Before learning Chinese, it is essential to know what is in store for you. Chinese is a language that is both easy and difficult to learn, based on your perspective. Still there are some things that are intrinsic to the language, such as the sentence order, the characters and the different tones. If you know these things in advance, you’ll have an easier time while learning this fascinating language.
Chinese is a tonal language, just like Thai and Vietnamese. Mandarin is the most commonly spoken language, especially in China’s northern parts. There are four tones in Mandarin, and the change of tone equates to a change in meaning.
On the other hand, Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong, has six tones. In Mandarin, the term ‘ma’ means mother in the first tone. It translates to ‘numb’ in the second; ‘horse’ in the third and ‘to scold’ in the fourth.
Knowing the tone is very important in order for you to avoid committing mistakes during conversations. This is one of the most important things to remember, which ranks higher than memorising Chinese characters and learning the grammar.
2. Chinese characters
Next to the tones, you should know the Chinese characters as this will aid you in reading texts in the same manner that the tones will help you to formulate and verbalise sentences. It could be a humongous task because overall there are over 50,000 Chinese characters.
But don’t worry. You do not have to memorise them all. An educated Chinese person has knowledge of about 8,000 characters only, but you have to learn some 2,000 to 3,000 characters before you will be able to read Chinese texts. Today, most Chinese language learners only know how to speak Chinese. It is best that a learner starts to learn reading and writing in Chinese early in life.
3. Word order
Part of the confusion in learning Chinese is the word order. Basically, it is similar to what you are used to if you are an English language speaker. The basic sentence is in SVO or subject + verb + object. While this is a good starting point, in most cases, the subject is not as clear cut in Mandarin as in English. Mandarin sentences are more focused on topic.
Moreover, changing the word order provides a different meaning to a phrase. As an example, the usual greeting “nihao ma” translates to ‘how are you?’ It will mean ‘Mother, you are great’ if you change the order into “ma nihao.”
These are just the top three things to keep in mind. However there are still other things you have to consider before you embark on learning Chinese.
China is often at the forefront these days and many are interested in this country with a very ancient past. It’s a political powerhouse, and is a new market for retail and investment. As a key player in the world market, many are now interested to learn the language. It will be a challenge but a good addition to your resume. Here are some more things to consider before you start learning Chinese.
4. You should have a purpose
Although it is one of the most difficult languages to learn, it is not going to be an impossible endeavour. However you need to have consistent focus. You should be definite about your purpose to learn the language, since it will provide you with the right motivation to study.
5. Choose the right dialect to study
Based on your purpose, you should also identify which Chinese language or dialect to learn. If you want to use the skill for conducting business with Chinese counterparts, you should learn Mandarin, which is the official language in China and the language used in Beijing. If you are going to work or stay in Macau, the Pearl River Delta or Hong Kong for a while, it is best to learn Cantonese. Cantonese is also the language commonly used in Guangdong Province in mainland. Likewise, this is the Chinese language you are most used to if you are from the United States, Western Europe, Australia or Canada.
6. Identify the way you learn
People process information in different ways, so you must determine how you learn. Do you learn by repeated recitation, by reading or by hearing? You might respond better to practical instruction instead of an academic approach. Some quickly learn by reading instructional books on the Chinese language while others do well with recorded lessons. But these are supplementary learning tools. In the beginning you should have language immersion classes, either from China or at a language school. You can then augment your formal lessons with other means so your conversational skills will improve.
7. Concentrate on listening and speaking
As a beginner, the areas that you should concentrate on are listening and speaking, because at this stage, the Chinese characters will not help you learn the proper way to pronounce Chinese words. It will be when you reach the advanced stage that you’ll learn that parts of a Chinese character will indicate the sound while others will provide the meaning. So in the beginning, it’s best to learn how to engage in conversation, as pronunciation is very important in this language.
If you are determined to learn the Chinese language, you should start learning now. To achieve limited proficiency in the language, you need to study for about a year, spending 30 hours each week on lessons. With determination and right motivation, you will not be daunted by the fact that it could take 10 years to be completely comfortable with the language.
Sean Patrick Hopwood is a polyglot and a language enthusiast. His goal in life is to bring world peace through education, tolerance and cultural awareness. He is also the President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc., a global translation company that offers Chinese translation services.