Tan’s Tips: Learning Chinese (Chinese Language Day)

Chinese Language Day, founded by the UN in 2010, seeks to celebrate the rich and intriguing history and culture of the Chinese language, as well as its importance in the world’s society and economy. 200 million people around the world have learnt Chinese as a foreign language and there are currently 25 million learners of it, making it one of the most popular languages to learn of all time.

After my last post about Chinese Language Day, which was a tad rude and cheeky, here are my top tips for people who are learning or wanting to learn the Chinese language. How do you keep on top of learning? How can you improve your speaking, listening, reading and writing skills? How can learning be a bit more fun and interesting? Read on below:

1) Reading: Read children’s books

Chinese children learning Chinese must start somewhere and so must adults – so what better way than by reading children’s books? Many also include Pinyin and the characters are large and easy to read, plus they are usually illustrated, making the story easy to follow. Advanced learners may also find Chinese translations of their favourite books good supplements too, as they already know the story and so half of the reading skills needed can be filled in with guesswork. It’s also a great way to understand how translations differ to the original text based on context and linguistic differences.

Here are a select few children’s Chinese or translated books to consider:

2) Writing: Put up post-it notes

Why not cover your house in post-it notes to help you remember what something is called in Chinese? This is a very popular and easy task to do (it just may be time consuming depending on what exactly you put them on). By writing the Chinese characters and Pinyin, it can help register the Chinese word for it, which is great for both writing when you write the characters and speech).

To really help you keep practising your writing, you can periodically re-write the post-it notes as we all know they are prone to falling off, crumpling and losing their stickiness quite quickly.

3) Speaking: Pair up with a Chinese speaker

Of course, everyone knows the best way to keep practising your speaking skills is to actually talk to someone who can speak the language. Repeating what an app says can only help you get so far without making sure you are getting it absolutely right. Needless to say, a native Chinese speaker can not only correct your pronunciation, but also your vocabulary, for example telling you what is more widely spoken and what and when it is used in certain contexts. Most dictionaries will not be completely clear and do not give examples of the word in sentences for you to fully understand, which can also be useful when writing.

Don’t be shy to try and find or speak to native Chinese speakers. Many will be happy to help you out, even if you don’t help them with English or your native language. Arranging outings or activities with your new language partner such as going to Chinese restaurants or watching a film in Chinese can help too. Why not ask them to allow you to order in Chinese to practise with other speakers beyond them or ask them to test you on what is going on or what was said in different parts of the film?

I would also recommend asking them to be strict with you in regards to pronunciation – this includes the different tones used in Chinese. Many non-native learners and speakers may be able to talk fluidly and get the pronunciation half-correct but abandon the tones that would throw off people who do not understand their way of speaking. Tones are extremely important in the Chinese language and getting them wrong could mean your word or sentence changes meaning completely or has no meaning at all. So don’t let them let you be lazy!

4) Listening: Watch your favourite shows and films in Chinese or with Chinese subtitles

From Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The actual translation of the Chinese spoken is: “Go. (I) Don’t want any trouble.”

As with the tip of reading Chinese translations of your favourite book, watching TV shows and films with Chinese subtitles or dubbed in Chinese can really help keep you engaged as you already know what happens but this time you’re watching it to know how it plays out in Chinese. How are certain English words and phrases said in or translated to Chinese?

Some things on Netflix have the option to watch with Chinese subtitles and as recently reported, Turning Red on Disney+ allows viewers to turn on Chinese subtitles and watch it in Cantonese and Mandarin. You can also watch Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings with Chinese subtitles. With the subtitles on along with it, you can break down each scene if you wish so you can understand the script and the speech.

5) All: Remember the “strange” Chinese grammar and sentence structure

Many Chinese sentence structures are usually easy to remember and if you can get them into your head – especially when their translation make no sense in English, forming longer sentences and paragraphs in legit Chinese becomes easier. For example, when explaining cause and effect in Chinese, “因为… 所以” is extremely common. In English, this basically means “because/since… so/therefore” which we do not say in English but it makes Chinese sentence structures sound so much simpler.

Another is “除了… 以外”, which means “except for/besides/in addition” but both “除了” and “以外” technically mean the same thing and although “以外” can be omitted, with it the sentence essentially reads “except for… except…” Again, sounds ridiculous in English but remember that and you’ll remember the Chinese way.

Then there is “虽然…, 但是” which means “although…, but” – in English you don’t use “but” if you’re also using “although” because it doesn’t sound right, but in Chinese grammar you do. Another is “当…的时候” which means or emphasises “when…” The “的时候” correlates to a time so although that is not present in English and isn’t always necessary to include in Chinese, knowing that these three characters are part of the sentence structure can help when forming them.

A final example is “与其…, 不如” which means “I’d prefer…, rather than”, however, the speaker is saying they prefer B (comes after “不如”) to A, not the other way round. In other words, in Chinese it is flipped compared to how we would say the same expression in English.

So those are my top tips on learning Chinese. If you’re a speaker or learner what other tips do you have for others? And if you’re celebrating Chinese Language Day, how are you doing that? Let me know on the comments – 你也可以写中文吧!

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