Some advice to help you succeed in learning Chinese
I do not believe that languages can be classified subjectively by difficulty: This language is hard, that one is easy. There is no such thing! Any decision to start learning any foreign language is a courageous action and you need to be brave, considering that a long-term engagement and dedication is required. An afternoon might be more than enough for sure, if your ultimate goal is simply to discover a language.
If you have ever tried to study a foreign language, you will probably agree with me that the process of learning a foreign language is full of pleasure, but sometimes frustrating, Mandarin Chinese is not an exception!
This frustration occurred to me fairly often while I was still learning English at school. I was always asking myself: when the hell am I going to get it?! When am I going to understand this American television? When am I going to read novels and newspapers without staying for ever and ever on page number one? I spent many years in high school learning English, but my level was still so rudimentary when I graduated. Maybe my method is wrong, I was thinking, so I must be a very inefficient learner or maybe the English language is just not for me at all?!...
Many years later when I started to learn French, I realized that time does go quickly, there are so many interesting things to do in life while I am quietly getting older, so I decided that I can't waste my time any more. I need to learn it in a more productive and efficient manner. Victoriously I think I succeeded in doing this. That was two years from the staring point, I was amused each time I was mistaken for a French man, at many various social events or at my college, even after long period of discussion!
My friends have a flattering explanation for my success which made me even more amused: That's because he is a genius of languages! A rational mind told me that it's more praise than logical deduction. But any way, flattering words like this never hurts! But I know myself that I'm not a genius of whatever, ...so far...; I forget new words as quickly as every one does, it takes me a long time to get familiar with new grammar too. But proudly, one thing I can be sure of is that my learning process was highly-productive and I allocated my time in the most efficient way possible; and best of all, I didn't get myself frustrated much this time! In stead, it was indeed fun, really.
Now I am a teacher of language. I always have a strong desire and passion to have my students share the success and the pleasure that I had. That is:
Learning language quick without pain! "Quick" stands for efficiency. "without pain" claims frustration free experience!
Bearing this motif in mind, I summarized here my personal learning methods developed and accumulated meticulously during many years by several tips that I offer to share with you. These methods have been proven efficient and successful with myself, it's hard for me to conceive how you can fail in achieving the same objective by working efficiently and following these tips.
1. Know your destination, know your position. Plan yourself!
A good plan is half of the success and a realistic plan makes so many frustrations avoidable!
You might have heard it many times in many diverse situations. Your financial advisor might have discussed a financial plan with you, and a project manager tends to repeat the word "objective" all the time.
This rule is so general and it applies well to any serious language learners. First of all, even before you start learning Chinese or an other language you should know your objective and your motivation in doing so. If your goal is to communicate fluently in Mandarin Chinese, then the engagement must not be the same as discovering the Chinese culture... I used to meet people who had unclear objectives, from time to time without knowing where they were heading to, they felt lost. People with unclear objectives tend also to give up easier than those having defined goals.
Secondly, you need to get yourself regularly evaluated(by an experienced teacher or by yourself if your level is good enough)in the very beginning of your learning process. Usually as a teacher in a classroom, my experience is that from the second class I start to notice some students will probably stick with the structure of the language for a while, and some students will really have a hard time with the pronunciation, and some others will find their pain with memorizing new words and sentences... This is precious information helping you know your advantage and your difficulties, and this is one of the most important elements telling you the area that needs emphasis in your next plan(short or long term).
Then, with this information in mind, plan yourself! It does not necessarily need to be in a very formal way, but please do write it down and have it dated. You can make a study plan for a day, a week, a month or longer. You should include the effective period of your plan, list all your small verifiable objectives. Too ambitious or unrealistic plans will have only negative effects on your ego, downsize them as soon as you realize you can't handle it, useless to self-reproach later on! I used to have regular plan and I made a maximum effort to have it realistic and challenging. Why? Because each time I hit it, I reward myself with a most delicious dessert...:) Don't you want to share it with me?
2. Avoid frustration, maximize your reward;
This is not an empty theory with beautiful sentences. I have been seeing too many people giving up their language learning objective(Mandarin Chinese, English, French...). There are many explanations for these failures: my third grade teacher was horrible, I am too busy, I just figured out maybe it isn't worth the pain to do it, my visual and/or audio memory is terrible, I just can't remember that. Believe it or not, I even have a friend who started many times to learn English, but one day he started to tell me that he had a sick nose, and that was the reason for him to give up his language learning objective! (I personally believe failure of this kind is a psychologically negative experience and needs to be avoided. )
The majority of these failures could be explained by one simple reason: the learner is frustrated. They are frustrated because of two causes:
1) The learner doesn't have a realistic study plan; to be developed...
2) The learner doesn't get rewarded. to be developed...
It's far more effective to learn Chinese 40 minutes a day during a week than 5 hours "penalty-style" intensive learning. Learning process should be fun. It's definitely not a good sign if you feel it's painful, and the very next thing you are about to do is probably to quit. You don't want this to happen, so make a habit to study regularly, and never overload yourself.
4. Repeat it, repeat it, repeat it again and again;
Don't let go of any opportunity to practice (reading, writing, listening, conversing, asking, feeling, thinking, memorizing, formulating etc...) the Chinese words or the sentences you have learned. People can rarely memorize a new word by seeing it for only one or two times, but you should never think today's practice is useless because you are certain that you will forget it soon again. In fact, each time when it goes through your mind, the memory is reinforced. The mental repetition is a very important part of the learning process, it contributes and leads to "permanent memorizing".
5. Avoid negative campaign;
Life already has enough complications and challenges, so make it simple. You have a defined objective, all you want is to succeed in learning Chinese. So never ever tell yourself or anybody else how difficult and impossible your mission is! Otherwise, you are just going to make it harder for yourself to achieve it and prepare yourself a beautiful excuse to quit. It's the reason why as a Mandarin Chinese teacher, I am very unwilling to have my student say that Mandarin Chinese is hard.
6. Avoid building reference between Mandarin Chinese and your mother tongue;
Don't do that! You are going to be wrong from the beginning to the end! Like your mother tongue English, Mandarin Chinese is a stand alone language, it has been invented and used on the other side of the earth. You are about to discover another culture and a way of thinking, so why the hell do you want it to follow the English grammar?!
7. Don't move on if your pronunciation is not understandable;
Don't fool yourself: if I have enough vocabulary and I know quite some Mandarin Chinese words, I would be able to express myself precisely and people will certainly understand me well! Language is a tool of conversation after all, if you are unable to make people understand you while you talk, we can't consider that successful!
Please make sure your pronunciation is understandable, otherwise don't move on. If you find yourself stuck forever with the pronunciation and can't improve yourself, you should consult an experienced professor or an accent reduction specialist for help, it is certainly worth it.
8. Learn Pinyin well, don't believe "fast learn" stuff.
Some commercials claim a magical Mandarin Chinese learning experience during which "pinyin" is not seriously taught or not at all. These materials use English equivalent sounds to teach you the Chinese pronunciation. Be skeptical with it, at best you end up with speaking your unique version of "english" to Chinese people, nobody on this earth is going to understand you! The whole "Pinyin" system is not complicated, all you need is 5 to 10 hours of serious lessons, once you get it, you could theoretically pronounce and note down any words and/or sentences correctly, and it is really worth the pain even if you are just going to China for a brief visit.