Languages are infinitely complex, and there’s never a point where you’re ‘finished’ learning.
Obviously, if your goal is to become a lifelong Chinese scholar there is no easy way. You just have to put your head down and do the work. The easiest way to learn Chinese isn’t for you.
But most of us don’t need that. We just want enough Chinese to complete daily activities like grocery shopping or giving directions to a taxi driver. The next goal after that is to be able to hang out at a bar and understand the gist of the conversation.
The biggest mistake I see beginners make, the biggest mistake I made, was overestimating the accuracy of their pronunciation.
In English, we’re used to hearing non-native English speakers butcher our language. We’re used to Spanish, French, and German speakers mispronounce words, or put the stress in the wrong place. But Chinese people aren’t. There simply aren’t that many foreigners in China, and most of them can’t speak any Chinese at all. Your pronunciation has to be on point, or people won’t understand you.
This is also a function of Chinese as a language. The tonal system means that there are an enormous amount of similar sounding words in Chinese.
Some of you may not be familiar with the tonal system. Essentially, the way you say a word affects the meaning. The classic example used in every textbook ever is ‘ma’.
‘mā’ with a flat tone can mean ‘妈’, as in ‘妈妈’- mommy
‘má’ with a rising tone can mean ‘麻’ for ‘hemp’
‘mˇa with a falling, then rising, tone can mean ‘马’ for ‘horse’
‘mà’ with a falling tone can mean ‘骂’ which is the verb to curse someone out
‘ma’ with an empty tone(‘吗‘) usually comes at the end of sentences and works kind of like a question mark.
As you can see, there’s lots of room for misinterpretation-even with just one word. Imagine a whole sentence!
The best way to develop good pronunciation skills is to listen carefully, and repeat. Find a teacher or language partner who doesn’t mind correcting you-constantly.
Mimic native speakers, they won’t mind-they know you’re trying to learn their language. People are very forgiving, so long as they think you’re making an honest effort to learn.
Focus on high-frequency vocabulary
You don’t need to know 5000 words of Chinese to order a bowl of noodles. Actually, you only need to know one word – 拉面（lāmiàn).
I remember trying to order a bowl of noodles with my terrible beginner Chinese. It was a Lanzhou style noodle shop, Lanzhou people are Muslims from central China. They’re famous for their pulled, or stretched, noodles.
I had been standing there for over a minute, making noises that sounded like Chinese but didn’t seem to make any sense. I used hand gestures. Sentences. Even longer huffs and puffs of nonsense. Nothing worked. The waiter looked at me like I was an alien.
A local guy walked in, said ‘拉面‘ and sat down. Immediately, his order was noted down and on its way. No ‘hello’. No ‘How are you?’ No talk about the weather. Just ‘pulled noodles’. It was a revelation. You don’t need to over-complicate things.
If you’re in a restaurant or a shop, you can get pretty much everything you want with just two words ‘这个’ (zhè ge) meaning ‘this’. Local people order like this all the time, they just point at what they want on the menu ‘this, this, and this’. If you know your numbers, congradulations – you now have survival level Chinese!
Obviously, I don’t think you should stop there. These are just examples of how a few words can have a disproportionate impact.
In the beginning, focus on learning words that you’ll actually use. You don’t need to know the name of every fruit to go fruit shopping. Focus on the top 500 most common words in Chinese first. Then build out from that.
Forget about learning to read- for now
Learning to read and write Chinese characters, if you intend to pursue it long-term, is going to take up a lot of your time. I know, because it takes up a lot of my time.
There’s no question that, at the higher levels, knowing your characters is very important. If you attend any kind of group class, the teacher will put a lot of emphasis on reading and writing. If you don’t know your characters, you will feel dumb. Speaking from personal experience here.
For everyday life, you really don’t need to know how to read. If your goal is just to make friends and complete simple tasks, focus on learning to speak. The seven most useful characters to learn are on restaurant menu’s;
Ok, so the last word is two characters, but you get the picture. 80% of the food you want to eat will involve some combination of the above. No, you won’t know exactly what you’re ordering, but you’ll be in the ball park.
Take the time you would otherwise spend learning characters, and focus on speaking.
Speak from Day 1
I have to give credit to the polyglot Benny Lewis for this line. He absolutely nailed it. You need to speak from day one.
“All I can say is ‘hello!”
Good-say ‘hello’ to everyone you meet. That way you’ll learn the appropriate responses and have the opportunity to compare your pronunciation to the person in front of you.
As you learn more, say more. There is no way to skip this step and still expect to learn a language. This also opens you up to making friends, which leads to a richer learning experience.
The easiest way to learn Chinese is to focus on small things that have a high impact. Pronunciation, high frequency words, and practice(speaking) from day one. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll get there.
When the time comes to get more serious about learning Chinese, you can look into learning the characters. But they’re not relevant to most people until you become a ‘serious’ student.