Learn Chinese in Ten Easy Steps
- Very first thing to begin your journey - Learn the Chinese pinyin, a bunch of English alphabet letters that the Chinese languge uses to sound out Chinese words. Why the English alphabet? Well, it could have been Arabic or Russian or whatever language alphabet we have in the world, but English is the most widely spoken language in the world and it’s a long history about the adoption of English alphabet letters to notate the Chinese sounds. If you are interested in the history of pinyin, which is just a little more than sixty years old, do a little research online and you will find both the historical, political, and cultural background for this adoption. But you don’t really need to know that to learn pinyin. How do you find the list and how to pronounce each letter? Just Youtube it. Type in “Chinese pinyin” and you will find a bunch of people who have posted videos on how to pronounce these letters differently in Chinese. Don’t worry, it’s not that different from English. After all, human beings make human sounds – that’s how we separate ourselves from birds and chimps because we are wired to learn different languages.
- Once you have learned how to pronounce the Chinese words, now you need to accumulate the following sets of words for your own practical purposes – traveling, studying, or doing business with a Chinese company. The five categories are: Nouns, or names you want to call people or things like “Mr. Wang,” or “stir friend chicken”, etc. This category must be as big as you need to call people or things, let’s say about 300 for starters. Then you need to learn the most useful verbs that describe actions like “to like,” “to have,” “to be” and “to eat”; these verbs don’t change forms in Chinese and you can use them with anybody anywhere for any time references – so “I read, I read yesterday, I am reading, and I have read” all have the same verb “du,” in Chinese. Then you indicated the time and aspect by using other particles. Difficult? Not really – In fact, this aspect of non-conjugation of Chinese verbs is one reason why spoken Chinese is so easy and quick. I would say about 50 verbs to start with for this category. Then once you can say stuff like “I like she and she like me,” and “I eat a bowl of dumplings yesterday,” you might want to learn some adjective and adverbs because you want to describe the quality of, like “spicy” and “delicious”. I would say about 30 adjectives are good for now. The next is the question words, about 14 of them like “who, where, when, how, why, yes/no, or, which, whose,” etc. And lastly, those pronouns – “he, she, they, you, we, and I.” Don’t worry about “him, her, them, you, us, and me” – they are the same as the other forms – Chinese grammar is ridiculously simple – at the beginning of your learning.
- Don’t worry about Chinese grammar but still learn the basics – Chinese verbs don’t conjugate and the nouns have no gender or plural forms. It’s the simplest spoken language you can learn. You will find sentences like “Yesterday we five person go to NY have lunch, shop, and visit NYC Museum” – just bare minimum words to indicate the meaning. If you pay special attention, the plural, past tense, infinitive and gerund are all dropped because all are implied by the context. Illogical? Hardly. Different logic? Absolutely. So they don’t have to tell you it’s “we five people went to NYC” because it was yesterday. They don’t use “to have lunch, to shop and to visit” because how else would you understand the sentence? To the Chinese Latin based languages are too redundant. So kick back and just learn to ask the following questions and you are all set to start talking – yes or no, when, how, who, whose, where, which, what, and how many.
- Now you have learned the basics of pronunciation, basic grammar rules to form sentences and questions, and a good collection of vocabulary words, which I compare to lego blocks to build a toy house, now it’s time to listen to the sound of Chinese vocabulary, sentences. You need to do this every day while going through your daily routines – brushing teeth, driving, eating, resting, or even going to the bathroom, cooking and eating – immerse yourself in the sounds – but listen with understanding – using a sound file that tells you what they are saying at first and progress until you become more fluent. And most importantly, repeating the same information every day. Unless you have a photographic memory, or a person that remembers sequences of sounds like Mozart or Beethoven, you will need to repeat these sounds and at least in seven different times. Yes, treat each phrase each sentence, and even each dialog like songs until you can “sing” it.
- Once you can understand the sound system and studied a little of the grammar, you will find yourself “humming” in Chinese. Now you can practice your learned knowledge with native speakers whenever you can find one – online or in person, say talking with an owner in a Chinese restaurant. Start small. Walk in and say “ni hao!” and watch their response – normally, a smile. Trust me on this. Learning another language has benefits – it brings the distance to closeness between speakers – only speakers who don’t speak the same language. You see, language is not an isolated thing. People use language to communicate their needs and between people who speak the same language such needs are normal and expected. But if somebody is trying to learn your own language to communicate their needs with you, not in their own language but your own, it becomes psychological – it basically says – this person likes your language so much she is willing to put time to learn to say the words that are a part of you. Pretty spiffy huh? In fact, there is a whole course in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics where specific examples are studied to show why we use the language the way we do. So talk to a Chinese restaurant owner and waiter – you may get good service, good food, and even get some special hot pepper sauce reserved for their special guest. I have a friend who runs a restaurant and cooks his special hot pepper sauce and only offers to his special customers. Talking with native speakers will motivate you and keep you going. Once you practice what you have learned you will feel a strong connection and this awareness will keep you going for more.
- Now you can start watching Chinese movies and cartoons on Youtube and there is plenty of choices. You do this to consolidate what you have learned and stay focused and motivated so that you don’t miss practicing the language any day of your life. The important thing is not lose the momentum and keep up with the practice – By now, it’s no longer practice, you are actually applying the information you have learned while building on it and learning new information. While it’s impossible to learn languages without teachers, now the Internet and especially Youtube has provided a large resources that traditional teachers could only provide before the electronic age – I call the gramophone or take-recording years when replaying the sounds of native speakers was a luxury. Now you can not only listen, you can also watch the person, and even interact with the person who speaks the language you want to learn! At this stage you will find your vocabulary increase by as much as 5000 – Shoot for 5000 words, will you?
- Only now – I mean only now you may consider learning to write a few words in Chinese – they are called characters – Please remember not to try this in previous steps – because this system has no connection with the pinyin at all. It’s a totally separate system and that’s what makes learning Chinese very difficult- the writing. Say learn to write 20 characters and see how they work – again, try “Hello. My name is Tony. I am happy to meet you” and show it to the same Chinese restaurant owner and see a big smile on his face.
- Continue building your vocabulary. By now you should have learned how to ask questions, and have accumulated at least 3000 vocabulary words in all five categories – covering the common topics like greetings, weather, numbers, dates, house, foods, transportation, shopping, eating out, banking, etc. making sure you know some words in all daily categories. Now try to write an email in Chinese pinyin and read it to a Chinese person and see their response. You may sound it out to your Chinese restaurant owner and see his response.
- Now you want to review all the notes and audios you have studied before you move on to other complicated subjects – such as reservation, bargaining, and politics. You want to expand your vocabulary at all times. Now you should have 3000 words to use and 9000 words you understand.
- Now think of a real trip to China or anywhere where there is a large gathering of Chinese people and really go out on a limb to practice your Chinese. Insist on speaking Chinese and use your body language to get what you need. You will find all the effort and time you put in has paid off. If you are interested in some quick Berlitz like booklet to start learning Mandarin Chinese, check out the following sites.