Why (and How) I Chose To Become Fluent in Chinese

By Mike Owen

chinese-blackboardPart of human nature is to constantly want to challenge oneself and try new things. We naturally want to learn in order to better ourselves and improve our understanding of the world. For me, seeking personal enrichment came in the form of learning a new language: Mandarin Chinese.

I was drawn to the language for a number of reasons. When I was in high school I studied Latin—this was great for gaining a better grasp of my own native language, English, since much of the English language has Latin roots. By the time I got to college, I wanted a new challenge; my pragmatic side was itching to learn a language that was more useful in the modern world. Mandarin Chinese seemed like a natural fit since it is spoken by some 800 million people, the most widely spoken language in the world. In addition, I had always been fascinated by Chinese culture and had dreamt of visiting Beijing and Shanghai.

I began taking college courses and learned very quickly how challenging this new undertaking would be; with characters instead of an alphabet, I wondered how I would ever memorize such a complex system. I continued my studies for 3 years, studying abroad for several months living in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hangzhou where I completely immersed myself in the language and culture. By the time I graduated, I was fluent in the language.

I put a lot of time and effort into my study of Chinese, and along the way I developed a few simple principles that helped me learn the language very quickly and very soon after I started my studies. These tips will be useful for anyone who is just starting in their journey, and also for someone who has been studying the language and struggling at maintaining his or her proficiency.

1. Learn the radicals

Chinese radicals are the basis for all characters in the language. There are about 200 important radicals to be familiar with, and Chinese-tools.com has a great radical tool that will show you related characters. Often times I find that I can guess what a character means based on its placement in a sentence and the radicals that make it up—if you know these radicals, your learning will be much less painful down the road.

2. Start to think in tones

One of the most frustrating aspects of the language is that it is tonal. A character might appear to be pronounced exactly the same as another but have a different meaning due to its tonal difference. For instance, the character 妈 () would seem to be pronounced the same as the character 马 (), except the first means mother and the second means horse. The difference is in the tones, and it is so easy to become lazy and start guessing at the tone of a word—try to avoid this habit! Force yourself to think in tones and you will be much more easily understood.

3. Use as many language resources as possible

Upon graduating from college it became difficult to maintain my language skills. I found many products and resources, both paid and free, which worked for me. Chinese Tools is a great site to start with—I continually come back to it as a reference. Another good product that may work for you is Rocket Chinese. This is a good product for anyone starting out as well as someone who may already have a foundation in Mandarin. It will give you that solid foundation of characters and conversational skills necessary to survive in China.

Another thing you should do is reach out to the local community for help—doing things like speaking Chinese when you call to order your Chinese food works wonders. I have made friends with one of the local restaurant owners in my town, and he is always extremely happy to speak his native language with someone who is eager to learn about it. Whenever I get a chance I try to speak the language to keep my skills sharp, and you should too! It may be scary at times, but I’ve found that most people are often so excited to learn that someone has taken an interest in their language that they look past the fact that you can only speak at an elementary level.

So there you have it, a few basic steps to get you started (or keep you going) on your quest to become fluent in Chinese. These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg on techniques for language learning, and you will find that different things will work for you. My goal here is not to endorse or persuade you to do things my way, but to give you ideas and help you see that you are not alone in your desire to learn one of the most fascinating languages in history, and that you can do it with a little effort. Always stay focused and best of luck in your journey! 加油!