Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and is in high demand amongst employers. But it also has the unfortunate reputation for being one of the hardest foreign languages to learn. It can therefore require a little extra motivation to stay on top of the learning process.
Thanks to modern technology and simplification of the characters, learning Chinese is not as hard as you might think.
The main reason that Chinese is intimidating for English speakers is that it uses a completely different writing system to most European languages. But that doesn’t necessarily make it harder; just different. In fact, there are only a handful of different strokes to learn. These strokes can be used in different combinations to write all the characters in Chinese.
Although Chinese is different to English, there are also many similarities in terms of the sentence structure and grammar. For example, a simple sentence in Chinese consists of a subject, a verb, and an object one after the other, just like in English:
‘I wash my hands’ in Chinese is 我 Wo (I), 洗 xi (wash), 手 shou (hands).
Also, the Chinese language has no conjugations, verb tenses, or prefixes at all and very few grammar rules. Characters stay the same no matter where they are used and there are no singular/plural, feminine/masculine variations of words to remember.
Characters are all very well, but what about speaking Chinese? Pronunciation is not normally a problem for British students. What they may find difficult are the four tones, which they don’t have in English. But you can solve this problem with practice – there are only four to learn!
So, with all the above in mind, here are six ways to motivate yourself to keep on learning Chinese.
1. Take a language course
Begin by booking a course of lessons – it could be a short course, a weekend course or an online course. Try your local adult education centre, college, or university. There are plenty of online courses available and some of them are even free. Classes and homework will help to keep you on track. Decide to commit, and by buying or tying yourself down to a course, you will have an invaluable structure to your learning.
Be sure to do your homework and practice every week – if you struggle with motivation, get a friend to nudge you. It also helps to write down your goals – what are you going to achieve this week? Set yourself a reminder and stick to it.
2. Engage with Chinese culture
Chinese culture is rich and diverse. If there’s a particular aspect of Chinese culture that really interests you, be sure to engage with it.
If you are a film fanatic then start watching Chinese films – in Chinese! There are many classics and the Chinese film industry is fast-growing. Make sure you watch in Chinese with English subtitles, not dubbed into English. There’s no better way of enjoying the learning process!
If you’re learning Chinese, then the chances are that you love the cuisine. Learning vocabulary via the process of eating and cooking is a delightful way to motivate yourself. Learn the words for simple ingredients. Learn how to order your food in a restaurant. Ask the staff in your local Chinese restaurant for simple words. Start with simple phrases and try them out – don’t be shy!
我喜欢中国菜 (Wǒ xǐhuān zhōngguó cài) = I love Chinese food
Chinese music is one of the oldest and most highly developed of all known musical systems. It has a rich and awe-inspiring history.
If you wish to study something more recent with lyrics, try Chinese radio or one of the many sites to access free popular Chinese music. YouTube has a wealth of beautiful Chinese songs sung by famous Chinese artists, such as Teresa Teng singing 月亮代表我的心 ‘The Moon Represents My Heart’ – listen here with the Chinese characters and the English translation underneath. Beautiful.
As well as film, cuisine and music, you could also look into Chinese literature, children’s books, sport, dance, ceramics, architecture, art, philosophy, religion, or even martial arts.
Throw yourself into it – become an expert and amaze your friends and family!
3. Explore the language
Why not explore the language for its own sake. As Chinese so different from English or most of the European languages, there’s so much to learn and understand. Why are the characters what they are? Why is it called a tonal language?
Here’s where you can shine. Go slowly, basics first. Invest in a good textbook or make use of the Chineasy apps. Practice writing the characters – you can buy workbooks and calligraphy pads to help you. Write them down and try looking at children’s books. Take small steps at a time.
Explore a new world that few people around you may know about. A new set of sounds – it’s like a secret code! The Chinese language is tonal, unlike English. The meaning of a word can change according to the tone of voice.
Speak out loud to yourself, speak to people in Chinese restaurants, speak into language apps on your phone or computer. Listen to the radio and TV in Chinese and copy the sounds, practice the tones. Try ordering Chinese food in Chinese – no one is going to mind if you get it wrong!
4. Take a trip to China
There’s nothing like the trip of a lifetime to provide some motivation! Although this may be a more expensive option, visiting a country where Chinese is spoken is the best way of learning. Especially if you use the language as much as you can while you’re there.
Put aside some money every month to save towards a trip. It may take a few years, but your motivation for learning Chinese will be there throughout. By the time you visit the country, you’ll already know some of the language and can really enjoy putting your knowledge to the test.
Of course not everyone can do this – in which case, there’s always Chinatown, Chinese restaurants and shops to visit.
5. Find a language partner
If you’re serious about learning Chinese, and especially if you cannot immediately make plans to visit the country, then you need to be able to converse with a native speaker. If you have a Chinese friend, family member or acquaintance, then you’re very fortunate. Ask them if you can have half an hour a week of conversation practice – and stick to it.
If you’re not lucky enough to have a Chinese speaker in your immediate circle then look online for local clubs, conversation classes or a personal language tutor. A private teacher for an hour a week, or even every other week, is the best way of improving your spoken language and keeping you motivated. If there is no-one available in your area, then look online for conversation lessons on Skype – one-to-one tuition is a small investment but well worth it.
6. Consider working towards an exam
Once you have booked and taken a course, learnt and practised the characters, immersed yourself in the culture, practised the sounds with a language partner and are well on the way to fulfilling your dream of a trip to China, perhaps it’s time to work towards an exam.
Check out the Chinese Proficiency Test (HSK), an international standardised test of Chinese language proficiency. It assesses non-native Chinese speakers’ abilities in using the Chinese language in their daily, academic and professional lives. Working towards an exam can help you stay motivated and gives you an end goal.
Remember, if at any time you feel overwhelmed and think you are not progressing or getting stale or losing motivation, allow yourself a break. Take a step back, leave it with equanimity and agree to come back to it at a later date. Set that date in your diary or on your phone. You will benefit from the break and come back to view it with a fresh pair of eyes.