The most common questions I get asked about learning Chinese are as follows:
Q: What’s the best way to learn Chinese?
A: Watch people speak Chinese.
Q: What’s the best way to learn characters?
A: This is a vague question.
Q: How long does it take to become fluent?
A: Depends on how you define fluent.
These questions are usually coming from beginners, or people who haven’t even started studying. I would encourage them to understand that knowing a language is not actually a single skill, but four different skills in one package.
The four skills
Asking a question like how to learn characters is multifaceted for this reason, because learning how to read is completely different from learning how to write, even if my method for learning how to read does involve writing. If Chinese is four different skills, how do we best go about learning them?
Focus on one skill at a time
The great thing about language learning is that practicing one skill will improve two at the same time. For example, you don’t learn speaking just by practicing speaking. If you spend more time listening than speaking, your speaking will actually be better than someone who just speaks. This is because all language is, is copying what other people have done. Taking the time to practice speaking by itself is certainly useful, but this is more of an exercise of employment rather than a development in skill. You aren’t going to improve just through output, input is most important.
Like listening will improve your speaking, reading will improve your writing. What I mean by this is that through reading you’ll develop a sense for the rhythm and flow of written Chinese, and this will be useful for compositional guidance on the sentence and paragraph level. Reading will probably not have that big of an effect on your speaking because the written and spoken word in Chinese can be very different, depending on the level of formality of the writing. Although reading will help with writing generally, reading characters will not teach you how to write them. I often see people say how many characters they “know”, but what does that really mean? Does it mean you know how to read them? Does it mean you know how to properly use them yourself? And in all applicable situations? But can you write it? I personally believe that writing by hand is a skill that you can choose to not study, and you won’t see any negative effects. Attempting to “know” a character is actually useless because characters don’t usually act as monads in a sentence, they work with other characters to form either words, or structures. Focus on knowing those instead.
Writing by typing, however, is a skill you should have. Focusing on this skill will improve speaking for beginners, because you’ll probably be writing the same way that you speak, just with a more calculated approach. When you start to study formal Chinese writing this benefit will go away, however. All the essays I wrote at NTU contain structures and words I would never say in conversation. When I wrote those papers, I was solely developing my writing skills.
Speaking is the only skill that intermediate learners could use less of than beginners or advanced learners. This is because in the intermediate stage you should be focusing the most on input. In the beginning, however, you should speak more to learn proper pronunciation and to make mistakes that will, hopefully, be corrected. When you are more advanced you should practice speaking to learn how to properly use colloquial structures and idioms that you’ve heard when listening to native speakers in videos or real life. Consuming content like this and extracting value is usually the activity of an advanced intermediate learner, but using the content yourself is the sign of an advanced learner.
With the above information on how to develop the four skills, we can explain some sterotypical language problems.
- Advanced learner can’t hold a conversation.
Reason: Didn’t spend enough time listening to native speakers. Needs to speak more to overcome the underlying fear of speaking.
- Can’t speak with significant other.
Reason: No real need to learn is felt if they can always fall back to English. Most likely takes the presence of a native speaker for granted, and doesn’t study on their own enough.
- Can’t understand native material.
Reason: Doesn’t spend the time to look up words they don’t know.
Can’t write characters by hand.
Reason: Has no real reason to write by hand. Always types characters.
- Doesn’t understand grammar.
Reason: They attempt to study grammar by itself, and might try to use English equivalents to remember different structures. Grammar is not one of the four key skills. Receive more input to develop language sense, and understand why grammar makes sense in Chinese, not how Chinese grammar can make sense in English.
The best way to learn Chinese
- Listen to native material with subtitles, and look up what you don’t know.
- Read material that uses what you want to study.
- Speak to practice pronounciation. Listening will translate to speaking when you need it.
- Write as a beginner to practice using the language. Write by hand to remember characters better. Practice writing more if you feel like it.
- Repeat steps 1-4