Chinese seems to be the new standard for not understanding -- these days I hear "It's all Chinese to me" far more often than the older "It's all Greek to me"!

Having spent a year in Beijing at BLCU, that's an expression I can no longer employ with quite the same meaning -- but I can certainly see why it is in popular usage. Chinese is hard!

Hard? Why?

  1. Chinese characters have almost no relationship to the sound of the word they represent. So unlike learning almost all other languages, reading cannot really be used as a leverage learning tool for speaking & listening.
  2. Chinese is a tonal language - a completely different language system to the Indo-European languages most of us "English speakers" grew up with. Additionally, many of the sounds in the language are not made in any Indo-European language at all.
  3. You can't learn Chinese outside China! Harsh but fair. In Beijing I have watched hundreds of students come and go on short term Chinese language programs. All of them say the same thing: a month in China is worth a year, or two, at home.

There are other reasons, but these are the main ones. So, since we can really do nothing about the first two, let's decide to do something about the third, and go to China for a semester or two to learn Chinese. What then?

Tips for learning Chinese in China.

  1. Do not blow off Pinyin! This is very easy to do by mistake. Pinyin (the system of Romanizing Chinese words) doesn't feel like "real Chinese". But this early stage is the time to perfect your pronunciation. An hour spent learning now is worth 400 hours later unlearning. Trust me on this. In addition, you should aim to be so good at Pinyin you can scribble it down flawlessly when people, say, give you directions over the phone.
  2. Start on your characters NOW, before you go! Set yourself what seems like a very small target, like 2 characters learned perfectly (read & write - they are NOT the same) per day. Before you know it you'll have 300 - 500 basic characters down perfectly and have a great foundation.
  3. Not too many language partners! A great trap for the beginner is to get out there and find all these wonderful people willing to help with your Chinese. Alas, most of them will be English leeches, and little or no help with your Chinese at all.
  4. Get out of your comfort zone. While this advice, at first, sounds like suicide for learning, in language learning it's a great strategy. What it means is to get out of comfortable Beijing or Shanghai, into the countryside, and force yourself to use and speak your Chinese unassisted.
  5. Leave your version of the "True Story of Tiananmen Square" at home. Mostly because unless you have gone out of your way to find the truth, your version is most probably wrong. This should go without saying - but you still get people turning up in China expecting to hear the sound of machine guns every night. Sigh. This kind of self-handicap makes it very difficult to learn anything while you are in China, including Chinese.

Apology: In making this "Learning Chinese" writeup, I have simplified for the sake of clarity. If you find something that is simply too egregious - let me know and I'll link through to the good oil.

The Tips: These are all things that I wish people had said to me 6 months before I decided to do this. Having met hundreds of foreign students in Beijing, and talked to them at length about their experiences, the wish that some version of these tips had been communicated seems pretty common.


Addendum: Kozmund asked me to clarify that it's certainly not impossible to learn Chinese outside China - if your situation (usually involving Chinese family members or special location) is especially conducive. I wholeheartedly agree.

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