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Tips for Learning Mandarin Chinese as a Beginner

Teresa Paniagua Sanchez, Loyola University Andalusia, TBC Virtual Internship Program, Summer 2021

Learning a new language is a challenge, and I speak from my own experience. My native language is Spanish, and I also speak English and a little French. I have been learning English since I was a child and French, in some ways, is similar to Spanish. However, in my opinion, Mandarin is another world.

I believe that learning a language allows you to be more immersed in the places where it is spoken. That is why I started learning Mandarin when I began my internship with The Beijing Center. At first, I didn’t feel ready for it – so many symbols, tones, even vocabulary that doesn’t exist in my own language. I finally decided to start, even though, it was quite a challenge for me.

In this article, I would like to talk about my experience learning Mandarin for the first time and offer some tips for those who are taking up this language, like me, from scratch. It is obvious that learning a new language is not an easy task, so I will discuss what I have found the most difficult to learn and how I have been coping with it.

1. Put words with similar pronunciation together. It is important to pay attention to the Pinyin -transcription from Chinese into the Latin alphabet- while reading them. Hearing how a word is pronounced by a native speaker helps a lot, and more so in Mandarin, which you can’t deduce from the way it is written, unlike Spanish. This way, you can have a general sense of how this pronunciation system works.

Pronunciation is the first difficulty that I found while learning the language. There were ways of pronouncing words that I had never heard before. It is tricky when a sound doesn’t exist in your own language. Words like ´thirsty´ (渴‘Kě’) were impossible to pronounce. My Chinese tutor said that I sounded cute to her when I pronounced some of the words. In fact, I believe that I was saying something totally different to what I really wanted to express with my pronunciation.

I thought it is the same when a Mandarin speaker learns Spanish. There are certain words or sounds that are very complicated. One example is the double ‘r’. Saying ‘perro’ is quite a challenge for a non-native Spanish speaker.

I tried to look for similar sounds that existed in my own language. When my teacher said the word, I would write how it would be pronounced in my own language. Here is an example:

2. Find a partner to practice dialogues. If you are not lucky enough to be in China, as was my case, you might want to opt for a Chinese tutor. I recommend one of a similar age as you, as you will find more common topics to talk about.

Once you have learned the basic vocabulary, you will start to form sentences. How to arrange sentences was also a difficult task for me. In a sentence like ´I’m not thirsty either´( 我也不渴 Wǒ yě bù kě) I had to know where to put ´not´ and where to put ´either´. However, it’s all about practice and starting to speak.

Writing a dialogue usually starts with designing and writing down about certain topics (like greeting or hobbies) before you talk with your conversation partner. While having the conversation, I recommend noting down the variation in your partner’s response so that you will learn more ways to respond.

Personally, I find speaking about food entertaining and a fantastic topic to start with. Also, you can learn about dishes that don’t exist in your country, as was my case with ‘gyozas/dumplings’.

3. Find a passage that interests you while understandable to you. Read it over and over again until you know everything about it. Then make some blanks yourself. You can also delete some prepositions, measure words, adjectives or question words, etc. It is useful to try to learn sentence pattern and order in this way.

In this text, I would remove what is marked in red and try to write it myself. It is a way to learn vocabulary and to understand a text at the same time.

4. Look for a series, movie or book that you might like. I recommend this when learning any language. You can entertain yourself with a good series while getting used to listening. You can ask your tutor or Chinese friend which movies they recommend, as I did.

These are some of the recommendations I would give to a beginner of Mandarin Chinese. Even if you don’t see results at first, the simple fact of having a conversation with a Mandarin speaker can be very useful when it comes to learning about the culture of a country. Nobody said learning a new language was easy, but it can be very rewarding and even fun.