Pathways to Learning Chinese

Learning Chinese is no easy feat by any stretch of the imagination. There are different routes to take and goals to consider when choosing them. A student may want to focus on travel Chinese or fluency in speech. There is also the decision to learn the thousands of characters or Pinyin (the Romanized written form). These are the decisions one needs to make before choosing a course or self-taught Chinese language materials. The most important thing to remember is Chinese is not an easy language and a student must focus on pronunciation just as much as tonal differences of syllables.

Of course, the best way to learn any language is to enroll in a course and study. It might even be a good idea to take a job in a rural area of the People’s Republic of China-fully immersing oneself in any language can be a path to linguistic success. However, it is easy enough to escape speaking Chinese in larger cities as more Chinese are learning English. But many people do not have the luxury of time and/or money to enroll and attend classes or seek employment in China. There is also a lack in quality and quantity of Chinese teachers in North America. This is what leads to the self-teaching market for books, CDs, DVDs, and Web sites.

The problem of the self-teaching market is enormous choice one has-there is a resource out there for everyone. So, for the motivated student, there needs to be a substantial effort made to sort through everything in order to discover what works best. And, as always, there needs to be the motivation of sticking with the learning process.

The first piece of advice when beginning a search is, does one want to learn Mandarin or Cantonese? Mandarin is more recognizable as it is the official language of China (although there are many dialects of it throughout the country). Cantonese is generally only spoken in Hong Kong and Guangdong Province. For most students, Mandarin is the common choice.

There are many well known publishers of language books specifically for travel. One of the best is Lonely Planet. They offer a variety of travel-savvy phrase books as well as cultural notes. However, be aware that their books are for travelers and not long-term learners. This means that their books do not use Pinyin, but rather another phonetic Romanization of the language. These books are handy for a short time in China, but will not enable a person to have a conversation. They can be of more use to a Chinese speaker who has limited English abilities to point to a word or phrase, and the same method can be applied by the English speaker.

Better books, although some are not available in North America, for those seeking to pursue serious studies will be written in Pinyin and accompanied by Chinese characters. Most of these books contain Chinese radicals and sentence patterns. Some will also contain exercises for practice at the end of chapters. A highly recommended resource is Communicate in Chinese, available through Cypress Book Co. in the U.S., which was a program on CCTV-9 in China, hosted by Mark Rowswell (known in China as Da Shan). In the coming years, Travel in Chinese should also be available.

Along with these travel books, there are plenty of CD sets to peruse. The same theory can be applied when choosing CDs as with books-find what is best for the situation. Most common are CDs for travelers and business. These do not work well unless combined with a book. It helps more in recognizing what people say than comprehension and speaking. It can be difficult to hear the tone of the syllables when listening, but a book will have the tone written in with Pinyin. Again, many recognizable names are part of these sets-there’s even The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Chinese (Mandarin) set, which caters to business travelers. Sets can vary drastically in price from $20 to near $100, and many are accompanied by some sort of textual guide (either in a booklet or CD-ROM).

Now that most Web browsers are multilingual, it is even possible to learn Chinese online. There are plenty of resources out there for those who wish to discover them. Two useful Web sites are www.zhongwen.com and www.linese.com. Zhongwen.com is generally more useful to more advanced students with some knowledge of characters. It has Pinyin and definitions. It provides a character and explains its origins, then gives the viewer a list of associated words that contain that character. Linese.com can be used by kids and beginners as well as more advanced students. It contains animations and stories with sound. It also has animations to teach how to properly write the characters.

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