Ready to start learning Chinese?

It's easier than you might think.

Asian Avenue magazine, August 2007

By David Kopel

It's true that mastering Chinese takes a long time for an average American. The U.S. State Department figures that to train an American diplomatic to strong proficiency in Chinese takes about three times as long as training her to an equivalent level in French, Spanish, or Italian. But at the beginning level, some aspects of Chinese are easy.

First of all, there's almost no grammar to learn. No singular or plural, no genders, no verb tenses. So the word for "I" (wo), also means "me" "my" and "mine." The particular meaning depends on the context of the rest of the sentence.

Likewise, the verbs never change, regardless of the subject, object, or time. So the verb "to be" (shi) is exactly the same, whether you're saying "I am", "they were", or "we will be." Think of all the time you spent in Spanish class learning how to conjugate verbs. With Chinese, as soon as you know the verb, you can conjugate it perfectly.

In the long run, the absence of conjugations can make things more difficult. Without verb tenses, it's tough to say, "If we would have known sooner what we were going to have learned, then we might have decided that we should have done things differently."

But for the simple thoughts of a beginner, it's easy to just use a time word to convey your meaning: "Yesterday I visit the park." "Tomorrow morning I shop at the mall."

With any language, you need to practice speaking a lot in order to feel confident enough for simple conversations in a foreign country. These best solution for Chinese, as for almost any language, is the Pimsleur tapes/CDs. The Pimsleur program consists of half-hour daily lessons in which you start participating in conversations instantly, learning to say basic sentences (not just isolated words). The lessons are superbly structured to balance the introduction of new material with frequent review of older material, so that everything is deeply engrained in your brain.

Many users repeat Pimsleur lesson once or twice, so that they can master the material before moving forward.

The Pimsleur programs are not inexpensive, but they are an excellent value for the money. The company sells an introductory pack of eight Chinese lessons for a low price, so you can see if you like it.

I've been saying "Chinese," but while there is one, common written Chinese language, there are about a dozen spoken Chinese languages--as distinct from one another as English is from Dutch. Mandarin is almost certainly the first Chinese language you should learn (unless you're headed to Hong Kong or Shanghai).

Mandarin is the official language of Taiwan, is by far the most common language in China, and is also a lingua francain much of southeast Asia. The Pimsleur programs in Mandarin teach you the Beijing accent (lots of hard "r" sounds). The accent will not interfere with your ability to communicate basic ideas in Taiwan, and more than a businessman's London accent would interfere with his communication in Chicago.

Pimsleur will not make you fluent, but it will take care of most of your needs as a visitor, and will also provide a great foundation if you decide to study further. One of my friends taught himself fluent Portuguese (good enough to make speeches at academic conferences in Brazil). The Pimsleur tapes were his starting point.

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