I rocked up in China in mid 2013 with only my Speak Chinese app to guide me. Despite planning to learn Chinese quickly using this app, I found myself just letting the app speak for me, by clicking what I wanted to communicate and holding the phone up to the bewildered listener’s ear so they could listen to the app man say it clearly instead of my feeble attempts. It’s often said that Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn, but I think this is partially due to the little we know about the Chinese language in the West, “Are those little pictures letters, words….a sentence?”
Chinese characters each represent a syllable and for those of you looking to learn there’s Pinyin. Pinyin is the conversion of those little pictures into the ABCs that, like the preschoolers of China, those of you beginning to learn can read too. Learning the Pinyin phonics takes time and practice, some sounds will take longer to develop than others, particularly the Chinese ‘x’, as there’s no equivalent to this sound in English. Be patient through the hissing, spitting and sounding like you’re still wearing that retainer you’ve long since gotten rid of, that sound will come. You’ll see Pinyin written in very few places, like children’s books, but after it’s served this function you won’t see it anywhere else.
Here’s a quick guide on how to read Pinyin for those of you looking to start:
It’s Not What You Said, It’s the Way You Said It.
Tones. This is not an urban myth about Chinese. Each sound combination has four tone possibilities to go with it, meaning a total of 1600 sound combinations in the Chinese language. The danger is using the wrong tone gives the word a completely different meaning. My first few months in China meant using my extremely limited vocab (and wonderful miming skills) to attempt communication. The entrance to my apartment complex had a gate which could only be opened by a security guard, so in addition to pointing at the gate with a smile, I thought I’d do the most dreaded thing imaginable….speak. I knew the word for please (qǐng请), although now I know that please is rarely used by locals. A simple request can be directed as such- pleases, pardons and may Is are unnecessary. For me this is one of the most refreshing things about Chinese: direct communication (until it’s directly telling you you’re fat that is). This was unknown to a 2013 me, who was pointing at the gate with a tentative smile saying ‘please’, which in my mind would of course be understood as ‘please open the gate kind security man’. The request was usually granted, with either an over friendly smile returned back or a suspicious side eyeball. I later found out my pronunciation wasn’t as spot on as I’d hoped and I had in fact been saying kiss (qīn亲).
Luckily this mistake wasn’t as bad as that which many students make when asking their teacher for a pen in their early Chinese classes. Say pen with the wrong tone and your teacher might think you’re referring to her box, rather than the pencils that are in it. After that she may well not want to CU Next Tuesday.
Wanna Find a Clue? Lose Your Inhibitions and Your Native Language.
While you’ll never know how to say everything in any language, even your mother tongue, there are countless things in the world around you that you can learn quickly if you learn the simple phrase, ‘What’s this?’…这是什么？“ If you’re learning the language in the country where it’s spoken, there are endless opportunities to ask people ‘What’s this, how do you say this in Chinese?” etc. Don’t be shy. If you’re learning Chinese in China, nine times out of ten people will be delighted to see you butchering their language. Don’t be disheartened if people don’t understand you clearly (it happens). Consider every outing from your home, be it the supermarket, stroll in the park or my personal favourite; a taxi ride, as an opportunity to communicate, practice and learn. (I have learned many a life lesson from the taxi drivers of China; wonderful men). If you’re not confident enough to talk to strangers yet, talk to yourself. Just like that well rounded tush will never materialize without squats, neither will those Chinese language sounds without exercise. Your mouth muscles need to develop.
After you’ve lost your inhibitions (and some pride), the next thing to get rid of is your native language. If you’re making notes in your Chinese book in English, STOP. Think of alternatives. If you’re a beginner you can substitute an English word for a wee drawing. If you’re more advanced you can use the Chinese you already have to explain the meaning in a simpler way, in Chinese. This will develop your sense of language 语感. Ask your Chinese teacher to stop speaking English. This will be difficult in the beginning and for some people may be frustrating, but when you’re talking to someone on the street they won’t be able to tell you in English if you don’t understand, so you getting rid of it in your Chinese classes will develop your listening skills faster and will expose you to more language which you can pick up in context. Turn off those English subtitles on Chinese movies while you’re at it. Lose the thought “But in English you can say…”.
This isn’t English, it’s Chinese. Look alive kid.
As a foreigner in China, locals will be naturally curious about you and are eager to ask questions about where you’re from, if you like China, if you want a Chinese husband. Talk to these people, swap stories and if you feel like talking some more, add them on the Chinese version of WhatsApp (WeChat 微信） and practice your reading and writing too. That Chinese husband may not be far away.
After you’ve befriended all the locals, befriend some foreigners. While some Chinese learners get pretty sensitive about who knows what in what language, working together is invaluable. My Chinese classes are just one to one but in November 2014 a group of us started a ‘Chinese Corner’ 汉语角 to practice our Chinese. The group has now grown to about twelve people, with a regular attendance of six to eight people as well as a few stragglers. There are native speakers as well as people learning Chinese and the group is a mixture of levels, but it works. We only have one rule: any English means forfeiting that five kuai bill you have clutched in your sweaty palm.
How Do You Spell Illiterate?
While some of us have the basic day to day speaking mastered, reading and writing in Chinese is a whole other kettle of chickens’ feet. My first goal in Chinese was to communicate, so I couldn’t read a single character until roughly a year after I started learning. The process wasn’t as grueling as I expected and daily characters were learned quickly from texting in Chinese (which is where those friends you made earlier come in handy). If you’re buying a new phone, check is has a Chinese keyboard. If not, you can download Chinese onto your computer quite easily and practice typing from there, 很简单！ Anyone who’s anyone learning Chinese will know all about the app Pleco, which acts as a translator, giving characters, Pinyin and English. It can save new words in a bank, as well as giving you flashcard tests which you can set up for characters, Pinyin or audio. Pretty handy.
If you really wanna learn a second language, stop wasting time reading blogs on how to do it and get stuck in.
When you’re finished sharing this with everyone who’ll listen, crack open a Chinese book, or go talk to that aul toothless lad who bashfully smiles at you everyday, but daren’t speak cos he’s afraid you won’t understand a word. That guy is a talker.