Mandarin language learning tips?
August 30, 2004 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Does anybody have any experience with learning Mandarin (specifically Putonghua, I guess) in North America? Are there any useful programs, tips, or strategies that people have employed? Are there any good online programs or resources? Is it extremely difficult for romance language speakers to pick it up? Thanks!
posted by loquax to Society & Culture (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am a Canadian Anglophone, and I took a beginning Mandarin/Putonghua course at university.

The difficulty of Chinese is not due to the language (which is quite simple and straightforward), but the fact that (unlike English and French, for example) there are few shared words to act as crutches. What you find difficult will depend on your own aptitudes. If you have a good memory for symbols, you may find the characters very easy to learn, as I did. The grammar is very simple - like English, the sentances are Subject-Verb-Object, and there are no cases, or even plural to worry about. Pinyin spelling is also simple. Pronunciation is more difficult - in addition to the tones (there are only four in Putonghua), Chinese includes many phonemes not normally used in European languages.

The person who was most sucessful in my class was someone who got involved in the local Taiwanese students' association, and used his Chinese as much as possible, even when he did so poorly - like all languages, the more you use it, the better you will become. Chinese people tend to be very open to people learning the language (many have seemed surprised that I even know the word for chopsticks), though sometimes too accomodating in their willingness to speak English. is an excellent online resource. There are also several webpages with phrases and recordings to teach pronunciation aimed at Westerners who have adopted Chinese children.

Good luck! Mandarin is a very beautiful language, and I wish I had time to study it more.
posted by jb at 8:52 AM on August 30, 2004

I studied Mandarin for four years at university... my suggestion to you is to find a program that teaches the spoken language and not the written — spoken Mandarin is amazingly straight forward, without the verb conjugation or declinations that make learning European languages so damn hard... but learning the characters is a world to itself.
posted by silusGROK at 9:03 AM on August 30, 2004

It's tough to say whether a language like Mandarin is easier to learn than a Romance language. I knew a student once who was having a hell of a time learning Spanish. He switched to Japanese, and had a much easier time. As he told it, Spanish was too similar to his native English; it was too confusing to keep track of when you did the same thing as English and when you didn't.
posted by profwhat at 10:06 AM on August 30, 2004

It really depends on how you learn languages. The Boy and I both tried to learn Mandarin in college and we both ran into different obstacles. He had a terrible time with the characters but found the grammar structure incredibly elegant and easy to learn. I, on the other hand, did fine with the characters and had the damndest time with the grammar. In any case, I would recommend a Pimsleur course or any sort of situation where you are forced to use the language (conversation with a speaker who doesn't know English, travel). It's the easiest and best way to learn.
posted by calistasm at 6:41 PM on August 30, 2004

Pay attention to your tones. Some novices think that they can totally blow off tones and for really rudimentary stuff, you can indeed get by with shiite tones. But if you want to go past "Where is the bathroom?" and you don't know your first tone from the fourth, then you'll hit a very large wall.

Learning characters involves constant memorization. Slap some electronic music in your music listening device of your choice and write each character over and over until you can write it from memory. Don't bother trying to learn what the different radicals all mean until you've gotten your feet wet.

Also, decide if you want to learn simplified or traditional characters. Simplified characters are a lot easier, so if you're only plannning on reading mainland Chinese stuff, you can save yourself some hassle by starting with simplified from the start.
posted by alidarbac at 11:25 PM on August 30, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks very much for the help all - I think I will be taking a college course shortly, focusing on speaking as much as possible, and simplified characters. Those Pimsleur courses look interesting too. Thanks again!
posted by loquax at 7:16 AM on August 31, 2004

I learned mandarin in college. The classes I took were "advanced", the difference between regular and advanced being that we had to learn both the simplified and traditional written language, as well as the spoken language.

The thing that helped me most with characters was heavy use of flash cards. I made flash cards that had a symbol on one side, and on the other had the english definition and the pinyin.

Also, my class made heavy use of tapes, and the DeFrancis series books, which have a standard vocabulary book, along with a 'Reader', that is excellent to help remember that.

I don't honestly think it was that hard. I'm a native English speaker, and found it easier than learning French. The only hard part was getting over my fear of funny pictures, and getting used to changes in tone having a completely different meaning than they do in English. (it took a long time to get used to the idea that a statement could end with a rising tone, or that a question could end with a flat tone.)
posted by mosch at 10:52 AM on August 31, 2004

I take Mandarin as adult education classes (in Cambridge MA). We did written as well as spoken. The book that we used (Yong Ho's Beginning Chinese) was excellent, but dense, teaching both characters and pinyin at the same time. I've done extensive searching on dictionaries, particularly for beginners. I love the Starter Oxford Chinese Dictionary, especially in conjunction with its bigger sibling, the Concise English-Chinese Chinese-English Dictionary. The book Reading and Writing Chinese: A Guide to the Chinese Writing System really helped me to understand the history of characters, why they mean what they do, how to draw them properly, and how to start understanding the meaning of characters that I hadn't seen before. It is not a dictionary, but I love it dearly.

The tones were definitely the hardest part for me. I found it much harder than my Romance language/German studies, but easier than Russian.

I downloaded the Pimsleur stuff to listen to at work, and was not thrilled with it. I would never have wanted to pay the $200ish dollars for it, but for the cost of downloading, why not. I didn't feel that it explained the sounds or tones well enough, and the vocabulary only very slowly grew beyond "where's the bathroom" stage.

My favorite web resource is from the University of Maine, and it has great lists and divisions of useful words plus a pretty good online dictionary.
posted by whatzit at 7:37 PM on August 31, 2004 [3 favorites]

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