How to Study Chinese
This textbook will assume that you have no prior knowledge of Chinese, but are willing to take Chinese as a serious subject of study. Each lesson contains a combination of new vocabulary and new grammar in a gradual progression, building on previous lessons.
Each lesson should be appropriate for a week’s worth of daily classes, so don’t feel overwhelmed by the amount of material per lesson. Learning to write new characters will probably be your limiting factor, so split up the memorization of a lesson’s characters over two or three days and use class time mostly for work on grammar and speaking skills.
Each lesson consists of five parts:
- Dialogue. Here you will see a dialogue carried out by two or more people. All texts are given in 4 versions: Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese, Hanyu Pinyin, and an English translation.
- Grammar. This section breaks down all of the new sentence structures introduced in the dialogue and shows example sentences to reinforce them.
- Vocabulary. New vocabulary for the lesson, with translation and pronunciation. Every newly introduced character will be linked to an image or animation showing its stroke order.
- Examples. A page of sentences and phrases giving more examples based on the lesson material.
- Exercises. Questions and activities to test comprehension of the material. May be used as homework or as review material for lesson exams.
Speaking and Pronunciation
- Learn pinyin. Not only is it used throughout this book to explain proper pronunciation, it is needed to look up words in dictionaries and for typing in Chinese.
- Pay attention to the tones. Since there are so few syllables in Chinese, there are many homonyms, making attention to tones very important. Learning to write the pinyin with correct tones at the same time as you learn the characters will improve your pronunciation and your listening comprehension.
- Read the text aloud. Speaking (and hearing yourself speaking) will help reinforce the text in your memory. Exaggerating the tones can help you remember them.
- Find a language partner. There may be a Chinese Language club in a nearby city or university. There are also free sites on the internet that can help set you up with a language exchange using Skype or other VoIP programs. Two examples are The Mixxer and E-Tandem.
- Listen to Chinese media. A wide variety of multimedia options exist for exposing your ears to native Chinese speaking. Internet radio stations and newscasts can be found in Chinese, as well as an increasing number of Chinese movies and television shows. Youtube has an excellent variety of modern Chinese television , just check with a native Chinese speaker to make sure what you hear is actually the Chinese you want to learn, and not a special dialect or different language altogether!
Reading and Writing
- Practice writing — a lot. When you study, write each character at least ten times, or more if you still have trouble remembering them. Quiz yourself periodically to test your memory and to find which characters you need more practice on. As you write, think of the sound and meaning of the character, or say it out loud. Check out the East Asian Calligraphy book for more help with Chinese writing. Learn the right stroke order initially and write carefully, looking at the printed character each time before copying. Actually writing is important to establish a ‘motor memory’ of each character, allowing your writing to flow easily once you get started.
- Use a flashcard program. Many people use flash cards memorize information, but there’s often much time wasted reviewing what you already know well, or in relearning what you didn’t review in time to refresh your memory. The free programs Anki and Mnemosyne (Windows/Mac/Linux), can optimize your review schedule to be more efficient. It can also handle audio for pronunciation help and 3-sided cards to study reading, writing and translation separately. You can download free cardsets, export your own, or write your own for the most personal benefit and to fully customize your character selection.
- Look for radicals. Radicals are components of Chinese characters that you will see repeated over and over again. Learning the meaning of radicals will help you to see the connections between similar categories of words. Many characters are comprised of radical-phonetic pairings, where the radical is the “root” that hints at the meaning of the word, while another part of the character hints at the sound of the word. Learning to spot radicals is also useful as they are used when looking up unfamiliar words in Chinese dictionaries.
- Buy a dictionary. Useful for looking up new words or just browsing. Get a beginner’s dictionary so that you can have a larger font, usage examples and Pinyin pronunciation, all of which are sometimes missing in comprehensive dictionaries. Get a second dictionary later on if you can’t find every word you need. A good choice that provides many example sentences and phrases would be The Starter Oxford Chinese Dictionary (sorry, Simplified version only).
Suggested Reading Materials
- Children’s story books (the characters are easier, many include pinyin or zhuyin for difficult or even all characters)
- Take a look at various condensed dictionaries to get a feel for the characters