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Learning Chinese: What Does It Involve?

As Chinese is becoming a more and more popular language, people from all over the world are eager to learn it and to learn quickly.

The problem is that unlike languages like French, English or Spanish, there is really nothing familiar about Chinese if your mother tongue is one of the aforementioned languages.

The other issue is that although quite a few foreigners can speak decent Chinese, far fewer foreigners can actually read (and thus write) the language. This, I find to be severely limiting as a I believe a language should be learned in its entirety. Could you imagine being able to only speak English without being able to read it? This would pretty much amount to illiteracy which a major hurdle no matter the language.

The other problem with having no ability to read Chinese comes with actually learning and remembering words. Chinese words are thus remembered through their pronunciation as opposed to their intrinsic meaning. For some people that might not be much of an issue, but for visual learners (such as me) this makes the learning the language tremendously difficult. For instance, remembering the word “work” through its pronunciation (gong1 zuo4) is a very difficult task for me whereas picturing its written form (工作) is a sure and safe way not only to remember the word but also to better understand each one of the Chinese characters which composes it and thus use them to understand or form other words.

Finally, being unable to read Chinese is missing out on one of the greatest ways to learn new vocabulary: reading all kinds of material. Relying on others to practice the language can sometimes be inconvenient whereas keeping a book nearby is a practical way to practice whenever you feel like it. It is also a good way to get you exposed to words different than the words you use in your typical daily conversations.

In this article I will describe a method I’ve used to learn Chinese. Although it is more time consuming at first, it does provide substantial rewards for those who are determined enough to carry it through.

Getting Started

Since this article is about learning Chinese fast, I won’t go into the details that beginners should definitely know about.

Learning “pinyin” is definitely necessary for newcomers. For more information about pinyin, give this article a good read.

The next step will be to understand the structure about Chinese characters. I have written what I consider to be a short, comprehensive guide right here.

Learning the Characters

Through various mnemonics methods, it is entirely possible to fairly quickly memorize the “meaning” of hundreds of characters in a fairly short period of time. The use of this is somewhat limited however as it won’t allow the learner to actually “read” the characters however.

The best method I’ve found is to use virtual flashcards. I personally use the following website. It allows the learner to both learn the pinyin and the tones. In one hour of repetitive practice, I can usually memorize at least 20 new characters. It is entirely possible to learn a lot more if more time is spent learning characters.

How fast one learns a language pretty much depends of just how much time one is willing to invest. There’s no easy ride here, especially when it comes to learning Chinese, no magic solution which will get you reading (at least not everything) within a couple of weeks. In other words, the amount of Chinese characters which are learned depends on how time you, as a student, are willing to study and practice them.

Once you’ve experienced for a while with the characters move on to the next step.

Recognizing the Characters and Learning New Words

The reason why I suggested learning words through recognition (using flashcards) is because in this day and age we seldom find ourselves writing things down using pen and paper. Most of the time writing will be done though the computer and being able to type in the pinyin and recognize the characters is enough for communication purposes.

Purchasing a book is the next step. Try to find a Chinese book for children. You can usually find some which are short enough (not to mention inexpensive).

Some books provide the pinyin above the characters. This is a good way to practice your pronunciation out loud but you might start relying too much on the pinyin and not pay enough attention to the characters themselves. This is why I would personally recommend a very simple book written completely in Chinese (without pinyin) so that you can focus most and foremost on the characters. This will allow you to see how words are formed and in which context they are used.

This is a core element as learning words without context severely reduces their usefulness.

Putting Words into Action

The final step, and one of the most important one, is actually using the words learned through reading into active conversation. This will turn the words from being passive to active and you will find you can easily remember them in your conversations. This is a very important step as refraining from actively putting the characters you’ve learned into use greatly decreases your chances of remembering them.

By using this method, although time consuming at first, you will be able to learn both how to read and speak Chinese at the same time. Keep in mind that although your progress might be slower at first you will acquire an invaluable skill which others might pass on: reading and writing Chinese.