Learning a foreign language is arguably one of the most rewarding things a person can undertake; be it English, Spanish, Chinese or any of the hundreds of languages spoken across the world. Being able to interact with a variety of cultures and communicate with citizens of countries different from your own, is something that should be valued as it allows for the growth of international integration, understanding and diversity.
There’s something particularly special about Chinese that can draw people in; perhaps it’s the technical precision of Mandarin Chinese and its 四个声调 (four tones), or the tricky yet beautiful Chinese characters. Either way, for whatever reason people begin the arduous yet ultimately fulfilling journey of learning Chinese, it will require dedication, faith and most importantly, persistence.
Wherever you begin your studies of the Chinese language once you get to China, as a foreigner it can sometimes prove difficult to maximise the opportunities that are out there. Here are some tips for making the most of learning Chinese in China:
- Join a Community
Develop your current interests, or discover new ones! China has a wide variety of social activities available and open to foreigners to get involved with; from cooking and the arts to team sports and outdoor activities, larger cities in China especially have a lot to offer. These communities can prove to be a great place to make Chinese friends with interests similar to your own, and as a result a great time to practice your language skills.
- Get a Private Tutor
Getting a private tutor can be a cost-effective method to improving your Chinese rather than signing up for long-term, and often expensive, language schools and universities. Instead, find a tutor that can be flexible with your timetable and that can adapt to your way of learning, and the aspects of your Chinese that you want to work on.
- Read Children’s Books in Chinese
This is especially convenient if you tutor any Chinese children, as they often have children’s books that are written in both English and Chinese that you can borrow. With permission from the parents of course, this can be an excellent resource that can help you slowly build your basic vocabulary and interaction with your Chinese students. There are also a lot of online materials available where you can access children’s books and TV shows that are a great way to study the basics at your own speed.
- Find a Language Partner
From friends and colleagues to university students and neighbours, finding a Chinese person who wants to improve their English (or Spanish, French etc.) and who is also willing to help you practice your Chinese, can be such a useful resource. Not only can it help form friendship and develop cultural exchange, but also having someone there who is willing to take the time to help you break down the language barriers you will run into from time to time, is invaluable.
- Read Signs on the Street
Whether you’re studying Chinese characters or not, taking time to interact with the environment around you is a great way to engage with Chinese that is used everyday. For example: road signs, overhead announcements on the metro, menus, store signs etc. are all learning tools that are readily accessible at any time.
- Message Chinese Friends in Chinese
Bite the bullet and change your phone (or at least your keyboard) into Chinese. Being able to message your Chinese friends in Chinese is something that will take time and patience, (and self-restraint from using an online translator), but ultimately will help you improve you reading comprehension faster that just memorising textbooks. Also, you Chinese friends can help you correct any mistakes you might make, and you can begin to build a more colloquial vocabulary.
- Make Conversation
Often one of the most daunting things about living in China can be having a lack of basic communication and social interaction. Though it may sometimes seem impossible to ever fully break into the language, a great place to start is making conversation with the people around you; Ayis (阿姨), taxi drivers, waiters, supermarket staff are always going to be part of your life in China, and even if its just really simple questions or basic vocabulary you want to practice, go for it! If it doesn’t go smoothly the first time, guaranteed there will be another time to try again.
- Watch TV with Chinese Friends
China has an abundance of Chinese TV and entertainment just waiting to be tapped into, so go ahead and get recommendations for Chinese sit-coms, kids shows, movies, and ask one of your Chinese friends to watch them with you. In this way you can pause and rewind at your own leisure and also have your Chinese friend there to help explain jokes or phrases that you are unfamiliar with. Subtitles in Chinese are also nearly always available with every TV show and movie, so if you are watching by yourself then take the time to pause and review any sections that you find tricky.
- Learn Vocabulary for Daily Activities Just Before You Go Out and Do Them
We all go to the supermarkets, restaurants and even the hairdressers in China from time to time, so before you head out, sit and learn some of the vocabulary you think you’ll be likely to need. For instance, if you want to buy a new outfit, try and learn how to ask about different sizes or styles in Chinese, or perhaps how to ask for directions to the specific store you want to get to. Whatever the situation, having the appropriate vocabulary fresh in your mind beforehand can feel so rewarding when you try it out and find it works!
- Don’t Slack on Character Writing
One habit that is very easy to fall into is getting lazy with your Chinese character writing. Once you are able to talk to people more fluidly, read street signs and movie subtitles and even message your friends in Chinese, your character writing can suffer greatly. Try your hardest not to let this happen; its takes a lot of effort to get those characters ingrained, even some Chinese people find them hard to recall if that only ever type. Keep them fresh and ready for when you will need them by copying out short texts and articles or even some of your own thoughts you want to express in Chinese.
If you follow just even a few of these tips or find some new methods for yourself, then using Chinese on a daily basis in China will gradually become second nature. Having supportive Chinese teachers and friends can be instrumental in improving your Chinese. Avoid getting stuck in the ’expat bubble’ and speaking your native language as much as possible. It’s hard but never give up; living in China can be such a rich experience and speaking the language can open up opportunities that simply weren’t there before.
Written by Nadine Golding.
Why not read another of Nadine’s blogs for TCB – ‘Ultimate Frisbee in China‘?