How I learned Mandarin Chinese

Recently, it seems like everyone I know is taking on learning a new language. And, more and more people are deciding to learn Chinese. The question of how I learned Mandarin Chinese, what resources I used, etc has come up several times in the last couple of weeks, so it feels appropriate that I write this series to share my learning experiences with everyone.

Start to learn Chinese

The first step towards learning any language is to just start. You don’t have to pick the perfect place to start, as long as you start.

I started with some searches on Google that landed me at ChinesePod. I sat back in my computer chair and listened to the lesson What are you doing?. Before that moment, I knew very little about Mandarin nor about anything Chinese culture outside of kung fu. I remember that even though the dialogue was quite slow and well enunciated, I struggled to distinguish many sounds and didn’t realize the language was tonal. But, I liked the way the dialogue in the lesson sounded, so I sat back and listened to it several times over until I had it memorized.

The next day I went to a local bookstore during my lunch break and picked up the Pimsleur’s Conversational Mandarin Chinese audio series. I opened it immediately and listened to the first lesson on the way back to the office. Over the next several days I listened to the audio lessons every time I got into the car.

Practice every day

At this point in your learning, the most important thing is to practice every day. You will get a lot further with practicing a little every day than you will if you practice a lot every few days.

About ten days into my studies, I knew how to say “hello”, ask if someone could speak english, ask for directions to “University Road”, and a handful of other not-really-conversational phrases. I could still have basic exchanges though and the flow of the language had become a lot more familiar. Most importantly, since I had practiced every day, I remembered most everything I had learned.

I actually find this to be true with most things in life. Small, incremental progress adds up to big progress before you know it. On the other hand, trying to do everything in one go leads to burn out and frustration. Needless to say, the latter will not help you learn Chinese, nor any language for that matter.

Don’t worry about perfection

Most new languages will require you to learn some foreign sounds, seemingly unnatural grammar structures and a whole lot of new vocabulary. So when you do speak, it won’t be perfect and that’s okay.

I personally had a hard time accepting this and wasted a lot of time trying to get things right before I fully understood them. In some ways this did help me re-enforce what I had learned, but mostly it just meant that I spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall instead of making progress.

Mandarin is a tonal language

Even though tones are a fundamental part of the language, it’s too early in the learning process to try to get all of the tones down. My advice for now is to be aware that they exist and to make sure you imitate the tones as closely as possible when learning.

If you don’t know what I mean by “tonal language”, it means that basically any sound spoken with a different intonation will yield completely different words. But again, don’t worry about this too much just yet.

While some people will argue that knowing all four tones is the first step to learn Chinese, I actually had no idea that Mandarin was tonal until after I had already been learning for about 2 weeks. And, I can safely say that it was helpful to not focus on tones so early in my studies.

What you should do now

1. Search online for some free Chinese lessons, like these, or invest in something like ChinesePod or Pimsleur’s Conversational Mandarin Chinese. Again, it doesn’t matter too much how you start, as long as you spend a few days to familiarize yourself with the language.

2. Become familiar with all four tones

3. After you’ve studied for a week or two, it’s time to learn pinyin, the next big step to learn Chinese.

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