Top 10 Chinese hacks
Remember, there is no shortcut to mastering any languages. So in addition to these 10 hacks, practice, practice, and practice. The more you have practice, the more confident you'll feel about your progress; and the more confident you are, the more invested--and therefore, better--you will be!
Hack #1: Start with Sounds
The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and recognize written Chinese sounds is a great place to get started even before you begin memorizing words and their meanings. In order to do that, you're going to need to learn pinyin, the Chinese alphabet.
It's practically impossible to memorize how each character sound like (even for natives), but start with the pinyin system and learn the different tones while you're at it. This will drastically help you recognize common sound combinations of the language. As some pronunciations will be entirely foreign to you, listen carefully to our audio recordings by a native.
Tones are also crucial to the Chinese language, for a slight difference can produce completely opposite meaning in characters, let alone words. Chinese is a language that uses characters to build up meaning words, so if you hear people conversing in a even pace with each syllable occupying similar time loop, it's very possible they are speaking Chinese! If they are, pay attention to each character's tone -- there are no set intonations for sentences in Chinese, only the correct tone assigned to each and every character.
As tone is one of the hardest part of Chinese learning for none-native speakers, we suggest that you start with practicing it with hand gestures. Let's first take a look at the 5 tones in Chinese:
|neutral tone||blank or "‧"|
So what we mean by practicing with hand gestures is that when you are practicing a character that goes by the 1st tone, raise your preferred hand to draw a huge horizontal line in the air and listen to your own voice -- it should stay flat. For the 2nd tone, your hand should start at your chest and develop a diagonal line towards the upper right corner over your head; meanwhile, raise the tone of your voice so it matches the rise.
The 3rd tone is a little bit tricky, so we will come back to it after the 4th, which contains a dramatic drop from top to bottom. You can position your hand right in front of your forehead and take it to the right side of your tummy; for your tone, do down as your hand declines. Now, back to the 3rd tone. If you look closely, you will identify a "caron" accent mark found in some Slovak languages which looks like a "v" in Latin alphabet. This means that this tone starts with a slight descend and ends with ascension. You could certainly understand it as a 4th tone followed instantaneously by the 2nd tone; but when you practice, we recommend beginning in the middle and make a detour down the bottom in order to go up.
And lastly, the neutral tone. Usually this is left blank in pinyin; but in some scripts, a middle dot will be present before the pinyin. And stick with that dot for a second, because the neutral tone is just as short, crispy and quick as that little dot. For your hand, drop a tiny and quick dot in the air; and your speech should be no longer than the duration of that hand gesture.
With these fun practice, you will be able to get the knack of how each tone sounds like easily!
Hack #2: Learn on the Go
A great way to do this is by taking advantage of American academic and polyglot Alexander Arguelles' Shadowing Technique.
If you feel shy or embarrassed to do this in public, find a road or path where you can speak Chinese loudly and proudly without many other people around you.
2. Maintain a perfectly upright posture.
According to Arguelles, maintaining a good posture contributes to this method's efficacy.
3. Articulate well and in a loud, clear voice.
This is very important in order to effectively learn the rhythm, structure and sound of the language.
This may feel silly at first, but its results will amaze you. By speaking out loud as soon as you hear Chinese sounds, you're developing a sense of how the language is structured and sounds, even if you don't understand everything that's being said.
Don't worry if you can't catch and repeat everything. As you improve, you'll gradually begin developing the accent and rhythm of Chinese. You'll also understand more and more words as your studies progress.
Make learning Chinese a part of your life, and you'll be amazed how much time you have to study when you learn on the go.
Hack #3: Learn the Practical Characters First
According to China's State Council, there are 8,105 general standard Chinese characters (汉字 Hànzì) in use, of which 6,500 are designated as common. But we really only need the most basic level-1 3,500 to deal with everyday life.
Of the 3,000 in level-2 and the rest in level-3, names and academic (especially scientific) terms occupy heavily. This is because most names given to babies are unique in Chinese: you take (usually) the father's surname character and add one or two more random characters at your choosing behind that as given name to make up for the full name. A lot of parents like to go to fortune tellers for the right character, and there's even a dictionary for naming children filled with characters that are less common! It's perfectly fine to leave out these characters when you first learn Chinese. In fact, even native speakers come across occasions where they are unable to recognize or pronounce a certain character in someone's name!
So what does that mean for you as a Chinese learner?
By learning the practical words first, you can cut your work in less than half. You'll be able to communicate faster and with significantly less effort. Check out this table of those 8,150 characters by stroke, and keep an eye on the far-right column where usage frequency is indicated. You can always go with the easier and more commonly used characters as a beginner.
Hack #4: Take Advantage of Loanwords
Let's take a look at some of the loanwords. As you will notice, some of these "English" phrases have actually been traveling across different cultures and even continents! Don't forget to give them a try:
There are two kinds of loanwords here, the first are those that borrow the sounds. For example, did you know that "tofu" came from the Chinese word 豆腐 (pronounced dòufǔ), which literally means "bean curd"? Here are some more examples of English words that originated from Chinese:
Hack #5: Hooked on Mnemonics
The first kind of mnemonics apply to pictograms, or 象形字 xiàngxíng zì. These picture-like characters epitomize what an item looks like. For example, this is how the "moon" is written in Chinese dating all the way back:
|oracle script||seal script||regular script|
|oracle script||seal script||regular script|
A lot of characters for animals also come from pictograms. However, as their outlines are a bit more complex than the moon and water, there is one more split in between the regular script -- you might have guessed it, from traditional to simplified!
For example, let's see how "horse" evolved through time:
|oracle script||seal script||traditional script||simplified script|
Other animals like cows, turtles, birds and even the imaginary dragons all follow the same pattern. If you are already hooked on it, here's a TED Talk featuring the incredible beauty of Chinese pictogram characters.
Hack #6: Keep a Chinese Vocabulary Notebook and Flashcards
Not only does keeping a vocabulary journal help you to organize all of your new words and phrases, but the very process of writing down a word and its translation, notes, image or mnemonic device helps you to memorize it. Because this can't be emphasized enough: you really need to practice how to write those characters!
This notebook can also be transformed into study-friendly flashcards by using flashcard generating programs like Anki for your phone or computer. You can use your Anki flashcards on your phone to learn on the go when you're on the bus, walking to work or simply waiting in line at the grocery store.
Your Chinese notebook and flashcards are a fantastic future reference for studying. They can be used anywhere and anytime you have a few free minutes.
Hack #7: Break down the words
So for word groups describing/relating to moods and personalities, the character 心 xīn, which means "heart", is heavily used as a base, sort of like the root words in English. So the "root" for all these terms is 心, because pretty much all emotions and behaviors develop from the heart!
Hack #8: The Scriptorium Technique
- Read a sentence out loud.
- Say each word aloud again as you write it.
- Read the sentence aloud as you have written in.
Hack #9: Read, Watch, Listen
Hack #10: Interact...Without Needing to Travel
- Speak with a friend, family member or neighbor in person
- Write a letter or email to a friend, family member, co-worker, or yourself
- Visit a local store or neighborhood where Chinese is spoken and interact with the locals
- Join a weekly or monthly Chinese conversation group...or start your own group!
- Speak online with a friend, family member, co-worker, or fellow language learner (Skype is great for this)
- Contribute to a blog or forum in your target language
- Sing along with music in your target language
- Watch a movie, series, documentary or video and repeat the character's lines
- Read a passage from a book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talk to yourself in your target language (this really works!)