As one of the most popular posts on this site is my piece on the difficulty of learning Mandarin, I thought I’d post this article as a follow up. Please also note that the original audience for the piece was native English speakers already living in greater China, so there may be some localized usage that you don’t quite understand (e.g. KTV=karaoke club).You can find a .pdf version of the magazine this article was first published in here: Taiwanease Issue No. 11.
If you wish to reprint or copy this article, please contact me for permission.
How to Learn to Speak and Read Fluent Mandarin
By Truett Black
Perhaps you’re new to Taiwan and determined to understand what is going on around you; perhaps you’ve been in Taiwan for some time, and feel like you’ve dug yourself into a pit of linguistic and cultural ignorance by not being able to speak or read Mandarin; perhaps you’ve figured out that being able to communicate in Mandarin will open up a number of career opportunities, elevating you beyond the status of a temporary worker in Taiwan’s English, editing, banking, or engineering industries.
Whatever your motivation, learning to speak and read Mandarin fluently, as opposed to speaking “barely getting by” Mandarin, is a task akin to learning to fly a jet airplane. It is not something you will accomplish without powerful discipline, a tolerance for frustration and mental exhaustion, and the ability to laugh at yourself. In my October 6, 2006 article for Taiwanease, “Why You Shouldn’t Learn Chinese,” I wrote about the difficulties of becoming fluent in Mandarin. I suggested that before you begin learning Mandarin, you decide whether you’re up to the task or not. In this article, I’ll tell you how to become fluent in spoken and written Mandarin.
Make Learning Mandarin Your Mission in Life
First, while you are learning Mandarin, nothing can be more important than accomplishing your fluency goals. Unless you are a rare linguistic genius, there are no half-measures here. You’ve got to get extreme. Stop spending so much free time with people who speak English. If you are a “scholar” and like to research obscure language acquisition theories, drop the pedagogy and start getting your hands dirty. Maintain your exercise program, but only work out after you’ve done what you need to do with Mandarin each day. If you have a busy work schedule, cut back a bit. Aside from devoting a few hours each day to formal learning activities, you’ll have to keep the language learning meter running throughout your day. You’ll need to self-impose a disciplined learning regimen.
Expect to be Patronized by Well-Meaning People
Taiwanese people are uniformly generous in helping the unfortunate foreigners in their midst who wish to learn Mandarin. They are also frequently condescending. Expect to be laughed at when you first start speaking Mandarin, to be corrected even when you nearly got the tone right, and to be lectured to about vague and largely useless factoids concerning the Chinese language. It is essential that you develop the ability to laugh at yourself while you are learning Mandarin, or you will soon find yourself applying for a bed in the local insane asylum. The truth is, a beginning Mandarin student’s pronunciation does sound pretty damned funny. It is amusing to hear a foreigner belt out a chorus of atonal, guttural Mandarin in a public place. You’ll probably join the locals in chuckling at lousy “foreigner Mandarin” in a year or two, so don’t get offended if someone laughs at you.
Stick with the Program
Here’s a self-directed program for non-Chinese majors who want to become fully functional members of Mandarin speaking society. Mileage may vary, and you’ll make some adjustments to the program as you go along, but these are the essentials if you want to be fluent.
1. Take Classes: Sign up for at least three months of intensive Mandarin classes. You’ll need a structured program for building foundational vocabulary and grammar, learning the basics of pronunciation, and getting used to set of texts. In Taiwan, there are several options for Mandarin classes. See the Learning Chinese Forum on www.forumosa.com for information on Chinese class options in Taiwan. Plan on taking language classes for about six months, but no longer than a year—if you live in Taiwan, classes will actually become counterproductive after a year unless you are studying Chinese literature.
2. Learn Vocabulary All Day: Carry a vocabulary “leech book” with you at all times, and leech 10-15 words and phrases a day from people you speak with, on top of the words and phrases you pick up from your textbooks. Review the words and phrases you’ve learned whenever you’ve got a bit of downtime (e.g. on the bus, waiting in line). If you stick with this program, you’ll learn four thousand or more words and phrases in context over the course of a year. To do this, you’ll need to learn some form of romanization as soon as possible. My personal favorite is Yale romanization, but Pinyin works well too. See www.pinyin.info for a number of excellent tools that will help you learn romanization. As for learning zhuyin, or BoPoMoFo, it is necessary to read zhuyin for several reasons, but I don’t think it is necessary to learn to write zhuyin. You’ll learn zhuyin in your classes, or you can learn it online very quickly.
3. Get the Right Dictionary: My favorite Chinese to English dictionary is Lanbridge’s Concise Chinese-English Dictionary. The Far East Chinese-English Dictionary is also excellent. Make your dictionary your friend. Don’t let a day go by without checking on the meanings of the new words and phrases you learned that day.
4. Buy A Set of Texts: As your language classes come to an end, buy whatever books are left in the series you’ve been studying, and use them for self-study. My favorite series of Mandarin texts is the John DeFrancis series. This series comes in a set of three books, Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced, and was all the rage among students of Mandarin for years. Study these texts on your own for one hour each morning, come rain, shine, or hangover.
5. Become a Mandarin Social Butterfly: I don’t advocate making friends with people just so that you can improve your language skills. I do advocate making friends with Taiwanese people you can relate to in some way, and entering their linguistic world rather than requiring them to enter yours. Get to know the owners of the shops in your neighborhood. Go out with local colleagues. Join a local hobbyist group. Accept invitations to KTV parties and formal social events. If you want to learn Mandarin, you’ve got to get involved in local society in a way that requires you to communicate with people in Mandarin.
6. Use Flashcards to Learn Characters: Six months into your program, begin learning characters in earnest. Buy a set of flashcards with about 1,000 characters, and work through them until you know them backward and forward. You’ll have seen many of them in your language classes. Learning to write them is optional—some people find it helpful for retention, others don’t. These first characters you learn will form the foundation of your character recognition skills.
7. Go Back to Elementary School: Once you’ve learned 1,000 or so characters, in addition to your work with advanced Mandarin texts, begin working through the elementary school Mandarin texts. Read a chapter each morning. Start with grade two and go through grade six. The junior high school texts are optional—once you can read at a sixth grade level, you’ll be able to read magazines and newspapers in Mandarin.
8. Take Reading to a Professional Level: Once you’re able to read sixth grade texts and have begun reading newspapers and magazines, take a job as a Chinese-English translator. You can work on a volunteer basis to gain experience, or bravely sign up with an agency as a freelancer. Do work for your school if you are a teacher, anything to gain experience. Nothing will improve your ability to read and analyze written Mandarin better than working as a translator.
9. Interpret: The true test of your speaking abilities is working as an interpreter. Around the same time you begin translating, volunteer your services as an interpreter. Do this for schools, churches, or charitable organizations. Go from Mandarin to English, and then from English to Mandarin. Working as a professional interpreter takes years of study, but you don’t really need to become a professional. More likely, you’ll end up using your interpreting skills in business, engineering, or education.
10. On Writing: I promised a program for developing fluency in speaking and reading. If you want to learn to write as well, the best text available is William McNaughton’s Reading and Writing Chinese. For most foreigners in Taiwan, writing will never be a necessity. In my work, I need to write in Mandarin most every day. But in this era of computers and e-mail, I just type.
Follow this two year regimen, and reading and speaking Mandarin will become a permanent skill, one that you’ll utilize on a daily basis while you live in Taiwan or China, and one that will go on your resume for life.
Copyright 2007 Truett Black