Mandarin Chinese is known to be extremely complicated. As we have learned Chinese in France and China (even if we’re not perfect at it), we would like to give a few insights on the subject for passionate people who want to learn this “language of tomorrow”.
1. A significant personal investment
We’re not going to try to hide the truth: learning Chinese isn’t easy. It requires time, motivation and most of all, perseverance. As westerners, we don’t have any point of entry into the Chinese language, contrary to what happens with Latin or Germanic languages. When starting to learn, we are faced with a completely unknown system of sounds, grammatical structures and signs…
People often say that it takes ten years to learn Chinese. You have to be prepared and not give up! Da Shan, a Canadian expat famous for his impressive mastery of the language, claims that after living in China for 27 years he’s still learning!
2. Tones, or how to get used to them
Mandarin Chinese is a monosyllabic language. Pinyin, a phonetic system inspired by the Greek alphabet, helps learners to know how to pronounce a character without having to guess. The language has 4 tones, and it is necessary to know them in order to be understood. They are easy to get at the beginning, but to pronounce a whole sentence with the right tones is another matter entirely! A wrong tone can change the meaning of a word entirely, and surprise the person you’re talking to.
3. Learning Chinese in Europe then going to Beijing and… Nobody understands you!
To learn Chinese in Europe is a great way to start, but be careful not to think yourself fluent before coming to China. You might be greatly disappointed. It is the same for all languages: your teacher understands your accent, and knows what you are trying to say. That will not be the case at the ticket office of the Beijing railway station! You will repeat your sentences ten times, using every possible tone. You will mimic as much as you can. You will pray for an interpreter to cross your path. It’s okay… Just be prepared!
4. Chinese characters: they’re not so hard to get!
People often say to us « But do you also know how to read and write? ». Reading and writing Chinese characters is truly doable. It is a mental exercise you have to get used to. The writing follows a pre-established order, and you have to respect that. It is the same thing in English: you don’t put the point on top of an « i » before you’ve written the letter.
You have to train by writing lines of characters. Beware of the computer trap, or you might find yourself unable to write a simple « thank you » note. A modern Mandarin dictionary contains about 50.000 characters, but by learning only the 2.000 to 3.000 thousands most commonly used characters, you should be able to read the newspaper.
5. Computer: the new generation’s Holy Grail
Older generations of learners were true heroes! They had to look up words in dictionaries, which made the search very slow, even for the best of them. Dictionaries can still be of use, of course, but nowadays computers gave birth to plug-ins that can show you the way a character is pronounced when you hover over it. There are also a lot of online dictionaries, most of them in English. Also, Youku, the Chinese Youtube, Baidu, the Chinese Google and 人人 « renren« , the equivalent of Facebook in China, can be funny ways to practise.
6. Practice with Chinese friends!
Like we said previously, Mandarin is a language that is not commonly found in our Western society, so you have to find a way to practise regularly with Chinese friends. By doing this, you will learn a lot more than you can imagine: about culture, history, the ways of life of our respective countries. Mandarin, as it is spoken every day, isn’t found in books! Moreover, it will give you a taste of what you will face once there.
7. Speaking Chinese: a true pleasure
To conclude, we want to say again that we are very glad to have chosen to learn Mandarin. This language is the symbol of an age-old civilisation that can teach us a lot. Chinese people are always grateful to meet « laowai » 老外 (foreigners) who speak Mandarin and can chat with them around a cup of tea.
Be it in France for its usefulness in the workplace, or in China to discover a wonderfully rich culture, we encourage you to get started!