How to learn Chinese


In her second interview for Rosetta Stone, Linda Dunsmore tells us about how she set about learning Mandarin Chinese and shares some of her tips. 

How did you start learning Chinese?

I learned Mandarin at university during an intensive language program. This involved daily Mandarin lessons split into different classes, such as grammar, writing, translation, business chinese and speaking. The early days were quite intimidating and it’s definitely the hardest phase when starting with Mandarin. In the beginning, many teachers introduce students to the language via Pinyin, the official romanization system for Standard Chinese. After getting an idea of the tones and a couple of basic words, we were introduced to the characters for each word. At this stage, it is incredibly important to write and practice as much as possible in order to lay a strong foundation. I was very motivated to keep going and learn as much as I could because of how fascinated I was by the whole language. However, there were a couple of fellow students who quit shortly after that.

Is Chinese hard to learn?

The hardest part of learning Mandarin is that it involves a lot more memorizing and learning in terms that you need to a) be able to recognize the meaning of a character, b) you need to know how to pronounce the character and which tones it has and c) you need to also be able to write it in the correct stroke order. This is a lot harder than learning a language with an alphabet where each letter has its own pronunciation and you know exactly how to say the word in front of you. However, if you don’t know a Chinese character, there is no way for you to be able to know how to say it.

What is the most effective way to approach a language like Chinese, as speaker of European languages?

A lot of Mandarin learners start by only looking at the Pinyin romanizations and completely ignore the characters. This helps in terms of being able to speak Mandarin fast but it’s kind of a “fake” way of learning the language. The most effective way, in my opinion, is to start right away with the characters instead of introducing them later on. Learning how to speak Mandarin and learning how to write Mandarin characters are two completely different skills, but they need to be studied equally if you want to really know the language. Speakers of European languages will realise that Chinese grammar is very simple and the structure of sentences is quite simple. This is a great advantage and allows you to focus on the two other parts: speaking and writing. The challenge here lies especially in the tones and the characters. That’s why it will take determination and hours of practicing to be able to succeed.

Can you remember a moment of particular achievement, when you recognised that you had progressed and were pleased with your abilities?

After having studied Mandarin for two years, I finally moved to China. I lived in Guangzhou, in southern China, just across from Hong Kong. One day, I visited a local temple with my friends. We explored the temple grounds and soon found ourselves on the third floor of the building on a rooftop overlooking the surrounding area. An older man approached and started talking to us. This was the first time that I had a longer conversation with a local and I understood almost every word. He explained that he lived in a small room on this rooftop and that his son was a monk at the temple. He invited us into his small room of maybe 7m2 and offered us some local tea. We talked for a while and listened to his stories. That was one of my favourite memories while in China. I was proud of myself and my ability to converse with the locals.

How do you maintain and build your language skills today?

Now that I live in South Korea, I don’t use Mandarin as often as I used to. However, I try to go back to China once a year to refresh my Mandarin language skills. I am also still in touch with my Chinese friends which helps a lot as well. At the moment, I focus on learning Korean, which is actually a lot harder than Mandarin!

Thanks again Linda for sharing your knowledge and ideas with us. You can find out more about Linda and her tips for learning Chinese at lindagoeseast

Read about another expat who took himself to China’s remote western region of Xinjiang in order to totally immerse himself in the language.

Read Linda’s first post for us, about why she headed out to China to study.

About the Author Linda Dunsmore

German/American girl in her 20s with a great passion for languages, photography, traveling and great food. Currently based in Korea.

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