Daunting is likely a word that comes to mind when you think about the prospect of learning Mandarin. We can’t deny that confusing tones, complex characters and curious dialects make it tough to master, but it’s not impossible!
Living and working in China will give you the kind of immersion into the language you could never hope to achieve from a textbook and will make the learning process much easier and faster; by surrounding yourself by the language day in day out, you will soon pick up words you repeatedly see and hear.
Establish Your Aims for Learning Mandarin
All of our teachers go to China with different aims when it comes to learning Mandarin; some aim for fluency, while others wish to get a working knowledge and use it to get by. No matter what level you hope to achieve, it’s a good idea to arrange some formal lessons, at least for the first few weeks, so you can get to grips with the basic structure of the language and those all-important tones. Some schools offer their foreign teachers free weekly lessons, but if yours doesn’t it shouldn’t be too hard or expensive to get a private tutor. A good place to find one is at Universities, where there are often Chinese student teachers eager to practice teaching their language to foreigners. This also provides a great opportunity to make local friends and practice your language skills in a social setting.
When it comes to learning to read and write, finding a good tutor for the duration of your time in China will be a great investment. If you’re looking for something to work towards, consider taking the HSK exams; a series of 6 tests designed for non-native speakers who are learning Mandarin. On the other hand, if after getting to grips with the basics you decide to focus on learning the spoken language, practicing and absorbing as much as possible will be one of the most effective ways for you to improve.
Turn Your Students into Teachers
You will find that one of the best places to put what you’ve learnt into practice and improve your skills will be at work. Although your job is to teach your students, you can learn a lot from them; they will speak between themselves in Chinese and (depending on their ability) use it to ask you questions and talk to you. This is a great opportunity to practice and although it can be quite intimidating to begin with, you’ll soon find yourself picking up common phrases and understanding their questions. As well as your students, your colleagues will act as a useful resource; you will probably find that outside of the English department most teachers do not speak much English and will appreciate and support you learning Mandarin.
As well as your colleagues, members of the public will be pleased to hear you speaking their language and will generally be very interested in you. It’s not uncommon for strangers to start jabbering away at you in Mandarin regardless of whether or not you can understand. There is no better example of this than taxi drivers; famous throughout China as chatterboxes, they will almost certainly interrogate you during the ride. Taxi drivers tend to have very strong accents and use slang you may not be familiar with, but given the size of most Chinese cities, the chances of meeting the same driver more than once are very slim, making them some of the best people to practice with.
The more you try, the easier it gets and it’s extremely rewarding after a few months of learning Mandarin when you do eventually manage to hold a conversation that lasts longer than “ni hao”!
Often when you’re out and about you will come across characters you don’t recognise or know how to pronounce. Even this won’t be a problem if you download the app ‘Pleco’; a dictionary that speaks and defines characters from photos or your handwriting. As well as being a useful tool when you’re out and about with no internet access, it’s another great way to learn new words or perfect your tones!
Whether you aim for fluency, basic conversation or just the odd word, it’s important that you make some effort to pick up a bit of the language. Giving it a go is a great sign of respect to the local people, who will be happy to see you try, plus it will make your day to day life a lot easier! In the past, our teachers have proven that by working hard and taking every opportunity to practice, learning Mandarin is not as hard as it seems!