Every transplant to China has grappled with the most obvious and eminent issue upon making the move. Sure, setting up a life here, sifting through the paperwork involved with securing employment and a visa, getting a work and residence permit, finding a place to stay and getting everything prepared inside … concerns about getting used to the food, perhaps … myriad potential pitfalls and hangups exist. But by far, for most, the overarching concern is the language issue.
Some newcomers to China might have Chinese ancestry in part or full, and they might be lucky enough to have heard Chinese spoken in their households growing up. Others may have picked it up in school or in their neighborhoods in previous stops in life before coming to the Middle Kingdom. For most, though, that isn’t the case. Often, people are starting completely from scratch as far as picking up the Chinese language.
And of course, Chinese is, quite famously, difficult. There is a great debate in the linguistic academic community (of which I am certainly not a part) about which widely-spoken language is the most difficult in the world to learn. Mandarin Chinese, though, is invariably at least on the list in the top tier if not in pole position. For anyone who’s attempted to do it, I need not explain why this is, but, to put it simply, the pronunciation, structure, conceptualization, and obviously, the writing system are quite different from those of most languages from other parts of the world.
People respond to this challenge in different ways. Often, to what degree and with what level of effort and enthusiasm newcomers to China attempt to learn the language is dictated by circumstances. Living in a city like Shanghai where English is widely spoken by many people does mitigate some of the necessity to learn Chinese, as compared with a smaller city where being unable to communicate in Chinese causes more significant hurdles and difficulties.
Some people work in jobs or careers that don’t require a knowledge of the Chinese language, and if those jobs require great time commitments and heavy workloads, perhaps they might not have the time needed to dedicate themselves to learning a new, difficult language. Others might just see themselves as “too old” to learn a new language or “just not having a talent” for languages.
Whatever the case, it’s certainly true that having a certain level of skill and an ability to communicate in Chinese is at the very least useful in certain situations and, for many, can create opportunities and enrich personal and professional pursuits.
So how to go about it? Many different strategies exist for people with different lifestyles, natural aptitudes and learning styles. Some prefer to take the academic approach and dive in headfirst, purchasing textbooks, attending language corners and meet-ups and even booking lessons from professional teachers. Others take a more casual approach, learning practical words and phrases bit by bit to navigate in taxis and supermarkets and basic life situations. Some are more pointed in their efforts, carving out specific periods of time each day or each week to devote to the task, seeking to use their limited time more efficiently.
Regardless of the approach, or even if, up to this point, you’ve decided to put it off or just not to pursue it at all, I’m not here to shame anyone for their mindset. Learning Chinese is hard and it takes a lot of time. Heaven knows I’d really benefit from more exercise and more sleep, and I’m not getting much of either at the moment, so there’s no criticism or condescension coming from me. But for those who have an interest in upping their skills or finding new strategies for increasing their fluency, particularly in practical and conversational settings, I’ll share some personal experiences from my journey with the language and offer some tips that I’ve picked up along the way. Again, I’m no professional linguist nor am I a Chinese teacher, but I do think after nearly 14 years of battle, I’ve obtained at least a few valuable arrows in my quiver.
I believe that the most important part of getting started with learning Chinese is to build a solid foundation, and I think the bedrock to that is getting as close as possible to the correct pronunciation of sounds and, yes, tones. As we all know, Mandarin is a tonal language, and for those of us whose native tongue is not, tones can be exceedingly difficult to master. I’ve heard some learners tell me that tones are unimportant and that even though they don’t pay attention to using the correct tones, they can communicate in Chinese perfectly fine. I fundamentally disagree with this and really doubt that they can beyond a rudimentary level.
I took my first Chinese lesson during my first year at university in the US. I was starting from absolute scratch – I didn’t know a single word; not even ni hao at that point. The first three or four 90-minute lessons that our teacher, Professor Zhang from Beijing, gave were strictly about tones. We’d endlessly listen and practice, mā, má, mǎ, mà in the four tones, not understanding why our teacher seemed displeased when, to our ears, we’d repeated exactly what she’d said.
Though it may seem tiresome, and it was frustrating to report to my friends that through my first two weeks of learning Chinese, I knew exactly zero words, getting the tones down at least to a fairly high degree of accuracy is important for two main reasons. The first is that Chinese speakers hear tonality in language just as much as the actual pronunciation of the word itself. I had a discussion with a friend recently who was frustrated about how, upon getting into a taxi and asking to be taken to Changping Road, the driver couldn’t seem to understand what he meant despite pronouncing the basic sounds chang, ping, and lu (road) properly. It was because of the tones – the order of tones in that name, first (flat), second (up), then fourth (down) is just as important as the pronunciation of the sounds themselves. Without that tonal sequence, the driver didn’t make the connection.
Second, speaking a language with the proper intonations simply grants a higher degree of credibility. It’s not absolutely necessary, and getting most of the tones right most of the time will certainly be enough to get your message across. But really striving to achieve a high level of tonal accuracy melts away the communicative barrier and increases the level of engagement from the other party in the conversation, even if your vocabulary may not be at the HSK 9 level. I recommend focusing on tonal accuracy early in the process before worrying about memorizing too many words or having extended conversations because once you’re months or years down the line, it’s something that’s difficult to correct.
The second vital factor is environment. Repeating what we hear just as we’ve heard it is how we learn our mother tongue from our elders as children, and it’s how we best learn additional languages as well. It’s easier to master not only the tone and pronunciation but the proper contextual usage of a word once you’ve heard it spoken in conversation several times. Languages cannot be learned just solely from textbooks; they must be absorbed in real-life situations in order to have real-life practical use.
My first five years living in China were spent in quite a small city in Jiangsu Province a few hours away from Shanghai, so the fact that very few people there spoke English at that time and the fact that I was forced to constantly use and practice Chinese each and every day, morning until night, certainly fueled my progress. It was far from easy, and I found myself in countless frustrating predicaments, but it was a huge boon to my speaking ability.
Shanghai, for most of us, doesn’t present as many situations where English can’t get us by well enough. For those rare times when Chinese ability is absolutely necessary, we can often find a friend or even a friendly passerby to help out. But the thing is, Shanghai is, believe it or not, China. Of course, we all know this, but most of us, myself included, sometimes tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time in more expat-focused areas where the main language we speak and hear is actually English.
It’s important to try to get out of that bubble from time to time if you really want to improve your Chinese. Find a patient friend or partner and don’t be shy or self-conscious about it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and be sure to bring a digital dictionary on your phone.
Speaking of which, the third and perhaps most important aspect of really gaining a foothold in the Chinese language is pinyin. Pinyin is the spelling out of Chinese words in Anglicized form instead of Chinese characters. For example, “strawberry” in characters is 草莓, but in pinyin it would be written “cǎo méi” representing the phonetic pronunciation.
Developing a robust understanding of pinyin is extremely important to get a fundamental grasp on speaking and understanding the language. There are only 56 pinyin “syllables” that are used in Mandarin, and these are combined to create about 400 different total permutations that cover essentially the entirety of the language. Additionally, each one is pronounced the same way each time it appears, so the quandary for English learners of having words like “throughout” and “queue” and “colonel” that are not at all intuitively pronounced doesn’t occur. Learn the accurate pronunciation for each of the limited number of syllables, and you’ll be able to pronounce literally every word in Chinese.
Additionally, pinyin provides a way to look up new words you hear in a dictionary without having to try to recreate the character, something that’s often difficult for even the most advanced of learners to do. If you hear a sentence and fundamentally understand the structure, but there are one or two words in the sentence that you’ve missed the meaning of, if you can write them out in pinyin, it’s easy to pull out a phone and type them into a dictionary app – Pleco is my favorite, tried and true – and type in the pinyin sounds you’ve heard. Even if multiple words come up, one of them will likely be the obvious one that was used in that context.
Again, these are just my personal experiences, and different strategies work for different people, but I do find that these few points have helped me a great deal along the way. Learning Chinese is certainly a time-consuming and sometimes arduous endeavor, but if you’re living in China, it’s one that I contend is more than worth the effort and persistence required. It has the power to open up friendships, opportunities, and make your experience in the city and country a more fulfilling one.