How to start learning Chinese

Have fun
Spend more time on the toilet
Plan a vacation
Have more fun

Not your typical idea of learning Chinese? Think again! Learning a new language is always a challenge, but when you’re eager to learn it (and I think most of you are), you shouldn’t let a prevailing misconception like “Chinese is the most difficult language in the world” get in your way. Just go for it!

Different isn’t necessarily difficult 

Granted, Chinese is different. But that doesn’t immediately mean it is difficult.
What’s the big difference?

• It sounds a bit weird
(because it’s a tonal language)
• It looks a bit funny
(when you see the characters for the first time, you can’t make out anything at all).

But don’t let looks deceive you. Once you’ve peeked behind this seemingly impenetrable exterior, you will find a somewhat logical and grammar-friendly language looking (and talking) back at you.


Okay, where do I start?

start learning Chinese from the phonetic based writing system

Even when you’re learning Greek or Russian, you can at least start pronouncing some words after you’ve mastered their alphabet. Not so for Chinese. While they do have a somewhat phonetic based writing system (拼音 pīnyīn, literally= piece the sounds together or spell the sound), it’s almost never used in daily life. It’s a textbook language, which you, ironically enough, can’t learn from a textbook alone.


Ready for your kick-off? Go!

1. Do it everywhere

It’s a cliché, but it’s true. You simply can’t learn a language without any practice. Especially the Chinese writing system, as it differs completely from the alphabetical western languages, takes some getting used to.

So buy a little pocket drawing book and start practising those strokes!

learn Chinese everywhere on a trainOn the train,in the restaurant,
during boring classes (not the language courses of course!),
in the car (please let someone else drive, though),
and so on…

You name it, you practise.


2. Really everywhere?

Yes, everywhere!

Hang a big paper on your toilet wall. Impress your housemates with your knowledge of Chinese characters. You will see you will get the hang of it real fast. You will get used to the order of the strokes, to the logical build-up of the characters (radical-phonetical for instance) and they will become more beautiful to look at.


3. Except maybe…

When I said practice everywhere, I was particularly speaking about the writing (and reading) part.

Concerning the spoken part, that’s something totally different. If you want to master the tones, you’ll have to practise them out loud.



I remember my first weeks at university,
when I was trying to practise my tones and pronounciation at home
 while my father was working on his desktop in the same room.

“ ā, á, ǎ, à, jī, qǐ, xì ”.

He started laughing and said it sounded like a was sneezing the whole time.
 You can imagine I practiced my tones and sounds in total isolation for a while.


4. But still…

You’ll need some feedback. Especially on your tones. So when your language course doesn’t provide you with a speech teacher, you better find a Chinese friend or teacher to help you with the tones and sounds. This too will take some practice, but once you’ve mastered them, there’s no way back.


Once my fellow student made a phone call to a Chinese travel agency,
and they didn’t believe he was a foreigner because he spoke too ‘Chinese-like’.
 Could you imagine getting a bigger complement?



5. Bottom line: have fun!

While doing all the stuff I’ve mentioned above, you most of all can’t forget to have fun.
When practising my characters in public places, I often got in contact with other people who where curieus of what I was doing. It opens your horizon, brings in new opportunities.
Enjoy it.
Even when it does keep you from practising just that bit more.


And while I said I was taken aback by the reaction of my father at first,
 at one time, when he was again working on his desktop in the study room, I said:

“'Dad, I will start sneezing again. Please don’t pay any attention to it”.

We just started laughing and I could go on sneezing out my sounds and tones.
 It’s weird. It’s funny. Just smile and get on with it.


6. Keep on having fun

And that’s the most important tip I can give.

There are numerous possibilities. Pick one, try to achieve it and then pick another one.

Just remember to keep on having fun.



Next time I’ll give you some practical tips about how to survive your first days in China.

by Sofie Van Breuseghem
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