This week we decided to focus on writing a post specifically about learning Mandarin Chinese. The topic of this blog post, ‘Five secrets to fluent Mandarin’, actually comes from our e-book. So, if you want to hear us go into more detail on the matter, then pick up a copy here.
Throughout my time in China, I encountered many foreigners who were on a journey to reach fluency in Mandarin. Some of them excelled and some of them gave up early on. I always wondered why this was. Many people would put it down to ‘talent’ and simply say that some people are better language learners than others, but I don’t subscribe to this line of thought… at all!
You see, I believe that anything can be learned. The level to which we can learn a new skill depends on how well we understand it. Passion and desire are the driving forces behind our learning but our level of understanding determines our level of success.
Have you ever heard someone say, ‘the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn another’? Well, the reason for this is that the more languages you have learned previously, the better you understand the whole language learning process. It’s quite logical really, the more you do something, the better at it you get.
However, what if Mandarin Chinese is the first language you’ve attempted to learn and you’re worried that because of your lack of experience learning languages that you’re going to fail?
Well, our aim is to give you all the knowledge and tools you need to succeed in your journey without necessarily having experience learning other languages.
Anyway, that’s enough rambling for now!
Let’s go straight to the five pillars of learning Mandarin, starting with number one…
1. Keep your Initial focus on listening and speaking
A lot of people want to dive straight into learning how to read and write characters when they begin learning Mandarin but we think this is a bad idea.
Because Chinese characters can be pretty intimidating, especially if you have zero knowledge of the language.
It would be really easy to sit and write out Chinese characters for hours each day only to forget them days later. The reason for this is that you need a base level, a foundation, in Chinese before you can comfortably start learning to read and write characters.
The other reason we think everyone should initially focus on listening and speaking is that those skills will improve really fast! Seeing such a quick improvement in your ability to speak and understand Mandarin will give you the confidence boost you need to continue your studies and learn to speak fluent Mandarin.
2. Maintain realistic expectations
We tend to get really excited when embarking on the journey of learning something new and this excitement often fades very quickly when we realise all of the hard work that lies ahead. That’s why if your goal is to be able to speak fluent Mandarin, it’s important to have realistic expectations.
As the old saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is fluency in Mandarin.
People often start to lose motivation when they aren’t making as much progress as they hoped they would.
But here’s the secret. There are often many ‘clicking points’ in language learning. A clicking point is when everything you’ve been studying suddenly all comes together and you feel like you finally understand everything that was previously lost on you.
It may take a little while to reach your first clicking point but if you follow these five secrets, you definitely will.
3. Study consistently
What ‘study consistently’ really means here is do a little bit every single day. In order to make progress in a new language, you have to be exposed to the language on a daily basis. Consistently spending time with the language will allow your brain to slowly get used to it and you’ll subconsciously begin to decipher all its rules and patterns.
Studying for hours one day and doing nothing the next is not a winning strategy!
Even if there’s one day in the week where you literally only have 10 minutes free, use that time to do something in Mandarin – Review yesterday’s material, listen to a podcast, have a go at writing a self-introduction or send your Chinese pen pal a message. It doesn’t matter, just make sure you’re putting the time in every day to improving your Mandarin and you will achieve fluency.
4. Pay attention to tones
Tones are extremely important in Chinese. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. A somewhat decent command of the four tones is the very minimum you’ll need to be understood by native speakers. It’s really important that you focus on getting the tones correct from day one! Neglecting tones, in the beginning, will come back to bite you later on.
You don’t want to have to go back and retrain your pronunciation after months of studying.
It may be frustrating and difficult but making a conscious effort to learn the four tones, in the beginning, will pay off greatly when native speakers start showering you in compliments – saying things like ‘你的发音非常好!’
5. Study efficiently
Lastly, we have efficiency. Studying efficiently means learning the most that you can in the time that you have available to you. In other words, if you only have 20 minutes a day to dedicate to your Mandarin studies, it’s probably not wise to use that time watching Chinese dramas. It would be a better use of your time to listen to more dialogues and learn new vocabulary.
Also, it’s important that you start to integrate the Mandarin language into your day, every day.
Do you take the subway to work? Well, why not use that time to review the previous day’s dialogues?
These are our five secrets to fluent Mandarin! Remember, our e-book ‘Talking Mandarin’ goes into much more detail on each of these five points, so grab a copy if you’re interested.
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Ahh Beijing, my second home. It’s a city that many people know for only two things – bad air quality and the 2008 Olympics. And while the air can be quite bad at times, my goodness is this an awesome city!
Beijing is not a ‘love at first sight’ type city. Beijing is complex and takes some figuring out. It’s a city that grows and grows on you, and given enough time there – you’ll almost certainly come to love it.
Beijing is a wonderful and intriguing blend of old and new and is home to some of the most breathtaking and ancient cultural relics of China. Such as the Sumer Palace, the Forbidden City and the magnificent Tiananmen Square. As far as ‘new’ goes, Beijing’s CBD area is as modern as it gets – Housing jaw dropping skyscrapers, hipster bars and coffee shops and wonderfully efficient public transport systems.
There’s something for everyone in Beijing.
Party animal you say? The nightlife in Sanlitun is insane!
Sanlitun, Beijing – known for its bars, clubs and shops
Not into clubs?
Grab a refreshing beer in the Hutongs!
Hou Hai, Beijing – a great place to grab a beer with friends, or enjoy a relaxing boat ride!
I could go on about how awesome Beijing is for twelve more blog posts. Instead, I want to focus on a particularly awesome place to go chill and grab a coffee – the Friends Cafe! The Friends Cafe in Beijing is an exact replica of ‘Central Perk’ – the coffee shop where Joey, Chandler, Ross, Phoebe, Rachel and Monica used to hang out in the hit, American sitcom ‘Friends’.
Friends cafe – behind the counter
Instead of being located on a street corner, like in the show, the Friends Cafe in Beijing is located on the sixth floor of a relatively empty shopping mall. Despite this, looks wise, the Friends Cafe Beijing is as close as you could get to the ‘real thing’ and the atmosphere is great. It’s always packed with young people – foreigners and locals alike and the staff are friendly and relaxed.
Wanna know the best part about the Friends Cafe? They have ‘Friends’ playing on the TV non-stop (with Chinese subtitles of course)! Once you sit down, it’s so hard to leave. You’ll be saying to yourself, ‘okay, just one more episode’.
I remember hearing about the Friends Cafe from a friend (surprise, surprise!). I instantly looked it up on Baidu maps (China’s version of Google maps) and realized it wasn’t far from my apartment. I set off immediately to check it out and while sitting on the famous, big, red couch, drinking my coffee, I remember thinking to myself, ‘man, Beijing really does have everything!’
At one stage, I went there five Sundays in a row. I just enjoyed the whole experience.
It may seem strange to you that ‘Friends’ is so popular in China, but in actual fact, many young, Chinese students watch American shows to improve their English!
Cappuccino with ‘Friends’ written on in Chocolate sauce
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Remaining confident in yourself and your ability is really important for progressing in Mandarin Chinese or any language that you’re learning. Today I want to talk about how to deal with ‘confidence hits’. In other words, how to get over a situation in which you felt your language ability was severely lacking.
The journey of learning a new language is a long one and along the way you’re bound to experience many highs and many lows. The highs are exhilarating. The first time you’re able to string a complete sentence together, the first time you’re able to understand an entire song in your target language or the first time you have a complete conversation with a native speaker of your target language.
These are all experiences that you’ll relish and likely never forget. However, it’s how you handle the lows that will ultimately determine your success.
You see, at some point in your journey to reach competency in your target language, you will have the experience of not being understood by a native, you will use the wrong vocabulary during a conversation and you will fail to understand someone when they start speaking to you.
I am not saying this to demotivate you, but rather to prepare you. Once you accept that these things are, at some point, going to happen, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with them!
So, how should one deal with these difficult situations?
Well, when these things happen, and they will happen, it’s easy to feel demotivated, to feel like you’re not making any progress. This often leads people to believe they aren’t good at learning languages, or that they’re better off investing time into something else.
This is a big mistake!
Rather, you need to accept that learning a language takes time and commitment and that giving up at the first sign of difficulty is not smart.
The best way to handle getting knocked down is to turn it into a source of motivation for yourself. If you weren’t understood in conversation this time, make it your mission to be understood the next time. Replay the conversation in your mind and try to work out exactly what you said wrong.
Don’t be afraid to ask your tutor for advice. You can even role play the exact situation with him/her so that you’re ready and confident the next time that situation arises.
Mistakes are really important in language learning as they allow you to identify your weaknesses. As the old saying goes, learn from your mistakes.
A smart language learner realizes that making mistakes is necessary as they create opportunities to learn and improve. A not so smart language learner tries to forget their mistakes.
My own, personal experience
I remember one night in Beijing, early on during my stay in China, a friend and I bravely ventured out on our own to find a place to eat dinner. We sat down at a pretty little restaurant that we liked the look of. Before we’d even had a chance to look at the menu, the waiter came to take our order.
I was excited to practice a new phrase I’d learned – ‘请你再给我们两分钟’ (Please give us two more minutes). I confidently said it to the waiter and all I got was a blank stare. He then smiled and said ‘不好意思, 我听不懂’ (sorry, I don’t understand).
I tried again, but he still didn’t understand me. Eventually, he apologized again and went to find another waitress who knew some English. I felt so embarrassed. I didn’t try to say anything in Chinese again for the rest of the night. I just wanted the table to come to life and swallow me whole.
However, the next day I reflected on what had happened and I realized that there was no point in letting that one incident destroy my confidence. So I went back to the audio recordings I had been working from and did my best to emulate exactly what I heard, so that next time I’d definitely be understood.
Looking back, this experience served me well in that it made me truly appreciate the importance of tones in the Chinese language.
To sum up, be prepared to take a few confidence hits during your language learning journey, but don’t let it get to you! Get right back to the books. Understand that mistakes are necessary for progress and growth and don’t give up!
Talking Mandarin originally started off as an idea for a blog. After returning from China, I decided to create a platform where I could write about my experiences and all I had learned during my almost three years in Beijing.
This idea quickly evolved not only into a blog but into a 104-page e-book as well. My partner Vicky (a Chinese native) and I realized that we both had so much to share about learning Mandarin Chinese and decided that an e-book would be the perfect way communicate this to the world.
After arriving back in Cape Town, South Africa in late 2016, we began writing. At first, we were simply focused on getting our thoughts down on paper and later worked hard to structure the book as logically as we could. We tried to focus on key concepts and ideas that are often overlooked by many students (and teachers) of Mandarin Chinese.
Vicky and I have both been exposed to the Western stereotypes surrounding Mandarin as a language. Namely, that it is one of, if not the hardest language in the world. With our e-book, we aim to challenge this view. Our central view on Mandarin as a language is that ‘different does not mean difficult’.
Our e-book is written as a guide to learning the Mandarin language. Make no mistake, this is not a textbook of any kind. Our e-book will not teach you Mandarin directly, but will rather give you the tools and the knowledge to successfully learn Mandarin on your own.
While our e-book is focused on the study of Mandarin specifically, our blog aims to provide a broader range of content. Expect to see posts about travel in and around China, learning Mandarin, Chinese characters, Chinese culture and much more.
When I first envisioned this blog, I saw a space for sharing knowledge and experiences to do with travel in China, learning Chinese and Chinese culture. I had met so many wonderful people in China with so much to share and I knew I would need a ‘guest posts’ category to accommodate all of their knowledge as well.
Our goal is to create a truly wonderful community of followers, as well as authors, who are passionate about learning Mandarin and passionate about China as a whole.
Sounds cool! But.. What now?
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