After lots of preparation, packing and saying goodbye to friends and family, you finally made it to China!
First, congratulations! That was brave!
Now you’probably busy getting used to the new environment and the hustle and bustle of an overpopulated Chinese city. You’re forgetting the main reason for this long trip: improving your Chinese.
This post by a veteran student of the Chinese language gives you hints that will help you speed up the learning process and make the best of the time spent in China.
The good news is, becoming proficient in Chinese is possible, and you don’t need to spend years reading books. You can achieve it in two years, if you stay firm in your intentions. The only thing you can’t do without is… China! You need to move to China, and stay there, two years at least. AT LEAST!
Let’s see these tips that help you be a more efficient student of Chinese as a second language.
STUDY SOME CHINESE BEFORE GOING TO CHINA
It doesn’t have to be a university Degree, however, if you know basic vocabulary, the way sentence are stuctured and how to look up characters to increase your vocabulary ( it requires a little know-how), it makes things so much better.
A semester of study at a language school in your country, or a few months self-study with a tutor who can correct you is highly recommended.
ENROLL IN A LANGUAGE COURSE IN CHINA
The secret to becoming proficient in Chinese is to live and study in China. Find a course with qualified teachers, who specialize in teaching Chinese to foreigners as a second language. Your learning potential in China is three times what it would be in your home country, but it’s essential that you choose to study at an accredited institute, at least in the beginning.
IN THE BEGINNING, LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS
When I arrived at Xiamen University for the purpose of improving my Chinese, I had to take a language test to determine my real level. I was disappointed by the results because I ended up in the pre-intermediate class.
In my mind, I was like, “Sorry?!… After getting a University degree in Chinese language and culture, I am still at the pre-intermediate level? No way, maybe they’re mistaken.”
But during the first day of class, I realized that the level they assigned me to was just right for me, except for one tiny factor: I simply couldn’t understand a word of what the teachers were saying!
I felt ashamed and miserable, but forced myself to stay. I couldn’t participate in the communication that was going on, and I wasn’t the only one in that position.
When the teachers asked me to speak, I was afraid of what would come out of my mouth.
Performance anxiety went on for three weeks until the miracle happened: I started getting 80% of what was said during class. Here comes the sun! I began to relax and enjoy the class. For the first weeks you need to be patient with yourself, and trust that you are accelerating step by step.
Once I was feeling more confident, I also started going out a lot with my English-speaking classmates.
And here’s another tip, more easily said than done:
AVOID ENGLISH SPEAKERS
Stick with Chinese friends or with classmates who don't like to speak English all the time. It's quite normal that you feel attracted to the classmates who have a cultural background similar to yours, but remember – your goal is to immerse yourself in Chinese, not English.
If you can’t avoid English speakers, at least go out with the ones whose Chinese is better than yours or who are strongly committed to learning Chinese.
HANG OUT WITH TEACHERS
Some of the teachers will be happy to spend some of their free time with you. You can benefit from them in many ways. When you eat out with them, you can observe how they order at the restaurant and get to know about local food.
If you see them just as teachers, you might feel uncomfortable in their presence, but also consider that, not long ago, they were students just like you. They can share a lot of information with you about the city, and offer help when needed. A good connection with them can make your experience in China easier. They might also be able to find you a language partner, or a job.
FIND ONE OR MORE LANGUAGE PARTNERS
A “language partner” is someone who is studying your native language, and who can help you out with Chinese homework and conversation. If your own native language isn’t as popular as English, speaker, it’s going to be very easy to find somebody to exchange languages with. If your native language isn’t as popular as English, you can still have a chance, just ask around and don’t give up.
Do not stick with the first student you meet if you are not happy with him/her. Some students tend to focus too much on the English part of the exchange. Choose somebody able to focus on your pronunciation and who can support your study as you support theirs.
REPEAT AND IMITATE
During your very first months in China, you might worry too much about how others perceive your spoken Chinese. You ask simple questions of locals and they don’t understand you; you utter sentences and you can’t pronounce the tones of the words right.
When you are communicating with native speakers, breathe slowly and
repeat, repeat, repeat.
That’s the mantra for learning Chinese. Say sentences many times, until people understand you. Do mimics if necessary. And if you are lucky, they will help you correct your pronunciation, slowly repeating what you just said and using the right intonation.
When you speak, copy exactly the locals’ pronunciation exactly, the way they pronounce sequences of tones; dump your pride and parrot them, repeat things like a baby would do.
As you know, babies are the quickest learners.
Feeling ashamed to speak in public, even during classes, is perfectly normal, but you need to overcome this limitation. The foreigners who have the best Chinese pronunciation are the ones brave enough to pronounce sentences the wrong way many times!
You’ll come to realize that sometimes locals pretend they don’t understand what you are saying. Other times, they really don’t have a clue about what you want from them. If you don’t get upset and give up, you’ll learn a lot of useful expressions in the spoken language.
If it happens that the locals make fun of the way you speak, be open to that and think instead that you are a long distance traveler, while most of the Chinese you meet in China never get the chance to go abroad. They might treat you below your expectation, but you’ll endure that because it’s a part getting to know the language and the culture.Laugh with them when they laugh at you, and learn.
In the end, you’ll find a majority of positive reactions to your questions, especially if you make them understand that their help is important to you. It rarely happened that I met a Chinese who wasn’t willing to communicate, help and be kind to me.
I guess that’s something my compatriots could learn from Chinese people: respect toward foreigners.
THE WORDS YOU DON’T KNOW ARE NOT A REAL PROBLEM
The more you listen and speak, the more you succeed in communicating. Focus on the success of communication.
It is okay that you come across words and meanings you haven’t studied before. It will always be like this, even after years in China.
The good news is, it’s enough that you get the general meaning of a conversation, a text, or a video. The process of learning a language goes naturally from general to particular. Take note of the situation and the sentences you’ve heard, when you don’t understand. Later, check the books, review the words you already know and look up the new ones.
GO PLACES ALONE
Push yourself into situations where you need to speak and listen to others. It’s easy now that you are surrounded by Chinese all the time.
Go shopping without a Chinese friend assisting you. Walk through the city, get lost and ask for information. Visit the street market and listen to Chinese ladies bargaining. Sit at a café by yourself and wait for somebody interested in having a chat with you in Chinese.
Go to the gym, so you learn the vocabulary connected with sports. Speak to taxi drivers: most of them come from different places in China, so you gain a bit of geographical lexicon. Chat with hairdressers and foot masseurs. When you need to rent an apartment, ask a real estate agent to take you around and you’ll review the vocabulary connected with a house.
And so on.
READ EVERYTHING AROUND YOU
This tips comes from a Chinese friend. She said it’s what they used to learn characters when they were kids.
Look at the big signs of the shops on the streets while walking around or sitting on the bus. Reading a Chinese book can be tiring, especially for the eyes. The things you read in the streets are huge and have lights.
Read leaflets and receipts. They are more interesting than reading language manuals because they belong to real life, have real context, and will stick in your memory longer.
FIND MUSIC AND SERIES THAT YOU LIKE
Listen to Chinese songs until you find something you would be happy to translate. Download the app QQ yinyue (QQ音乐) on your phone and listen to Chinese music for free. You’ll find everything on QQyinyue, including international music. Most songs have text, so you can listen and read at the same time.
Ask a friend to help you install software on your notebook for streaming Chinese series and movies, like all the locals are doing.
Have you heard of these famous series:
Aiqing Gongyu (爱情公寓) It’s the Chinese Friends. Language is quick but conversation is simple.
Liang ge Baba (两个爸爸) “Two Fathers”. A Taiwanese series about a girl with two fathers.
Wenzhou yi Jia Ren (温州一家人) “A Family from Wenzhou”. A Chinese family from the countriside is forced to split up, and the young daughter moves to Italy to work. It’s contemporary and shot in China and Italy.
REAL LANGUAGE MIGHT BE DIFFERENT FROM THE LANGUAGE USED IN BOOKS
But do not be discouraged. Language is like a living organism, ever-changing. You’ll have the chance to use what you study in books, but you’ll learn much more from the place you visit and people you meet, so choose them carefully, and never stop studying a little everyday. Learning Chinese takes a huge effort, but it rewards you greatly; you’ll be proud of the improvement you’ll see after just a few months in China.
After you obtain a good working knowledge of Chinese, you should keep setting further language goals, otherwise you’ll start losing your vocabulary. When you have a job and your life in China is stable, or if you’ve decided to go back home, do not relax too much, or you’ll stop learning alltogether.
If you are inspired to study a bit of Chinese everyday, like setting the goal of passing the HSK exam or reading Chinese novels and magazines, your Chinese vocabulary will never stop growing.