How should I go about becoming fluent in Chinese?
September 15, 2014 1:56 PM   Subscribe

TLDR: I'm in a serious relationship with a girl whose whole family is native Shanghainese speakers. They are ok Mandarin speakers. If I'm gonna be with her long-term (seems likely), I want to have a relationship with her family and feel like I need to learn either Mandarin (or Shanghainese -- open to that). So I need strategies to get as fluent as possible as efficiently as possible. I can spend whatever I need to on this. Can't go live in China for a while, though can at some point in the distant future maybe. I live in NYC. More after the jump.

So, yeah. I mean, there are some mitigating factors
- Learning Chinese is super hard
- Her parents speak fluent enough mandarin, but it is definitely accented/imperfect (Shanghainese is their native tongue)
- My GF is fluent in Mandarin, at least (she learned it on the side)

I'm not sure how to navigate that second point. I guess Mandarin alone would take me a while, and I could just practice with them and get used to their weird Mandarin? I don't know.

Also, I'm not sure if I should bother learning to write at all... when I was leveling up my spanish reading was a great way to learn new vocabulary and grammar, but since Chinese reading/writing is so difficult, I don't know that it would be worth the time if I can just focus on practicing with her, her family, etc.

Halp!! how would you go about this? Would you learn Mandarin, or Shanghainese? Should I learn to read/write?

Do you know of any good tutors in the NYC area, etc...
posted by wooh to Education (13 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I have no specific tips about Chinese, but I'm going to recommend a hot new book, "Fluent Forever". I'm fascinated by language learning and I backed it on Kickstarter a long time ago. I just got my book last month and it is incredibly interesting. It is chock full of links to resources, a huge appendix with specific grammar & vocab book recommendations for each language, and has an accompanying website that is going to get more resources over time. I have no affiliation with the author, I just think it's an amazing resource for anyone wanting to learn a language quickly.
posted by RobotNinja at 2:20 PM on September 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I would go with Mandarin, primarily since you'll find so much more learning materials out there. Yes, it would be nice if you could speak Shanghainese, but the more important thing is being able to communicate with both your GF's family.

I think your priorities should be on listening comprehension and speaking. The absolute last priority is writing. Writing is a bear to learn and even harder to maintain your ability/memory to write the characters. Even my parents who are from China find themselves forgetting how to write words. Perhaps reading of common characters (like food) might be helpful if you plan on visiting - but that's a toss-up whether that will be much use.

There are a glut of resources to learn (Mandarin) Chinese on the internet now.

Just to name a few resources that I've found useful: I should note that I took classes while in college and would definitely recommend that (or tutoring) to get started, if only to get a structured way to get the accents and differences in grammar structure down pat. With that being said, the internet is producing a lot of really great supplementary material to help you understand the cultural context and everyday details that are so important in learning a foreign language.
posted by comradechu at 2:47 PM on September 15, 2014 [9 favorites]

I gained more confidence in speaking through Skype lessons/ conversations with paid tutors on and found it a simple system to navigate (the central site accepts paypal, you confirm the lesson happened before the teacher gets payment etc). I also had some good language exchanges (50% in English to help them, 50% in Spanish to help me) through and that lets you search for many languages. However the language exchanges were just informal so people would flake and sometimes not turn up, or just lose contact with you. With the paid classes on Italki the teachers obviously have a financial incentive to be punctual and the classes are 100% focused on you. I have no affiliation with either site, just a customer of both.
posted by AuroraSky at 2:50 PM on September 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yup -- Victor Mair (sinologist, UPenn) agrees on listening comprehension and speaking as your first focuses. His language log posts are good to read: start with that one and read the 'Chineasy, Not' article linked at the bottom.

And since you're in NYC, hang out in Flushing? I don't learn languages by osmosis, but if you do, that's where I'd go.
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:53 PM on September 15, 2014

Just to clarify: Both your girlfriend and her parents speak Shanghainese natively, your girlfriend is also fluent in Mandarin, her parents speak Mandarin poorly and with difficulty, and you have no other driver influencing your choice of which to learn?

Learn Shanghainese.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 2:54 PM on September 15, 2014

I agree that Shanghainese is probably going to be more useful, but it's so hard to find resources - especially for English speakers - that Mandarin may be more feasible. And it's possible that learning Mandarin will give you more resources for learning Shanghainese!

Anyway, if you do decide to go with Mandarin, this is everything I know from spending two years (so far) learning Mandarin to an intermediate level.

-I did lot of lessons on Chinesepod. I haven't been a subscriber for a while, though, and I hear that CSLpod is better these days. 

-I worked through the first level of Integrated Chinese

-I did a lot of vocabulary drilling with Anki. I always did the word in characters on the front, and the pinyin + definition on the back -- I think it's much much more important to learn how to read than to write, although they play into each other to some extent too.

-Now I've got a subscription to Skritter, which is REALLY GOOD (though pricey) spaced repetition software for Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Its biggest feature is that it guides you through learning how to write the characters, but even as someone who doesn't place a huge emphasis on learning how to write, I've found it really helpful.

-Once you're familiar with the most common characters, Mandarin Companion has some great graded readers at about a 300-character level.

-I took a class through ABC Languages near Penn Station. This was expensive, and I would probably just do classes through italki if I wanted to take more classes in the future, but it was a very positive experience for me. 

Other than that, I've been reading children's books and watching Chinese TV, for the most part.

I will say, from knowing other beginners and low-intermediates at Chinese, I think the most important thing you can do is get the pinyin to match up to the sounds that you are actually hearing. Like, I've heard a lot of people saying "haizi" (children) as "hai-zee" when the last i is actually more like a very soft "ih." Or I've heard people not even trying to do the tones. I don't claim to be fantastic at pronouncing Chinese, but find a podcast or an audio course that is SLOW and read the transcript while you listen to the podcast, and repeat that a few times, and do a lesson or two lessons a day until you absolutely have it down cold. And get a teacher, or your girlfriend, to correct your pronunciation, to get the differences right between sh, x, zh, j, ch, q.
posted by Jeanne at 3:36 PM on September 15, 2014 [5 favorites]

Everyone learns differently, but immersion is almost definitely the best way to learn a language. Most fluent foreigners I met in China had been there a minimum of 2-3 years. A Chinese language major in university is equivalent to about six months in China. If you can't move to China, try to immerse yourself where you are -- listen to Chinese music, watch Chinese tv, attempt to speak only Chinese at home.

Once you get past the very basic stage, reading will become more and more necessary to expand your vocabulary. With pinyin entry on phones and computers, handwriting is much less important. I can't remember the last time I had to write anything other than my name and address in Chinese.

As for learning Mandarin vs Shanghainese, I think Mandarin is a better choice:

1) There are English-language learning materials available for Mandarin, but none for Shanghainese. It's easier to learn Shanghainese once you know at least some Mandarin, and there are Shanghainese study materials made for Mandarin speakers. Also, there's no standard form of written Shanghainese and no reading/writing learning materials for Shanghainese speakers.

2) There is much more Mandarin media available than Shanghainese. Almost all mainland media -- music, tv, movies -- is in Mandarin. There's very little modern media in Shanghainese ... some underground hip-hop, some radio talk shows, and a couple of soap operas.

3) Mandarin is much more widely useful. Most Shanghainese people speak fluent albeit accented Mandarin, and the accent will become easier to understand as your Mandarin improves.

My qualifications: I lived in Shanghai for ten years, am fluent in Mandarin, can understand conversational Shanghainese, and I'm married to a Shanghainese woman.
posted by bradf at 3:37 PM on September 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

can't believe no one else has mentioned it yet - try the Popup Chinese podcasts! Awesome and free, have every level starting from extreme beginner. Search the iTunes store and you'll find them. An account on their website costs money but gives you access to more features.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 3:48 PM on September 15, 2014

I would definitely learn Mandarin. Shanghainese is fading out because currently in China, Mandarin is used everywhere- school, all media, etc. Unless your gf's parents are really old, they are certainly very fluent in Mandarin. The accent is not that important- most people in China speak somewhat accented Mandarin because different regions have different accents and dialects. Also, there are few resources available for learning Shanghainese so it would be harder to do it. Learning Shanghainese is a cool idea, but practically speaking, Mandarin makes much more sense.
posted by bearette at 7:32 PM on September 15, 2014

As far as difficulty, from the "Chineasy? Not" article batter_my_heart mentioned,
Chinese is the easiest language I ever learned to speak, but the writing system is by far the hardest I've ever had to grapple with.
As someone who took classes in a variety of Indo-European languages in school, then a conversational Mandarin course later on, this was my impression too; so don't let yourself intimidated out of learning to speak it by difficulties with reading.
posted by XMLicious at 8:38 PM on September 15, 2014

I'm a native Shanghainese speaker who can get along in Mandarin (e.g., order food, ask for directions). Learn Mandarin. Everything from the previous answers is true. Unless you're a linguist by training, you're not realistically going to learn Shanghainese.

Luckily, you already have the best language-learning aid ever: a romantic relationship with a native speaker. This is seriously the best thing ever for learning foreign languages. Talk to your girlfriend.
posted by d. z. wang at 10:16 PM on September 15, 2014

- Learn Mandarin.

- At the absolute very beginning, I would urge you to find some sort of class or tutor with experience teaching that level. In particular, it would behoove you to get a solid foundation with tones and Hanyu Pinyin (the romanization system used by most Chinese speakers) and I think that you can only get a solid foundation from a teacher and not from self-study. After at the very least several months/a semester, maybe then you could venture out into whatever podcasts/Youtube channels.

- Like I said, learn Hanyu Pinyin so that you can look up words you hear in a Hanyu Pinyin-ordered dictionary. You don't need to learn any reading or writing of Chinese characters if your goal is simply to communicate with the in-laws. But besides getting used to the tones, learning oral Chinese is surprisingly easy.
posted by alidarbac at 12:03 AM on September 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: "Like I said, learn Hanyu Pinyin so that you can look up words you hear in a Hanyu Pinyin-ordered dictionary."

such a good suggestion!

Want to thank everyone for their suggestions. Now to find a good Mandarin tutor in NYc...@_@
posted by wooh at 7:37 AM on September 16, 2014

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