There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Mandarin Chinese has been the buzzy language to learn for the past decade or so, and by the looks of how China keeps innovating and expanding, will continue to remain the foreign language of choice for a good while yet.
Chinese may seem utterly alien at first to an English speaker, but rest assured that learning it is not as daunting as it seems. Whether you’re a student who’s had to choose Chinese as an elective at school, or a professional who needs to learn business Chinese, the basic ways to achieve fluency in the language don’t differ.
We’ve consulted Kim Wong, founder of Chinese teaching enterprise Mandarin 1, on his own experience first as a learner, then an educator, for tips that can help you succeed and excel at learning Mandarin.
A vague target such as ‘I want to learn Chinese’ isn’t going to fly. As a learner (of any subject, but most definitely with foreign languages), you need to create a set of concrete goals that will shape your own learning plan.
First off, ask yourself why you’re learning Chinese. Are you planning a move to China in the near future? Do you need business Chinese for work purposes? Are you looking to connect more with Chinese family members or in-laws? Or have you gotten hooked onto a Chinese period drama on telly, and now want to watch your soaps without the need for subtitles?
Kim started his Mandarin journey because it was apparent to him that this knowledge would be a valuable asset to his career. In the investment banking industry that he worked in, Mandarin quickly became essential when dealing with peers and new clients. He recalls, “I knew that just speaking English would not be adequate in a world where the industry was shifting towards closer ties with China, from direct market access for trading equities in Shanghai, to high-profile IPOs by Chinese corporations.” In Hong Kong in particular, the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge linking the Greater Bay Area and high-speed rail access signals further, irreversible integration with the mainland. Being able to communicate effectively in Mandarin was, and still is, essential.
Once you’ve identified your reason for learning in the first place, set some short-term goals to aim for. It’s human nature to work better with an end in sight rather than just start off aimlessly. Again, a vague goal like ‘Improve my written Chinese’ will be hard to quantify and work towards. Instead, make sure your goals are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely (or SMART, for the acronym lovers out there!). For example, a better target would be “Memorise 20 new Chinese characters by the end of the month”.
When Kim was learning Mandarin, he fell into the trap of not prioritising his lessons and ended up paying in advance for sessions which ended up wasted because he didn’t mindfully make time in his schedule. He wryly reflects that he “had the will but not the commitment”.
To really be time efficient with language learning, you need to be working on it daily. Repetition helps information stick in your mind, and is the key to learning Chinese characters in particular. Plan out your learning schedule a week at a time, so you can adjust around other aspects of your life as needed.
If putting aside a whole hour each day sounds daunting—we know how modern life’s various commitments can get overwhelming—then start small. Do 15-minute chunks at first, and when you begin getting to grips with the language and understanding more, it’ll be easier and more fun to transition naturally into longer sessions.
There’s a reason why we all know someone who’s been doing French or German lessons for years and yet never seems to be getting anywhere with it. The old-fashioned way of route memorisation from a textbook in a class of 30 really isn’t the most conducive environment to learn a foreign language properly.
Beginners should focus on getting used to the way Mandarin Chinese is spoken before getting to grips with the written aspect. Listen to Chinese clips with accompanying text in pinyin, the phonetic romanisation system. Focus on how words sound, how the romanisation system correlates to the spoken words, on the cadence and rhythm, and on how the language flows. This is the key to sounding natural when eventually holding conversations.
Kim also suggests using pinyin to text friends or colleagues who know Chinese to get familiar with the way the language works. Be inquisitive outside of class time and take it upon yourself to actively expose yourself to the language. Once you have a better sense of the words, what they sound like, and how they work together, start devoting some time to learning Chinese characters.
This is where you need to be extra patient with yourself, because even with the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China and Singapore (as opposed to traditional characters prevalent in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan), you will forget words almost as quickly as you learn them, and so will need to revisit them again and again.
When you’ve got a set of the most widely recurring Chinese characters down, proceed to reading texts. Read everything in Chinese you can get your hands on, simply skipping over words you don’t understand, to get a feel of how the language is written and structured. Comprehension will come with time as your vocabulary expands.
If you are a visual learner, then reading and writing will probably come easier to you; conversely, aural learners will find speaking and listening more natural to their learning process. Whichever your preference, play to your strengths so you can establish a positive foundation of accomplishments to sustain your interest in the learning journey.
Leading on from the previous point, Kim emphasises that “everyone is wired differently, and the path from A to B isn’t the same for every student.” This is why it’s important to find a language school and a tutor who understands what you hope to achieve, your personal learning style, and can cater specifically to your needs. Speaking with confidence as someone who has been through the trials and errors of various learning methods, Kim maintains that finding the right teacher match is critical, and anything lesser is just “a total waste of resources”.
With this in mind, no two courses at Mandarin 1 are the same, simply because no two students are the same. Kim makes sure his teachers understand their students’ existing abilities when it comes to language acquisition, what they hope to achieve, will tailor a course that suits each individual, and—perhaps most importantly—works on keeping the tunnel lit for students so the light at the end is always in sight.
Students generally have unrealistic goals, so it’s up to the teacher to be truthful about the effort and work required and map out the most efficient route from point A to B. This is where Mandarin 1 excels, because they make every effort to truly tailor learning experiences to each student. For example, the centre has a dedicated textbook to work from, but when a student once arrived with a request to focus only on spoken Mandarin, the teacher gladly put away the textbooks and revised the lessons to be conducted in casual chat sessions. When another student who gradually stopped turning up to lessons confessed that he couldn’t establish a rapport with his teacher, Kim immediately set to finding a new member of staff specifically catering to the requirements of this one student. It is this dedication to students’ needs and understanding of the inextricable link between positive experience and success that sets Mandarin 1 apart from other learning centres on the market.
As Kim puts it, the most challenging aspect on the student’s part is probably just the commitment to showing up. “If a student shows 100 percent commitment to coming in at least one and a half hours per week, then there isn’t really anything in the way of him or her achieving what they want,” he states reassuringly.
In line with the tips above, Mandarin 1’s teaching model is result driven and makes language learning as easy and practical as possible. The cherry on top is that instead of charging by the hour like most other learning centres do, they offer students unlimited time with teachers for a fixed monthly fee instead. If you fork out a monthly rate to maintain your health, you can also make the same commitment to your learning!
Mandarin 1 flexibly offers students any combination of one-on-one classes, group sessions, or e-learning from office or home. They are also able to tailor a suite of products for any corporations wishing to develop their employees’ language base. Aside from Mandarin classes taught in English or Cantonese, Cantonese classes taught in English or Mandarin are also available.
Do you feel like expanding your skill set and leveling up your resume? Sign up now for an annual contract with Mandarin 1 at just $1,999 per month for unlimited Chinese lessons, and invest in rapid self-improvement! The first 20 to sign up will also receive a free welcome pack—you heard it first here!