Learning Mandarin – Three Barriers and How to Get Passed Them

20 May

Learning Mandarin does not have to mean studying Mandarin. There is always the option to learn by doing.

There are three major barriers to learning Mandarin. I say only three because when you get passed them you can stop studying Mandarin and start learning the language by using it. Using a language means speaking it; once you are able to practice it every day in natural settings your learning progress is both rapid and fun. Once you are able to speak you will take learning from one level to a completely different level, it will be a matter of just living in China. The first two of these levels are relating to the glue that constitute every language; the basic syntax and pronunciation, which allow a person to form sentences and meanings. The third of the barriers is personal; you need a certain amount of jargon and terminology to be able to interact in the settings that are natural to you.

The first barrier you will need to get passed is that of pronunciation. Chinese pronunciation is difficult; instead of being formed by only syllables, like all Germanic and Latin derivative languages are, Chinese has an additional element to it; tones. The concept is called tones but it is not about tones like musical instrument is about tones. There are no G-majors or F-minors that you need to wrap your tongue around. Instead these tones are modulations of the pitch. There are 4 modulations all in all, and one additional neutral way of pronunciation. The neutral tone is just pronouncing the syllable like you would any western word. The first modulation is a high flat note. The second modulation is a short fall followed by a rise. The third is a long fall and then a long rise. The fourth tone is a sharp fall in pitch. I wrote all that out to make you confused, so that you would see why I call that a barrier. It takes a long time to get used to by your self. But don’t fret. There is no need to get used to it on your own. With a private teacher going through this stuff with you for a few hours every day for about two weeks you will get used to it to a point where it requires no major extra focus.

The second barrier is also best tackled by individual attention from a teacher. It is the Chinese writing system that I am talking about. As opposed to the tones this is something that most people are aware of before even thinking of learning Mandarin. It is difficult to start being able to remember the characters; in the beginning they really all look the same. The key is to get used to their structure. It is very hard to remember them as pictures but if you understand the basic underlying principles that are used to form the characters you see the meaning. Something with a purpose is much easier for the brain to take in. There are basically two parts of this structure that helps in memorization. The first is radicals, which is like building blocks. Learning these building blocks by name allows you to vastly reduce the amount of information you need to take in. For example, the word good (hao), is composed by adding the radical for woman and that of child, which all in all is formed using 8 strokes. If you are aware of the radicals you need to remember only two nuggets of information, as opposed to eight. The second is the order in which the stroke comes. This process always helps greatly because you start seeing the radicals as a process and not a picture. A picture is very hard to remember, a set of 4 lines is not – when your brain starts seeing the lines instead of the whole picture you are in the money.

Get passed these and add some vocabulary pertaining to your interest and you can start learning the language by using it, not by studying it.

Rui Ming works for a Mandarin Language School in China that is a great option for those that want to learn mandarin, the lingua franca of the growing economic powerhouse. See the program overview page for more information about learning Mandarin in China.


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