Here is my new resource for everybody: how to learn Chinese fast. In the video I talk about three things.
1) What resources do you need to study Chinese?
2) How should you start to learn?
3) How can you progress?
What resources do you need?
A lot of people want to learn Chinese fast, but they pay too much attention to what books, CDs or software they start with, when the most important thing is always getting started. Still, my advice would be try to find materials that have texts in Chinese characters, Pinyin (which is the way you can write the sounds of Chinese using the Roman alphabet) and decent glossaries or English translations. Also, the more CDs or recordings to go along with the text the better, and avoid podcasts and courses with a lot of English chat.
In fact, I created my own beginners’ video course with native speakers, Survive in Chinese, because I wanted people to be able to understand the basics of Chinese quickly for practical use.
Beginners courses that I like and I have used before include FSI Chinese, although it has limited Chinese characters, Pimsleur and Assimil. People often ask me which course is the best, and the answer is 1) different people are suited to different approaches, so just go with your instinct and choose what you appeals to you and 2) no beginners course can teach you everything and make your fluent on its own, so I recommend that you work through several different courses.
Electronic tools to help you study Chinese
Ok, so apart from courses what else do you need? This is the 21st century and software and technology helps so much in learning Chinese. Looking up words in paper dictionaries can be difficult with Chinese and takes a lot of time, so I recommend getting electronic dictionaries for your computer and your smartphone.
For PCs I recommend the dictionary software Lingoes, you can type in English or Chinese words and look them up. I also recommend getting a reading tool like Dimsum or Wenlin. You can just copy and paste in a Chinese text, then you just move your mouse over characters you don’t know and it can tell you the English. This will come in so useful as you continue to learn.
I also recommend getting the dictionary Pleco, go to the app store on your phone and you can find it, it is available Android smartphones, iPhone and iPad. You can look up words anywhere you are, and you can just write a Chinese character onto the screen, and even if you don’t write it properly, the software will recognise it and give you the pronunciation and meaning. These are all amazing tools for people learning Chinese that 8 years later. I still use every day.
I also recommend the website Arch Chinese, again I’ll put the link in the description. It will tell you how to write any Chinese character you want. Every time you want to learn a character, copy and paste it in, and then the software will tell you how to write it stroke by stroke, so just follow along and copy until you get it. That’s how I learnt to write Chinese; I just followed the examples so many times that it is instinctive now. Some of the programs I have already mentioned, Dimsum, Wenlin and Pleco will also do this for you.
Next, I recommend you get software to type in Chinese. To type characters, you enter their pronunciation in the Roman alphabet using a normal keyboard. I talk about how to do this on my blog and other videos. I recommend using the software Sogou Pinyin, it’s really popular in China, and it’s much much better than the solutions that come with Windows. Try to use it to type in the words and phrases you see as you study.
To memorise vocabulary, I suggest you get the free program Anki, which is basically like paper flashcards, but on your computer or phone. You can put in new words you learn, and the computer will test you. Remember to learn whole sentences, not just individual words, so you actually know how to use the vocabulary in context.
Getting familiar with the sounds of Mandarin
Ok, so that’s resources. So how do you get started? Well, I recommend you start by familiarizing yourself with the sounds of Mandarin Chinese, and the good news is that there are not as many of them as in some other languages. You need to get familiar with Pinyin, which as I said is the way you can write the sounds of Chinese using the Roman alphabet, and it’s the pronunciation guide you see in textbooks and dictionaries.
Mandarin Chinese has four tones, which are four different ways of pronouncing each syllable. For more information on this, I have done a video introduction to pronunciation. To understand how it all works, you can download the Chinesepod Pinyin chart tool, and practice all the sounds and tones.
Later, when you learn vocabulary, be sure to learn what tone each syllable is pronounced in and start of speaking slowly, making sure you are careful to get it right every time. When you are familiar with Pinyin and the sounds of the language, you can get stuck into your learning materials. You don’t have to memorise every sound just yet, but make sure you are aware of how the language is pronounced.
Whichever course you choose, I recommend you do something every day, even it is only 15 minutes, but preferably 30-45 minutes, at least a few times a week. Nobody wants to waste time, but trying to work too quickly is not effective. Let me put this in perspective, you might be able to read a thick book in two weeks, but you could also read through it in 3 months, which way are you going to remember more of it? It’s the same with language learning.
Actively involving yourself in the learning process
Make your study active not passive from day one. Don’t just stick a CD on or flick through a textbook or vocabulary lists, make your language study active. Look up words you see or hear that you don’t know, put full sentences including them into your vocabulary software and review what you have learned a bit every day.
Get your mouth moving one from day one, read texts yourself, try translating the texts to and from your native language. Record yourself and try and listen for your mistakes or ask a native speaker to give you some tips.
If you’re anything like me, you can’t just read a text in a book once and remember everything, go back and listen to CDs many times, translate and try to reproduce conversations yourself until you can recall it. Try to work through a full course actively in this way, but if you are not enjoying the method, then don’t just get frustrated, you can always try a different course. By working for say 30 minutes every day, you can make huge progress in a short time.
The challenge of Chinese characters
With Chinese characters, there is a lot to learn, and I would advise choosing between simplified or traditional characters at the beginning. At the very beginning, try to use materials that have characters and pinyin pronunciation guides.
If your aim is just to learn to communicate in the language and you don’t have time for characters, that’s fine, but I recommend you learn to at least read and recognise them along with the courses you study. It is much easier to recognise characters than to write them. You can work through learning to write the characters in your general course slowly. Don’t worry if you get behind with them. It always happens. Use the websites and software I mentioned to find out how to write the characters and follow the guidelines exactly until you get it.
Some people talk about the list of most frequently used Chinese characters, I’ll include the link to it below. While I don’t recommend learning characters from a list and out of context, the list can be good to revise from or to fill in gaps in your knowledge. As I said, the top 3000 characters essentially cover everything in Chinese.
Learning to speak the language
How do you build up fluency in speaking Chinese? To put it briefly, it is a matter of practice. A lot of people listen to hours of materials but really struggle when they end up speaking to a native speaker. I have a way to solve this problem. I record 5 minute dialogues of myself in my native language of English talking about my life, my job, my future plans and each of my hobbies. Then I play them back to myself and try to put everything into Chinese or the foreign language, where I get stuck, I look up words. Then I try again until I build up my fluency.
Another thing you can do is practice describing what you see around you in Chinese or saying what you did that day in Chinese. Other than that, the best way to practice speaking is of course to talk to native speakers.
Getting beyond the beginner stage
So how do you progress? Well, unfortunately the marketing teams for many language learning products like to persuade people that they will become fluent just by completing that one course, which is just not going to be possible. In fact, I recommend working through 2 or 3 beginners’ courses. You will revise a lot of things, but also learn a lot of new things, because each course is different. Just keep going! But after you have worked through a couple of beginners’ courses, where to next?
When you are choosing more materials, remember to keep them at what second language acquisition expert Stephen Krashen calls the +1 level. If you can understand everything, it means the materials are too easy for you and you won’t learn much. If you can hardly understand anything, then you are going to waste too much time going through a text with a dictionary, or a recording will just pass by you without you understanding it, and you will lose confidence. Therefore you should choose materials that are one step harder than what you already know. If you can understand say 60 – 75% then the materials are probably suitable for you.
It seems like a big jump from understanding material for learners and understanding authentic material in Chinese. Here are some tips: try courses for intermediate learners to bridge the gap, or listening courses with vocabulary or texts to go with them. I also recommend downloading short programs or podcasts in Chinese no longer than 15 minutes long. Listen to them slowly. Don’t just ignore things you can’t understand, because if you do that you are not going to improve. The first time round, pause and try to look up the words you don’t know in a dictionary and write down the vocab. Try to get used to typing Chinese words you hear using Pinyin into dictionary software to look them up. This will train your ear and your vocabulary. Then listen again in full.
It is painful to have to work through things slowly, but it will help you to teach yourself a lot of “real Chinese vocab.” Pick materials that are related to things you are interested in. You can also watch simpler TV entertainment and chat shows, because most Chinese TV has subtitles to help you. You can continue to speak with native speakers, trying to expand the variety of topics you can talk about, study from bilingual texts or translations and Chinese subtitles of English TV shows. All of these activities will be helpful.
Good luck with your studies!