1) DON’T expect to be an overnight expert
One of the most frustrating things about learning Mandarin is the rate of progress. European and American expats who learn other European languages with relative ease often find that Chinese is a whole different kettle of fish. For English speakers, becoming fluent in German, French or Spanish only takes a year or so, but for a language like Mandarin which has literally no reference points, it’s another story. As long as you cut yourself some slack, and realise that progress will be relatively slow, you’ll hopefully relax enough to accept learning at your own pace.
2) DO practise often
Taxi drivers, colleagues, friends, strangers in bars… It might sound mercenary, but if you want to progress, you should treat social interactions as opportunities to practise. In Beijing and Shanghai, this might not be so easy, as your potential conversation partners will probably want to practise their English on you, but with perseverance, you should be able to spend a good part of your day speaking Mandarin. As for organised language exchanges, not everyone likes them, but they can be a great tool if structured correctly (i.e. setting time limits and topics for discussions in both languages).
3) DON’T rely on pinyin
Sure, learning characters is a bit of a drag, and there are so many of them, but if you rely on pinyin – the mostly commonly used Romanization method – alone, your rate of learning will grind to a halt pretty quickly. Just think about how many possible meanings there are for the pinyin “yu”; without characters to identify which “yu” you’re dealing with, you have no idea about what it could mean (there’s only so far context can stretch). Set yourself a target of learning a character a day, and you’ll find yourself learning more in the process, from radicals or characters that look similar.
4) DO learn tones
For native speakers of non-tonal languages, facing the prospect of learning tones as well as everything else can be daunting. However, you should get into the habit of learning each new word as a bundle: sound, tone, character. Don’t make the mistake of thinking tones don’t matter; they do. A recent famous example is the underground online movement known as “cao ni ma” which, when pronounced with certain tones means “grass mud horse”, and when pronounced with other tones means… something completely different.
Having said that, fluency is more important than rigid tone-obsession that might slow you down unnecessarily; if you spend too much time and though pronouncing each character your sentences won’t flow right and people still won’t understand you.
5) DON’T waste money on bad teachers
Just as there are plenty of dodgy English schools knocking around, trying to fleece learners and exploit the popularity of the language, so there are maverick Mandarin tutors and establishments keen to rip you off.
6) DO ignore boasters and flatterers
Everyone knows at least one boaster – an Old China Hand who has lived here for ages, and whose Mandarin is practically native (or so they believe). They scorn the efforts of lesser talents, and speak effusively about their own linguistic flair. Ignore them. Concentrate on your own studies, and take other people’s claims and opinions with a pinch of salt.
Likewise, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking you’re better than you are, especially when taxi drivers compliment you on your incredibly Chinese after only a “ni hao”, or when you impress your friends back home with your newfound skills. Just make sure you keep things realistic.
7) DON’T Forget to Use Web Resources
These days, web resources for learning Mandarin are plentiful, and there are some excellent programmes and websites out there. We’ve tried most of them, and recommend Nciku.com as a dictionary and flashcard tool, ChinesePod for its diversity and usability, and Chinese-course.com for simple exercises. Wenlin is also an invaluable tool, and the Google Pinyin input method should be on every Mandarin learner’s PC or laptop. Ask your friends and colleagues what they use, and ask them to pass on any software they have.
We’re not saying these are fool-proof tips, or that they’ll make you instantly fluent, but bear them in mind, and you might find yourself progressing just a little bit faster. 加油！