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The Cheapskate’s Guide to Learning Chinese

Me with my first Chinese teacher, Jamie, who recently interviewed me about learning Chinese - Starting with the basics
Me with my first Chinese teacher, Jamie from Jamie’s Mandarin in Guangzhou, who recently interviewed me about learning Chinese – Starting with the basics

Written By Cathal Ó Domhnalláin

We all know the ‘why’ of why learning Chinese is very important, but very few people ever elaborate on the ‘how’.

Four years ago, I faced this problem when I first moved to China. Surely, by being in an environment where Chinese was spoken everywhere, you wouldn’t need any formal language learning, just listen to people speak, observe how they speak, and you will pick up the language naturally. I know a handful of people that followed that approach with German, French, Italian, even Russian. Chinese couldn’t be any different.

Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  

A year went by, and I was struggling to move beyond saying anything beyond ‘Hello’ (你好) ‘Thank You’ (谢谢) and ‘I don’t understand’ (听不懂). I felt ashamed, and that shame created a sense of self-doubt, living in a country and being unable to speak the language after 12 months, since my friends were able to do it with other languages.

What I realized after a couple of days’ introspection was that my approach to learning the language was completely wrong. Chinese is not a language you can learn passively, but a language that requires active commitment, integration with the local community, rote learning, and cultural exploration.

18 months later, I passed HSK 5, and right now (more than two years later) I consider myself fluent in Chinese, even though it’s incredibly obvious to anyone listening to me speak that I’m a foreigner speaking the language and there is still enormous room for improvement.  

The purpose of this article, above all else, is to share the step-by-step approach that worked for me and the resources that I recommend for anyone at different levels of their Chinese-learning journey. This approach might not work for everyone, and the gains you make will depend on the time you are willing to invest and how committed you are to learning Chinese.  

I will presuppose here that the serious learner will be willing to invest 4-5 hours per week in learning Chinese.

Step 1 – ‘Pinyin’, The Chinese Alphabet

Time Required: 3 Months

Estimated Cost: $250

It’s a common misnomer that Chinese children start learning characters from the moment they start formal education at the age of 4. In a country where every province has multiple dialects, standardizing people’s Mandarin from an early age is vital, meaning that they work on accurate pronunciation from the get-go. Mandarin is a tonal language consisting of four separate tones. Each syllable has its own tone, and each word is made up of a of number of these syllables put together, and each syllable is represented by a character (more on that later).

You’re probably wondering why this part requires three months and why, as a proud cheapskate, I consider it worth $250. 

Building a solid foundation is vital for any language, but it’s more important with Chinese than other languages. Some Chinese people will struggle to understand your Chinese if your pronunciation is off or you use the wrong tone. In Irish, we have a saying, Tús maith, leath na hoibre, meaning that a good start is half the work.  

A teacher will give you constructive feedback on your progress and give you great pointers on how well you’re doing with pronunciation.

Recommended Resources for Step 1:

iTalki: Excellent resource for hiring one-to-one Chinese teachers. Many of these teachers are college students and/or from rural China, meaning that you can normally get an extremely good deal (Less than $8 per hour). The more experienced and qualified the teacher, the more expensive it gets (naturally).

Edugo.ai: I’ve never used Edugo, so I can’t really speak from experience, but I love the premise of the app. Like iTalki, you have a number of teachers, but the difference here is that they have a built-in review tool, allowing you to review the content of the lesson you just took. Looks very promising.

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Step 2: Vocabulary Building and Character Learning

Time Required: 6 Months

Estimated Cost: $225

A teacher can only bring you so far. This bit is on you!  

Characters are everywhere in China. At first, they look like a series of amorphous scribbles, but after a while, you start to understand the logic involved.  

You start to realize, like my friend and mentor Will Sung always says, “learning Chinese is not just about learning a language, it’s also about learning a culture’.  

What I personally did was take a thematic/context-based approach. Need to take a cab, see the doctor, order food at a restaurant without pictures, describe your job, or compare your home country to China? I divided each situation into a separate theme (Travel, Comparisons, Home, Cooking, etc.), and started learning the appropriate vocabulary, sentence structures, and the corresponding characters and maintained that for a period of six months.  

For characters, I used to go to a Starbucks everyday and write out the characters by hand repeatedly. You don’t necessarily need to do this, but I personally found this to be a far more effective way of memorizing characters and an essential step for memorizing them.

Recommended Resources for Step 2: 

ChinesePod: This platform is really the one that has it all. Lessons are divided into themes, and you can order your Chinese learning journey from beginning to advanced. They have a library of 4,000+ lessons, covering virtually every theme under the face of the sun. You start off with a ‘Say it Right’ series (Newbie), Daily Life 1 (Elementary), Daily Life 2(Intermediate), all the way up to politics.  

Each lesson covers the appropriate grammar points, teaches you how to use the newly-acquired vocabulary, teaches you via situational dialogues, includes homework sections, and has a built-in ‘Say it Right’ feature, which automatically detects if you are saying a word/sentence correctly and subsequently grades your pronunciation.  

You can even order the vocabulary you learned into different flashcards, which you can review on the go.

Annual subscription packages are $200 per year, making it the best-value language-learning platform out there.

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Developing Chinese (发展汉语). This is the favored option of Chinese teachers and the HSK system. Each lesson is thematic and includes ample appropriate vocabulary. It’s basically a useful textbook that, while useful, is incredibly dull. The book itself costs about $20.

Step 3: Language Application & Listening

Estimated Time: 3 months

Estimated Cost: None 

The penny dropped for me at around this stage. I watched a video of the Canadian language-learning expert and founder of LingQ, Steve Kaufmann, talking about the real key to learning Chinese. ‘listen, listen, listen’, he said. “You need to learn to replicate a native speaker, understand how they speak, the words the use, and the context in which they are used.”  

This is the part where you really start to see your time investment pay off and when you start to think of yourself as a ‘speaker’ of the language. To capitalize on this, to push on and make that additional improvement, you need to speak, write, and watch TV.

I started finding language partners at this stage and organized daily language exchanges (30 minutes of speaking Chinese followed by 30 minutes of speaking English), started writing passages in Chinese every day, which other native Chinese speakers would subsequently correct (this was reciprocal, since I would also correct their English).  

I also started listening to a lot of Chinese music. I’m personally a huge fan of hard rock and heavy metal, meaning that I had to find suitable Chinese music. For me, 唐朝乐队 (Tang Dynasty Band), 黑豹乐队 (Black Panther), 窦唯 (Dou Wei), 萧敬腾 (Jam Hsiao), 信乐团 (Shin Band) were the best options. Listening to their songs on repeat and paying attention to their lyrics really helped me remember new words that I would not otherwise have done.

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Recommended Resources for Step 3 

HelloTalk: This is a great app where you can source language partners, post essays that you write as a 动态 (like a Facebook Status), and have telephone conversations. You can correct other people’s language, while other people can also correct you through their built-in correction tool. To use this app well, it’s important to post daily and establish boundaries with language partners (For example, we speak 15 minutes speaking Chinese, followed by 15 minutes of English).

There are more Chinese people learning English than there are native English speakers learning Chinese, so it’s important to be aware that you’ll be getting bombarded with messages in the beginning. Brace yourself! f

An example of how the HelloTalk correction function works

Step 4: Full Immersion

You’ll be amazed by how far you can get with daily language exchanges and the confidence you’ll have built up. You’ll have a competitive advantage in the market that you didn’t have before and you’ll be given a whole new level of respect by the Chinese people you encounter in your daily life.

Where can you go from there?

Chinese is full of intricacies and nuance. You can’t really say you have ‘learned’ the language, since there is so much depth, just like with any other language or culture, really. 

This means that you’ll need to start watching the TV shows that Chinese people watch, read the books that Chinese people read, and start using a different type of logic when speaking a new language.  

You can also try choosing to relocate to a Tier-3 or Tier-4 city. I personally lived in Lanzhou, capital of the northwest province of Gansu for two months. In areas like these, you’re surrounded by people speaking the language and you’re away from English-speakers, erstwhile finding out more about the less-explored parts of China.

Here is a range of shows and books that I recommend watching, if you are planning on taking your Chinese to the next level.

TV Series: 都挺好,中国好声音,奇葩说,欢乐颂,世界青年说

Books: 说话之道(蔡康永),撒哈拉的故事(三毛),目送(龙应台),亲爱的安德烈(龙应台)

The Chinese show I recently binge-watched, 都挺好

 Closing Remarks:

I was once told that when living in China, learning the language is the most basic form of respect 学习中文是最起码的尊重.

The Chinese business landscape is changing, and learning Mandarin is becoming a must. Showing that you are willing to put in the effort to learn their language in a business context goes a long way in building long-lasting relationships, or 关系 that you can’t fully appreciate until you’re in that situation. Forget what the others say about three to four years; all you need is 12 months and about $400.  

The good news is that it’s never too late to start. Go out there, dare to speak, and don’t be put off by the fact that the language looks difficult. Grammar is very simple, and the tones are relatively straightforward. If you can read characters, you will find that reading books is so much quicker after you get to a certain level.

 My friend and one of the founders of the Alipay service, 余额宝 once said to me, “you have this amazing opportunity in China, don’t waste it.”  

Are you willing to get your China opportunity float by or are you going to make the most of your time in China by learning the language?

The choice is yours. 

Originally published on The Cheapskate’s Guide to Learning Chinese