“Take risks and you’ll get the payoffs. Learn from your mistakes until you succeed. It’s that simple.” —Bobby Flay
Ever been frustrated trying to learn a new language?
Here’s the good news: Language learning can actually be fun and easy if you know how to make it easy.
I never set out to take on linguistics, but the more I travel, the more exposed I am to different languages. I’ve learnt how to dive into new languages and reach basic conversational fluency VERY QUICKLY.
In just one month of traveling in Taiwan, I’ve been able to reach basic fluency in Mandarin. What I’ve been able to accomplish:
- Learnt nearly 100 common use phrases for every day conversation (see below)
- Learnt how to order at least two dozen food dishes
- Learnt how to ask for time for the bus, train, etc. and express where I want to go
- Learnt over 30 traditional Mandarin characters
- Hold conversations up to 5 minutes in length
Note: I do NOT claim to be an expert in Mandarin, but have been exposed to numerous languages during my travels, and learnt the basics of nearly a dozen languages. Through these experiences, I’ve learnt how to dive into new languages quickly. This article shares how you can do the same.
1. Obstacles that Prevent Language-Learning Success
The biggest roadblock to learning a foreign language (like Chinese) is a person’s own motivation. If something is too difficult, most people give up!
One of the best ways to make meaningful progress at anything in life is to UNDERACHIEVE. In other words, make the standards for success so EASY that failing is virtually impossible.
Here’s an Example:
Tom makes a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym FIVE times a week. James makes a resolution to go ONCE a week.
Tom has given up by mid-February because he can’t make time to work out.
Come year’s end, James is ripped while Tom is left re-making the same resolution to get back into shape that he made one year ago.
I was able to get in the best shape of my life when I stopped working out a different body part (leg day, chest day, back day, etc) 4-5 times a week and switched to once-a-week muscle failure workout on the ENTIRE body. It was such an easy schedule to follow that success was virtually guaranteed.
Your level of motivation is not something you can simply choose. Motivation manifests itself in all types of strange ways and in general, necessity fosters growth.
Let me give you an example. In two months of traveling in the Philippines, I picked up virtually zero Tagalog. There was no need for it – English was everywhere. However, immediately after the Philippines, I spent a month in Guam and picked up some Tagalog very quickly.
Why is that?
Guam’s population is 40% Filipino – but that’s not the real reason. The real reason I was motivated to learn Tagalog in Guam was because I wanted to build rapport with the Filipinos I met there. By communicating with them in Tagalog, I could show that I was familiar with their country and their culture. “You can speak Tagalog!?” Well, I’ve had quite a few adventures in the Philippines as a matter of fact… It was an instant rapport builder.
While in the Philippines, my motivation to learn Tagalog was virtually none – and the results were none. My motivation became much stronger in Guam, and that drove my learning.
Level of motivation = level of success. Plain and simple.
The other reason that people fail to learn a language is that they fail to follow a practical, easy plan. It’s not uncommon for an expatriate to live somewhere for 20 years yet never pick up much of the local language. Add to this the complexity of most language learning programs, and the barrier to entry to “dive in” to a new language can seem as daunting as the Great Wall.
Further, a lot of language learning programs begin by teaching you a bunch of words that you’ll probably never – or at least seldom – ever use when you travel. Sure, it might be nice to know how to say “dog,” or “cat” in Mandarin; but unless you’re visiting China to taste a slice of fried poochie you probably won’t be asking too many people where the dogs and cats are. You’re going to be asking directions, ordering food, and exchanging a set of pleasantries that are common in small talk.
So here I’m going to share with you the simple plan that I follow to dive in to any new language (in this case, Mandarin) and begin conversing with locals from the very beginning.
But first – let’s dive in and discuss what NOT to do…
2. Tones in Mandarin
Tones are an important part of the language. One syllable can have four different meanings depending on the tone you use. But in the beginning they will only frustrate and discourage you – and make the process of learning basic Chinese infinitely more difficult.
Tones don’t exist in Latin-based languages, so this is a very difficult thing for newcomers to Mandarin to wrap their heads around. To a Western person, tones are some of the most confusing and befuddling challenges when learning eastern languages.
My advice is to know that tones exist – but DON’T worry about them too much for the first two or three months of your language learning.
Instead, get some conversational ammo under your belt. Learn a bunch of phrases to express yourself. Then, once you have these phrases memorized, ask to practice with a native speaker and have them correct your pronunciation.
The problem is that most newcomers to Chinese are taught tones right off the bat, before they have any experience with the language. That’s why it’s far better to spend a month or two in a Chinese-speaking country so that you can familiarize yourself with the sounds and speech. THEN (and only then), after gaining this up-close experience with the language, should you incorporate the tonal use into your studies.
In addition to tones, a lot of the Chinese words that you learn through Pinyin don’t sound the same as they do in English. Further trouble is created when you consider that English uses long-form vowels far more frequently than other languages. In the US, for instance, we pronounce “IKEA” as “eye-kee-yah,” while in Taiwan the furniture store is pronounced “ee – kee-yah.”
Here’s some “lost in translation” examples that you’ll encounter in Pinyin:
In English, the letter “X” sounds a lot like the letter “Z” – such as the word “xylophone.” But in Pinyin, it has a “sh” sound. So an English speaker might pronounce “Xie xie” as “zai zai” or “zee zee,” when it really sounds like “sheeyeh sheeyeh.”
“Bu kuh qi”
In English, the letter “Q,” used in words such as “quayle” and “earthquake,” has an entirely different sound than it does in Pinyin. In Pinyin, the “Q” is pronounced with a “ch” sound.
In Vietnam, “Pho” is pronounced “Fuh,” but in the US, most Americans pronounce it the way they perceive it in the English language: “Foe.”
In Chinese, it’s the same. “Wo” (meaning I, or me) is not pronounced “Woe,” but rather “Wuh.”
The word “bang” uses a long-form “a” in English, but is pronounced “bong” in Pinyin/Mandarin. “Bang” means help, by the way, which is good to remember.
An English speaker would pronounce this as “gin,” when it really sounds more like “juwin.”
The sound for “Ts” doesn’t exist in English, yet it’s pretty important in Chinese.
All this leads me to the next point…
3. Forget Pinyin
That’s right, forget Pinyin. At least for the first three months. It’s far too difficult to read and understand because Pinyin spellings and Chinese sounds are still new and unfamiliar to you. Instead, as you learn words and phrases, spell them out as they sound to you. You’ll progress much faster this way.
A year ago I began my first attempt to study Chinese and my eyes glazed over like a dead frog when I began trying to memorize phrases in Pinyin. When you learn basic Chinese, forget about Pinyin altogether. Keeping things simple is the path to learning. As you become more confident in the language and improve in pronunciation, THEN take a stab at Pinyin.
4. Basic Chinese Phrases for Everyday Conversation
You’ll notice that all of the phrases I’ve learnt and practiced are spelled out the way that they sound. This is the way I recommend you learn as well. Again, if you’re a beginner, you don’t need to learn and memorize all the rules until you’ve got some practice with the language under your belt.
Note: Remember that “Wo” is pronounced “Wuh.”
How are you?
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
Please wait a moment.
Sorry to have kept you waiting.
Pleased to meet you.
I am American.
Please speak slowly.
Would you like to try… ?
I am single.
Where is the toilet?
Where is the train station?
What time is the train to… Taipei?
Where are we?
Please follow me.
Are you finished?
I am studying Chinese.
Do you speak English?
How old are you?
How old is he/she?
I understand a little Chinese.
May I help you?
Can you help me?
Thanks for your help.
Is this your first time?
Are you ok?
Are you hurt?
I would like…
I want to eat
I can’t eat
I eat vegetables
Do you have water?
Do you have a pen?
Do you want…?
Nee hao ma?
Nee jow shunmuh mingzuh?
Nee tsong nah lee ligh luh?
Huaneen lie …
Bu kuhr qi.
Dway boo chee.
Boo how ee suh.
Zwuh duh hun hao.
Shao dung ee shah.
Dway boo chee rang nee jo dung.
Wo hun gow shin run sher nee.
Wo sher may gwo run.
Cheeng shoowo man ee dian.
Nee yao sher sher kan ____ ma?
Wo high may jayhooun.
Tsuh soowo zigh nah lee?
Hua chuh chan zigh nah lee?
Shunmuh shihou huo chuh dao… Taipei?
Jer zow ma?
Yo/zoowo jwan ma?
Wo mun zai nali?
Cheeng gun wo ligh.
Jeeay shoo luh ma?
Wo zigh shooway Jong Wen.
Nee hway shoowo Eengwen ma?
Nee jee swey?
Ta jee swey?
Wo dong ee dian dian Jong Wen.
Wo kuh ee bang nee ma?
Nee kuh ee bang wo ma?
Sheeyeh sheeyeh nee duh bong joo.
Dee ee tsuh ma?
Nee high how ma?
Hun tong ma?
Fa shun shuhmuh sher?
Wo shoo yao… (literally means “I require”)
Duo shao chien?
Wo yao chuhr
Wo boo nung chuhr
Wo chuhr soo (easiest way to say vegetarian)
Boo (or Boo Yao)
Nee yo shway ma?
Nee yo bee ma?
Nee yao ____ ma?
If you want to learn some conversational Mandarin FAST, my advice is to copy and paste all of the above phrases. Save them to a document, and print it out. Carry these sheets of paper around in your pocket and practice during your off-time. If you’re traveling, pull these notes out and use them as an aid when you converse with locals.
As you learn new words and phrases, add them to your list. You can write them out, and add them to your document.
5. Use Mnemonics to Your Advantage
To memorize words and phrases faster, attach a visual meaning to them. For instance, if you wish to remember “Boo how ee suh,” which means “excuse me,” you could attach a special meaning to “boo.” You could imagine sneaking up behind someone and yelling “Boo!” like you did when you were a kid. Or you could think of Big Boo, the ghost who snuck up on the player in Super Mario Bros.
Another example might be “shao dung ee shah,” which means “please wait a moment.” In this phrase, you could isolate the words dung and shah: Since we don’t like the shah very much, so we’ll make him wait in a pile of dung.
In Japanese, “please wait here,” is “koko de mate kudosai.” In this instance, you could isolate the word koko by thinking: “Please wait here because I’m going to bring you some cocoa.” Since “koko” sounds like the English word “cocoa,” I’ve attached a mental cue to help me remember the phrase.
Use your imagination. It doesn’t matter how silly or outlandish it is.
The main thing is, the more “unique” a word or phrase is to you, the more likely you will be to remember it. If something doesn’t sound unique enough, you can attach a special meaning to it in your own mind. This mental “cue” will help you remember the phrase when it comes time to use it.
Take for instance the character for “Bu:” it looks just like a three-legged table with a broken leg on one side. “Shan,” which means mountain, resembles a mountain. Many characters in Mandarin can be recognized easily – if you apply mnemonic meanings to them.
Once you have these words and phrases in your arsenal, you should practice them in every day speech as much as possible! Don’t worry about making mistakes – that’s all a part of learning. Don’t worry about sounding like a caveman who doesn’t always use precise sentence structure or nailing all of the conjugations correctly. At this stage, for instance, it’s better to say:
“What time train to Taipei?”
“What time is the train to Taipei?”
Words like “is” and “the” really add nothing to the overall meaning of a sentence. As long as people understand you – even if you sound a little silly when you speak – then consider that a win.
And yes, without the proper tone usage, you’re going to sound flat at first – but that’s OK. Learn as much as you can on your own, and if you struggle with certain words or phrases you can practice with a native speaker and ask them to help correct you.
Speaking a new language is MUCH easier than comprehension. In the beginning, there will be a lot of instances when you’ll speak Mandarin to someone but be unable to understand their reply. Don’t get discouraged – after a month of practicing and learning some every day conversational phrases you’re well on your way.
The next step over the next two months is to immerse yourself in the language, and listening to it as its spoken, while simultaneously continuing to expand your vocabulary. Listen to native speakers as they talk – and you’ll hear common words being used over and over again. The more you recognize these words, the more you’ll be able to understand what is being said.
Other easy ways to practice listening to the language include listening to Mandarin radio stations, and Chinese songs. For learning the written language, you can pick up Chinese newspapers, books, and comics. When you feel comfortable enough, try writing a journal entry in Chinese. This will train you to start thinking in Mandarin.
Learning another language is a bit like learning to play golf – to become good you must practice and play, practice and play. Tiger Woods feels confident when he’s about to take a shot with his 9-iron because he’s hit over 1 million practice shots with that club.
Language learning is a linear 1-2-3 progression and step one is to keep things super simple. Just like learning a sport – you’re not going to be a world-class master right away. So keep things simple, fun, and study and practice in ways that enjoy so that you’l be encouraged to continue. Implement what you learn – speak to native speakers (even at the risk of sounding foolish), and let these early wins provide the positive reinforcement to continue learning.