If your asking this question you’re already going about it the wrong way before you even start. Sure, learning Chinese is not a simple task for native European speakers, but that’s just because at first glance the language seems so different from what we know. When you break it down though, and set your mind to learning some of the basics you soon realise it’s not so alien as you first thought. The first hurdle is to get over your fears of learning a new language and have confidence in your own abilities. Giving up with a laugh and saying “I just don’t have the brain for languages” is not going to get you anywhere.
I’m particularly passionate about this because I see how much of a difference it makes when foreign tourists, students and interns make an effort to communicate with their Chinese friends and colleagues in Mandarin. Relationships in China are key to success in every walk of life. Even a simple sentence like “where are you from?” in Chinese demonstrates that you are open minded and eager to learn about your surroundings and the people you meet (even if you do not understand a word of the response!).
So, how do you begin to tackle the mountainous task of speaking Chinese? Where there is a will there is always a way. You just need to find the best way to make your memory work, this has to be personal to you I believe.
As inspiration for you all I’m going to give you a little insight into how my memory works…
Step 1. Start with the things that matter (i.e. food in my case). Choose a few of your favourite foods and cement those sounds in your mind with some word association.
Have you ever tried a ròu jiā mó (肉夹馍) for example? It’s a delicious stewed meat filled flatbread that sounds suspiciously like Roger Moore (otherwise known as 007):
Step 2. Next most important for me is something to wash the food down with, and since I live in Qingdao nothing can be better than a nice bottle of Tsingtao Beer. If you can’t find a single word to remember something by then start building a story to remember the sounds.
For example, Joe likes to drink beer. Sigh, but then he always needs to pee.
Pee Joe! Beer = pí jiǔ (啤酒)
Step 3. Once you’ve learned a few key words then you’re ready to start expressing your needs. Make yourself heard! When your colleagues are too busy trying to finish off their emails before lunch and your stomach is starting to growl with impatience it’s easy enough to let your imagination run wild…
Imagine Ursula the evil sea Queen from the Little Mermaid flipping her lid. I need food NOW! I’m starving = è sǐ le (饿死了)
Step 4. Then after a while you’re going to have to start recognising some of the more regular responses you hear in shops and bars in China.
The most frequent of these is méi yǒu (没有) meaning don’t have. “Do you have any Mayonnaise?” the foreigner asks with desperate hope in their eyes. “Meiyou” responds the shopkeeper with a incredulous laugh.
So you see! Easy, you just learned 4 things in the space of a few minutes.
I hope this encourages you to come out to China and try learning the language for yourself. It helps to get a good grounding in the basic grammar and pronounciation from a native Chinese speaker to get you started.
You can sign up for classes here in Qingdao, or in Chengdu, Dalian and Zhuhai too. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.