This is applicable to most languages, but intensive learning at the beginning is particularly important for a language like Mandarin, which is utterly alien to an English speaker. I failed to learn Mandarin as a child because two hours a week were not enough to build the foundation. For Chinese, the basics are crucial: you must learn the four tones (which are often indistinguishable to English speakers), master the Pinyin needed to pronounce the logographic characters, and grasp other fundamentals such as the stroke order to form the characters. It takes hours of writing, listening, and speaking to master these basics. A British-Italian friend of mine studied once a week at a Confucius Institute in London for eight months with no results. After only a month of intense classes at Mandarin House in Shanghai – six hours a day, five days a week – she was writing and speaking like a Chinese five-year-old, which is progress not to be taken lightly. She then switched to a less intense daily program, but credits her “Chinese boot camp” for giving her a great foundation to work from. Even one-on-one tutoring may not be effective if it isn’t a daily ritual. Check out GoAbroad.com for a good list of schools and programs in China.
People learning Chinese who aren’t native English speakers are great language partners: 2. You are less likely to fall back on English to communicate. Swapping English for Chinese as part of a language exchange with locals is fine – but with my Japanese and Korean classmates, Chinese is often our only common language, so we speak it all the time. There is no need to structure our sessions. We hang out after class when the material is fresh in our minds, and use all the words and idioms we’ve just learned. I don’t worry too much about being right or wrong, but focus on just opening my mouth and trying to use the language as much as possible, without English to fall back on.
Consuming Chinese pop culture is an enjoyable way to build your vocabulary just by sitting on your tush, and a great chance to test your listening and comprehension away from the classroom syllabus. What you should watch or listen to depends on your preferences and language level. I’m a child at heart and a big cartoon fan, so I’ve gotten hooked on Xǐ Yáng Yáng yǔ Huī Tài Láng (“Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf”), an outrageously popular Chinese animated TV series. It’s intensely cute, and easy for anyone with a basic grasp of Mandarin to follow. I suggest focusing on just one particular show or mini-series to start with. I find I get emotionally involved with the storyline, which gives me added incentive to keep watching, and it helps my listening skills to focus on the accents of only a handful of people. One of my favorite dramas was a 2005 Taiwanese series called “The Prince Who Turns into a Frog.” With each passing episode I grew increasingly familiar with the characters’ voices, and it became easier to understand their dialogue.
In my last Chinese class, I realized that many silent students were nervous about talking because they thought they looked awkward when they spoke. And it’s true, something happens to my mouth when I speak Chinese – it moves in crazy ways that it doesn’t when I speak English. Sometimes, if I become aware that I’m speaking fluently without a book or script, I start to overthink my words and the movements of my mouth, and I begin to falter. It’s just as important to be physically confident about speaking Chinese as it is to have a strong grasp of the vocabulary, pronunciation, and tones. Speaking in front of a mirror and seeing how your mouth forms Chinese words can help with this. Watch yourself speak, relax your facial muscles, and practice being angry and sad and happy in Chinese. When you realize you don’t look like a fool, fluency will start to come naturally.
Just keep listening until you understand! How is this possible? Khatzumoto explains himself: “One of the more apparently “controversial” pieces of advice I've offered is to simply immerse in audio keep listening whether or not you understand the target language. It'll all just start to make sense. No doubt I am not the first person to have suggested this. At best I simply pushed the idea to its logical extreme…”
Eschewing English-language social networks in favor of their Chinese equivalents gives you a good reason to use Chinese characters on a daily basis, as well as the opportunity to network with a large community of Chinese netizens. Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China at the moment, but you can use their local equivalents, Renren and Weibo. I used to be wildly frustrated when learning Chinese characters because I saw it as too much work for too few immediate rewards. But I remember the day my iPod Touch arrived at my door, after I’d ordered it online having spent the previous day struggling to read Chinese terms and conditions. When the right product turns up at your home, it’s tangible proof you can use your Chinese skills! I still find Taobao, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, difficult to navigate because of the cluttered interface and overwhelming array of products, but I can now use Amazon.cn with no problems, as the layout is similar to the English-language version.
NHK News Web Easy is the kind of site that the internet was made for. Up-to-date news made easier for Japanese learners, with audio recording and accompanying text (complete with furigana, definitions and some word filtering tools). Once you've mastered the easy version, you can click on the link to view the original full-length news report in black-belt level Japanese. Amazing stuff!
The Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK) is a Mandarin proficiency exam administered in China and abroad. There are six possible levels of achievement, the most elementary testing you on 150 words, and the most advanced testing your knowledge of up to 5000 words. Some people take the HSK for Chinese university admission, others because they are hoping for a short-term language study scholarship. For those of us with only vague plans what to do with our Mandarin skills, I suggest taking it as an end goal. It’s often easier to push yourself if you’re working towards something concrete. The exam tests your listening, reading, comprehension, and composition skills. The cost depends on your level. The spoken part of the exam is separate. For more details, check out the website.
I live in Shanghai, and many foreigners tell me this is not the best place to learn Mandarin. “Get out of the big city and move somewhere more rural and really Chinese,” they argue. But I disagree that camping out in a tiny city is necessarily the best way to learn Chinese. You can be in a big city and speak Mandarin everyday, or go to a rural town and seek out the five other English-speaking foreigners there. Last year I lived in the Yangpu district of Shanghai, far away from the “foreigner-infested French Concession,” as my friend joked. Yet I surrounded myself with English speakers, and my Chinese didn’t improve. This year, I’m actually living in the “foreigner-infested French Concession”, but I feel more immersed in the language. I speak Chinese to my Japanese and Korean classmates, to my landlord, to my elderly neighbors, to my favorite restaurant owners, to Chinese friends. I live in one of the most foreigner-friendly parts of China, yet I’m doing better than ever with the language.
As a way into a Japanese community, focus on learning songs that are relevant to your age group. “Karaoke is basically the unofficial national sport, says Jessica Aves. Japanese people love when foreigners can belt out their songs (the older it is, the louder they'll react) so get your practice in early. Karaoke groups are also a great way to make friends.” She tells you exactly which bands to listen to! [Note: Get your Japanese song lyrics from utamap.com]