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How we were taught to learn Chinese

Foreigners who are learning Mandarin must be curious how the native speakers learned it.  After all, if we are all so good at it, and we did some of it at school, there must be something that we did that worked, which could work for you!

So here goes:

1. For us, every day we had to do ‘writing practice’.  We learned 5 new words everyday, and wrote them 10 times each.

2. Every week, there was a ‘spelling’ test.  A teacher read out the words, and you had to know the meaning from hearing the words, and then be able to write it out.

3. We read poems.  In addition to getting our tones right, we got the melody of the language right.

4. The teacher explained very similar words all the time.  e.g. the word ‘ask’ is 问, but it could be coupled with a lot of other words such as 盘,访,追 etc., and each becomes a different way of asking.  For instance:

盘问 means ‘probe + ask’ = to interrogate.

访问 means to ‘visit + ask’ = to interview.

追问 means ‘chase + ask’ = to badger.

She explained the meaning of 盘,访, 追 so that we understood how it modified the meaning of the word 问.

5. Making sentences.  We had to construct sentences with new words.  This improved our intuitive sense of the grammar.  Simple sentences were ok, as long as the new words made sense in the sentence.

But more than that, I have five essential tips for you:

1. Honestly, the first thing you have to do is to forget about the alphabet when learning Chinese, because there isn’t one.

2. The second thing is to accept the fact that you have to learn about 1,000 words before you can speak, read, or write anything meaningfully.  So you have to be extremely patient.  Start with the knowledge in mind that you will be hardly able to do much with the language until 2 years later.

3.  Read my post about tonal languages.  Compare the ‘tones’ to music, and you will find it easier.

4.  Look at the objects around you.  Table, chair, spoon, fork, chopsticks, knife, plates, books.  Learn how to say them in Chinese, and practice the pronunciation.  Get used to the fact that they are made up of one to three words.  That each word is monosyllabic.

5.  Understand that this is the same for many Asian languages: Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese etc.  Just because we’ve been speaking English and other European languages all this while doesn’t mean that other language systems don’t exist.  Knowing that lots of people have similar systems probably helps to realize that it’s not as uncommon as you think.  It’s just foreign! 😀

Ok, I hope these tips help.  Happy learning Chinese!

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