“How to read Mandarin Chinese?” is a question most students learning the language will ask themselves at some point or another. They might also ask: “Is there any easy way to remember all of the characters?”
Well, looking for some answers, we at Learn Mandarin Now managed to speak with Laura from Our Chinese Wedding about sharing with us some of her Chinese language learning experiences. Laura really understands Chinese well and has been featured in the blogs of many China based expats.
We asked her the following:
First of all, I would like to extend my big thanks to Learn Mandarin Now for inviting me to share this guest post (and for patiently waiting such a long time for me to complete it). Here are my two cents on your interesting questions.
1. There are always debates on whether people should learn simplified or traditional characters; what’s your view on this, Laura?
What a great question to begin with. Well, whether or not to learn traditional or simplified characters is a very personal decision that can depend on what you are planning on doing with your Chinese language skills. If you know for sure that you will be in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan or most Chinatowns across the world, then by all means go for traditional ones, as they are used in these locations. If you plan on using your language on the mainland you can take a crack at the simple characters and save yourself some potential heartache.
Why not do both?
However, I do not think it needs to be one or the other. After all, there are only about 200 commonly used traditional Chinese characters anyway, the rest is pretty much identical (unless you are writing Cantonese of course), and it really does not take too long to memorise such a comparatively small amount of characters. Just to put this in perspective, to read a newspaper you need to know around 2000 – 3000 Chinese characters, so memorising a tenth of that is not difficult, especially if you have the simple character system as a base. A friend of mine from Taiwan said she found it quite challenging to make sense of simple characters, because a lot of the parts that give the character meaning have been subtracted and so it looks like gibberish to her. If you are going from simple to traditional however, often part of the simple character can be found in the traditional one, helping with the learning process.
Also, it is not as scary as it sounds, or rather looks; often only the radical of the word is actually changed,
e.g. the word bank in simple Chinese is 银行 but in traditional Chinese it is 銀行. The only different bit is the radical part, and once you have learned what the “gold” radical looks like in traditional characters you will be able to recognise many other characters. The same goes for the “speaking” radical in 估計(估计) or 說話 (说话). Learn one equivalent radical and you can recognise countless traditional characters.
In conclusion, build a simple character basis and then learn both! It’s a comparatively small effort and will make your life much more convenient in the long run.
2. For those readers who are going to teach themselves to read Chinese (i.e. don’t plan on going to classes), what was the most effective approach you used to learn to read the language?
Writing, writing, writing. To be honest, this is my personal learning style, and everyone has a different way of learning effectively. You should discover which type you are (visual, oral, or other) before you even start learning a language. Some people have eidetic memories, they just need to look at a character and will remember its meaning. For me it was mostly writing the character to remember it, using it in context.
Reading, reading, reading. Yes, I know it’s not exciting or different but most of it really is just practice. If you are a beginner, you are going to have to start out with a Chinese teaching book to build a basis. The next step is to find easy reading materials such as children’s books. I think it is even better if the topic is one you are familiar with. During my first trip to China, I purchased a collection of Disney classics such as Ariel or the Lion King written in Chinese for young children, this was a great way of learning to read simple sentences.
3. As you know, we have undertaken extensive research on how to learn Chinese by asking more than 50 bloggers about the resources most of them use to learn the language and which ones they can recommend to others; can you recap some of your tips about such resources?
For me it was Chinese movies and music mainly, as they can teach you colloquialisms. I used to watch on average two Chinese movies a week and listen to songs every single day. To help the process download the lyrics in your free time and translate them. In terms of dictionaries, I use a combination of MDBG.net and iciba.com.
4. We know you love watching Chinese films. Can you tell us the names of some great websites for people to watch Chinese films online, whether such sites are in China or not? Btw, what is your favourite Chinese film?
There are so many Chinese sites that offer Chinese movies such as Youku 优酷, Tudou 土豆, Tengxun 腾讯视频 or iqiyi.com爱奇艺. What I usually do is go to Baidu 百度, search for the movie title in Chinese and then look for one of the above sites to broadcast it.
5. Do you use other reading material to learn Chinese from? If so, what are the names of some books and magazines you recommend?
What I usually do is follow a few official Wechat accounts about topics I find interesting as they send out articles which are not too long and usually have a good standard to practice the language. Now there are even more and more wechat accounts geared towards language learning for beginners.
6. Learning vocabulary is the foundation for reading. Please give us a few tips about how to learn large amounts of Chinese vocabulary in a short time—and, of course, how not to forget these new words.
As I mentioned previously the best way for me to memorize vocabulary was to write. What I would do was to write out a list of the words I need to remember on the left and their english equivalent on the right, then fold over the english words and the pinyin so I could only see the Chinese character and go through the vocabulary and compile a second round list of the words I didn’t know. Then I would go through the second list again and compile a third list. And so on. After a day or two I would return to the very first list and go through it again in order to repeat the vocab I knew initially but might have forgotten in the meantime. Then compile a new shortened list.
It’s not the most exciting or most multimedia way of learning but it’s an effective classic. I find many apps just teach passive language skills and I really quickly forget words learned via an app.
In the long term I have to say you don’t really want to keep studying like this as it is quite boring. An idea is to go back to the lesson in which all of these words first appeared and re-read it. Or go to Baidu and search for the word you want to practice to look for example sentences.
7. We know you also learnt Cantonese by yourself. If people can read Mandarin, can they automatically read Cantonese?
You can read about 90% of Cantonese (if they have mastered the traditional characters), however some major words, especially verbs such as “to be” and “to be at a place” are completely different. You can read more about the differences between the two languages in this guest post I wrote for China Elevator Stories.
8. Let’s assume you had to learn Chinese again from the beginning, how would you go about it?
I don’t think I would really change my previous approach. I enjoy classes and learning with others. Since I wanted to study Chinese at uni my mother initially suggested a weekly evening class to test the waters and I recommend this approach, as it is a good way of getting to know the Chinese language and figuring out if it is for you.
Okay great, thanks Laura, that’s very helpful; we at Learn Mandarin Now appreciate you sharing your tips about the best ways to learn Mandarin Chinese.