The Chinese language is a group of languages spoken by majority of the people in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries in the Southeast Asia. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese language is not a single language. Six types of Chinese languages exist, Mandarin Chinese being the most popular with about 885 million people speaking the language and Cantonese being the most popular dialect.

Chinese is probably one of the hardest languages to learn. Chinese characters look nothing like the English alphabet and the sounds of Chinese words seem so alien. However, it is possible to learn how to speak, write and read Chinese.

Chinese Characters: Reading Those Mysterious Symbols

Although there are several Chinese languages, all of them share the same written symbols or characters. There are more than 80,000 Chinese symbols, but most of them are rarely used. In order to write and speak basic Chinese, you only need to learn about 3,000 characters. Understanding Chinese is easy if you live in a Chinese-speaking country or if you practice the language regularly, but writing and reading the Chinese symbols will definitely be your biggest challenge.

Many Chinese tutors recommend learning individual characters with their pronunciations and possible meanings, than learning two-character Chinese words. When you’ve mastered a few thousand Chinese characters, you’ll easily recognize other symbols at a much faster rate. Sometimes, you can even be able to guess the meaning of words based on the characters you already know. This technique is particularly useful if you wish to learn written Chinese correctly, even if you can already understand spoken Chinese.

Another tricky part of reading and writing the Chinese characters is the order of words in the sentence. Be aware that the Chinese language is not like English and European languages, wherein you can mess up grammar and sentence order, but still be able to be understood by other people. In the Chinese language, your sentence order must be done properly to avoid confusion.

A good example of using Chinese sentence order properly is using time expressions, which usually is placed before or after the subject (“Mike yesterday bought groceries” or “Yesterday Mike bought groceries”). Another common sentence order mistake is placing the location of an event after the verb. In the Chinese language, you have to mention the place when an event took place before the verb (John at the garage found his missing book).

As for the Chinese object, it is often placed after or before the verb, before the subject, or completely omitted. For example, “I love at the beach read a book.”

Chinese Language Help: 10 Tips You Should Keep in Mind

1. Tones are Important – Regardless of what Chinese dialect you are learning, an important aspect of speaking Chinese is to focus on tones. As you learn a new Chinese character or word, make sure you learn the tones that go with it as well. Practice certain tones relentlessly until you memorize them. Be aware that native Chinese speakers understand each other even if the non-tonal sounds are wrong, as long as the tones are right. To make it easier, think of tones as syllable accents, instead of music. There are up to 9 tones, depending on the dialect, but only the first four are basic syllable accents. Tones higher than five are usually elongated versions of the first tones.

2. Choose Audio-Based Courses – Although textbooks can help with learning about Chinese characters, it is important that the lesson you take is presented with sounds. It wouldn’t matter if you choose to enroll at a university, take online classes, buy your own CD/DVD, download mp3s or podcasts, as long as the method you choose involves lessons that you can actually hear what you are learning.

3. Watch Native Chinese Speakers Speak – Whether you watch Chinese films or go to Chinatown, it is extremely helpful to see how Chinese speakers use their tongues and shape their lips to produce sounds. Meanings of words through body language can also be an easier way to understand. Although you may feel alienated at first, you’ll be able to comprehend words and sentences gradually.

4. Use Different Teaching Methods – Sometimes, one lesson may be effective to someone, but will not provide the same results for you. To determine the type of lesson you’re comfortable with, check out various Chinese learning programs available online. Most of these computer programs allow you to use it for a trial period; take advantage of the limited free trial, then decide to buy once you’re satisfied with your progress.

5. Buy an English-Chinese Dictionary – To ensure you are using certain words or phrases correctly, a pocket English-Chinese dictionary can be useful. Make sure to practice your “word of the day,” repeating how it sounds until you pronounce it properly. Remember that it’s not enough for you to read Chinese on books, you will remember new words much faster if you say the words repeatedly.

6. Make Friends with Chinese people – You can join chat rooms, invite a Chinese-speaking person via Facebook or use other method in meeting a native Chinese speaker. Making friends and communicating with native Chinese speakers can build your Chinese language skills faster, compared to learning the language in the classroom. Be genuine in making friends; not just because you need someone to practice reading, speaking or writing the Chinese language with.

7. Rent Chinese Movies Regularly – Exposing yourself with the Chinese language helps you practice what you learn. You can first watch the files with subtitles and learn how to say various words that a textbook cannot teach you. Once you’ve watched a particular film once or twice, try watching it without the subtitles and see if you can comprehend some of the words.  If you have a favorite English film, you can try to find its Chinese-dubbed version so you’ll know exactly what’s happening in the film, while learning how Chinese sentences are used, or sound.

8. Order Chinese Food – Although some Chinese restaurants don’t have native Chinese speakers who answer the phone, many takeout phone operators still understand Chinese. It’s a fun and practical way to practice speaking Chinese. It can be embarrassing at first, but you’ll be surprised how your Chinese language skills improve if you do this regularly.

9. Learn through Music – Some people learn lyrics to songs easier than memorizing a poem. This also works well when learning the Chinese language. By singing Chinese songs every now and then, you’ll be able to hear tones and sounds in music that your mind, mouth and tongue will gradually become accustomed to Chinese.

10. Practice Daily – Some people take a lifetime to learn the Chinese language, while those dedicated enough can comprehend day-to-day Chinese conversations after several months. The rate at which you learn the Chinese language depends largely on the amount of time you devote to learning. Daily lessons, even for just 30 minutes a day, can help your brain retain new words and sentences. Remember that you can never practice too much.

Of course, traveling to China or any Chinese-speaking country, then practicing the language is the most effective way to learn Chinese, it can be an expensive way to get educated. However, if you do have a chance to visit China, pretend that you do not speak English at all, so you will be forced to speak and comprehend the Chinese language just to order food, ask for directions, seek out services and basically to survive your vacation.

Be aware that even if you have mastered thousands of Chinese characters, learned up to nine different tones, write Chinese properly and read sentences correctly, it won’t be enough if you don’t practice regularly. Once you stop using what you’ve learned, there’s a good chance that you’ll forget every Chinese word you know after a few months or years. Take every opportunity possible to practice your Chinese language skills; you’ll be surprised to see yourself fluent in Chinese in the future.

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