Beginner in Chinese?

Sign up to get a free basic Chinese course complete with MP3 audio, 
plus learning tips and video lessons! 

How to Learn to Speak Fluent Mandarin Chinese – Step 2

Laying a Solid Foundation in Chinese

After you are familiar with Chinese pronunciation and how Mandarin is represented in the Roman alphabet using the Pinyin system, you are ready to start the core of your study.

There are a number of beginner’s courses that you can use, and each has its strong and weak points. Different courses will be more suited to different people, and I will talk about some in another post. You might like to try a few out and see which one you like. However, at the beginning, exposure to the language and practice is the most important thing, and a dedicated learner will be able to gain from any course.

As many visitors to this site will know, I have been a Chinese learner myself for more than six years, and have used a variety of courses. I have also been developing my own course, Survive in Chinese, in conjunction with native speakers, designed to give beginners a strong foundation in all the everyday basics you will need in Chinese. MP3 Player

What I look for in beginner’s Mandarin courses:

1) Lots of audio – you need a lot of help with pronunciation at the beginning and exposure to the language, this is why I much prefer courses with lots of audio as opposed to 1 or 2 CD traditional courses. It is best to have all the audio or almost all the audio in Chinese, without English chat. This is one of the principles that is behind my own course.

2) Lots of drills and exercises to practice
3) Grammar notes that are simple
4) Texts that are practical and vocabulary that is relevant

At the beginning, the tendency is to rush through a course and try to learn as much as possible in the shortest time, but this way you won’t take in and remember much vocabulary and won’t internalise the sentence structures. At the beginning I would recommend working through a course one unit per week, or a few units a week if it is a course with very short texts. It is also a good idea to repeat each chapter/unit, so you get more practice in the basics. Quality study is the most important thing at the beginner stage, taking it slowly and working through a course thoroughly. It is also crucial that you repeat the native speakers on recordings as precisely as possible. Mandarin has four tones (four different ways of pronouncing any syllable) and you should focus on accuracy in tones from the beginning – even though it is slow and painful. It is easy to pronounce everything in a flat tone if you are learning Chinese, however if your tones are inaccurate it will be very difficult to correct later, so it is worth concentrating on pronunciation at the beginner stage.

Practice repeating dialogues or sections out loud as much as you can, to get your mouth moving around the language. You can write English versions of the dialogues in the book, and see if you can produce the Chinese just from looking at your English version. This is the real test to see whether you are familiar with the contents!

If you are able to finish one beginners course through self-study, then you are doing great! Most people don’t get that far! However, learning a language like Chinese to fluency takes a lot more commitment. Beginners courses are just an introduction, and there is a lot that they can’t cover. For this reason I would recommend that after you have worked through one beginners course, you should take another and work through a second beginner’s course. Some of it will be revision, but another course will give you extra vocabulary and different ways of saying the same thing. This way you are not ‘putting all your eggs in one basket!’

Many learners wouldn’t think of using a second beginner’s course but it is helpful because it will make you familiar with colloquial speech and improve your listening – all too many people take one course and find somebody on the street says it a different way that they have no idea what they are saying!

Even taking extra audio from other courses at the beginner’s level wouldn’t be a bad thing. It will help you to consolidate your knowledge and improve your listening – to build that all important base in the language.

Working through one course thoroughly might take you 3 or 4 months. That it actually quite intensive. Getting through two courses might take you 6 or 8 months. That is about the length of time you need to get a solid foundation in the language. In other blog posts I will discuss different courses, and methods for getting vocabulary and structures to stick.