The 6 biggest DON’TS mastering Chinese

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:

Same in sound (homophone), but different in meaning. The part you miss when you can’t read Hanzi.

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.

Here you can see how HSK levels match (or do not match) the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages and the number of characters needed for each level with A1 meaning “beginner” and C2 “almost native”. It’s interesting to see that HSK6 according to German estimations equals only B2, which is upper intermediate, whereas according to Hanban, HSK6 matches the “almost-native” C2 level.

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 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 “Xiao wangzi” the hard way. This is an example of what the pages looked like after I went over them.

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.

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