If you want to study Chinese in China, you’d better have serious discipline.
I’ve been studying Mandarin for years, but not consistently. My studies have tended to slip a bit when I get caught up with work or other projects. That said; I’ve studied to take the HSK level 5, which is the standardized Chinese proficiency exam. Though I am a far cry from what could be considered fluent, I have enough skills to carry on basic conversations and wrangle out meaning when confused. No matter how much time I’ve spent listening, I’ve still had times where words seem distorted and little phrases or idioms trip me up.
Here, I am going to tell you what you need to know if you want to build a strong foundation to succeed with this language. If you take a look at all of the tools that are available to us now for purposes of learning, such as smart phone apps and online translation services, there really should be no excuse to improving if you dedicate yourself to the task. Just imagine what life was like for people learning the language before all these amazing resources existed. In this section, I will include a list of some of the tools that I think you’ll find to be most useful.
If you’re someone who is going to China and has never studied the language, you have your work cut out for you.
I would recommend you at least take some introductory survival Chinese courses before you set out.
If you’re like me and you have already studied Mandarin for a year or more before coming to China, one of the major problems you will have is hearing what’s being said. Sometimes, you hear words you’ve already studied and they still won’t register. Difficulties hearing Chinese will only be compounded by the fact that every part of China has a local dialect where they switch around consonants, drop others, and use distorted words and expressions for everyday things.
Learning how to read Chinese characters will go a long way toward improving your understanding of the language.
As soon as you start to recognize the way different components of different words are employed, so many doors of understanding will open in your mind. Learning to read Chinese has been one of the most rewarding parts of learning the language for me, and when you finally fill up a whole page of writing in characters you’ve learned without any outside guidance, you’re going to know that it was well worth it.
So, here are some resources that I feel you should look into/adopt to enhance your progress, should you choose to learn Chinese:
My Chinese Classroom
Next thing I want to recommend are a series of books called “My Chinese Classroom (我的汉语教室 – 中级)”. These are labeled as intermediate books, but most of the content wouldn’t hurt a beginner if they wanted to jump right in. The reason I recommend this series is because of the audio materials included with each book. Listening to the recordings and then checking the transcript to see what you might have missed is a very helpful exercise.
Pimsleur Mandarin II
While very expensive, this series is very good for developing your listening abilities. I didn’t actually pay for it. But I have listened to both the Mandarin I and II programs. The audio materials are built on repetition, introducing new vocabulary, and then building upon the concepts that you’ve already heard. I feel it would be most helpful for someone after they’ve already established a book-learned basic vocabulary. That way they already have some idea of what all those words are. A pretty good exercise would include listening, then writing the sentences down in Chinese.The best thing about it is getting to hear Chinese in action while being supported by an English framework.
First thing that you should take advantage of are Chinese character dictionaries. Some students study for years without realizing that you can look up characters directly using online dictionaries like that at yellowbridge.com. They have an option to look up characters by drawing them with their mouse and selecting the one they’re looking for. This is unbelievably helpful. You can also find some apps on your phone that may have some of the same capabilities; drawing characters with your finger. I recommend you use Chinese characters as your guide when delving into the language.
If I had to recommend a podcast, it would be Popup Chinese. They have a subscription service that is a little expensive, but it’s great for listening to colloquial Mandarin. One thing to remember about these podcasts is that even their elementary stuff can be a little daunting to new learners. They do have HSK materials and flash cards, which are great for practicing characters.
The HSK is the standardized Chinese proficiency exam. If you want an institutional job that requires Mandarin fluency, this is the go-to evaluation. There are different levels; 1 being the lowest, and 6 at the highest command of the language. Popup Chinese has HSK materials already integrated into their website.
They also have headlines in Chinese, which you can attempt to read news stories and roll over the characters you don’t know for definitions and pronunciation.
Some other people have recommended “Chinesepod,” and while I have listened to them, they never quite clicked with me the same way Popup did. But, I advise you try them both and see which one you like.
Because I opted for a Windows phone instead of an Android or an iPhone (I’ll expain why later), I bought an app called YiXue, and it turned out to be one of the most helpful I’ve come across. It really helps in building lists of characters that you don’t know. It also features audio support for extremely helpful tests. You should have no excuse for saying a word incorrectly after listening to the recordings.
I asked some people to share some of their favorite apps on Android and IOS, and they overwhelmingly said that Pleco is the best for their purposes. This is followed by hello Chinese, DuChinese, and Skritter.
If you’re just starting, I feel Rocket Chinese is one of the best programs out there. It combines the different areas of language learning (listening, writing, speaking, and repetition) into one tidy package with plenty of tools for you to measure your progress. This is the kind of supplement I wish I’d had when I first started. Combined with classroom study, I feel this program will get you to the level you need to be at to survive overseas.
One of the key things to keep in mind about trying to learn this language is unless you are very self-directed and have a clear motivation to learn, you’re not going to see progress.
So, make sure that when you make the decision to learn this, you have a clear vision of how it is going to improve your life – it doesn’t just have to be an economic improvement either. There is so much more to the experience than just the probability of using language skills for making money.
There have been times when I’ve felt overwhelmed by how much I don’t know, but there have also been times when I’ve been astonished by the sheer number of things that I do. One of the interesting parts of learning a language is once you’ve really absorbed it, it becomes a part of who you are. There are certain words and concepts in the Chinese language that I don’t think I could ever unlearn, even if I decided to live in an English-speaking country.
Try not to tune out all the Chinese you hear. The brain gets frustrated sometimes when it hears words it can’t process. You may be tempted to regress back into your own thoughts and hum quietly to yourself. Open up your ears and reject the assertion that you can’t understand what you’re hearing. Once in a while, you’re going to pick up on the things that you do hear, and that’s one small step in the right direction.