Here are some essential tips to help you learning to read, speak and write Mandarin Chinese.
Where Do You Want to Live or Visit?
Before you begin learning Mandarin, work out why you are learning it. Or, more specifically, where you think you will most use your new language skills. Do you intend to live in mainland China? Or maybe you’re looking to holiday more often in Hong Kong. You need to decide where you will most use Mandarin because there are two different systems of writing in Mandarin – simplified and traditional. And while it is possible to learn both, you will make your life so much easier if you choose one system and stick with it.
Traditional Chinese characters are as complicated as they are beautiful. Still used in Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong, traditional Chinese characters are made up of many more strokes than their simplified versions. The simplified characters, on the other hand, were introduced in the 1950s and 1960s and were created by reducing the number of strokes that were required to create each character.
Most Mandarin language courses use simplified characters, since they are much easier to learn, and since the simplified system is the official one for writing Mandarin in Singapore and mainland China. However, there are many textbooks, language teachers and courses that still use the traditional characters – especially those textbooks and courses that originate from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan. Whatever your choice, be clear on where you stand before you begin your language lessons, otherwise you may spend a lot of time learning characters that won’t be relevant, only confusing yourself in the process.
Start Out Strong
Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn, especially for native English speakers. To begin with, there are four tones in Mandarin, with many aspects that are indistinguishable to the native English speaker’s ear. Mandarin is a tonal language, so it is essential for these four tones to be mastered before any progress in the language can be made.
Then there’s Hanyu Pinyin, the phonetic system transcribe Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet. Mainly used to teach the Mandarin language, Pinyin is also used to input Chinese characters into computer systems, as well as to spell out Chinese names in non-Chinese publications.
Other fundamentals also need to be mastered before real progress can be made in learning the Mandarin language, such as forming Mandarin characters with the correct stroke order.
While it is possible to master these fundamentals on a piecemeal basis – for example, by participating in a language class once per week, it will be infinitely easier to learn Mandarin in an intensive or inversion setting. Granted, this will not be possible for all Mandarin students, but if there is a way to immerse yourself in your Mandarin studies initially, you will find your progress so much faster. Perhaps you could look at taking a one month holiday prior to beginning your language studies, and enrol in a ‘Mandarin Boot Camp’, where you could study on a full-time basis. Mastering these fundamental Mandarin skills takes hours of speaking, listening and writing, and it is near impossible to master the fundamentals if you are only taking a class once per week.