Setting Concrete Goals
Many people will start learning a new language with very general goals, such as, “I want to learn Chinese.” Unfortunately, this is not very helpful.
In order to be most effective, you will want to ask yourself why you’re learning Chinese. Is it for fun or because you’re moving there in six months? Do you want to be able to speak business Chinese for a job or communicate with your in-laws?
These questions are important to help you create a set of concrete goals that will guide how you make your personalized learning plan. You may only be interested in speaking Chinese, and this will shape how you spend your learning time. Our first two tips focus on just that: setting concrete goals.
1. Identify Short-term and Long-term Goals
You should set long-term goals for where you want to be in a year, two years and five years. Realistically think about how much time you can give to Chinese learning, and use this as a base to build off of. You may have a long-term goal of reaching advanced fluency in five years, which includes spending a year in China.
Then move your way to short-term goals, which can be monthly goals up to six months out. For example, in six months you may want to be able to read an easy Chinese book or be able to understand Chinese radio.
When setting these goals, make sure they are “SMART” goals. Goals are more likely to be achieved when they are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. These five components work together to make much more effective targets.
For example, a goal such as “Improve my written Chinese” is not only too general, but also hard to measure. A more specific and measurable goal would be “Learn to write 20 new characters this month.”
Try to review your short-term goals at least every month, if not every week. Don’t be afraid to tweak your goals based on how well you’re doing so that you maintain a realistic approach of what study techniques are working for you.
2. Choose Between Mandarin and Cantonese
You will also need to decide whether you want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese. It’s not advised to learn both at once, as the two are different enough to be confusing. Mandarin is the dominant dialect in not only Mainland China, but also Taiwan, areas of Singapore and increasingly in Hong Kong.
Even though Cantonese is the main language spoken in Chinese communities in the United States, Mandarin Chinese is quickly matching that. It’s also arguably easier than Cantonese as there are less tones to master.
Creating a Specific Plan
A specific plan includes exactly what exercises you want to complete, how many chapters in a book you plan to go over, or a certain amount of words you want to master each day. The more detailed you are, the easier you will find it to follow on busy days, or on those off-days you don’t feel like studying.
3. Make a Daily Learning Schedule
Your daily schedule should be catered to your goals and learning style. Some people learn better through visualizations, while others may find that writing things down is what helps them. Knowing how you learn can help you learn more effectively.
To really learn Chinese, you will need to be working on it daily. Once-a-week lessons will be helpful, but are not enough. Short periods of learning are better than long sessions. Our brains can only handle so much information, and repetition helps keep it in your brain for the long-term.
To make sure you get in your daily learning, make a detailed schedule and stick to it. Only plan a week out at a time, so that you can adjust when needed. Be sure to write down specifics using a system that works best for you. If you prefer pen and paper, write it in your planner; if you’re a smartphone addict, add the tasks to your calendar.
Remember, you’ll be much more likely to complete concrete tasks, such as “listen and dissect a segment of China Radio International for 10 minutes” instead of vague tasks like “study Chinese.”
The amount of time you spend on Chinese each day obviously depends on your other commitments, but it’s better to start small—commit yourself to 15 minutes instead of an hour, for example. Once you form the habit of daily study, you can increase the amount of time, but for now the important part is daily interaction.
Another way to get daily practice is to add a Chinese review to your bedtime routine. This can even be just a few minutes while you’re brushing your teeth, or reading in your bed before you turn off the lights.
4. Find Activities That Combine Listening, Reading, Speaking and Writing
One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to work on activities that combine different areas of learning Chinese. It’s still a good idea to spend time focusing on the separate categories of listening, reading, speaking and writing. However, in order to really master the language, you will need a fusion of the four.
Some examples of activities that you can incorporate into your learning schedule include the following.
Reading and Speaking:
The easiest way to combine reading and speaking is to read aloud. Reading aloud ensures that you’re always practicing those tones and you can be critical in how you sound to others when you talk. This can also help you choose your content, so you can focus on your interests and topics you’d potentially talk about.
You can also make flashcards to carry along while you eat, grocery shop or are in transit. Try categorizing these so they relate to what you’re doing at the moment. For example, perhaps you have a list of breakfast foods for your mornings, a list of words for types of transportation for when you’re on the road, and another list of Chinese work-related terms in the office. You can silently speak the words to yourself if you’re in a public setting.
Listening and Writing:
If you’ve been to any formal Chinese class, you’ve probably already been introduced to the world of Chinese dictations, or 听写 (tīng xiě). The literal translation is “listen write,” and that is exactly what it is. If you have a partner, you can easily trade off the duty of testing. However, if you’re not that lucky but have a smartphone, try out this Chinese dictation app (for Apple or Android) which spans elementary school levels of first to fifth grade.
Another more informal way to get in your listening and writing is to simply listen to Chinese talk radio or watch a movie and write down what you hear. FluentU is an excellent tool for this method, since you can turn off the subtitles or look away when writing, and then check with the transcript afterwards.
Reading and Writing:
You may find this mundane at first, but practicing your reading and writing combined is the best way to master those difficult characters. Since so many Chinese characters can look similar, you really want to have a firm grasp on the little differences that can completely change a character.
An easy way to do this is to read a sentence and write it down. For an extra challenge, try to memorize what you read so that you can write it out without looking.
5. Work with a Chinese-speaking Partner to Master the Tones
Having a Chinese-speaking partner is key to getting the proper feedback you need as a non-native speaker. Besides, even while just spending time together casually and speaking Chinese, you can try these two slightly more formal exercises to boost your verbal skills to the next level:
- Chinese Dictations: As mentioned above, dictations not only help you with writing Chinese, they also enforce the tones into your brain so that you automatically connect it with either the pinyin or the character.
- Specific Vocabulary Practice: It can be daunting when starting out with a language partner, as your Chinese speaking skills are probably still in the early stages. Don’t let this hinder you from finding someone to practice with. Instead, be specific on what you want to learn in that hour, and try coming in prepared with a list of words you want to go over together. This way you’re mastering the tones for the vocabulary you need, and you won’t feel as if the session is too open-ended.
Acting on a Clear Execution
This is where you put your goals and plans into action. Be consistent with when you study each day, so that it becomes a part of your daily habits. If you’re having trouble sticking to a stringent schedule, try adding in some more relaxing days through watching a Chinese movie or TV drama.
6. Focus on Phrases Instead of Individual Vocabulary
It can be easy to make the mistake in the beginning of simply working on vocabulary. Vocabulary is excellent and a crucial part in learning any language, but without any context, you’re still as lost as when you began.
For every character you learn, add a phrase or sentence that uses the character to provide the proper context. When you recognize different phrases and sentences, it will be much easier for you to start using them in relevant conversations as well.
7. Ease Up on the Grammar (at First)
Lastly, don’t be daunted by Chinese grammar; it’s something that will come with time. In the beginning, simple Chinese sentences can be formed in a similar way to how you think in English.
Since Chinese grammar can be quite difficult, first focus on other aspects, then slowly add in grammar to the mix. You will eventually need to understand the specific nuances in Chinese grammar, but you’ll want to spend the majority of your time in the beginning on mastering the tones, pinyin and basic vocabulary.
Learning Chinese doesn’t have to be as hard as playing Beethoven. Even though it’ll take time and effort, with a solid plan and faithful daily practice, you’ll find yourself improving faster than before!