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Learning Chinese

Why should you learn Chinese?

China is a country with a long history. Chinese culture, food, sport, tradition and language have developed over 5000 years. This is as fascinating as unique. Furthermore, China is has become a superpower and some people even predict that this century will be the "Chinese century". (Standard) Chinese has become one of the five official languages of the UN and with it a huge number of people in world become aware that they have to introduce (standard) Chinese as a foreign language into their business.  

Therefore, Chinese language ability adds value to your business, career prospects and life in general. If you (for example) visit china and you can speak Chinese you will have a complete different experience than if you can just speak English, since you can talk to the Chinese people and learn something about new Chinese inventions, about the needs of the Chinese people, what they like and what they do not like. Even if you never will visit China there more than one billion people on-line writing, chatting and reading in Chinese. Without Chinese you will never know, what they are talking about and what information they have and which information they share. Finally you can read about the newest research, since China produces today the second largest amount of scientific papers and not all of them are translated into English.

Why you should not learn Chinese

More and more people start to learn Chinese for various reasons. However, if you are only interested to learn Chinese to boost your career prospects, you should know that no company is looking for people with basic chinese skills. There is a very nice article from Katy Barnato about it: "Europeans Learn Chinese but Firms Say Don’t Bother" So, if this is the case for you, you might opt for another language (like spanish, russian...) or another skill (like coding...), since learning Chinese is especially difficult and you will need a lot of time and even more intrinsic motivation to stick to it.  

learning Chinese is especially difficult

or "Why is chinese so damn hard to learn?" as David Moser puts it. He wrote a very good essay about his learning experience in Chinese and he points out eight reasons, why it is difficult for everybody to learn Chinese (including Chinese children)

  1. the writing system is (most!) difficult to learn:
    The biggest problem, which makes Chinese especially difficult to learn, is the use of characters instead of letters. Therefore you have to learn not only the spelling, but also how to "paint" every word. However, painting a word correctly is much more difficult to learn than actually write the word. Additionally printed Chinese characters can look very confusing and if they are hand-written they are often indecipherable.
  2. Chinese is a tonal language
    In a tonal language every word has several complete different meanings. You can create whole sentences using just one word. For example the sentence

    Māmā mà mǎ ma? means "Does mother yell at the horse?"

    What makes this so difficult in learning Chinese is that if you pronounce one word differently it gets a different meaning. So you have to be very careful in your spelling and also in listening to other peoples spelling.

  3. no use of an alphabet
  4. writing system is not phonetic
  5. no cognates - there is no way that you can guess the meaning of a word you do not know
  6. dictionaries are difficult to handle - today this is not a big issue anymore, if you have a mobile phone)
  7. classical chinese is not readable (at all)
  8. (almost) no common cultural background between Westeners and Chinese people

Despite all these difficulties there is one ray of hope on the horizon. Chinese has a very simple grammar, which is based on the positions of the words in a sentence. Another "advantage" of learning Chinese is that studying a difficult language gives your mind a mental workout. The problem-solving skills of learning, recognizing, using new grammar and vocab keeps your mind sharp. Additionally when you have finally mastered the Chinese language every other (tonal) language will come quite easy to you.

yihui
Chinese phrase, which means that everything is difficult the first time, but becomes easy the second time. It also means that strangers become friends, when they can speak with another (strangers at the first meeting, friends at the second)

How difficult is it to learn standard Chinese?

The answer to this question depends strongly on which languages you can speak already. Standard Chinese (or Mandarin) belongs to a family of languages, which are called the tonal languages. Other tonal languages are Vietnamese or Thai. If you happen to know another (Asian) tonal language, Chinese will come quite easy to you. However, since you are reading this text in English, I will assume that you mainly speak English. Since English (as well as Spanish, German, Hindi...) belongs to the Indo-European languages you can quite easily learn another Indo-European language but it will be more difficult for you to learn a tonal language. How much more difficult it will be for you I can not tell you exactly. For me I would estimate that it took me about three times more time to reach the A2 level in Chinese language than to reach the same level in English.

At LearnFromFables we know that learning Chinese can often be very frustrating. That is why want to give you access to some fun but easy to comprehend stories to keep up your enthusiasm in grasping a language which is as fascinating as it is difficult to learn.

 

What might help you to learn Chinese?

My best advise for you is to find a language partner and talk/practice as much as possible.

Additionally I think it helps a lot to write a learning journal. A learning journal is a collection of questions, which you answer for yourself when you study. It helps you to focus on your goals. Here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • What is most difficult for you?
  • Why do you want to learn Chinese?
  • What did you learn about chinese culture due to studying chinese language?
  • What role does chinese culture play in your daily life?
  • How do you motivate yourself to do the tricky exercises?
  • What additional material/texts do you use?
  • What helps you best to learn standard chinese?

At my personal web page you can find additional questions and my answers to these questions, but (please) keep in mind that this is my (very subjective) learning journal for my progress in Chinese - which is by the way the reason why it is published on my personal webpage and not here.  If you write an learning journal and want to share it, please write me an email. I would be very happy to read and/or set a link to it.

Finally in the following paragraphs you will find a collection of additional material to study Chinese, which I find quite useful.

Webpages and online courses for beginners

Here are some links to web pages, which helped me to study Chinese.

  • At www.fluentu.com you have to sign in to see videos of various topics (like music television, going out, saying sorry...). For some videos and courses you have to pay, but there is also quite a number of videos for free.
  • At Chinese-tools you can find a full Chinese course with audio files and a printer friendly version of the conversations. This is a good option if you are a beginner and study Chinese with a language partner.
  • Another source for Chinese courses is CCTV. CCTV is a Chinese news page but also offers free Chinese courses like "growing up with Chinese", "survival Chinese" and "easy Chinese".
  • Of course, there is a blog where you can learn everyday a little bit mandarin.
  • Finally there is a great web page offering Chinese texts for all language levels. It offers explanations for the difficult parts and if you did not understood the whole story, you can also read an English translation. Finally to view a translation and additional informations about just a single character, you can mouse over the character.
  • At jhyingyufudao.net you can find even more stories
  • Chinese Pod.com – A Podcast, which was ranked by TIME as one of the TOP 10 Podcast in the year 2006
  • Chineseasy was once webpage which introduced you to a new concept to learn chinese characters. Mrs. Shao Lan (the webmaster of chineseasy) gave a TED talk in which she explains some chinese characters very nicely. 

online courses at intermediate level

  • Happy Chinese - is a tv show from "cctv" produced for intermediate learners of Chinese. The subtitles are in Chinese and in English, so you can try to listen to Chinese at a natural speed and stop the video when you do not understand the dialog anymore.

Learn Apps for android

Here are some apps, which I find particular helpful.

  • Pleco is very powerful app. Basically it is a dictionary but you can check words using pinyin, radicals, drawing with the touchpad and taking a photo. Additionally you can create flashcards and train vocabulary with them.
  • Chinese hsk is cheap app to learn new words.
  • Ibus (with pinyin) is the input method I use to write Chinese characters on the computer. You can also check out sogou pinyin, which is a very popular input method editor.
  • Hangpin is an app I have not used myself, since you have to pay for it. However, I think it can be very useful, when you go to china, since it can use the smartphone camera to read Chinese characters. Additionally it can translate them without a connection to the net.
  • Mandarin Madness is an app for android phones and a fun way to learn some vocab.
  • Chinese Writer is an android app, which teaches you to read Chinese characters. It may look like a game, but you have to quickly draw characters during this game, which trains you to write characters. (simplified and traditional characters)

Chinas influence on the world

Most westeners think that the increasing influence of China to the world is a new phenomenon. However, for Chinese, who are well aware of their 5000 year long history, the last 200 years is just a short period of time in which China fell short due to the industrial revolution. A nice example how chinese inventions shaped the world is the invention of gunpowder. In the short TED-ed you can learn how this invention had a huge influence on the history of the whole world.

 

Learning journal - standard chinese

This is not a page about Chinese in general, if you would like to read some general and objective information (instead of very subjective bias) about Chinese go to my web project about learning Chinese with the help of stories.

This is my (very subjective) learning journal for my progress in chinese language. A learning journal is a collection of questions, which you answer for yourself when you study a language. It helps you to focus on your goals and shows you in which areas you have improved and in which areas you have to work harder. In my chinese course we are encouraged to discuss our answers to this questions. Therefore, you might want to read my answers. Also, it might be interesting to read through the question, when you are not sure if you would like to learn chinese. When you check the language forums for information about chinese language, you will read quite often:

  • „Chinese is a really hard language."
  • „There is no doubt that chinese is the most difficult language in the world"
  • „You will need a lifetime to learn chinese properly".

But sometimes you can read sentences like this one:

  • "Chinese is the most simple language"

China is a country with a long history. Chinese culture, food, sport, tradition and language have developed over 5000 years. This is as fascinating as unique. Furthermore, China is has become a superpower and some people even predict that this century will be the "Chinese century". If you visit china and you can speak Chinese you will have a complete different experience than if you can just speak English, since you can talk to the Chinese people and learn something about new Chinese inventions, about the needs of the Chinese people, what they like and what they do not like. Even if you never will visit China there a one billion people online writing, chatting and reading in Chinese. Without Chinese you will never know, what they are talking about and what information they have and which information they share. Finally you can read about the newest research, since China produces today the second largest amount of scientific papers and not all of them are translated into English.


How many people do learn Chinese?

A few years ago learning Chinese was very uncommon. However, in the last years more and more students start a language course. However, since Chinese is very difficult to learn most of the students, decide to learn another Indo-German language.

A part from students almost almost nobody starts to learn Chinese. The main reason is that people believe that, they could not manage to learn Chinese themself and often they add that they are now to old to learn another language.

Although it might be true, that Chinese is very difficult to learn, in my opinion this is not a valid argument not to do so (or at least not to try.) However, in the last five years this attitide has changed (at the university) a lot, so in due time this attitude will change in the rest of Germany also.
Which languages did you learn before you started to study chinese?

My mother tongue is german. In school I learned also latin and the basics of the english language. While I had no use for latin in later life, I have been speaking english almost everyday in university. I always wanted to learn a third language and therefore I started a turkish course in university. I was grated at the end of the course as „very good", but I did not feel confident in speaking turkish. Anyway, after I came back from china I was more interested in learning chinese than turkish.

What is most difficult for you?

strangers become friends
Chinese phrase, which means that everything is difficult the first time, but becomes easy the second time. It also means that strangers become friends, when they can speak with another (strangers at the first meeting, friends at the second)"

The thing, which I find most difficult when speaking Mandarin is to be aware of the tones. Although I know a word and I know the correct tone, when speaking it aloud my language partner often tells me that I used the wrong tone. Since saying a word correctly but using the wrong tone changes the meaning completly my language partner can not understand what I am trying to say. I hope that extensive listening to chinese language can help me improve. Of course, speaking is important and finding people who are patient enough to correct my pronunciation is therefore vitally important.

What did you learn about chinese culture due to studying chinese language?

I learned that in chinese you can not just say „yes" or „no". Although you can say „I do" or „it is". This might not be very direct, but its more polite and exact.
You also have to smile to pronounce some words correctly. For example you can not say thanks „xie xie" without smiling to your partner.

What role does chinese culture play in your daily life?

When I started studying chemistry 10 years ago, I was surprised how many of the other students came from china. I also lived in a dormatory and there I also got to know many students from china and befriended with some of them. Here I learned to cook „real" chinese food and even today I cook quite often chinese food together with my wife. In the last years I noticed that more and more products come from china – not only clothes but also vegetables and electronics. Finally you hear in the news more and more stories about china.
What can motivate you to learn?

Well, I have always like to learn and to become better in what I am doing. Furthermore, chinese learning is mostly fun for me. Probably because I can take my own pace and decide for myself when I learn and what I would like to learn. Of course, it also helps that I know how important it will be to master the chinese language. Finally I find it very motivating to learn with a language partner, since they can give you good feedback.

How do you motivate yourself to do the tricky exercises?

From my studies in chemistry I know that learning is actually hard work. Therefore, it is important to structure your day. In the morning I decide when I am going to learn for a certain predetermined time (for example: Saturday 10.00 am - grammar and vocabulary for 90 minutes). I find it also important to determine, when I to make a break and for how long.

At a break I usually take a stroll, go jogging and do anything that gets me moving. When the break is over I feel refreshed and can learn much more efficiently. Finally I write down, what I have achieved during the day, which makes me feel good about myself and I know that I have earned to do something fun in the evening. This works especially well, when I have to do some of the more unlikeable exercises (like learning the tones).


What additional material/texts do you use?

It is very difficult to buy chinese (children) books in germany. Even amazon.com has little to offer. However, there is a great webpage offering chinese texts for all language levels. It offers explanations for the difficult parts and if you did not understood the whole story, you can also read an english translation. Finally to view a translation and additional informations about just a single character, you can mouse over the character.


What helps you best to learn standard chinese?

There are many ways to learn a new language but I found that the best way for me was to utilize technology. I did this in three ways:

  • Very early on I realized that I learn most of my Chinese from repetitive listening to the text from the lecture book. So I copied all the files from the listening exercises to my mp3 player. I would then listen to these texts on a random loop when I was at home, going by bike or in the train. Sometimes I would listen to the speakers, while reading the text.
  • There is a need little app called „pleco" available at the android app store. Basically it is an electronic dictionary, but you can also create electronic flash cards. Whenever I have some time I would train these words. This is especially useful, since to learn chinese vocab you would need flash cards with three (instead of two) sides – one for the english translation, one for the pronounciation (pinyin) and one for the characters. With „pleco" flash cards you can see for example the character, than listen to the pronounciation and finally think about the translation.
  • There are also several websites that offer excellent pod-casts in Mandarin for beginners, (see a list of pod-casts here).