4 Ways I Study Chinese

Yes, during language study sessions,
I sometimes have this many books open!
Here's some sage advice regarding language learning:

"If you don't use it, you'll lose it."

I see you rolling your eyes, but believe me, it's true! It's why I can't speak a lick of Spanish anymore!

I do language study one to three hours a day. Sometimes more. Often it involves hitting the books, but sometimes it might be reading comics, watching a drama without subs, or listening to a radio show. 

At the moment, I'm focusing on studying two languages: Mandarin and Japanese; my skills in each language are quite far apart. 

Beginner. Intermediate-advanced. Business level. Those are some of the many levels and labels people use to describe a person's language ability. I don't know which I'd use for myself. For expediency, I'd say my Chinese is a Business/Intermediate-Advanced level and my Japanese is solidly Beginner. 

While my Chinese vocabulary is large and I can respond without thinking much, my tones (I'm tone deaf) are not the best. I can read Chinese subtitles almost as fast as English ones, but always run into a character I don't recognize. I can write slowly, but still make grammar mistakes. I feel comfortable saying I have advanced listening skills, and writing characters isn't much of an issue for me.

I'd also say my Japanese listening skills have passed beginner level and are somewhere in the lower-intermediate category; I can listen to a 1-hour radio show and comprehend 50-60% of the content most of the time. My reading is nearly intermediate as well as I recognize several kanji without having to study them, and have at least the main On-yomi readings down up to mid-level proficency or N3 (thanks Chinese!). I'm working on solidifying Kun-yomi and On-yomi derived from Chinese dialects. But my writing isn't great at all because I'm just starting to study grammar rules (which are way more extensive than Chinese), and I'm still building my speaking confidence.

Anyhow, this post will focus on four of the several methods I'm currently using to improve my Chinese and maintain the skills I have. I think if you're just beginning to learn Chinese, these are things you can do in the now so you don't fall behind later. Keep in mind that I'm not a Chinese teacher (pahaha, faaaaar from it). These are simply things I do to study, and what I've noticed since I started studying Chinese in 2008.

This is the first part of a language learning series on my blog. In the future, I'd like to share more Chinese study methods, and elaborate on my progress in Japanese, especially how Chinese has helped.

1. Commit radicals and measure words to memory.

People often declare that rote memorization is out of date and unnecessary; however, I believe some language rules are best memorized as it's simply harder to commit them to memory through incidental encounters, especially when reading. Radicals and measure words are two aspects of Chinese I've use rote memorization for.

Radicles or individual parts of Chinese characters represent either a sound or meaning. Take the example I created below. How are the words in the top row related? The bottom? How about the last character in the top row and first character in the second?
1. 嗎;密碼;螞蟻
2. 杏仁;人口;主任
As you might have noticed, one of the characters in each of the words in the top row share the same sound with one of the characters in the other two words, although they might have a different tone:
1. ma5 (question particle); mi4ma3 (password); ma3yi3 (ant)
2. xing4ren2 (almond); ren2kou3 (population); zhu3ren4 (director [e.g., of a school])
Furthermore, the words in the bottom rows have related meanings:
1. hong2 (rainbow); chong2 (insect); xia1zi4 (shrimp) = insects; crawly things
2. xin4 (letter); shuo1hua4 (speak); ci2 (word) = communication
By now, you should notice the words with common sounds all have common radicles, and the words with common meanings do as well:
1. 馬 (horse; a surname)
    虫 (insect) 
2. 人 (person)
    言 (speech)
There are over 200 radicles, so I wouldn't advocate memorizing every single one. However, I think it's good to memorize the more commonly used ones; you get a sense of which ones these are when you read. Knowing common radicles help with guessing the sounds and meanings of characters you don't know. This is how you "sound out" words in Chinese.

You may think some words are in a strange category, like “虹” with it's insect radicle. Nevertheless, it's important to keep in mind that languages are born from a people's perception of the world. A rainbow looks like a giant worm in the sky, doesn't it :)? 

(You can see my extended—but incomplete—breakdown of the “虫” radical here).

As for measure words, this may sound like lame advice, but just memorize the common ones. Basically, not being lazy and studying your measure words instead of using “個” (ge4; "a" for small things) for everything even when you know it's not right will keep you from looking like a n00b (does anyone use that anymore? I thought not):
大廳;一筆;一 = wrong, wrong, wrong... 
大廳;一筆;一 = ahh, much better!
But be careful, some measure words have limits, like “雙” (shuang2), a pair. If you are referring to two chicken drumsticks, you cannot say “一雙雞腿” because chicken drumsticks are not seen as set pairs like shoes(一雙鞋).
2. Immersion

Most of what I've learned in Chinese didn't come from my college courses. I'd say a good 40% of my knowledge was gained when I lived in Taiwan. I didn't put myself in a "foreigner bubble"; more than half of the people I interacted with on a daily basis couldn't speak English. This forced me to have complete conversations in Chinese about a variety of topics. I got to hear how Chinese grammar is really used, and my vocabulary took off. I also learned new varieties of intonation.

If you can, I suggest you go abroad for at least a year in a Chinese-speaking country (or country where the language you're learning is spoken). It helps to build your confidence in the language. Linguistic confidence is usually unrelated to how much grammar or vocabulary you know, it's how well you can translate your personality. I think sometimes people lack confidence in their second language because they cannot express their character in the way they would in their first. I like to tell jokes and talk politics, so being able to go that in Chinese is rewarding.

If you can't go abroad, watch "raw" or unsubbed dramas, and listen to Chinese music or radio shows. You can find many for free on YouTube.

Interacting with people immersion style also helps you correct mistakes. As we like to say in linguistics, if you don't converse with native speakers, your errors become "fossilized" and are harder to fix. For example:
You say this: “Wo3 xiang3 shui4jiao4.” (我想睡覺。)
When you read this to yourself: “我想水餃。”
It's wrong, but you continue to say it that way. One day, you travel to Beijing. When you get into the city, you go to a dumpling place and say to the lady:
“Wo3 xiang3 shui4jiao4.” (“我想睡覺。”)
She gives you a funny look as you repeat yourself, then smiles at you and says: “Shui3jiao3?”(水餃?)

Thanks to the dumpling lady, you now realize you've been saying you want to sleep, not that you want dumplings! You walk away from the dumpling counter, slightly embarrassed about your mistake, but with a salient memory that will serve as a reminder to say it correctly next time.

3. Going to Taiwan? Study Traditional Chinese, and drop Beijing dialect.

In the States, it's standard to teach students learning Mandarin the Simplified system of writing and Beijing dialect. A few radicals are different in Simplified, and there is copious usage of the "儿/兒" (er) sound in Beijing dialect. However, in Taiwan, people use Traditional characters and don't add "er" on to most of their words: 
“我没有空儿。” / “我沒有。”
一块儿蛋糕。” / “蛋糕。”
“你好棒!一百份儿!”/ “你好棒!一百份!”
Nevertheless, Taiwanese people do have certain nuances to their speech, especially the habit of pronouncing "shi" as "si":
“四四”si4-shi2-si4 / si4-si2-si4 (this drove me insane when I first went to Taiwan!) 
“老lao3shi1 / lao3si1
There are also vocabulary differences between the two dialects. Again, immersion is important; I would have never learned these in a book:
愛好 (ai4hao4);興趣 (xin4qu4) = hobby 
對啊 (dui4a5);嘿啊 (hei1a5) = yes/I agree (I find it's mostly older people who use “嘿啊”, but it's pretty common. Notice how the mouth radicle “口” changes “黑” from a color to a sound :) ) 
很笨 (hen3ben4);白癡 (bai2chi1) = stupid/idiotic 
水平 (shui3ping2);水準 (shui3zhun3) = level (i.e., "beginner", etc.) 
很adj. (hen3);蠻adj (man4)(“她可愛。”;“她可愛。”)= very
And my favorite for obvious reasons:
尼日利亞 (ni2ri4li4ya3);奈及利亞 (nai4ji2li4ya3) = Nigeria
4. Don't forget Simplified Chinese or Beijing dialect if you want to take the HSK.

After spending three years in Taiwan, I'm preparing to take the Chinese Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (漢語水平考試; HSK), the Chinese proficiency test, level 4 (the second highest). I have to brush up on my Simplified Chinese because the test is in Simplified. So, if you want to take the test, don't forget how to write and read in Simplified Chinese. In order to study, I'm mainly reviewing grammar and practicing reading and writing by hand; I'd like to expand on the exercises I do in a future post.

I hope this long-winded post was helpful or encouraging to someone. When it comes to reaching full fluency, I'm not holding my breath, but I try to practice everyday. If you stick to it, you'll see the results!

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