How to Quickly Comprehend Chinese While in China

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Today I am pleased to bring you a guest post from the fabulous Agness of eTramping.com.

How many times have you heard that Chinese is impossible to comprehend as it is the most complicated language in the world? Yes, that’s true – Chinese is considered to be one of the most difficult and challenging languages on this planet, but I can ensure you that it is going to be a snap to pick up some words and make some simple sentences within a couple of months once you arrive in China. The reason being, the Chinese language has probably the easiest grammar structure in the world. In order to build a sentence, you simply place words in certain order. There are no tenses and no gender-specific verbs – just words. What a blessing!

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Imagine you are coming to China to work as an English teacher and you are planning to live and travel here for the next 6 months. The crucial thing for you should be learning Mandarin as soon as possible as it might save your life and make it much easier with everyday activities such as shopping or dining out. Here are some steps you can follow to make the process of learning easy, smooth and more fun:

1. Start with the tones.

While in China, you can notice that picking up some words from locals in the street can be more than enough to survive. Try to listen carefully to what people are saying, then try to repeat after them in exactly the same way. Do not worry if you say some words in a wrong way, the Chinese will always correct you in a very polite way.

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Knowing the tones is important because one word in Chinese can mean completely different things when you change the tones. Therefore, you need to say the words in exactly the same way as you hear them. It is better to know 5 words pronounced perfectly than knowing 50 pronounced in a wrong way. Tones matter, but don’t be limited by them. Have a good sense of humour and take it easy on yourself when you do mess up. It happens to all foreigners. Be patient and never give up.

2. Find your best learning method.

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If you are seriously thinking about learning Chinese, the best learning options for you are studying with a private teacher or self-study supported by online teaching resources. Most of the schools are willing to provide private tutoring for you so you can study Chinese every day either in your flat or in a language school. This is a great option and most of the time it’s free. If you work better through self-study you can buy a notebook and write down all tones and words you listen to on a regular basis and keep learning them by heart. If you are not sure how to pronounce a word, you can always ask one of the teachers or locals for help; they will be more than happy to help you. You can support your study by using various online dictionaries. Remember that the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in the country where the language originates, so do not miss this opportunity to be able to learn as much Chinese as possible.

3. Practice, practice, practice.

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The only way you can improve your Chinese and step up your language skills is to practice incessantly with drive, persistence and determination. There are many ways of practicing Chinese while being in China:

  • Use as many Chinese words as possible when preparing your classes – Your students will go crazy when they hear you talk Chinese. If you are having a class on travelling, try to write down some Chinese words related to this topic, then read them aloud to your students. You will all have a great time and you will learn some new Chinese words. Of course, you are not there to speak to them in Chinese, but if you translate something after introducing it in English, it will be more effective for everyone.
  • Hang with Chinese – You are surrounded by native speakers of Chinese, why not use it as part of your lessons? Try to speak as much Chinese as possible when going out with your Chinese friends. Do not be afraid of asking them what something is called in Chinese or how to pronounce the words properly.
  • Watch Chinese movies or TV shows – You are in China so accessing Chinese TV should not be a problem. Turn on some fancy Chinese channels and try to hear the proper tones, hear them in context to the storyline and in relation to the human connections being made, so you can really encompass more of the language as a whole.
  • Listen to Chinese songs – Pick up your favourite Chinese song, translate it into your native language and keep listening to it, then try to learn it by heart. It can be tough work, but it will pay off as you can impress your Chinese friends and students by singing a song in the language while getting to know new words and practicing new tones.

4. Never stop learning.

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Once you stop using Chinese on a regular basis, your Chinese will start dying. If you do not use Chinese words, you will simply forget them, so never, ever stop learning. Learning Chinese must be a daily process, a daily habit and a daily practice in order to succeed.

Have you ever learnt Chinese when in China? If so, how difficult/easy did you find it?

If you would like to read more about China, you can check out my Add the Brick to the Great Wall:” Experience-based Advice for China from Expats” e-book which sums up my two-year experience of teaching, living and travelling in the Land of Dragons.

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Agness is a Polish travel blogger who has been travelling and living in different Asian countries since 2011. She is well known for travelling the world for less than $25 per day and she shares her tricks and tips with the readers of her blog called eTramping.com. Moreover, she is a food lover obsessed with Chinese cuisine, yoga passionate, life enthusiast and photography freak.

Heather Hall

Heather Hall

Passionate about travel, food, history and animals, Heather brings a curiosity and fun-loving attitude to most any experience that comes along. The Virginia native has lived abroad since 2011, and has visited more than 40 countries. Follow along as she explores the cultures and cuisines of the world on her blog, Ferreting Out the Fun!

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12 thoughts on “How to Quickly Comprehend Chinese While in China

  1. I am in my office right now speaking some Chinese with kindergarten teachers and I can’t believe how much my Chinese has improved since I came here for the first time. I hope these tips will help people out so they can fully enjoy the language process. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to contribute.
    Agness recently posted…Is Getting Across Canada On Less Than $25 A Day Possible?My Profile

    • Thanks, Agness, for sharing such helpful tips for learning Chinese! My experience in Shanghai was a bit different as all the locals spoke Shanghainese on the street. I took an intensive four-week course in Mandarin when I first arrived there and then hired a private tutor. Unfortunately it was very difficult to practice the language in Shanghai. I couldn’t understand anything the Shanghainese were saying and whenever I tried to speak Mandarin I was answered in English. It was much better when I traveled to places like Chengdu and Yangshuo. The people were much kinder and were thrilled to converse with me despite my elementary school-level Mandarin. Those moments made studying the language worthwhile!

  2. I wonder how long it takes foreigners to actually begin to hear and accurately replicate Chinese tones. I wouldn’t be surprised if a study has been done on this topic, but even though I can carry a tune and am generally really good at picking up languages, I was pretty hopeless when it came to expressing myself (or understanding) in Mandarin. A few times I have heard native speakers chatting and picked up what they have said, but I know that is due to context, not me having heard the tones!

    Still, if I were going to spend a lot of time in China, I would certainly want to try learning the language again. All of Agness’s tips are great—especially the one about practicing consistently. Use it or lose it!
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently posted…Tasting Heaven at the Gurdwara Sahib MelakaMy Profile

    • I lived in Shanghai for two years and never was able to properly hear or replicate the tones. Of course, the people in Shanghai speak Shanghainese which is a completely different language from Mandarin. I learned enough Mandarin to get by in my daily interactions (taking a taxi, ordering food, shopping at the market) but would never be able to sit down and have a meaningful conversation in Chinese. It would have been much better, I think, in a smaller city where the locals might have been more receptive. Even when I tried to use my limited Mandarin in Shanghai, I was usually answered in English which dimmed my desire to study.

  3. That sounds very challenging if you ask me. I haven’t been to China yet but when I was at university a Chinese girl lived with me and my roommates for one year, she tried to teach us some words but it wasn’t easy to memorize them at all. Well done to you Agness! 🙂

    • It is super challenging! I lived in Shanghai for two years and was never able to practice speaking the language much. The locals spoke Shanghainese and weren’t super interested in listening to my garbled attempts at Mandarin. In fact, I was usually answered in English!

  4. Great post Agness! We are planning to learn some Chinese for our next trip (Russia, Mongolia, China, Central Asia & Iran by thumb). When you hitchhike it really helps if you know a bit of the local language, so if possible we always try to prepare ourselves language wise. Have you heard or tried the Michel Thomas Method? It is an audio course based on repeating words after a native teacher and building sentences out of all the words you have learnt. I’d been really sceptical at first but we used it when we moved to Barcelona and we also did it before our Caucasus trip to pick up some Russian and I was amazed how well it works! Here is the link if you are interested:
    http://www.michelthomas.com/learn-mandarin-chinese.php
    Have a nice day, guys!

    • That sounds like an exciting adventure! I’ve used the Michel Thomas cds for travel to Spain, France and Greece and was pleased with the results. I find that locals are usually appreciative when you make an attempt at using their language. China is a bit different as there are something like 200 languages spoken across the country. While traveling through Yunnan Province, it was interesting to meet Chinese people who didn’t speak Mandarin as their first language. It’s actually a very diverse place! Happy travels!

    • Chinese grammar is wonderfully simple. I loved that I could speak like an elementary school child and not sound like a fool 🙂

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