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A few tips from a student of Chinese
If you don't have the option of studying at a school or getting a tutor, here are some tips for studying by your self.
Fist of all I'd like to note that getting some classes or tutoring is definitely a good thing to start of with for two reasons. One is that you need some basics of how to pronounce words only by reading pinyin (The Chinese phonetical writing system, western letters). The other is that it's good to learn the principals of how to write characters. I my self studied one semester in Jinan, China, which is definitely a good start. I can strongly recommend it.
However, once you have discovered the basis of how it works, this is how I do it.
First of all, as we all know, Chinese is very different in sound compared to Indo-European languages, which is why just studying by reading might get you confused when you finely start listening to the language or trying to make your self understood. Therefore you need to hear it and you need to hear a lot of it.
Now this is how I do... Searching around I soon found out that CCTV (Chinas official TV-Station) is streamable online. On http://cctv.cntv.cn/live/cctv1/index.shtml#online you find, if not all, then most of there channels. You might have to install some latest flash player or something, not sure. The great thing about it is that while you are practising learning new words or writing characters you can just let it roll in the background. Sure, for a long time you might not understand a word they say, but you will get use to the sound of it and soon you can recognize bits and pieces of what they say.
When it comes to increasing your word and character knowledge I found an online character list sorted by frequency, with the most common character first. It also gives examples of what words the character creates while combined with other characters. http://www.zein.se/patrick/3000char.html If you master the 500 most common characters you can read about 70 percent of the characters in a typical modern Chinese text. I my self printed this list, so I can have it in my couch when I'm studying new characters and words. If you have the intention of learning a lot of characters I strongly recommend it.
Once you start getting a hold of recognising words in Chinese speech another tip is to sit with google translate and quick as a devil try to write words you hear on CCTV, with two or more syllables and see what you get. It will take time before you can do that, but if you keep hearing Chinese in the background you will slowly start recognising the pronounciation of words, and can start translating them.
A forth tip, although a bit slow if you ask me, is to translate texts, preferably child books or similar things, but don't underestimate the complexity of a child book's language.
- Let Chinese internet TV roll in the background
- Use the character list sorted by frequency to learn words and characters
- Try to google translate words you hear.
A final thing I'd like to say is that if the complexity of Chinese scares you, calm down. Yes you have to get a hold of the four tones and you have to learn a hell of a lot of characters that you soon forget if you don't keep studying. But as anyone who already studies or knows the language knows, the characters are built on one or many radicals. A complex character consists of many simpler characters and there is a lot of logic to why they look like they do. For instance the character for mother consists of two characters (or in this case radicals) the character for woman and the character for horse. The women part is obvious why, but there is also logic to why horse is a part of the character. Mother is pronounced ma with the first tone and horse is pronounced ma with the third tone. This is just one way that characters are made, there are many other ways with different logical reasons.
Characters a side there are also some really simple parts with learning Chinese. If you as an English native tried to learn Spanish of French verbs you might, just like I, have considered suicide a couple of times. No need for that in Chinese. A language teacher on my school said to me that from what he had understood there was basically no grammars at all in Chinese. This is of course not the case, but what is the case is the fact that Chinese words can not be congregated. You might add a little guo character to mark that something has happened, or le to mark that it happened, but just as commonly people says yesterday I work, today I work, tomorrow I work. There are grammars in Chinese but it's all to do with what words are used and in what order, which you might as well learn just by hearing a lot. Forget everything about figuring out who did it and in what time.