Some ideas I applied to learning Chinese....

In the beginning when the opportunity to learn arose, I was actually a little reluctant, but one of my friends, DING Wei Min,  was very keen to teach me, so I decided 'If I'm going to learn its got to be:

not tedious
fun and

Then I asked my self 'Who learns the fastest? Well that's kids, obviously.... What are they doing then that makes it so easy?'

I resolved to use a childish approach to my learning, and I think its paid off

Firstly a kid doesn't consciously go out to study their mother tongue - it comes naturally with age (and I thought I already had plenty of that!). So therefore I decided 'I'm going to learn like a kid does by actually USING the language as I need it'  I said to my self many times: "I'm not learning Chinese - I'm using it"  (Its in my head, its my vocabulary - I can do what  I like with it!)

Since I had a few friends from China, here in Christchurch, I could do this.  I spent time with them in the mid eighties, and applied what Wei Min had taught me (the phonetics and a few useful key phrases) to everyday interaction with my friends.  Constantly asking them how to say things in Chinese.

I can still recall a lot of things - when, where and who taught them to me, even the expression on their faces!  Also their pleasure when I got things right.  Its a lot of fun to take on a new language and culture.

Which brings me to another thing:


Mimic your teacher to the point that you feel sorry for them - that you're somehow "taking the Mickey out of them" - get the accent right!  The more awkward it feels to you the better, the less of your first language accent you'll be carrying.....

I maintain that you can't 'overdo' an accent, but you can 'underdo' it!

Don't be phased by other people who've given up..... personally I think Chinese is a "Cheat's" language to speak (its too easy) (writing is another issue, but as I'm virtually illiterate in Chinese I have little to say accept if you only want to speak to your friends, then don't use up precious time labouring over characters).

A "Cheat's" language .......

After speaking Chinese for about a year I remember asking myself: "Well when am I going to learn some of the more difficult words?"  Once you have a certain vocabulary, my guess is that it would be 5 times more efficient compared to the equivalent effort in amassed vocabulary learning time spent learning English.  Chinese is far more sensible than English.  In Chinese "you are", "I am", "she is"  all become "You is", "I is", "she is"  - and why not?  I felt a fraud when people compliment me on my Chinese, it seems to me its so much easier than English.

some more examples:   dinosaur - 'terrible dragon'     adjective - 'describing word'
noun - 'name word'   verb - 'action word'   radio - 'receive sound machine'   it just goes on and on - giraffe - 'long necked deer'

Face Skin

To be unconcerned by how other people see you is to have "Thick Face Skin" - what we would just call thick skinned.  To have a thick face skin will make learning  a new language a lot easier.  This is where a lot of Asians actually fall down in learning a new language.

When you're amongst friends there's nothing wrong with asking someone to explain what they have just said to you - it actually gives them face as it shows you're interested in knowing what they have to tell you, yet the Chinese often will not express that they have not understood what was just said, and just nod and say yes yes etc..... this they do because they don't want to "make trouble" for someone, yet the consequences of this can be quite troublesome to say the least!

When I was in China, I was forever saying: "What?"  "Sorry, I don't understand" "My Chinese is no good"  "What do you mean?"  "What was that you just said?" "Right now - that word just then"  "Your last sentence"    "What's the opposite meaning - does it have one?"

And another very clever one: "Can you speak to me as if I was just a 5 year old?"

On the whole they loved it and were only too happy to try and make me understand.

Also a little reminder when things are getting a bit out of hand... "I wish my Chinese was better"   or  "Do you speak English?"

Sometimes when friends are getting a bit smart about how bad my Chinese is: "OK OK Lets all speak English now, I'm tired of speaking Chinese"  This can help to put things into a more level perspective.

Repetition and thinking in the new language

When you're sitting alone with nothing mentally taxing to do .... try using your limited vocabulary to practising expressing yourself - this I think is really the key point in a kid's progress - that's all they can do - using their own, learned vocabulary to express themselves.   Repeat over and over, in your head, things you've figured out how to say properly.

Parasitic learning

Make use of every contact with a speaker of the language you're picking up.  Use people - be it the shop keeper or the policeman on the corner, buying things or asking for directions. They don't know they're being used and they probably don't talk to foreigners every day anyway, so its a novelty for them and a lesson for you.

Its your language too now, you have every right to develop it!


Your progress will go in fits and starts.  There will be times when it seems to just plateau and other times you'll think "Gosh I've learned a lot in the last month"   Most of the time you won't notice your own progress and it will take a friend you haven't seen for a while who may comment on it - how you've improved etc.


did you know language dictionaries go  two ways?  You need a dictionary that is both English to Chinese and Chinese to English - two books in one.  On the other hand, once you have a limited vocabulary together, you must maintain fluency.  A huge vocabulary and no fluency is just as useless as a small vocabulary  with no fluency.  Far better to have a limited, yet fluent vocabulary (like a kid again)

Thinking in Chinese

There was a time I carelessly left my dictionary at a friend's house.... as they lived over two hours away by bicycle, it meant that the next time I visited them was over a month later.  Yet since I was forced to use my limited vocabulary and no dictionary, in my communicating with the locals; within that month I made huge progress!

So  a dictionary has its uses, but if you can get the meaning without looking it up, then that's by far the better way as you are far more likely to remember it!!!


Tones are an enormous pain in the butt, yet after a year or so I was surprised how much I'd picked up.  Tones are strange, we use them in English all the time and we notice their absence, yet the rules in Chinese are totally different and it takes time to get used to this.  A musical ear helps, yet I expect that not all 1.2 billion Chinese are maestro's.

Don't worry about tones.  Accept them (as a necessary evil), and as a general caution never bet money on the tone of a word unless you have the open dictionary in your hand!!!


This is the easy part - especially if your first language is NZ English!  Get the right pronunciation under your belt, and the tones will follow naturally.  Again don't forget to mimic your teacher's pronunciation, don't just use an approximate English pronunciation - that's lazy and impolite in my view.   Its OK to bet on pronunciation - but you won't always win!

At The Dinner Table

Its not as bad as it used to be, but one unnerving custom is for them to pile delicacies on to your plate as a gesture of acceptance and friendship, the more they like you the more they seem to pile it on, this can get quite upsetting if you're just not into eating whole shrimps, king prawns, scorpions or sheep testicles etc.  Fortunately it's either become not so common, or I've turned into something of an arsehole.  Its OK to ask one of the more "culturally sensitive" of your hosts if they mind not doing that.  I think cultural sensitivity goes both ways and they would certainly be most upset to think they'd caused you any stress.....  when it comes to drinking however, then that's another story ......

My point about mentioning the table is that you may well find as a beginner that you are best understood when talking with a mouth full of rice!  Yeah isn't it great?  You can talk with your mouthful in China and no one will criticise you!


the more stress they cause you - if you're vomiting madly on the floor, or comatose or whatever stage of drunken stupor then they've been a "good host" and it gives them some sense of achievement!

One way of getting around this is to know how to answer the word "Gan bei" which literally means 'dry cup' and that is "sui yi"  which means one need not drain one's glass completely.

The Chinese tend not to touch glasses ('cos of the big round table) however I have noticed an exception in Shandong province in China where they do, and as a mark of respect, one should chink one's glass at a lower level than that of their drinking friend, hence one can see glasses nearly hitting the table top at dinner.

As a sign of respect, especially noticeable in Taiwan, before one drinks one should catch one's friend's eye and raise their glass in their friend's direction and the two drink together....  saying things like "cheers" or "happy birthday" (even if its not anyone's birthday).  More formally is to use two hands and say the person's name then: "wo lai jing ni" (I come respect you) jing being the word of respect.  Sometimes less formally its just "lai...." (come on get drinking!).  Drinking by yourself at the table, and not with others is sometimes noticed and sometimes left unnoticed, depending on the people and your relationship with them.

If drinking is a big problem for you, you can say "I'm allergic to alcohol" which may or may not be believed "Wo dui jiu guo min".

Good luck!

Learning Mandarin
hinese words 1 2 3 top (phonetic pin yin pronunciation)