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Thoughts and Tips on Learning Chinese


I spent a summer in Japan sometime before moving to China in 1991. During that summer in Japan I picked up and started using about 200 Japanese words while teaching English and otherwise being with Japanese college students. I thought Chinese would be the same. Only, if I spend a whole year in China I would be able to pick up 1000 words of Chinese.

Sadly, two years later I could speak only some tourist phrases in Chinese like “I want a ticket to Nanjing.”

Why had Chinese proven to be so intractable?

The most maddening thing was that I could learn a phrase and then go out to the market. There I would try to use it. No one could understand me no matter how hard I tried. When I started to learn Chinese full time years later and my pronunciation was much better, I still had the same experience. This was even more puzzling.

Then I started to approach Chinese people saying “Ni hao” (hello) very clearly. Then I would say the new Chinese phrase I wanted to use. This helped. It turned out that Chinese people assumed I was speaking English and would not even try to hear my Chinese. When I said “ni hao” clearly, it woke something up in them, and they started to hear my Chinese.  With that I started to make consistent, useful progress.

I became a Chinese speaker and have a handful of thoughts on learning on Chinese that I trust will be helpful.

Learning Chinese is Workable

First, why learn Chinese? What are your goals in China or with respect to the language? Do you want to teach from the Chinese Union Version Bible?  Then map out what it will take to do that—talk to people who can do that and start learning day by day. I use the Chinese Contemporary Bible (CCB). Much easier but not commonly used by Chinese believers. 

If you just want to be able to take a taxi, order food, and use Taobao, those are much easier goals and have other language requirements.

Think what your goal is, and then find the resources to chase it.

Second, have fun with the language. Play with it and make a game of it. It will stick in your mind better if you engage it this way.

Third, tones are hard and take work. Work on it and get them right. Have as much fun as you can but also buckle down and get the tones right.

Some Good News 

The good news is the door to Chinese is hard to enter, (the tones, people’s expectations, including thinking you are speaking English) but the room is easy to move around in. Chinese grammar is simple and even English grammar will often do. Verbs do not change nor does it have masculine and feminine words. Words are made by accretion, so they are logical. “Receive sound machine” (shou yin ji) is a radio.  Refrigerator is an “ice box” (bing xiang). An airplane is a “flying machine.” (fei ji)  Many times you can even guess what a word might be thinking through how they might accrete it. At minimum many words are quite memorable because of accretion.  Air is “empty gas” (kong qi).  Outer space is “too empty” (tai kong). No kidding. Chinese is a great language and so much fun to ponder. 

More good news—because tones distinguish words, Chinese needs very few sounds. Therefore, the words are short—often just two syllables. So pinyin (the alphabetic way to write Chinese words) is pretty simple and much easier than English spelling. So pronunciation is simpler than, say, German if you don’t consider tones. 

Some people only learn oral Chinese. It is not easy to leave the written word behind. Pinyin does not tell the whole story.  But again, it depends on your goals.

Regardless, learn pinyin well. It is a tool to get in, to get started.

Texting in Chinese is Reachable

Texting in characters is possible with pinyin. With modern software, texting in Chinese is fun if you know pinyin. It will also push you in your language learning. When you input pinyin, the software will give you a choice of characters based on the pinyin and what you most likely want to say. If you input several words together, it can know what you want. You do not even have to guess which characters. Glorious!  Also, you don’t have to hand write the characters this way.

Texting is, by nature, short messages which are easier for language learners. Text away!

Finally, if you are learning Chinese, get around people who are serious about learning Chinese. It rubs off and gets you going. Run from people who are lazy about learning.

Chinese is a great language and so useful. Jump in!

Image credit: SHI Group.
Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson

Jim Nelson graduated from West Point in 1987 and came to live in China in 1991. His goal has always been to hold the cross high and make himself valuable to China and the government. He has taught English, studied Chinese full time, started and led a Christian nonprofit, and... View Full Bio


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