Chinese language is commonly regarded as notoriously hard to learn, especially for native English speakers. In general, Chinese is everything what European languages aren’t and differs from English at almost every possible level. The complicated writing system, tones and cultural differences all make Chinese very scary to English speakers. In this article we have prepared techniques and methods to make Chinese easier for you, especially if you are just starting out. In fact, it is possible to learn it faster than you think. As learning happens first and foremost in the mind, in addition to specific techniques that you can implement straight away, we will also outline changes in your approach to learning Chinese that may be useful to you. Since efficient learning is a broad topic, in this article we will focus on two aspects that are the most challenging for English speakers: the characters and the tones.
How to stop being afraid of Chinese?
“How is that even possible to memorize all these characters?”
“How can you actually distinguish all these tones? They all sound the same to me!”
“Aren’t these characters too hard to write?”
We suppose you have heard these questions many times or even asked them yourself. However, how relevant are these fears in the real life? Since both fear and learning take place in your mind, it is possible to change how you see your learning process yourself.
First, stop listening to others. If they have never learnt Chinese themselves, they don’t know what they are talking about and their questions are irrelevant for you. You don’t need them saying how hard it is to learn.
Second, stop thinking about characters and tones in terms of an unnecessary burden. If they were so, they would stop being used ages ago. Instead, think of their positive sides:
Chinese characters carry a lot of meaning and beauty; they were developed throughout many centuries and have an immense cultural value. Moreover, they are less complicated than you think, as they are made up of fixed elements that can be understood as puzzles or blocks. Puzzles are great, you can play with them, they are fun. They allow you to represent an abstraction in a simple way.
The Chinese character is made of just such different blocks (so-called radicals). This gives you hope, because when you get to know a certain radical, when you see a new character you think: wait, I know this component! It’s tile A. I also know that tile A combined with tile B will give me composition C. If this is too mathematical for you, don’t worry. It is absolutely not the case that if you don’t have an analytical mind, you won’t master Chinese. But sometimes it is helpful to look at incomprehensible information with a more analytical approach, with more insight, in small steps.
How about the tones? Actually, tones also make sense. They make things shorter. Chinese is very efficient when it comes to conveying information. Since the same word can have several different meanings depending on its tone, there is no need for creating long words and complicated sentences. When compared to Spanish, English or Japanese, Chinese has the highest rate of information density, which means that it can convey more information in a shorter time. Same comes to writing: despite the fact that Chinese characters look complicated, they occupy far less space than English words.
Moreover, tones are very important at the beginning of your study, when you need to pay a lot of attention to them. In some time, however, using them will come as natural and you won’t take much time with learning to pronounce new words.
With all the information above, does Chinese still sound that bad to you?
How to learn Chinese faster?
Once you get over your fear of Chinese, learning it may become easier for you. Understanding the logic behind the most complicated features of Chinese, tones and characters (at least at the beginning of your journey), can help you learn it faster.
Think of the Chinese characters as puzzles again. It is important to realize that even these complex signs are made up of smaller parts. Strokes build small characters, small characters build large characters, large characters can stand for words on their own, or combine with other large characters. Since we know it now, what can we do to memorize them faster?
- All characters are similar, so think of it as an investment. It is harder now, but it becomes easier later. In some time, learning a new character will be easy and natural.
- Take some time to learn the correct stroke order. It will make them relatable to one another and will quickly pay off in efficient character writing.
- Write characters by hand as often as possible. The muscle memory associated with mechanically writing a character is great; however, make sure to focus when you write, don’t just mindlessly copy the characters.
- Put them in a context. Try to memorize or create sentences using a new character, so in your mind it becomes part of real life.
Again: how about the tones? Actually, they aren’t anything new to us. Every language uses tones in the everyday life, in Chinese they have simply more importance. For instance, when we ask questions, the tone of our voice tends to raise. When we are angry, we speak faster and our town is nailing the words down. This is why memorizing tones is simpler than you think:
- Imagine that tones stay in your mind in the same way as words of a song is associated with music. When we think about song lyrics, we sing them. When we think a Chinese word, we give it a tone.
- Pay a lot of attention to it at the beginning of your study; if you struggle to remember a tone, mark it down above its character in the text. Remember the tones are important when you start, because the more words you know, the harder it will be to remember their correct pronunciation if you didn’t pay enough attention to it with simpler words and sentences.
- Use the muscle memory trick: it may be helpful to gesture with your hand as the tone “goes” up, down etc.
- Listen, listen and listen as much as possible. Like listening to a song makes it easier to remember it, so it is with Chinese tones. Try to repeat the words as native speakers do it. If you are not sure if you pronounce a word correctly, it is better to immediately check it online rather than teaching yourself a bad pronunciation.
This is not everything! Do you want to know more tips on learning Chinese faster and more efficiently? On Maayot, we have more articles that can help you. Check out some of them below: