Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Six Tips from a Slacker: How to Learn Mandarin

Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to learn.  For the last two and a half years, three hours per week, my Chinese teacher Sophie has patiently coached me to a level of language proficiency that allows me to order dinner in a restaurant and direct a cab driver home. I admit I have not been the best student.   However, there were some things I could have done as a student from day one that would’ve made learning Mandarin easier.   Here are some of the things I should have done when I started learning with Jie. 

I don't know how Sophie has put up with me for the last two years. 

1)  Forget everything you learned about learning English and start from scratch.
When I learning English and Spanish, I would sound out words and guess their meanings based on their placement in the sentence or Latin roots.  That doesn’t work for Mandarin.  It is next to impossible to “sound out” characters.  I have found the only way to learn this language is memorize, memorize, memorize.

2)  When learning vocabulary, memorize the tones.
When speaking Mandarin one doesn’t speak the language, one sings it.  Each syllable has one of four tones.  Each tone carries a different meaning.  When I started learning, I decided the tones weren’t really necessary.  Then I tried to order 4 bottles of water and it came out as death water.   (The only difference between the word for four and the word for death is the tone.)  While tones can be annoying, suck it up and learn them.

The tones do make a big impact on the meaning of words. 

3)   Start learning the characters when you start learning the language.  Don’t rely on Pinyin.  Learn how to write the characters.
In the 1950’s, in an effort to connect with the western world, the Chinese government developed Pinyin, a Latin version of Mandarin. Pinyin has made learning Mandarin pronunciation easier, but unfortunately most signs, menus, books, and subtitles don’t include Pinyin.  When learning your vocabulary, memorize the characters along with the Pinyin. 

All of these words are made of the letters ji.  Learning the characters along with the Pinyin would have saved me much time.
One way that has helped me remember the language was learning how to write Mandarin characters. Making the characters into pictures and making up stories about them has been a great memorization strategy.

As a child, I always got a "needs improvement" with my handwriting.  Hanzi is killing me!! Every time I practice writing my characters, I can't help but feel like a six year old tracing.  

4)  Use apps to supplement your learning, and study while commuting.
The average work commute in Shanghai is one hour.  I have wasted many of these hours playing 2048, Candy Crush, Words With Friends, and many other iPhone games designed to waste time.  Mandarin became MUCH easier when I decided to study my flash cards in lieu of playing these games…or at least play the games after I finish studying. 

Here are some of my Mandarin Learning Apps.  Unfortunately many of them require in app purchases to unlock vocabulary.  
I have found that one of the most effective ways to learn Mandarin is by using apps.  One of my favorite learning apps is Pleco. I am a huge fan of their dictionary that allows you to immediately add words into the flashcard system.  They also have all six levels of the HSK vocabulary cards preloaded in the flash card add on.

5)  Use TED talk strategies, but ignore the claims. 
There are many great Ted Talks that address learning Mandarin, but some of the speakers’ claims are absolutely ridiculous.  Unless you are a language savant, it is impossible to be entirely fluent in Mandarin in 6 months.  Watch these talks, use the strategies, and ignore the claims that learning Chinese can be easy.  Anyone who says learning Mandarin is easy is a liar.

6)  Be prepared to laugh at yourself, and at the language.
Some of the direct translations of Mandarin words are hilarious.  For example, the word for perfume literally translates to smile water.  The word for toilet translates to horse tub. 

Also, no matter how hard you try to be a perfectionist, you are going to have your moments where you embarrass yourself.  Laugh at your mistakes, and move on.  Most importantly, practice, practice, practice!  That is the only way to master the language.

Long story short, if you do as I say and not as I do you, will be well on your way to learning Mandarin!