What is the best way to learn Chinese? Most people answer this question with suggestions like ‘spend a year in China’ or ‘enroll in a Mandarin class’ or even ‘find a Chinese boyfriend or girlfriend’. Or the person might recommend some learning service or software and then be done with it.
Most of this kind of guidance is only so helpful.
Of course, I also can (and will) recommend to you specific materials, methods, or software. But tools and technology are always changing. Some solid principles about the best way to learn Chinese, on the other hand, will always serve you in your quest to speak perfect Mandarin.
So I’ll give you both.
Now let’s begin.
Mix and Match
‘Learning Chinese’ is not encompassed in one single skill. Just like playing baseball, you need to play your position in the field as well as come up to bat. Listening, speaking, reading, vocabulary building are all skills with distinct requirements.
The best way to learn Chinese is to develop a program for yourself that develops all the right skills to the right degree.
It also follows that there is no one key solution, including the girlfriend, that will do this for you. Rather, you should use a whole bunch of methods, and a variety of resources, (maybe a number of girlfriends or boyfriends? No, probably not.)
Start With Pinyin
The best way to learn Chinese does not have one single starting point. But I’ll tell you where I started and would recommend highly that you do the same.
The recommendation is simple: learn pinyin.
You can focus on pinyin exclusively if you have a teacher to guide you, but more natural is that you pick up pinyin as you begin to learn some basic Chinese words and phrases. Or you can do a combination of both the ‘focus on pinyin’ approach and the ‘pick-up-pinyin as you go’ approach.
I myself used the ‘pick-up-pinyin as you go’ approach, but I have seen with other learners the advantage of having a teacher systematically go through teaching pinyin with you right from the start.
Get Someone to Coach You On Pronunciation
You can’t separate learning pinyin from learning Chinese pronunciation (which includes learning the tones of Mandarin). So when I say ‘learn pinyin’ I'm talking about getting a good foundation for your pronunciation.
Remember that the best way to learn Chinese is to give Mandarin pronunciation the attention it requires right from the start.
Here, it’s definitely good to have a coach to encourage your efforts and point out your errors.
Listen This Way
The best way to learn Chinese involves getting a lot of input. This means listening and this means reading. In the beginning stages it is necessary to rely almost completely on materials specific for us foreigners learning Chinese, as opposed to authentic materials like movies, magazines, and the like.
Listening and reading can be done, of course, without a teacher or class. You can create your own program.
I can recommend some textbooks, but whatever textbook you choose for learning Chinese, it should have audio, like a cd, along with it.
The reverse is also true. If you have some source for listening, you should be able to also see the text if you’d like to. (And you should like to.) Viewing the text as you listen, after you listen, before you listen, or any combination, are all good strategies.
So remember this very important point in choosing your materials: If you can read it, you should be able to listen to it, too. If you are going to listen to it, you should be able to have the text to read as well.
Why do I stress this? Certainly it is useful to listen to something even if you never see it written out in text. And vice versa. That’s true.
But the best way to learn Chinese is to make an effort to have both whenever possible, because this will increase the efficiency of your study a lot. Over time, this is going to make a big difference in your progress.
Do You Really Need To Learn To Read Chinese?
Some people feel they just want to speak the language – no need for reading. They don’t want to learn to read characters.
I won’t shy away from telling you that the best way to learn Chinese includes learning to recognize Chinese characters.
There are many reasons, and I don’t want to go into them all in detail here. But do not imagine that learning a character for a word is just an added task. Rather it will have the effect of reinforcing what you already know about the language.
By knowing the characters that make up a word, you will make connections to other words that contain the same character. You will learn words faster this way and you will retain them better with all the added associations going on in your brain.
There are other benefits too, but for now I'll just share that monstrous one with you.
Overall, in the long run (in the short run, too) learning to recognize Chinese characters is going to make learning Chinese easier for you, not more difficult.
Build Your Vocabulary This Way
In the simplest terms, some folks will reduce learning a language to the learning of words. Though not totally accurate, still there is something to be said for this way of thinking. Vocabulary is important, and the best way to learn Chinese is to always be building your vocabulary.
Build Vocabulary UNsystematically
Not much guidance is needed in how to be unsystematic about something. Take comfort in knowing that being systematic in language learning is somewhat overrated.
If there is any systematic way to learn a language, the researchers into language learning still don’t know what it is. So we learners can relax as we go about things in our hatter scatter ways.
Build Vocabulary Systematically.
Am I being contradictory? Well, yes.
This point is maybe more important than the first point about being unsystematic. As far as being efficient, it is great to have a system, or at least to imagine that you have a system about what you’re doing.
I’ve told you to be unsystematic because, when all is said and done, it’s true that a lot of your progress will be the result of a lot of unsystematic activity over time. It’s unavoidable that you’re going to be splashing around in the ocean of Mandarin Chinese.
But other times you should swim nice neat laps in its pools.
Use Dialogs to Learn Language and Culture Simultaneously
If the best way to learn Chinese involves getting a lot of input, then dialogs in Mandarin designed to introduce you to new language are one of the best sources of input I know at the beginning and intermediate stages of learning.
Dialogs offer some terrific advantages. They:
- present words in context
- give insight into cultural norms - what people are likely to say, when, and where
- are easily 'digestible' - can be more learner-friendly because they may be short, or entertaining, and have natural pauses that facilitate easy listening.
There are many sources for dialogs. Textbooks, podcasts, or online tools are all good.
The Best Way to Learn Chinese Is To Speak a Lot ...Or Is It?
Speaking is so important in our minds. In fact when we talk about learning a language we talk about learning to speak it. How often do you hear someone say “I want to learn to listen to Chinese”? Sounds silly, doesn’t it?
I absolutely agree that the best way to learn Chinese is to find chances to practice speaking. Here, finding a Mandarin tutor can be very helpful, or spending time in China and taking advantage of opportunities to talk with people, these are great ways to make progress.
But depending on your situation, these strategies may or may not be convenient for you.
Either way, don’t worry. The best way to learn Chinese is to focus on input first.
In fact, don't be too hard on yourself and feel free to measure your Chinese ability by your listening skills as opposed to mainly your speaking. Learn to be content with the common condition where your listening or reading skills are far ahead of your ability to express yourself in words.
Your speaking will lag behind your listening. It’s natural. You could get upset over this and always say to yourself “I’ve studied so much Chinese but I still can’t express myself clearly”, or you could just let your receptive abilities race ahead of your productive ones (which will probably happen whether you like it or not) and be quite happy about it.
You can rest easy knowing that the further advanced your listening and reading are, the day isn’t far behind when your productive abilities, provided you have the opportunities to exercise them, will improve in (occasional) leaps and bounds.
People naturally have assumed that outgoing people are better language learners – the people who are more disposed to go out and speak with others rather than plug into some listening materials.
The researchers, however, have gone out to test this, but have only come back with sadly unconvincing evidence.
And that should tell us something.
Don’t misunderstand. The best way to learn Chinese absolutely involves speaking, and a lot of it. But don’t worry about it if you feel your speaking abilities are not where they should be, or if you feel you have limited opportunities at this time to practice speaking.
Keep on getting that input.
But Speaking Mandarin Is Easier Than Understanding It
Actually, in the very beginning stages, when it comes to talking with actual living and breathing Chinese people, you may find speaking out phrases is easier than understanding what someone is telling you.
However, after some time, your listening skills will win out.
And the trend, after that point, will always be in favor of your listening skills.
Should I Learn to Write Chinese Characters?
If you are in a formal program taking classes, you may not have a choice whether to learn writing or not. You probably are being taught writing.
But if it is up to you entirely, should you spend your valuable time learning to write? You may have the idea that learning to write Chinese characters will only slow you down.
Interestingly, that is not the case.
My feeling is that the best way to learn Chinese is indeed to learn some of the basics of drawing the characters by hand. Doing so will help you to recognize them. And it will help you to acquire new ones more quickly.
This is because your understanding of the components, or common Chinese radicals, that make up characters will be more complete.
But the good news here is that I also feel strongly that beyond the most basic writing skills, you should only develop this skill as far as your interest and desire takes you.
You should get a basic understanding of, or rather, a feel for stroke order. You should have this framework in your mind through some simple practice. Be able to learn to write any character at least once, even if you forget it immediately afterwards.
This ability can complement your overall Chinese proficiency quite nicely in many ways. It’s quite mysterious and magical how closely Chinese characters are intertwined with the language itself.
Though you need not bury yourself in this task, as far as you choose to take your writing, I believe you will never regret that time spent.
I Should Write; But Should I Write?
You might notice that I was just talking about drawing the characters by hand. But that is just forming characters. Strictly speaking, it’s not writing, as in communicating through the written language.
Real writing, which as you progress, could take the form of text-messaging, chatting, or emailing, will eventually have a place, even if it's a small place, in what I consider the best way to learn Chinese.
And here, using a keyboard and a simple input method that uses pinyin is best.
Writing is different than speaking in the time factor. Because it takes more time to write than speak, you will find you naturally can be more accurate in terms of grammar. The success you have with grammar and better word choice in your writing (due to the relaxed time factor), will have a good influence on your speaking.
So the best way to learn Chinese will naturally involve some writing for the sake of real communication, if only just a little bit
The Big Soft Skill: Managing Your Motivation
The last note about the best way to learn Chinese has to do with motivation. Your motivation must be maintained. It will naturally be higher at some times and lower at others. That’s fine.
Recognize, though, that your overall level of motivation, which is so important, is within your control.
You can read my article Learning Mandarin and Feeling Good for ideas and advice on this important issue.
And it’s no secret now among psychologists that a good mood will heighten your senses and make your intelligence keener. This will affect your learning and how you perform in executing your Mandarin skills such as speaking and listening.
Therefore the best way to learn Mandarin, or to do anything well, is to maintain a happy disposition. So, enjoy learning Mandarin, and, like the Chinese say, be happy everyday! 天天快乐！