Chinese (Mandarin)/How To Study Chinese
Speaking and Pronunciation
- Learn pinyin. Not only is it used throughout this book to explain proper pronunciation, it is needed to look up words in dictionaries and to type in Chinese.
- Pay attention to the tones. Since there are so few syllables in Chinese, there are many homonyms, making attention to tones very important. Learning to write the pinyin with correct tones at the same time as you learn the characters will improve your pronunciation and your listening comprehension.
- Read the text aloud. Speaking (and hearing yourself speak) will help reinforce the text in your memory. Exaggerating the tones can help you remember them. In Chinese, character (something that when writing takes a space unit), word (which may include some characters or a single character), and sentence may be different from English. When speaking Chinese, the pronunciation of each character should be a single unit.
- Find a language partner. There may be a Chinese language club in a nearby city or university. There are also free websites on the Internet that can help you set up a language exchange using Skype or other VoIP programs. Two examples are The Mixxer and E-Tandem.
- Use a Text To Speech (TTS) service. In other words, have a computer read the text for you. Free examples include Google Translate and imtranslator.net. Google Translate can not only read the text (the volume icon, not available for large texts) but also give you the pinyin (the A with the umlaut), and, of course, translate.
- Consume Chinese media. Immersing yourself in Chinese after learning the basics will make learning easier. To learn pronunciation, make the voices of native speakers your constant companions, and after finishing this book, continue to immerse yourself—you will have learned enough to take on Chinese "in the wild". A wide variety of multimedia options exist for exposing your ears to native Chinese speakers. Two of the best sites for easy listening materials are Popup Chinese and ChineseClass101.com. Advanced learners can listen to broadcasts of Xinhua, China's official news network, or visit Youku, a Chinese incarnation of YouTube (YouTube is blocked in China, and Facebook as well, for that matter). Download as much audio as you can from these sites to your MP3 player and start listening. You can listen to Chinese whenever you're in the car, commuting, or doing mechanical tasks. Note that, since Internet Explorer 6 is still a popular browser in China, Chinese websites may seem a bit quirky, and video streaming services may not work at all on modern browsers.
Reading and Writing
- Practice writing—a lot. When you study, write a character at least ten times, and more if you have trouble remembering it. You can find special grid paper for writing practice with Chinese characters on the Internet; for example, PDF sheets are available on UVM's web site, and a practice sheet generator is available at www.chinesetools.eu (or original site, French). The output is set up as a grid, so that a typical printer can print 11 characters with 8 boxes each per page in portrait mode, giving each character one row, or 5 characters with 17 boxes each, and so on. In landscape mode, a printer can print 8 characters with 11 boxes each per page, or 4 characters with 23 boxes each giving each character two lines. Remember to quiz yourself periodically to test your memory and to find which characters you need to practice more. As you write, think of the sound and meaning of the character, or say it out loud. Check out the East Asian Calligraphy wikibook for more help with Chinese writing. Learn the correct stroke order initially and write carefully, looking at the printed character each time before copying. Actually writing is important to establish a 'motor memory' of each character, which will allow your writing to flow more easily.
- Use a flashcard program. Many people who use flash cards memorize information, but there's often much time wasted reviewing what they already know well, or in relearning what they forgot. The free programs Anki and Mnemosyne, can optimize your review schedule using their algorithms. They can also use audio for pronunciation help and 3-sided cards to study reading, writing, and translation separately. You can download free cardsets, export your own, or write them yourself to fully customize your character selection.
- Look for radicals. Radicals are components of Chinese characters that you will see repeated over and over again. Learning the meaning of radicals will help you to see the connections between similar categories of words. Many characters are comprised of radical-phonetic pairings, where the radical is the "root" that hints at the meaning of the word, while another part of the character hints at the sound of the word. Learning to spot radicals is also useful since they can be used when looking up words when you don't know the pinyin in Chinese dictionaries.
- Buy a dictionary. They're useful for looking up new words or just browsing. Beginner's dictionaries have larger fonts, usage examples, and Pinyin pronunciation, all of which are sometimes missing in comprehensive dictionaries. CC-CEDICT is a thorough Chinese-English dictionary available under Creative Commons. KTdict C-E is a free iOS app that uses CEDICT. A good physical dictionary that provides many example sentences and phrases is The Starter Oxford Chinese Dictionary (Simplified characters only). A good online dictionary would be nciku. It is searchable by pinyin, characters, and sketches, via a drawing panel. It not only contains definitions, also shows the stroke order of a character, and gives examples of its use.