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Learning Chinese

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Xun Tzu
Learning Chinese is hard, but not too hard.
Especially if you know the mistakes to avoid.
Seven years after taking my first crack at tones, I’m no closer to mastering Chinese than any serious learner of Chinese.  And I’ve made some pretty stupid mistakes along the way.
Hopefully by reading this you’ll avoid some of them.
Mistake #1: Not mastering tones
If you speak Chinese without proper tones you might as well be half deaf and dumb.
Almost no one is going to understand you.  No one except your friends studying Chinese and your teacher, the same teacher used to students mangling her language.  Once you step outside the warm cocoon of the classroom, everything changes.
But Chinese people can guess what you’re trying to say, right?
Wrong.
The reason why is simple but hard to fathom for people who didn’t grow up speaking a highly tonal language – to a native speaker of Chinese, the difference between tones is just as pronounced as that between consonants – perhaps even greater.
In Chinese, if you get the tones right people can usually understand you.  If you get everything right but the tones, you will be unintelligible to most native speakers of Chinese.
Mistake #2: Not learning characters
What about characters – won’t leaping over them help you reach conversational fluency faster?
Sure, in the beginning.
Pinyin is easier, after all, and you’ll free up time to practice conversation.
But characters are nothing if not an aide to your learning at the higher levels.  They help you watch TV, get around town, and do pretty much everything you need to live in China without assistance.
That’s a good feeling.
If your goal is just simple conversations for the heck of it, you don’t need to learn characters.  If you want to get any further, characters will help take you where you want to go.
But characters are a pain in the ass to learn.  Rote memorization is difficult and can take years.  That’s how I learned characters, and looking back it was slow and inefficient.
So what can you do to cut down the learning time?
You’ll find out in a bit, but first I want to share a story:
Mistake #3: Killing yourself learning characters
After what seemed like the tenth tingxie in three days, I threw down my pen and said ‘shit!’ loud enough for everyone to hear.
The pen had run out of ink and I had run out patience.  Our teacher was quizzing us in machine gun fashion – shooting out characters way faster than we could react.
That sweltering summer in 2002 we sat through a year of Chinese crammed into eight weeks worth of classes.  Five hours of class plus six to eight hours of homework was the norm – and most of that time was spent learning characters by rote.  It was enough to drive the more diligent among us to the edge of insanity.
There had to be a better way.You see, there’s a way of learning characters, and have them stick with you far longer.
So what’s this better way to learn characters?
About a year ago, John at Sinosplice wrote an article about how he first really learned Japanese Kanji, with a book called Remembering the Kanji.
It’s a system that doesn’t require any knowledge of Japanese to begin.
That’s because each character is first given an English name closest to its core meaning, and then broken up into its component parts using stories and imagery that help you create vivid blueprints in your mind.
Then you’re struggling with a character, the blueprint in your mind shows you how to rebuild it.
Remembering the Kanji helps you make blueprints for the 2000 most common Japanese characters.
Remarkably, it takes a lot less time to come up with a good blueprint than to force the characters into your mind with brute force.  If you read through this dissertation, you’ll understand why.
Luckily for you and me, two new books are about to be released – Remembering Simplified Hanzi and Remembering Traditional Hanzi.
If you don’t want to throw years of your life away learning characters the old fashioned way, these books are for you.  I’m excited that they’ll be released by the end of the year.
Even if this method cuts down your time spent learning characters, ‘mastering’ Chinese is still a long path to start down.
The path can look daunting when you realize how far it goes – an ever receding point over the horizon.  Which brings us to the next mistake to avoid when learning Chinese:
Mistake #4: Focusing on progress over process
Having goals for learning Chinese is fine, and can take you a long way on the path to fluency.
But you may end up going crazy long before you reach your destination.
That’s because a realistic expectation for learning Mandarin to true fluency might be twenty years – and many people continually delude themselves along the way.
It’s easy to get discouraged when you make mistakes or don’t see rapid progress.
So what can you do to stay sane?
First, accept that you are not Chinese, and even after years of hard work you’re still going to make stupid mistakes.  The more the better, really, as we’ll talk about in a moment.
Second, enjoy the journey – make your goal using Chinese instead of mastering it.  Focus on today, not where you want to be next year.
That doesn’t mean abandoning long term goals or not setting them at all.  It means focusing on the here and now and being happy with your current level of Chinese, and using it.
And you can do that by avoiding a common mistake that Chinese language learners make:
Mistake #5: Not making good Chinese friends
If you’re really going to master the language, you need to get out there.
That’s because language can’t be completely built within the warm confines of a classroom.
You find the missing pieces by getting exposed to real Chinese.  A lot of it.
Making interesting Chinese friends is one way to get this exposure.  If you feel awkward speaking to your Chinese friends in Chinese, you need to make more friends or learn more Chinese.
Or both.
When you find a friend who doesn’t mind speaking Chinese with you, see if you can get them to correct some of your mistakes.This is the advice that Tim Ferris gives best, from Why Language Classes Don’t Work:
Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense, particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most difficult Spanish certification test in South America, in eight weeks, which is said to require near-native fluency and years of immersion. How? By following the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make in eight years.
Make as many mistakes as you can, and try to get people to point them out to you.  It may be awkward at first, but it’s the best way to improve your speaking.
But like you wouldn’t jump into the Amazon without learning how to swim, you need to learn the basics before putting yourself out there.
One way to do so better is by avoiding this common mistake:
Mistake #6: Not using the best learning materials available
Most people think that having a great teacher is more important than having a great textbook.
Personally, I agree with Tim Ferris and what he says in the article linked above -> great textbooks + an average teacher > average textbooks + a great teacher.
Whether or not you take formal language classes, the best learning materials will help you learn Chinese better.
Here are two sources I highly recommend:
ChinesePod.com – Their podcasts and other audio aides make this the best choice if you can’t attend real classes or get much time with a good tutor / language exchange partner.
Integrated Chinese (Princeton University Press) – This is the most thorough textbook introduction to Chinese I know of.  If you learn everything in the first two year’s worth of books, you’ll have succeeded in building a good foundation for later learning.
But should you take formal classes?
Sure, if you have the time and money to do so.  Just don’t end up making this common mistake:
Mistake #7: Choosing poor classes
A bad class can sometimes be worse than no class at all – spending time and money on average classes and teachers who force feed you with rote learning is no fun.
So to find out if the course you’ll be taking is good, spend some time figuring out:
The quality of the textbooks – Don’t settle for poor texts
The size of classes – The smaller the better
The levels of classes – The more the better
If your teachers have experience teaching foreigners – part of the reason we almost went crazy in Shanghai is because our teacher was clueless about teaching foreigners Chinese – make sure this doesn’t happen to you.
Check out this to find other things to be careful about when selecting a Chinese class:
Why Not To Study Chinese at a [Chinese] University
Finally, don’t make this mistake:
Mistake #8: Not using kickass tools for learning Chinese
There are many tools for learning Chinese online.  But these two may be the best:
Google’s character writing software
There is no better character input system than Google’s pinyin input system (or 谷歌拼音输入法)
It responds fast to your typing, guesses what characters you want incredibly well, and allows you to type out strings as long as you want.
Chinese Pera-kun

Have you ever wished you could hover your mouse over a character or group of characters and see it’s pinyin and meaning instantly?
Well, a plugin for Firefox, Chinese Pera-kun, can help you do this.  It’s not perfect but it comes close.
To get Chinese Pera-kun, just go to its plugin page, download then install it, and drag its icon onto your navigation bar through View -> Toolbars -> Customize.
That’s it!