A reader asked me if there were any things I’d do differently today if I’d have to re-climb Hanyu mountain all the way from base camp number one. Based on my own experience and what I know from others, here’s my list.
Don’t skip the basics of Pinyin, tones and pronunciation
Pinyin, tones and pronunciation build the first layer of your Chinese language pyramid. This foundation needs to be as strong as possible in order not to subside once you progress. This does not mean perfection, but you have to cover the basics:
Write basic Chinese sentences in Pinyin, also from dictation
Speak and recognize the four tones
Read Pinyin fluently and correctly (standard pronunciation)
You can practice on your own (which I did for an extensive period), but probably the best way to do it is to join a “Pinyin boot camp” or intensive Pinyin elementary course. When I started studying Mandarin, I had no choice but to undergo a two-week Pinyin brainwash with our devoted Chinese teacher. We would go through all the Pinyin syllables and enjoyed prolonged drill sessions with our inexhaustible laoshi to the point where we would be haunted by shreds of chu, qu, chang, qiang, nü and nu in our dreams. But is was worth the effort and far more effective than self-studying Pinyin without anyone correcting you.
Don’t ignore Hanzi
Can you learn Chinese without Chinese characters? This is an intensely debated question. It all depends on your personal goals: what degree of proficiency do you want to reach? Which language skills matter to you?
I won’t pretend to have the only valid answer.
You can learn basic level Chinese without understanding Hanzi, BUT… Pinyin in the long run cannot replace Hanzi. The thing is that the Chinese writing system is so crucial to Chinese culture that without it, you’ll stay “illiterate” not just in the direct sense but also in terms of Chinese culture. Without the characters, your learning curve will flatten in an earlier stage, because the fact that more and more vocabulary sounds and looks the same to you becomes a real handicap.
Here is an example:
To illustrate this in more detail: When you ignore the four tones, standard Chinese has about 400 different syllables. Not a very high number compared to German, English, Russian or most other languages. The result of this small phonetic inventory is a high level of similar sounding words or homophony. But this relatively small amount of syllables does match a far greater number of commonly used characters. The official list numbers about 7000 common Hanzi. You get pretty far though, when you know the thousand most frequently used characters.
So this is something to consider when you are starting out or have that feeling that Pinyin brought you a long way but making progress becomes harder and harder. That’s why each Pinyin-only learning method is OK for first steps, but probably won’t get you to an intermediate or advanced level.
Don’t forget to make Chinese friends
Learning Chinese becomes much more real and fun when you can communicate with Chinese people. If you happen not to be somewhere withing Greater China, local tandem programs and language exchange facebook groups (or Scrabbin or interpals) can be an excellent starting point. It doesn’t always work out the first time. When you are lucky, you find a nice tandem partner to chat with.
Don’t worry if you “still don’t understand anything”
Chinese is unlike Italian or French so different from almost all languages that hardly any word sounds familiar. Especially when you are not in a Chinese speaking region and immersed in the language, developing adequate listening skills takes time and is really difficult, so don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s quite normal. Concentrate on what you know and build on that. When you have got time, watch Chinese movies and listen Chinese songs and keep a steady level of Chinese input.
Don’t expect apps to solve all your problems
Apps will shape the future of language learning and have been a major step forward, but the learner still has to make time and deliver the effort to climb up the hill. What’s just as important: how to use online learning applications in the right way. App developers don’t know your goals and motivation or indeed what’s best for you. That’s why apps usually don’t provide much guidance and for instance don’t tell you how, when, how often and with which expectations to use them.
Don’t think children’s books are easy
When I knew a couple of hundred characters, I reckoned it was time to read “红红的柿子树” (“honghong de shizishu”/ “red persimmon tree”), a children’s book a Chinese friend gave me.
It had Pinyin and pictures and I could recognize several characters, but I had a hard time making sense of the story. For two reasons: 1.) It was too hard for me. 2.) I couldn’t really relate to “little piggy looking for a friend” and all the other exciting animal characters in the book. This was demotivating to me.
Reading “The Little Prince” in Chinese (with Pinyin) was even worse. It’s a great book: nice pictures, short chapters, Pinyin included. However it proofed almost impossible to understand for me, without translating word by word, which I tried for some time, but is not something I would recommend. Try Chinese textbooks and graded readers instead.
That’s my list. If you have any thoughts or ideas about this topic, please leave a comment below.
I have a confession to make here: I’m an old-fashioned guy who likes to read the old-fashioned way and believes firmly in the paper brain and deep reading. When it comes to reading Chinese texts though, the advantages of online-reading are simply overwhelming. How to make the best out of both worlds?
What makes online reading great?
Texts tend to be up to date! I mean who wants to read some Mao Zedong poem if you could be reading what is happening in China right now or for that matter any other content that is relevant to you.
You can find topics that naturally interest you instead of reading the usual random stuff from your textbook.
Most important: You can use reader apps to track your progress, create your own system of flashcards and vocabulary lists. Reader apps can tell you the difficulty level of a given text.
But there are some risks as well…
The texts won’t always match your reading level. If they are too hard for you, you can loose interest easily. This is why people invented graded readers for Chinese.
Some people say you are more easily distracted reading online (pop-ups, other content appearing, chat messages and what have you). This depends on your situation, but I somewhat agree.
When I read online-texts or use an app like Pleco or DuShu, I have an urge to check every unknown character. This is not a good way to read texts, because the learning effect is very limited. I have forgotten most new characters the day after. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as clicking or tapping your way to fluency. Skill comes with practice. And practice in this case means daily brain gymnastics without (too much) cribbing.
Reading like the monkey king or Non-linear reading
Neuroscience, in fact, has revealed that humans use different parts of the brain when reading from a piece of paper or from a screen. So the more you read on screens, the more your mind shifts towards “non-linear” reading — a practice that involves things like skimming a screen or having your eyes dart around a web page.
I personally like the focus of the physical object in front of me. In others words, I get out my book and will put any other stuff that will distract me away, so it’s just me and the text I’m reading. This is called deep reading or slow reading and involves a higher level of concentration.
I also have this nasty habit of making markings, notes and drawings when I’m studying a text. Of course, you can do that online as well and may even have more editing options available, but still! Old habits die hard. I cannot help preferring to “physically” work my way through a text.
If you are reading a Chinese textbook like the New Practical Chinese Reader, chapters follow a well thought out progression and cover a variety of general topics. Most of which even proofed quite useful in China, though I didn’t really like those texts much when studying, I have to admit. The point this kind of offline reading really helps you laying the foundation for basic proficiency.
Deep reading is the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text. Contrast with skimming or superficial reading. Also called slow reading.
This has always been a major issue: most textbooks take so much time to conceive, write and publish that by the time they are released, they are already outdated. When time goes by, they just grow increasingly odd and silly. To take an extreme example: I have a Chinese reader which is filled with stories about communist wartime heroes and speeches of Mao. Apart from being historically interesting (if you dig language didactics), this reader has lost its relevance.
Or to counter this effect, readers become just so timelessly boring, containing only classical texts or content-free reading material that fails to be relevant on any level.
Mostly you look in vain for any “hot topics” like new trends in Chinese social media or currently the Sino-US tradewar that you might want to be able to discuss with your Chinese friends.
Many textbooks come with audio, but certainly not all. This problem is easier to solve online.
So to come to a conclusion here: Offline reading still has got its merits. The key issue being FOCUS which allows us to comprehend and appreciate what we read on a deeper level. It shouldn’t be impossible to integrate that into our online reading routine though. The possibilities of online reading are just too good to ignore. For now, I stick with a healthy mix of both: online reading can definitely complement old-fashioned, offline reading in a powerful way.
Someone asked me which “character traits” you need to besuccessful at learning Chinese. “Character traits”? I had to think about that. Finally, I came up with three things which I think are important to have or develop.
But let’s go back a little bit. For the sake of clarity, I’ll just take the basic meaning of the word “character”. It generally refers to the particular combination of qualities in a person or place that makes them different from others. The “character traits” are those qualities that make us “different from others”.
model (FFM) has become very popular. It describes human character
(or personality) by focusing on these 5 factors:
Openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless)
Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/detached)
Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident)
scaled approach which can be really helpful to understand how you are wired up.
You can also ask yourself who you want to be.
Anyway. Looking back on my experiences as a language student and teacher, here’s what I came up with:
Openness and curiosity
Creativity and self-awareness
You can of course argue if these three are really character traits in the traditional sense.
In the five-factor model “openness” is described as follows:
Openness is a general appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, imagination, curiosity, and variety of experience. People who are open to experience are intellectually curious, open to emotion, sensitive to beauty and willing to try new things. They tend to be, when compared to closed people, more creative and more aware of their feelings.
Now we can’t be open for everything all the time, but we can cultivate an open mindset or growth mindset when it comes to learning.
As a language teacher I know how many people only see their limitations and the obstacles down the road. “It’s just too hard for me! I’ll never be able to speak fluently!”. I heard that kind of phrase a lot. I would ask them very bluntly: “Look, if you don’t believe in your own potential, how can you learn anything?” You need to start shouting back at that negative voice inside you. Start shouting back right now if you have to!
You need to be keen on learning new things.
The thing with people who score high on openness is that they don’t look before they leap. They just do it. They’ll just start learning some obscure instrument you never heard of or book a course in programming although they never wrote one line of code in their whole life. This is a mentality thing.
As a teacher (and a student) I’d also see many people who just cared about the language certificate they’d receive at the end of the course. They just cared about that, not about actually learning anything beyond the course requirements. The positive thing was that they were very focused on their goal. In the long run though, they are limited by that purely practical mindset. Their learning curve stagnates in an early stage, because they are not interested in the thing itself.
cultivate that growth mindset, you must believe in your own potential to learn.
This next point is not about being a creative genius who invents new apps every other day or writes music or poems and what have you. If you do though, that’s great too.
What I had in mind though, is the ability to discover new ways to learn outside the curriculum you’re in. Typically, you’ll have Chinese class with prescribed books and homework you are expected to finish. You’ll trust your teacher knows what’s best for you. But guess what? Your teacher doesn’t! Your teacher has other stuff to worry about!
The kind of creativity I’m referring to here involves knowing what you need. Just trusting your teacher won’t unleash your full potential. Your teacher probably won’t tell you to paste vocabulary stickers all around your house, although it can be quite useful. I still didn’t remove the 微波炉-sticker from my microwave, and I used to have many other stickers like 门，电脑，雨伞，花盆 and so on pasted around the apartment. It was just an idea and it worked for me.
You have to know what works for YOU. You must get creative in some way.
And this can
mean many things. It can mean finding a Chinese tandem partner to chat with or
team up with other students to practice. It can even mean inviting your Chinese
teacher to dinner or using wechat to fire random questions at people you just
learned: 你是哪国人？你今天想做什么？你饿了吗？Again, you have to get active and find out what’s best for you.
I use the word “discipline” for lack of a better word. I like to think about “discipline” as the art of developing (and maintaining) good habits. It’s not about making a schedule and sticking to it no matter what (though it does involve effective time management). It’s not about creating a cage around you. It’s more about cultivating positive learning habits and integrating them into your daily routine. This relates to the “conscientiousness” from the five-factor model:
Conscientiousness is a tendency to display self-discipline, act dutifully, and strive for achievement against measures or outside expectations. It is related to the way in which people control, regulate, and direct their impulses. High conscientiousness is often perceived as being stubborn and focused. Low conscientiousness is associated with flexibility and spontaneity, but can also appear as sloppiness and lack of reliability.
Toegel G, Barsoux JL (2012). “How to become a better leader”. MIT Sloan Management Review. 53 (3): 51–60.
Indeed, if you can combine a high degree of openness and curiosity with a form of self-discipline, you are holding the key ingredients for successful learning in your hand.
I don’t want to mystify anything here. The kind of “discipline” you need for language learning is really not that special, but you have to be serious about it. It’s like practicing violin. It’s better to play 20 minutes every day instead of two hours every Saturday. By playing every day you’ll develop a feeling for the instrument, your hands will get accustomed to new movements and finger arrangements, you learn new melodies and sound better. Without being aware of it you’re slowly climbing a mountain. Every hour you play is another step on your way up. It’s the same with learning Chinese. To make progress you need daily practice.
Now I know that can be challenging. Time is a valuable resource. Maybe you are looking at your schedule right now and saying that’s not going to work for me. If you don’t have 30 minutes, then take 10 minutes of your day and try that for one week. Check your progress: What did you learn? Were you focused enough? In some cases, you will find out that you need to make more time.
They may not admit it, but every “successful person” I know of practice some way of self-discipline, knows how to set goals, track progress and structure their time in an effective manner.
To wrap it
up here, these three character traits I think are very useful:
Openness and curiosity
Creativity and self-awareness
Discipline or the art of cultivating good habits
From my own experience, I don’t see character or personality as static and unchangeable. I also spoke of “mindset” and “mentality” to underline that view. If you possess or cultivate these three traits you will climb higher than most.
Here’s a top 10 of Chinese songs that are suitable for beginners. When I say beginners, I don’t mean absolute beginners, but learners with at least a few months of learning experience. Enjoy!
Do you have any songs that helped you improve your Chinese skills? Please leave a comment below.
Nr. 1. Teresa Teng – 月亮代表我的心
For those who do not know her yet: Teresa Teng (邓丽君 (dèng lì jūn), 29 January 1953 – 8 May 1995) was an extremely popular singer from Taiwan. Her fame spread all over Southeast-Asia in the 70’s and 80’s, although her romantic songs were officially banned from mainland China for being to “bourgeois”. Her records could still be bought on the black market though and were played all over China, even in government circles and night clubs. Her fans from mainland China nicknamed her “Little Deng” as she shares her family name (邓) with the communist leader Deng Xiaoping. The saying went that “Deng the leader ruled by day, but Deng the singer ruled by night”.
By the way, she not only recorded songs in Mandarin but also in Taiwanese, Cantonese, Japanese, Indonesian and English. She even spoke French fluently.
Nr. 2. Teresa Teng – 甜蜜蜜
Some people may know the song from the Hongkong movie “Tian mi mi” which was released in 1996. Teresa’s music is featured prominently throughout the whole film; in fact, the cinema classic is considered a “love poem” to the Taiwanese singer. The song is about love at first sight.
The reason Teresa’s songs are so excellent for learning Chinese is they are mostly slow love ballads sung with her sweet and clear voice. The lyrics are simple and pure. From a learning perspective you only need basic grammar to be able to follow. Repetition is key here. Soon you are singing along and can impress your Chinese friends in a karaoke bar of your choice.
你说过两天来看我 Ni shuo guo liang tian lai kan wo 一等就是一年多 Yi deng jiu shi yi nian duo 三百六十五个日子不好过 San bai liu shi wu ge ri zi bu hao guo 你心里根本没有我 Ni xin li gen ben mei you wo 把我的爱情还给我 Ba wo de ai qing huan gei wo
Teresas Teng – 你怎么说
Nr. 4. Teresa Teng – 美酒加咖啡
The idea of mixing wine and coffee or drinking both simultaneously didn’t occur to me till I heard this Chinese drinking ballad. In this song, a heartbroken Teresa assures her listeners time and time again that she is not yet drunk but just brokenhearted and looking for equally grief-stricken company to empty another cup.
“Women are tigers”. This may be common knowledge to some, but for the poor monk in the song it serves as a warning not to mingle or even come close to the opposite sex as they will swallow him alive. Listen to Li Na to find out what became of him.
Nr. 6. 于文华、尹相杰 – 纤夫的爱
The original name of this unbelievably catchy love song seems to be “纤夫的爱” or “boat tracker’s love” and is another gem from yesteryear. I love the epic video clip of the heroic bloke with the glasses pulling the boat with his “younger sister” behind him. ”The virtues of Chinese rural life”, someone commented. The “dangling rope” between them becomes a metaphor for their unfolding love. He pulls her, he sweats for her: This is old-school Chinese chivalry (with “traditional” gender roles), no matter if the male singer (Yǐn Xiāngjié) was arrested for possessing drugs or not.
妹妹你坐船头 mei mei ni zuo chuan tou 哥哥在岸上走 ge ge zai an shang zou 恩恩爱爱 en en ai ai 纤绳荡悠悠 qian sheng dang you you
于文华、尹相杰 – 纤夫的爱
Nr. 7. 于文华、尹相杰 – 天上有太阳
If you found the last one a bit too hard, try this one. It’s another extremely catchy duet between gege and xiaomei, still breathing the rural spirit of the nineties. As their relationship enters into a more mature stage, gege – in an optimistic and forward looking mood – is wondering how to satisfy xiaomei’s dreams and expectations.
Nr. 8. Joyce Chu -【好想你 I MiSS U】
Joyce Chu is a young singer from Malaysia. She changes her outfit and whereabouts just about every second in this clip just to underline how she misses you. It’s the kind of song that gets stuck in your head pretty quick.
Nr. 8. Wanting 曲婉婷 – 我的歌声里 (You Exist In My Song)
Do you hear an English accent? I wonder if Wanting Qu does it on purpose, because she was born in Harbin, China and already 16 years of age when she moved to Canada. Wanting earned a degree in international business and relocated to Vancouver where she began her musical career. “You exist in my song” is about lost love that still lives on in heart and dreams.
你存在 我深深的脑海里 Nǐ cúnzài wǒ shēn shēn de nǎohǎi lǐ 我的梦里 我的心里 我的歌声里 Wǒ de mèng lǐ wǒ de xīnlǐ wǒ de gēshēng lǐ 你存在 我深深的脑海里 Nǐ cúnzài wǒ shēn shēn de nǎohǎi lǐ 我的梦里 我的心里 我的歌声里 Wǒ de mèng lǐ wǒ de xīnlǐ wǒ de gēshēng lǐ
曲婉婷 – 我的歌声里
Nr. 9. 慕容晓晓 – 爱情买卖
Murong Xiaoxiao became famous with this poppy R&B song from Chinese street life that even involves some rap elements (I guess that was something new back then). It could be heard on every Chinese street corner in 2009 (and afterwards). 买卖 or 做买卖 literally means buying and selling (doing business) and is often used to refer to small businesses and street vendors. In this case, it’s Xiaoxiao’s love that’s been bought and sold and she obviously feels wronged by her lover who thinks love is something that can be purchased and thrown away anytime.
This extremely popular song by the Chopstick Brothers “traumatizes” a lot of people on their first trip to China. Imagine getting caught in a massive swarm of elderly women (阿姨) dancing in formation to the beat of “xiao pingguo” and being forced to join their revolutionary movement as happens to numerous innocent tourists every year. Most of them don’t make it back. The upside is though, that the lyrics are plain and simple. Listen to it once or twice and the song will stick with you for days!
你是我的小呀小苹果 Nǐ shì wǒ de xiǎo ya xiǎo píngguǒ 怎么爱你都不嫌多 zěnme ài nǐ dōu bù xián duō 红红的小脸⼉温暖我的⼼窝 hóng hóng de xiǎo liǎn er wēnnuǎn wǒ de xīn wō 点亮我生命的⽕ diǎn liàng wǒ shēngmìng de huǒ ⽕火⽕火⽕ huǒ huǒ huǒ huǒ huǒ