China is a rapidly developing nation, whose growing economy has placed it among the world’s leading superpowers. But it is also a nation with a rich, vibrant history, and a fascinating language. As Chinese is being offered in more and more high schools across the United States, it’s clear that American students can greatly benefit from learning the language that has the most speakers on the planet. Here are some tips to make mastering that process a little easier.
1. Don’t be intimidated.
For many students, learning Chinese seems like a daunting task because of its dissimilarity with English. Those of you thinking about taking Chinese should not be deterred by the fact that is it a non-Romanized language. Spanish and French may seem easier, and therefore might be more appealing at first, but Chinese is actually not that difficult to learn once you can make it over the mental barrier of abandoning the alphabet.
2.Remember your tones.
Chinese is tonal language, which can be a strange concept for English speakers to grasp. There are four tones, and a single word, such as ‘ma’ will have completely different meanings depending on the tone used. For example, ‘ma’ in first tone means mother, but ‘ma’ in third tone means horse. Obviously, mastery of tones is critical to speaking good Chinese and not insulting your mother.
When you’re in class, participate! Part of learning a language is engaging with it, so don’t be afraid to speak up. The best help you can give yourself is to try out new grammar or vocabulary in class where your teacher can help you along and correct you. Also, the more you use your Chinese, the better your pronunciation will be, which is crucial when you’re starting to learn a language with pronunciations read as zhong or qiu.
4.Practice your characters.
One of the most intimidating things about learning Chinese is figuring out the writing system. Characters are a beautiful representation of Chinese culture. There are characters inscribed inside bronze vessels dating back to the Shang Dynasty, which ruled China from 1600BC-1050BC. Many of these characters are so similar to modern characters that they can be easily read, making Chinese the language with the oldest continually used writing system.
There is a formula for writing characters, but it’s quite different from writing using an alphabet. Sounding out how to write a character is very tricky, so instead, new students of Chinese truly need to dedicate themselves to memorizing characters at first in order to form a good basis of understanding for the written language.
5.Go to China.
As with all foreign languages, the best way to cement your language skills is to go to the source. Find out about high school exchange programs in cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Taipei. Your high school doesn’t offer these programs? Don’t sweat it. You will most likely have the opportunity to study abroad during college, and even if your college doesn’t have an affiliation with a program in China, you can apply to independent study abroad programs.
With these tips in mind, stride bravely forward into learning Chinese. It’s a skill whose value extends outside the classroom, never becomes obsolete and has the ability to enrich your life in ways you have yet to imagine.
Anna Katten holds a BA in East Asian Studies, concentrating in Chinese language and literature, from Wesleyan University. She is currently working on translating her second Chinese novel into English and is also a Chinese and ESL tutor.
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