One month ago, I decided to start learning Chinese, it’s been a wild, exciting ride that has challenged me in a way no language has before.
I had been toying with the idea of learning for a few months; I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and speak Spanish on a near-daily basis with the large Hispanic population here. Having also studied French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, and Italian, I can pretty much understand and communicate with the main expat populations here, yet Chinese was the biggest group that escaped me. As someone who always wants to engage with everyone he meets in their native tongue, something told me I needed to start, though I knew it was to be my biggest language challenge yet.
A Facebook message from a friend gave me the catalyst to begin. An American living in Shanghai, he was finally tying the knot with his Chinese girlfriend and I had been invited to the wedding. Having recently been imbued with a small amount of free time, I dived in headfirst.
Here’s what I learned so far:
To learn Chinese, you must first learn how to learn Chinese
Never before when learning a language have I spent an entire day researching study materials, but that’s what I did with Chinese.
Due to the complicated and foreign nature of Chinese characters (hanzi) and the tonal character of the language, there exist a multitude of technologies that can be harnessed by the average learner to speed up his/her progress.
I started with the ChineseLanguage subreddit, which led me on a wild path to blogs like Hacking Chinese, Sinosplice, and Scott Young (who famously spent several months intensively learning Chinese and made an incredible video about it).
After hours of research, I determined I was going to use the following tools to aid my learning:
Meetup groups – there are two in San Francisco, a monthly Mandarin group and a more general language exchange group that meets weekly
Pimsleur – I had used their audio courses for French and Japanese and liked them. For a tonal language like Chinese, it’s good to get as much audio-based immersion in as possible.
HelloChinese – a Hong Kong-based Duolingo clone app that is said to be better than Duolingo at Chinese specifically.
Anki – with hanzi, pinyin, and English fields.
Online conversation with native speakers – HelloTalk, which allows a user to exchange text and audio with language partners, and iTalki, which allows for booking of video lessons with native teachers, as well as videochat with other users
Learn pinyin first
Because of the intricate characters, we have a tendency to romanticize Chinese and overstate its difficulty, which is one of the reasons I shied away from learning Chinese initially
Then I realized you don’t have to learn them… at least not right away. Substituting characters for pinyin for a beginning learner helps them see that Chinese is just like any other language and can be attacked in mostly the same way (the two exceptions are characters and tones).
For someone like me whose main goal is speaking, I resolved to start learning characters only after several months of study, so I could put more focus on vocabulary, grammar, and tones right away.
Make your own Anki deck
For vocabulary, making your own Anki deck is crucial. I saw that other learners were using pre-made decks, but I’ve never liked that idea, as you end up learning characters/words you don’t need or will rarely use. I want my deck to be a true representation of what I say.
I saw some complicated personal decks out there, but after hours of research, I determined the only three fields that were truly required were hanzi, pinyin, and English. With these fields, I can make several different combinations of cards depending on what I want to emphasize. Right now, I have pinyin + English on one side of a card and pinyin + hanzi on another side. Whenever I want to start shifting my focus to hanzi and away from pinyin, I’ll simply create a new card type with only hanzi on one side, thus leveraging my existing cards with no need to create new ones.
Speaking with native Chinese speakers is incredibly rewarding
My intent with any language I learn is to make spontaneous conversation my primary focus from day one, and Chinese is no different.
But what makes speaking Chinese with natives so incredibly fun is how amazed and excited they are that you are learning their language. Validation is an important motivational tool, and you won’t be lacking of it in any conversation with a native.
I went to a Chinese meetup after a week and a half of learning and people were looking at me wide-eyed because I was already able to form words.
No matter your level, Chinese speakers will be genuinely complimentary of your learning efforts.
I have more tips to share, but I’ll end it for now. I’ll be posting monthly videos tracking how my Chinese is progressing on my YouTube channel, so make sure to subscribe there!