How to Learn Chinese (Updated)
Are you a parent struggling to get your child acquainted with Chinese? Or are you a student or learner feeling lost trying to pick up the Chinese language?
In this article, I will be sharing my observations, thoughts, findings and suggestions all related to learning Chinese and also standing from the viewpoint of a Singapore based bilingual educator who specialises in the Chinese and English languages. These are insights gained from having taught the Chinese language for a number of years and having interviewed my students (schooling children and adult learners) and fellow Chinese teachers, learners and parents of children who are preparing for Chinese examinations in school.
I will be constantly reviewing and updating this article as and when I get the time and inspiration to do so. As such, you may want to bookmark this page for future reference. If you find this article helpful, please feel free to share it on your social media so that it can reach out to more people and I shall be very thankful for that. Let's begin.
Actually knowing how to learn Chinese
In my years of teaching, I have witnessed many students who actually do not know how to make notes - in particular for Chinese. That drives me to one point - many students, even those who cooperate with teachers, may actually not know how to learn! To understand how to learn Chinese, we must first build a fundamental understanding of how the Chinese language works.
Attitude matters A LOT
Faster learners may have it easier when it comes to picking up Chinese but when it comes to good grades, the most diligent learners often prevail.
I perceive diligence as having the right attitude towards learning. With the right attitude, learning becomes possible with everything geared in the correct direction.
Diligence comes in many forms:
1) Diligently asking questions
Ask questions when you do not know, understand or missed a part because you did not hear it or when your teacher is going too fast for you to catch. Do not feel embarrassed as you may also be helping your "shy" classmates who may also not have understood certain points.
2) Diligently thinking
3) Diligently practising
4) Diligently preparing
Devote Time to Memorising Characters
The Chinese government defines Chinese literacy as knowing an average minimum of 2000 characters: 1500 or more characters for a farmer, 2000 or more characters for someone living in a city.
According to the PSLE Primary Chinese syllabus, by Primary 6 (12 years old), Singapore students are expected to recognise 2000 characters by Primary 6 and learn to write 1000 characters.
I will therefore recommend any student learning Chinese to aim to master an average of 2000 Chinese characters for basic literacy. By basic mastery, I mean being able to read, write and listen (able to recognise the Chinese character when listening to it).
Knowing 2000-3000 Chinese characters will enable your child to start reading the newspaper or any reading materials and a minimum of 8000 characters will qualify him or her as an educated Chinese learner.
Starting off with 2000 characters, that only boils down to no more than 6 words a day if you learn one set of words each day! It will only get easier as many characters have similar sounds and recurring radicals (部首).
肠 cháng (intestine) with 月 radical (flesh related)
场 chǎng (venue) with 土 radical (ground related)
畅 chàng (smooth) with 申 radical (extension related)
Flashcards are great ways to engage your child in memorising characters
Understand How To Use Chinese Words Correctly
Many students tend to depend on Google Translate and other translation or dictionary apps when completing their homework. However, translating entire sentences on Google Translate causes a huge part of the meanings to be lost. There are also many words that cannot be translated distinctively. An example will be 鼓励, 激励, 勉励 and 砥砺 which will all be translated into "encourage".
There are also many expressions which cannot be directly translated.
"I had taken my mother for granted."
This sentence would be translated (in a weird manner) into Chinese as 我将妈妈当作理所当然.
The accepted version within the Chinese community would however be 我没好好珍惜妈妈, which would be loosely translated to "I did not cherish my mother properly".
Speak More Mandarin (Don't Trust Translation Apps)
Get a partner to practise speaking Mandarin. Having frequent or daily conversations are one of the best ways to pick up the Chinese language. Besides speaking more Mandarin to get more acquainted or to perfect the Chinese sentence structure, many Chinese words and ways of expression tend to be very visual and imaginative - speaking Mandarin on a a frequent basis will help you guess the meaning and context of the words and to grasp their usage. This approach is way more effective than depending on any dictionary or translation app. Basic words may have equivalents in other languages but anything beyond that will only confuse Chinese learners who become too reliant on translation.
Both 容易 (róng yì) and 简单 (jiǎn dān) translate into simple and easy.
However, same words can be used interchangeably while others cannot be used the same way it is being used in another language, English for instance.
这 (This) 道 (dào, quantifier for question) 题目 (question) 很 (very) 容易 (simple/easy)。
这 (This) 道 (dào, quantifier for question) 题目 (question) 很 (very) 简单 (simple/easy)。
As shown in the above two sentences, 容易 and 简单 can be used interchangeably.
It is not easy to lead a life like yours.
He really isn't (a) simple (person).
Now, you may start to realise the difference between 容易 and 简单. 容易 is used more to describe the ease of doing something and 简单 is used to describe the complexity of things.
If we dig deeper into the original meaning of the characters, we build a deeper understanding of them.
易 (yì) originally existed as a pictogram to represent the chameleon (also known as a "colour-changing dragon" in Chinese). It therefore contains the qualities of "flexibility" and "change" to adapt to its surroundings. It was later loaned to represent the meaning of "change".
容 (róng) means "to allow" and the "ability to contain". Combining them would mean give you the overall meaning of the ability to allow for change (something has to be easy and within grasp in order for change to occur).
简 (jiǎn) originally refers to bamboo being cut into strips for writing. It was later loaned to represent simplicity. Well, a strip of bamboo would only convey a simple message, right?
单 (dān) refers to being single and one. That will also contribute to the meaning of simple.
Hence, 简单 for simple/easy.
Get a Mentor (or a Chinese Tutor)
Learning alone may often be ineffective and inefficient due to several reasons.
1) Especially if you're surrounded by non-Chinese speaking environment, it is extremely easy to lose motivation
2) If you're preparing a national examination (PSLE or O level Chinese or Higher Chinese), you may be better off getting a professional Chinese tutor who can motivate you, share his or her experiences with you when it comes to learning Chinese and preparing for the examinations and has access to a database of PSLE or O level Chinese and Higher Chinese resources such as past school exam papers, class test papers and proven learning and answering techniques. Such guidance may save you valuable time and effort instead of diving cluelessly into the sea of Chinese practice papers and feeling overwhelmed by everything.
3) You may not have the best learning resources at hand. Materials from different schools vary greatly in terms of quality and depth. How confident are you that yours is the most comprehensive? Even so, would you have the grit to go through every single bit of the materials and to sieve out what is most important for your revision?
4) Professional and devoted Chinese tutors not only specialise in Chinese teaching and learning materials. Some actually delve deep into educational psychology, having developed profound understanding of various student types and strategies to address their learning and psychological needs. Typical student characteristics include:
need for visual or auditory aids (pictures, flashcards, videos, podcasts)
need for hands-on experience (classroom activities, games or drama plays)
being quiet in class (naturally introverted, paying attention or needs time to digest information, too shy or uncomfortable to speak up in class, or unmotivated due to psychological reasons?)
being loud/talkative in class (naturally extroverted, feeling nervous, habitually talkative, hyperactive or unmotivated due to psychological reasons?)
motivated due to underlying psychological reasons
unmotivated due to underlying or covert psychological reasons
Here, I strongly believe education to be a profession that must not be taken lightly. For those who are strong and genuine believers of education, it takes a lifetime's commitment to improving educational qualities. From the above list, I can shed some light into learning Chinese professionally as opposed to the amateur/casual "just for fun" approach.
5) Are you guilty of using Google Translate or other Chinese translation apps when you completing your composition or comprehension questions? This causes an over-dependence on the apps and most students fail to construct many simple sentences time and again after practising so many papers (using translation apps). What I found out is that many of them are actually capable of forming simple sentences but habitually have become too rusty to activate this part of their thinking abilities and hence experience mind blank-outs during written and oral examinations.
If your child is already struggling with Chinese in school due to himself or herself being easily distracted or having a slower pace, on top of looking for experienced mentors or tutors who have access to rich teaching and learning resources, do look for those who can customise the pace and style of learning to that of your child. Many parents have lamented that they had invested heavily at several branded tuition centres that did not offer differentiated learning and simply bombarded their kids with tons and tons of content without detailed explanation. When it comes to learning, understanding is key. Quality > quantity.
Suggested Levels of Chinese Mastery
(for students aged 6 to 17, primary and secondary school students)
L1 Listening - hearing the sound and identifying what character it is (preferably also knowing the meaning of the character
L2 Reading - being able to identify and read out the character
L3 Writing - being able to write the character when told to
L4 Speaking - being able to construct simple words and sentences
L5 Understanding - able to understand how characters are being combined to form words and how to form simple sentences with them
L6 Understanding - able to understand how certain words can only be matched with specific words (also known as word collocations 词语搭配) and how to form more complex sentences
L7 Creating - beyond forming simple sentences is the creation of a Chinese composition that makes logical sense and is in chronological order
L8 Expressing - expressing deeper emotions and thoughts in sentences or building context using literacy devices and advanced writing techniques
Using Multimedia Content to Enrich Chinese Learning
Students of various ages with various interests need to be fed with content that piques their interests. If you're looking to seed and skyrocket your child's development in the Chinese language, do note that there is no-one-size fits-all content and you should choose Chinese content that is of your child's interest so that it can fuel his or her curiosity.
Chinese Cartoon Series
One Hundred Thousand Whys (十万个为什么)
Chinese Proverbs 成语故事
Animated Version of "Romance of the Three Kingdoms"
Many popular Japanese cartoon series have also been dubbed in Mandarin:
Chibi Maruko-chan (樱桃小丸子)
Chinese Drama Series
Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, my childhood and adolescent years were surrounded by loads and loads of Mandarin dubbed (originally Cantonese) TVB television drama series from Hong Kong and pure Mandarin ones from Mainland China. Aside drama shows in modern settings, I particularly found the historical drama genre especially fascinating and educational with impressive ancient costumes, dialogues and etiquettes. Drama shows of this genre also tend to introduce more Chinese proverbs which helped in my Chinese composition.
Most historical drama series revolved around these periods of Chinese history:
Qing Dynasty (China's last dynasty which reigned between 1644 and 1912)
The 2010s saw the rise in Qing era historical drama from Mainland China, notably:
The Story of Yanxi Palace 延禧宫略 (2018)
Ruyi's Royal Love in the Palace 如懿传 (2018)
Empresses in the Palace 甄嬛传 (2011)
The Empress of China
Three Kingdoms Period
Three Kingdoms RPG builds on the storyline of one of the four most popular Chinese novels "Romance of the Three Kingdoms". A modern man travels back in time to the Three Kingdom period and comes into contact with notable characters such as Cao Cao, Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang. The show is generally packed with humour and features dialogue which is more modern and easier to comprehend. I will recommend this to get your child acquainted with this important period in Chinese history.
TVB had recently released a slew of its historical drama archive on YouTube but they only exist in Cantonese with traditional Chinese subtitles at the moment. However, I believe you can easily find the Mandarin version online with the help of Mr Google.
For those of you who have stronger interest in this period and desire to learn more, you may wish to watch the full version of "Three Kingdoms". There are two versions produced by Mainland China, one in 2010 and another way back in 1994. Shows produced by Mainland in general tend to use more sophisticated Chinese words and ways of expression. They may therefore be a challenge to those who are not as yet acquainted with the Chinese language. The 2010 version of "Three Kingdoms", aside featuring more exciting visual and sound effects (especially during battle scenes), has dialogues very much closer to modern Chinese while the 1994 version tend to include some ancient Chinese dialogues as an attempt to mimic the actual period more closely (fun fact: although Chinese language in that period would sound more archaic and closer to Southern Chinese dialects such as Cantonese).
Qin and Han Dynasties
The Conqueror's Story by TVB is set between the collapse of China's first imperial dynasty the Qin and the founding of the Han dynasty in which proud Han Chinese today associate their identities with this influential dynasty of 400 years. What's interesting is that the series introduces a Chinese proverb associated to the period at the start of every episode.
Again, what's available on YouTube is in Cantonese but you can search up the Mandarin version on Google.
Pre-Qin Dynasties (mainly Zhou Dynasty and Warring States)
TVB's "Gods of Honour" adapts the storyline of yet another popular Chinese novel "Investiture of the Gods". Set between the end of the Shang Dynasty and the founding of the Zhou Dynasty, it features many gods and demons in Chinese legends such as Nezha, the Thunder God and the Fox Spirit.
Find Inspiration from Influencers Based in China
Go on a Trip to China (or Any Region That Uses Chinese As its Instructional Language)
Memorable experiences play a big way.
Learn Chinese According to Your Learning Style
Visual learners learn best through seeing, drawing and writing. They require lots of visual aids such as pictures, animations, videos and subtitles in order to visualise and imprint the memories in their minds. Flashcards, diagrams, flowcharts and illustrations would benefit them a lot in their learning and revision processes. When learning Chinese characters, it would also work better by using colour codes to separate the radicals so that visual learners can categorically store them in their minds.
Visual learners should also cultivate the habit of jotting down notes as they learn. They will need to associate sounds and meanings with words and visuals in order to remember them more effectively.
When it comes to copying Chinese characters (习字), I will advise them to cover the written words and then regurgitating them from memory (memory retrieval technique). With repetition, the words should be deeply imprinted into their minds.
Test Types for Visual Learners
Optimal test type: Writing essays, mindmaps, labelling diagram/illustration activities, character/word collocations (字词搭配 and 词语搭配)
Worst test type: Listening comprehension
Auditory learners learn best through listening and speaking. Being the "fastest" learners among the three types of learners (visual, auditory and kinesthetic), they grasp important information quickly and benefit most from traditional classroom lessons and lectures. This learning can be further enhanced by listening to podcasts, videos and personal recordings. It is important for them to read aloud or "speak to themselves" (with eyes closed) during revision time. Participating in group discussions will also benefit them immensely.
Test Types for Auditory Learners
Optimal test type: Oral exams (口试) and written responses (读后感, 观后感)
Worst test type: Reading passages (朗读考试) and writing answers (笔试, Paper 2 试卷二) in a timed test
Kinesthetic Learners (or Tactile Learners)
Kinesthetic learners, also known as tactile learners, learn best through doing. They often fall prey to the traditional classroom and lecture setting as it expects the "good student" to sit down, be quiet and pay attention. Kinesthetic learners learn best by gaining hands-on experience through participating in class activities, recording a video (from scripting to acting to editing) and speaking to and interacting with people on a frequent basis. I have also discovered that Kinesthetic learners tend to possess excellent short-term memory but fare less desirable in the longer term without consistent and constant revision (repeated memory retrieval). This would also translate into them actually suffering from a deterioration of language competencies (basically forgetting how to speak or use the language) once they do not practise them frequently or integrate the language in their daily lives. Another issue many parents have encountered with their kinesthetic kids would be the kids' inflexibility to associate or recognise a character (字) learnt in a word combination (词组) when it appears in another sentence.
For example, kids may have learnt about 比赛 (competition).
But they may fail to recognise 比 in another sentence like 她比较漂亮 (she is comparatively "more" beautiful).
They may also find it challenging with differentiating characters that look strikingly similar, such as 泄 (xiè, leak) and 池 (chí, pond).
Kinesthetic learners should study in short blocks, actively make their own study notes, study in groups and utilise flashcards to create a learning activity with a friend or family member.
It also benefits them to actually look for the "real thing" when learning new words. For example, they should visit the supermarket to see, touch and feel an apple when learning how the Chinese equivalent of "apple" (苹果). Making friends who also speak the Chinese language will also boost their learning as they get to use Chinese words and construct Chinese sentences on a regular basis. Do note here that kinesthetic learners have excellent short term memory and this helps them to learn new words at breakneck speeds while frequent conversations (repeated memory retrieval) with Chinese speaking friends prevent them from forgetting words and sentences they had previously learnt.
As kinesthetic learners tend to learn characters and words in an inflexible sequence and order, daily conversations also help them to encounter new ways of using these vocabularies and discover what ways of expression are correct and what are not.
Test Types for Kinesthetic Learners
Optimal test type: Fill-in-the-blank questions and multiple choice questions.
Worst test type: Essay tests and any dreadfully long tests