How do you tackle learning Chinese?

27 February 2017
door Regina Coeli

Learning Chinese requires a different approach than learning a Western language. That has to do with the fact that Chinese is a tonal language. We asked Lori Tseng-Crevecoeur, one of our Chinese language trainers at Language Institute Regina Coeli, what the best way to learn Mandarin is. Lori has extensive experience in Western business, has given Chinese lessons for years and has authored a wide range of training materials specially designed for Westerners who want to learn the language.

What is a tonal language, actually?

“A tonal language is one in which the meaning of a word can vary dramatically when even just one of its syllables is spoken in another tone. Pronunciation and spelling are different systems in Chinese. That’s quite a contrast to English, where pronunciation and spelling are related. Take the word ‘dictionary’, for example: you read it aloud as ‘dic-tion-ary’. You stress the first syllable and when you say the sounds, others understand you immediately.

That’s not the case with Chinese. The word ‘dictionary’ in Chinese is

and in pinyin it’s

If you say ‘zidian’ without the correct tones, the Chinese won’t be able to understand you. And even when you pronounce ‘zi’ and ‘dian’ correctly but don’t properly connect the tones, the Chinese won’t be able to understand you.”

What does this mean in terms of how you approach learning Chinese?

“The keys to learning Chinese are correct pronunciation and the method used for learning words. You begin by learning the tones, then move on to pronouncing words, and then take it a step further by learning to pronounce whole sentences. Only once you have mastered this do you focus on grammar and begin constructing your own sentences. That’s completely different to learning other languages, where reading, writing, listening and speaking are more interwoven and therefore learned simultaneously.

If you approach learning Chinese the same way you approach learning Western languages, there’s a fairly good chance that despite all your efforts and the time you’ve invested, you still won’t be understood by the Chinese. Chances are you’ll then hear something akin to:

This means something like ‘Foreigners trying to speak Chinese!’ That being said, the Chinese do generally appreciate someone trying to learn their language.”

Lori Tseng-Crevecoeur has outlined a step-by-step plan for learning Chinese below; the most important step is mastering pronunciation. She recommends practicing with a Chinese trainer who can give you immediate feedback. If you are interested, we at Language Institute Regina Coeli would be pleased to help you on your way!

A step-by-step plan for learning Chinese

Step 1: Learn the tones
As a beginner, it is crucial to pronounce the tones in each syllable correctly before attempting to pronounce words of two or three syllables.

Step 2: Learn words
After learning the tones, you will focus on the syllables in individual words. Each syllable must be pronounced clearly and in the correct tone, which is probably the biggest hurdle to learning Chinese. It is essential to do this with a language coach before moving on to the next step: pronouncing short sentences. Every syllable counts in Chinese pronunciation.

Step 3: Sentence construction
Once you can pronounce short sentences correctly, you can take the next step: making your own sentences in Chinese using the grammar and sentence structures you have learned.

Step 4: Learn Hanzi
We recommend not learning Chinese characters (Hanzi) before you have learned and are able to say short sentences which are fully understandable to native Chinese speakers.

Interested in following language training at Regina Coeli?

The Regina Coeli method ensures that you learn to speak a foreign language quickly and effectively. Our highly qualified trainers teach you the skills, vocabulary and grammar that you need for your specific situation so you can immediately start communicating in the language.

Do you require more information? Please contact us!

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