An approach to learning Chinese

This is a general approach to studying Standard Chinese that I feel isn’t used often enough. It is based on my own experience with and intuitions about the language, and is also influenced by this blog post and others by Victor Mair, which I recommend reading as well. In general, I think that students should focus much less on the characters and much more on the spoken language than is often demanded by textbooks and teachers.

I have listed four steps, which represent a rough order of things to focus on. They are not meant to be discrete; you don’t need perfect mastery of a given step to start on the next one. I’m not very familiar with specific resources, so I haven’t mentioned many here, but resources for Standard Chinese are easy to find in bookstores, libraries, and online.

This approach can be easily adapted for any currently spoken language that uses Chinese characters, including other Chinese languages and Japanese, although the details will obviously differ.

  1. Learn pinyin and how it corresponds to the language’s phonology. This includes memorizing how to write and pronounce the initials, the finals, and the four tones and neutral tone. Here is a pinyin chart with audio that will help you associate each syllable with how it’s written. Most of pinyin is pretty intuitive; read the notes at the bottom here for some explanation of the less intuitive parts. Also note that the same vowel letter is often used to represent different vowel sounds (as is the case in English), depending on what final it’s in. Your goal is to be able to write any clearly spoken syllable in pinyin, and to replicate that syllable in speech when you hear it or read it in pinyin. In addition, you should learn the few tone change rules, which are not represented in pinyin but must be taken into consideration when speaking or reading aloud.

  2. Once you’re comfortable with pinyin and the phonetic system, start learning the spoken language itself. If you’re studying on your own, the best way is probably to work through a textbook series with audio materials. Listening and speaking are key: use the audio materials and repeat what they say aloud, and practice with a native speaker if you can. I also recommend learning the rules of pinyin orthography and writing out the sentences you learn in pinyin: I have found this very helpful in getting a better sense of pronunciation, word boundaries, and grammar patterns, and it’s a much quicker way of taking notes about the language than dealing with characters. (Some examples of pinyin text.) I wouldn’t worry too much about the characters until you have a good grasp of the language; it’ll be helpful to start learning some common ones, especially if you’re living in a place that uses them, but in the early stages don’t try to learn to write everything that you learn to say. Doing so will severely slow down language acquisition.

  3. When you have a good foundation in the spoken language, start reading phonetically annotated texts, such as books for children or adult learners. If you’re in Taiwan or want to use Taiwanese materials, learn zhuyin and start reading books with zhuyin annotation; otherwise, find books annotated with pinyin. This will help in two ways: it will introduce you to new vocabulary and grammatical structures, especially some more formal ones that are not often used in colloquial speech; and it will help you associate Chinese characters with their pronunciations, allowing you to naturally learn to read more and more characters with continued exposure to them. A similar approach is to listen to audiobooks and follow along with the printed text.

  4. Finally, when you do want to start learning Chinese characters in a systematic way, it’ll be helpful to learn some general patterns for why characters look the way they do and why words are written with their particular characters. This should be done in conjunction with your readings of annotated texts, and like everything else will be a continual process. I plan to write more about this in the future. You can start learning characters at any point, but I want to emphasize again that in the early stages you shouldn’t focus too much on the characters, especially writing them. Even native Chinese speakers usually know more words than they can read, and can read more words than they can write.

June 2020