The 'Long March' to Learning Chinese: Top 5 Tips

As a non-Asian student in the 1980s who graduated with a B.A. in Chinese language and history, and an M.A. in East Asian Studies focused on classical Chinese literature, I became somewhat of a "curiosity" for family and friends. Back then, China was only just starting to emerge from its isolation in the international community, and my own interest in studying Chinese raised many eyebrows -- as if I were pursuing a subject which was way out on the fringe, and had little practical career applications.

When I subsequently began my career in business after completing an M.B.A in the early 1990s, China was already starting to flex its commercial and political muscles on the international stage. However, even then, many of my acquaintances and colleagues still viewed my fluency in Chinese as not much more than an unusual topic for social conversation, and an ability that would enable me to order the best, most authentic food in Chinese restaurants.

That was then, this is now.

In 2013, China's central and ever-growing role in international political and business affairs is both universally recognized, and constantly making headlines across the world. As a result, recent years have witnessed what can only be described as the full throes of Chinese-language "fever" in the United States. Across our cities, Chinese language programs are rapidly emerging to address the needs of busy business professionals who are looking to fast-track a working competency in Chinese to more effectively build global business relationships. At the same time, Chinese language has become one of the fastest growing subjects in the educational sphere, with primary/secondary schools and colleges across the country rushing to add Chinese to their foreign language teaching rosters. From 1998 to 2009, U.S. college student enrollment in Chinese language classes more than doubled, as did the number of high school students taking the AP Chinese exam during the three year period from 2007-2010. Federally-funded programs such as The Language Flagship have further spurred such growth through the implementation of intensive teaching methodologies and programs available at the K-12 and college/university levels.

Against this backdrop, my own Chinese language fluency has suddenly placed me in the position of a trusted adviser for colleagues and students who are increasingly seeking me out for my input on how to best learn this language. So, from one long-term student of Chinese, to all those who aspire to achieve a working knowledge of this fascinating language, here are my top five insights:

1. Understand that Chinese, while difficult, can also be very easy to learn.

Most people believe that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world. In some senses, this is true. The Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic, comprising thousands of pictographs called "characters," which need to be studied and internalized through rote memorization and constant reading and writing over a long period of time. Additionally, Chinese is a "tonal" language, meaning that changing the shape of one's voice over a single syllable can actually generate multiple words with multiple meanings. The most famous example in Mandarin Chinese is the syllable "ma" which, depending on how it is pronounced, might mean "mother," "hemp," "horse," or the verb "to scold." This is a feature of the spoken language which does not exist in the same form in Western languages, and therefore can pose great challenges to many non-Asian students.

However, what most non-Chinese do not realize is that the language boasts one of the easiest grammars in the world. Sentence structure largely mirrors that of English (subject + verb + object). Verbs exist in a single form, with no conjugations whatsoever. There is no gender, no plural nouns, and while mechanisms do exist to express tense (e.g. past/present/future), they are much simpler than those of any Western language. North American students who are much more familiar with both Spanish and French would instantly find Chinese grammar refreshingly basic, and much more accessible than those languages.

2. Learn Mandarin, not Cantonese.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local spoken Chinese dialects which have developed over the long period of China's classical history when transportation was rudimentary, broadcast media non-existent, and most people lived and died within a small radius of their birth places. Although speakers of all Chinese dialects share the same, non-phonetic written language, many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible when spoken, giving rise to the unique ability of Chinese speakers from different regions to write to each other, even when they cannot speak with each other. Among Chinese who have emigrated, the two most common spoken dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. Historically, Cantonese dominated within the largest Chinese communities in the United States and Canada due to a century of Chinese immigration rooted in the southern Chinese regions of Guangdong (Canton) Province and Hong Kong. However, with the recent massive influx of Mainland Chinese, Mandarin-speaking immigrants in the last 20+ years, Mandarin will soon match, and eventually overtake, Cantonese to become the dominant spoken Chinese dialect in North America.

For non-Chinese seeking to learn the language, Mandarin is the clear choice. Mandarin, the predominant dialect in Northern China, is the official language of politics, education, and media in both Mainland China and Taiwan, and it is one of the four official languages of Singapore. Even in Hong Kong, which historically has been a Cantonese-speaking area, Mandarin use is now ubiquitous since the return of China's sovereignty in 1997. In Mainland China, the Chinese word for "Mandarin" translates as the "common language," and outside of the Mainland it is most often referred to as the "national language" -- both these terms are indicative of the broad reach which a competency in Mandarin can afford a speaker. Fortunately, for students of Chinese, Mandarin is also arguably the easiest of all the Chinese dialects to learn, owing to a "tonal" structure which is much simpler than that of Cantonese and most other dialects.

3. Speak first, then decide if you need to read and write.

Given the complexity of the Chinese written language, contrasted to the comparative simplicity of the grammar, prospective students of Chinese would do well to focus on learning to speak first, and only then tackle the written language if their studies or business require them to do so. While the tonal character of the spoken language is a challenge, this can be mastered fairly quickly, in contrast to the many years needed to achieve a working familiarity with the several thousand written characters that most educated Chinese adults have learned. Of course, most Chinese language programs simultaneously teach both the spoken and written language. It is up to the individual student to decide where to emphasize his or her needs.

4. If you do decide to write Chinese, consider learning "simplified" characters.

There are two major Chinese writing systems currently in use in the world -- "traditional" or "complicated" Chinese characters, and "simplified" Chinese characters. Traditional characters are the characters which evolved from ancient Chinese pictographs, and which have been used throughout most of Chinese history to modern times. Many of these characters are, at the same time, both beautiful and complex, requiring students of Chinese to spend many hours and nights practicing intricate "stroke orders" to properly form words. Beginning in the middle of last century, the government in Mainland China began to promulgate an alternate system of Chinese writing called "simplified" characters in an effort to dramatically increase written literacy throughout the country. For many characters, this system significantly reduces the number of brush or pen strokes required to form specific words, thereby enabling students to more quickly commit the characters to memory.

Today, simplified characters are the official script of both Mainland China and Singapore, while traditional characters are still the norm in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and within most Chinese immigrant communities throughout the world. While I would still encourage students of Chinese who intend to spend many years developing and refining their abilities to begin by learning traditional characters (and only then overlay a knowledge of simplified characters), anyone seeking to accelerate his or her acquisition of the written language would do well to begin with the simplified script.

5. Take your studies seriously.

Unlike many Western languages which share some common linguistic roots with English and which can often be learned fairly quickly with a large amount of self-study, acquiring a basic competency in a language as different from English as Chinese requires a high level of commitment and perseverance. Practically speaking, this means that:

  • Unless you have an unusual aptitude for learning foreign languages, you probably won't learn Chinese in a once-a-week, one-hour private session. Rather, start by looking for an established Chinese language program or workshop. Universities and dedicated language schools are a good place to start. Some colleges even offer intensive courses that cram a full year of basic Chinese into 4-8 weeks. Do your homework to find the best program.
  • If you still seek a tutorial, merely looking for a native speaker of Chinese to study with does not always mean you will obtain the best instruction. Chinese immigrants constitute the single largest Asian American population, representing 3+ million people nationwide, many of whom would be happy to teach new students of Chinese. However, teaching Western students to overcome the unique hurdles of the language is a special skill. If you decide on private lessons, look for a native-speaker with proven professional or private teaching credentials, as well as a roster of former student references.
  • Finally, practice, practice, practice. The good news is that those 3+ million Chinese Americans are our neighbors. Once you have developed basic conversational skills, go into the top Chinese communities of our country and speak. Order a lunch, buy a book, chit-chat about the weather, or ask for directions -- even if you don't need any! Westerners who have mastered Chinese will also unanimously confirm that real fluency comes only when one has spent some time in a Chinese-speaking region of Asia. So, get ready for your next business trip, take advantage of the many short-term or long-term Chinese language courses available in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore, or just plan a personal or family adventure to Asia.

One of those very famous Chinese sayings says, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Well, it definitely does not need to take a "thousand miles" to learn Chinese, but now, more than ever, is the time for more Americans to take that first step.