Instantly being able to speak a second language would be a brilliant Christmas present! The reality, though, is that plenty of hard work is required to make it happen. Expat Living reader HOLLY NAYLOR is currently learning Mandarin Chinese – and she shares some great advice on learning the language here.
I had good intentions of learning Mandarin for many years, but I always found classes too expensive – and also too embarrassing as a 40-something mum of two! I became accustomed to people telling me that the Chinese language was “too difficult for foreigners”. Classroom lessons were also too difficult to attend while balancing work and family. So, I gave up completely.
Fast forward to 2018 and on a visit to mainland China for my children’s language camp, I met some new Chinese friends. I was struck by how their learning methods for English had evolved into adulthood and how they spoke English fluently without having ever left China. Here are some tips I can share from meeting them, and from my own experiences.
6 Top tips for learning Mandarin Chinese
- Firstly, find something about the language that fascinates you – whether it’s being able to message a friend in WeChat, writing calligraphy or watching dramas. For me, it’s all about the characters – each Chinese character is a pictograph, a linguistic art form. Some people consider it a chore to learn them, but the act of writing characters is something I find absorbing and therapeutic.
- The next step is to learn the tones. Watching YouTube videos on the topic will have you memorise the tones in no time.
- Thirdly, establish a learning goal and stick to it. HSK exams, for example, provide a structured study approach, and you can download the learning materials for free online.
- Fourth, listen to the language as often as possible – while cooking, commuting, walking. Use the time to listen to YouTube and podcasts. Also, you can use it as a bonding experience and practice with your children as they learn. I’ve learnt many words and expressions from children’s YouTube videos and school spelling lists. (I actually have a song called “Stinky Tofu” in my playlist!)
- Fifth, learn characters – make handwritten flashcards and use apps. WeChat content has some amazing resources – follow teachers or mini-programs such as Bilibili. Apps such as Pleco and Baidu have lots of free content and built-in dictionaries. Hack Chinese is an awesome paid website that has helped me learn around a thousand characters. Speak as much as you can – even if you’re alone – and read books aloud.
- Finally, keep the momentum going. Don’t be too hard on yourself – learn patterns rather than lists of grammatical rules. Watch a TV show you enjoy, for example Chinese dramas on YouTube or streaming platforms. Alternatively, programmes aimed at foreigners such as Happy Chinese, and YouTubers like Xiaoma make learning more accessible. Rotate your study – use a combination of textbooks, YouTube, podcasts, apps and more to keep the learning experience fresh each time.
After using these techniques for the past two years, I am now battling for the HSK3 exam. For those who prefer classes, a cheaper and more convenient alternative to classroom sessions is online tutors from sites such as Preply.
Enjoy your Mandarin journey.
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We hope you found this article on learning Mandarin interesting. Find more useful tips in our Living in Hong Kong section.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.