There are many different ways to study Mandarin Chinese, but it’s best to do some research first by reading up about certain suggestions and getting some tips from experts.
Accordingly, we at Learn Mandarin Now are very pleased to invite Charlie from Chengdu living to share his learning experiences with learning Chinese. Charlie also made a podcast recently in order to talk with his friends about learning the language.
Well Charlie, let’s begin:
I started learning Chinese when I first arrived in China in 2005, so it has been almost exactly ten years. I speak fluent Chinese and generally have no problems communicating, but I still have an accent which I have been working to minimize over the last five years.
2. With so many Chinese learning tools available online now such as Chinese listening courses, Apps etc, do you still use books to study Mandarin Chinese? If so, which books have you found useful?
No, I do not. When I first started, I used books – specifically, the New Practical Chinese Reader series of books. They were an excellent resource, but I think that the modern, digital resources available today are superior. However, one thing that traditional media is better for is writing Chinese. I still believe it’s a good practice to be writing characters with pen and paper.
3. We understand you are living in Chengdu. Would you suggest foreigners learn local dialects as well as standard Mandarin Chinese?
In general, no, I would not. Expats in China who speak very good Mandarin are rare – I would say focus on getting excellent Mandarin, and then to optionally consider learning dialects afterwards.
But for most people, I don’t think the effort is worth it unless you have want to achieve something specific that requires a dialect. For me, the only advantage is basically to hear locals say “Your local dialect is so good!” which is just not worth it for me.
4. When you first arrived to China, what words/expressions did you find to be the most useful?
The most useful phrases to learn are the ones you will use most often. For absolute beginners, the key phrase to learn is 我听不懂 (which means I do not understand). You will be using that one a lot. When I first arrived in China, an American who spoke some Chinese instructed me to say 可以 when I didn’t understand what people were saying to me. That was horrible advice.
5. Have you ever learnt Chinese from a teacher or hired a private tutor? If so, how much did you pay for such lessons?
Only once, when preparing for the HSK. I paid 50 rmb an hour, but I don’t think it was worth it. My situation is a little unusual though: I am an autodidact, which means that I prefer to learn alone, outside of formal settings like classes or schools. If you live in China, you will have daily opportunities to interact with people, and that interaction is absolutely crucial to advancing your skills.
All of the resources that you need to learn Chinese are available for free online, or for very cheap in the form of apps like Pleco. The most important thing that any Chinese learner can have is a deep, genuine interest in learning and succeeding at the task of learning Chinese.
6. Which Chinese learning Apps do you use the most and can recommend to our readers?
Pleco. It is by far the most important app that every Chinese language learner should have. It has so much functionality that it’s easy to recommend this as a single go-to app for everyone: it has flash cards, dictionaries, vocabulary lists, a clipboard reader, and so much more. Most people who use Pleco will never use all of its functionality, but trust me, just learn Pleco deeply and I think that will be everything you need.
I’ve used HSK vocabulary list apps before, but Pleco can do the same thing, only better. Just import the HSK word lists into Pleco which you can find online for free. I’ve used Chinese ebook reading apps before, but you can read those in Pleco as well by importing the books.
7. We know foreigners are very familiar with cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, but maybe you can tell our readers something about Chengdu and your blog Chengdu living?
Chengdu is the most laid back large city in China. The people are genuine and friendly, the weather is moderate, the women are beautiful, and it has the best food in China. It is one of the fastest growing cities in China, and by extension, one of the fastest growing cities in the world. I consider Beijing and Shanghai to be “rat race” cities, but Chengdu has a lot of charm.
Chengdu Living is a blog that chronicles what life in Chengdu is really like, written by people who live here. It’s been authored by a group of Americans for just over five years now.
8. What is the best way you have found so far to learn Mandarin Chinese?
Live in China and date a Chinese person who doesn’t speak English. That’s the fastest way. Other than that, I always recommend committing to a goal that demands that you learn Chinese. For example: study kung fu, learn about Chinese history, learn how to cook Chinese food, learn calligraphy, etc. Find a way to have fun learning the language, and use all everything you learn (words and phrases) as quickly as you can.
Another tip that has served me well: write everything down. This is especially important when you’re just starting. Write down every word and every phrase that you learn, reference them, and use what you learn quickly in real situations. What I also did when starting was listen carefully to what native speakers say and write down exactly what they said, and then reference that later. Keep doing this and soon you will have a list of sentences and phrases used by native speakers which you can use when speaking Chinese. This is also good for learning grammatical patterns.
9. As a foreigner in China, do you feel it’s difficult to practice Chinese with local people, as they are more likely to want to practice English with you?
No. In Chengdu, this rarely happens. People are usually excited to speak Chinese with me, but they are always eager to ask me the same questions, which gets boring quickly. Questions like where are you from, what are you doing in China, and how do you like China?
Being a foreigner in China is the best way to learn Chinese, in my opinion. There is no better way to learn a language than to be interacting with native speakers on a regular basis, face-to-face.
10. Imagine you forgot how to speak Chinese, how would you go about getting started again?
First, I would learn pinyin. That is the most important foundation for anyone learning Chinese. Then I would do much of the same thing that I did ten years ago: learn the most common phrases and write them in a journal. As I commit the first words and phrases to memory, I would add new vocabulary and grammatical patterns to the journal. I would also use Pleco to look up new words that I hear on the street or in conversation, and then save those to a word list that I review later, and then use. Once a word, phrase, or sentence is spoken a certain number of times, it is committed to long-term memory.
I would also commit to taking the HSK sooner. It forces you to rush and quickly advance your vocabulary and having the pressure of an upcoming proficiency examination is a good way to get motivated and take immediate action.
Thanks Charlie, we appreciate your time answering our questions and sharing your tips about the best ways to learn Mandarin Chinese.
We feel sure that our followers and students at Learn Mandarin Now will find it all that much easier to study and become fluent speakers of Mandarin Chinese after reading your advice!