s Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. Yang also recommends incorporating nursery rhymes and classical poetry into your lessons.
  • Focus on grammar. Like English, Mandarin sentence structure consists of a subject, verb and object. However, Mandarin does not differentiate between genders or singular and plural nouns.
  • Travel or study abroad. Immersion can be the fastest way to learn Chinese.
  • Practice speaking on your own. Wiebe suggests speaking Chinese to yourself for an hour every day. “Keep a notebook for jotting down whatever you don’t know how to say and then learn how to say that,” she says. Wiebe uses car rides to think in a different language. “So, you’re actually learning what you want to learn and what you need to learn in your own internal conversations,” she explains.
  • Study pinyin. This is a phonetic approach to speaking Chinese. Pinyin uses the Latin alphabet to spell words, and it can serve as a foundation for grasping Mandarin concepts more quickly.

Rather than an alphabet, Mandarin has thousands of characters that generally fall into two camps: traditional or simplified. Traditional characters have been used for thousands of years and are commonly found in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chinese diasporas, Wiebe says. In the 20th century, the Chinese government made an effort to simplify many of the characters to improve literacy. Yang says the major differences between traditional and simplified characters “lie in the reduced number of strokes and simplified configurations.”

To memorize characters so you can read Chinese, tap into apps like Pleco, a Chinese dictionary that has a flashcard option. Or, try reading a Chinese newspaper. Wiebe also suggests using The Chairman’s Bao, an online resource with simplified newspapers and a live dictionary.

Simple exercises are the key to learning how to write in Chinese, whether you want to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters. In the Chinese writing system, each character represents a syllable and has at least one meaning. When you combine Chinese characters, you create a word. For example, the word for “China” is two characters, one for “middle” and one for “country.”

Practice by writing Chinese characters and words in a notebook. Wiebe suggests writing a simple diary entry every day. As you improve, create sentences with characters rather than learning words in isolation. Think of a sentence you’d like to write, then find the Chinese characters to complete that sentence.

While Mandarin may seem challenging to master, you can reach basic or practical proficiency as long as you put in the time. “If you have a really good memory and a good ear, Mandarin should not be hard,” Wiebe says. “You have to decide that it’s really important and that you’re going to discipline yourself a lot.”

How quickly you learn Chinese depends on your dedication and the time you spend building skills. Many online resources say becoming fluent in Chinese can take up to 2,000 hours to 3,000 hours or more. The average learner should be able to speak conversationally and travel with ease after about six months to a year of studying Chinese.

“From my personal experience in a formal learning setting, five contact hours a week for 30 weeks a year can get a person to basic competency, and two years will get a person to practical competency,” Yang says.

Compared with languages like Spanish, learning Chinese will likely take longer. “In general, it really takes at least two to three times longer than a European language for English speakers to be fairly proficient,” says Wiebe.

When researching resources to help you learn Chinese, consider your learning style, how fast you want to learn and your budget. A go-to resource should be a tutor, either in-person or online, Wiebe says. Find Chinese tutors on websites like TutorMandarin or eChineseLearning, or sign up for online classes. The Chinese Language Institute, for example, offers a variety of classes with rates starting at $20 per hour for the first 29 hours.

Here are some Chinese language resources:

  • FluentU. Wiebe recommends this resource, which uses videos and interactive captions to help you improve pronunciation and vocabulary. It costs $20 to $30 per month, depending on the plan.
  • Rosetta Stone. This service focuses on basic pronunciation and builds up to conversational phrases. It also uses a speech-recognition tool to compare your accent with native speakers, and you can chat with other learners through its online community. The cost is $35.97 for three months.
  • Coursera. Watch and listen to plays, interactive exercises and video lectures. Participate in hands-on projects to build up proficiency to 1,000 words. You can audit the courses for free or subscribe for $49 per month.
  • EdX. EdX offers classes on vocabulary, grammar and culture and encourages you to study four to 10 hours per week. Many of edX’s Chinese courses are available for free, though you need to pay to earn a certificate for completing the class.
  • Duolingo. This app uses bite-sized lessons and games to help you learn Chinese in 5 minutes per day. The app is free, though you can access a premium version for $6.99 per month.

For those who prefer textbooks and guides, Wiebe recommends “Integrated Chinese,” which comes with workbooks and supplemental audio resources, and “Practical Audio-Visual Chinese,” published by National Taiwan University’s Mandarin training center. She also suggests “Colloquial Chinese” and “New Practical Chinese Reader.”

The way to learn Chinese fast is to dedicate time to practicing the language. There is no magic method to learn Chinese, but there are strategies and resources to help you master key concepts and build your skills. Speak and write the language as often as you can, Wiebe suggests. Take advantage of the range of free and subscription apps and online courses to help you progress.

“You have to be patient, and you really have to fall in love with it,” Wiebe says. “And then when you do, you just give in to a lifetime of learning it.”

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