Learning Chinese is not hard

I need to start by telling you what transpired in a conversation with a good friend of mine. Below is the gist of it:

Me: You have been learning Chinese for a while right? How is it coming along?
Friend: I simply don’t have the time to deep dive into the language, it is a very hard language to learn. After a year, I think I have only memorised less than 100 characters. And the rules! Omg, they are extremely difficult to learn, a whole bunch of rules with more exceptions.
Me: Deep dive? If you could ask for directions in Mandarin and understand the response in Mandarin, that would be a great achievement. Why do you need to deep dive at such an early stage?
Friend: Well, it is important to learn the right way, isn’t it? I mean, I wouldn’t want to form bad habits right from the start, which may be difficult to change down the line…
Me: Oh you mean like playing golf?
Friend: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
Me: I don’t think there is only one right way to learn a language. As far as I know, there are usually more than one way to learn anything. If the way you have adopted to learn the language is deterring you from learning the language (yes, the irony of it), then I can be dead sure that that is NOT the right way to learn, as far as you are concerned. That could be the right way for others, but it is definitely not for you. I can say that it basically drains the passion out of you.
Friend: Yeah, I dread opening up my Chinese course book nowadays. What do you think is the right way to learn Chinese?
Me: It all depends on your purpose of learning the language. Do you wish to become a Chinese Scholar one day or you just want to pass an exam or to be able to speak (and write) fluent enough for the natives to understand you?
Friend: Definitely don’t see myself as a Chinese scholar. I suppose just to pass the exam and speak fluent enough?
Me: So you don’t wish to be Tiger Woods one day, you just want to be able to play golf and socialise with your golfer friends…so to speak, in golf terms.
Friend: Exactly!
Me: Then why are you learning to play golf like Tiger Woods when you don’t have to? Isn’t that setting up yourself to fail? I don’t think anyone of us remember how we learnt our mother tongue. I doubt my parents ever lay out all the rules in the beginning, they would probably be content if I could form proper sentences that they could understand, using the few words that I have learnt.
Friend: I would think so…I mean I don’t think my friends ever load their children up with English Grammar rules from day one.
Me: And imagine how that would have deterred us from learning to speak….ever….

Learning a language? Speak it like you’re playing a video game

Language is a communication tool. How effective you are in learning Chinese is reflected in your attitude towards the language. I couldn’t have said it better than Marianna Pascal in her TedX Talk above. Although her talk was focused on learning English, I would think the same rules apply to learning just about any language.

Remember not to overwhelm yourself with the amount of learning materials that you can find over the internet, to the extent that, as Marianna Pascal puts it, your brain shuts down.

If you are just starting to learn Chinese (whether for the purposes of passing the HSK exam or just to learn the language), you can follow these steps:

  1. Start with the HSK 1 Standard Course Textbook and Workbook. Beijing University professors have spent a lot of effort developing this course, which I find it is easy for new learners to follow and understand. It comes with audio files.
  2. Memorise the vocabulary (150 words). You can do so by creating your own flashcards. If you just want the writing practice sheet, HSK Vocabulary Writing Practice Sheet.
  3. Now it is time to test your reading skill and comprehension by reading our HSK Storybook. These Chinese storybooks consist of short stories that are written with the relevant HSK level vocabulary. They come with free audio files and writing practice sheet.
  4. Next, you may want to learn how to form Chinese sentences with HSK 1 Grammar – Chinese Sentence Structure. Practice makes perfect.
  5. Practice your listening skills with our HSK Listening Quiz.
  6. Test your knowledge with our HSK Online Practice Test. It is free and if you want to keep the history of your attempts, you may sign up for the free account.

Rinse and repeat for every HSK level until you have reached your desired level.

If you are not aiming to be a Chinese scholar, the above steps would definitely get you to where you want to be in a very short time (well, relatively speaking).

Please feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Last but not least, remember to enjoy the process of learning.

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1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the emphasis that “one size fits all” does not apply for all learners, and that each learner needs to find the right study plan to fit their own goals. I started learning Chinese in April 2020, and the HSK Storybook series has been the perfect tool to help me in an area I didn’t expect — character writing practice! I learn to visually recognize new vocabulary pretty quickly, but struggled with remembering how to write even characters that I knew and recognized. Then I started the practice of copying out each of the HSK Storybook stories to reinforce the vocabulary I had already learned. The chunking of vocabulary by topic, and repetition of vocabulary within stories is the perfect drill I needed for writing practice. Everyone has their own learning goals — choose the right tools to support your goals!

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