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Top 10 Chinese hacks

How to become fluent in a language that is spoken by 1/5 of the Earth's population? Well, it takes time, arduous efforts and motivation; but more importantly, fitting methods and a positive mindset! Here, we have 10 tailored tricks for people who are learning Chinese or are thinking about starting their Chinese lessons.

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

Now that you've decided to learn Chinese, it's time to dig into the language learning process. But where should you even begin?

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:
 

ENGLISH PINYIN
1st tone ¯
2nd tone ´
3rd tone ˇ
4th tone `
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

Let's face it: you probably have a busy life, and it's difficult to set time aside to study Chinese. Fortunately, however, one of the best ways to take advantage of your free time is to learn Chinese on the go.

A great way to do this is by taking advantage of American academic and polyglot Alexander Arguelles' Shadowing Technique.

This language learning technique involves listening to Chinese with earphones and simultaneously repeating it out loud while walking outdoors. There are three main keys to this exercise:

1. Walk outdoors as quickly as possible.
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.
Say the sounds as soon as you hear them. Don't wait for the entire word. In fact, at first you may only catch a small portion of what's being said and sound like you're speaking nonsense.

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.

Audio

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Some other great tricks for learning Chinese on the go include taking advantage of your morning subway or bus commute by studying flashcards or listening to Chinese eBooks or music in the car.

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

Learning a new language requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it. Many people use their "bad memories" as an excuse for not learning a new language, but we have some comforting news for these people (and even those with great memories): you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the words in a language to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half!

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

As Chinese is a living language, it is constantly evolving. This means that it "borrows" words from other languages from time to time, most noticeably from Sanskrit (for all Buddhism-related vocabulary) and English. These terms --called "loanwords", or 外来语 wàilái yǔ-- are largely translated phonetically from their original language since the concept of said item or thoughts were created by the culture or country of origins.

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:

And just as Chinese borrows words from English, English actually does the same with Chinese! So a lot of phrases in everyday English are actually from Chinese. Getting to know these words will not only help you stack up your vocabulary, but will also familiarize you with Chinese culture.

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:

The other sort of English loanwords from Chinese borrows the meaning rather than mere sound. Pay attention to the pronunciation as well as the literal translations to discover the hidden fun!

Hack #5: Hooked on Mnemonics

Writing is arguably the most difficult part to learn in Chinese. However, Chinese characters actually follow certain patterns, and mnemonics based on different situations will greatly help you enlarge your character pool!

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:
 

月-oracle.svg 月-seal.svg Thumbnail for version as of 02:59, 3 January 2011
oracle script seal script regular script
 
Take another example, "water":
 
水-oracle.svg 水-seal.svg Thumbnail for version as of 11:15, 7 September 2011
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:
 
馬-oracle.svg 馬-seal.svg Thumbnail for version as of 17:04, 26 September 2011 Thumbnail for version as of 01:17, 28 July 2011
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. 

Besides pictograms, characters are also formed with radicals and components. You can get a peek into how it's roughly done via Wikipedia!

Hack #6: Keep a Chinese Vocabulary Notebook and Flashcards

Keep a journal, document, or book with all of the Chinese vocabulary you learn in one place.

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

Let's be honest: every time you look at a Chinese word, it probably doesn't sound anything like its meaning. So how can you learn it faster?
 

As mentioned in one of our other lessons, Chinese is a conceptual language, and tends to connect words within a specific idea with the same base character. This means that a lot of words --especially those belonging to the same category-- can be broken down into a description and a base.

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 , because pretty much all emotions and behaviors develop from the heart!
Mnemonics using the base word "heart" ©All Things Bright and Beautiful

Hack #8: The Scriptorium Technique

Linguist and polyglot Alexander Arguelles developed another excellent technique for improving your writing and speaking skills simultaneously. It's designed to help you to really focus on the individual components of Chinese.

The Arguelles' Scriptorium Technique involves three basic exercises:

  1. Read a sentence out loud.
  2. Say each word aloud again as you write it.
  3. Read the sentence aloud as you have written in.

The purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down, pay attention to detail and look up anything you don't know. It's important to be thorough and meticulous. Find good source material and then copy it carefully, saying each word out loud as you go. Make sure to take the time to check any vocabulary or grammar that you're not sure about as you come across it.

The Scriptorium Technique is a fantastic way to refine and polish your Chinese language knowledge, especially at intermediate and advanced levels.

The key to mastering this technique is to take your time, be as detailed and thorough as possible, and remember...practice makes perfect.

Hack #9: Read, Watch, Listen

Movies, music, television series, the radio, books, newspapers, magazines...Anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning.

You've probably already heard cases of people teaching themselves a language by watching movies or playing video games. While these things don't directly teach grammar, they do help learning it significantly.

Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to the language, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without knowing that you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and constructions that you didn't even study! This is all thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a series.

If you're extra motivated to learn and practice, use the Shadowing Technique and learn on the go while listening to and repeating your favorite Chinese radio station, podcast, TV series or movie. This is a great way to pick up the rhythm, structure, sound and rules of the Chinese language without needing to hit the books. If you want to take integrated Chinese learning to the next step, go to a Karaoke! By singing to the subtitles, your reading and speaking skills will be challenged in the most fun way!

Hack #10: Interact...Without Needing to Travel

Try to interact in Chinese on a daily basis. Speaking as much as possible is one of the best tricks to learn a language fast. Here are some great ways to practice speaking (and writing, its slower version) as much as possible:

  • 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!)

The key is to interact, speak, and think in Chinese as much as possible. This can be done anywhere and everywhere. Take advantage of all of the excellent Chinese learning resources, and make Chinese a part of your daily life!

By following these ten language learning hacks, you'll learn Chinese faster, better, and enjoy doing so.

Huí tóu jiàn (回头见!)
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Lin Ping
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