Mandarin Chinese is a beautiful language. I have deeply enjoyed my own learning journey through it. This article is the first in a series for anyone interested in its study.

In many ways, learning Mandarin is no different than studying French, Spanish or German. You need to learn new sounds, to get a feel for how natives say things. There are words and expressions to be learned. It naturally takes motivation and time. But there also are different things to absorb. If you approach them smartly, they become very enjoyable.
Initial Exploration

I’d like  to give you a window onto the world of Mandarin.

When you begin a new language, it is very useful to understand where you will be going, and what you will need to learn.  So! What are the important features of Mandarin?

1. New sounds.

All the sounds of mandarin are quite learnable.  They all exist in some form in English. You will simply have to learn a few new distinctions. Chinese syllables are also  more staccato than those of English. Chop, chop, chop!

2. Tones

Chinese speakers actually  “sing” all the words of their language.  There are 4 tones or notes  in Mandarin. Your first job is to begin to hear them and to start reproducing them. We as Westerners are not used to this.  The tones are not difficult to hear or to speak, but they take a while  getting accustomed to.

3. Characters

Chinese characters are an incredible writing system, but they require quite a bit of memorization. Take your time learning them, but begin to study them immediately. You will need to know them to be literate. Fortunately, there is a much simpler way  to read Chinese initially.  It is called …….. Pinyin.

4. Pinyin

Pinyin is a way of writing Chinese that uses our own Roman alphabet. It is very systematic and easy to learn. It allows you to read and write words in Chinese immediately. It also tells you where to pronounce the tones. Pinyin is your best friend.

5. Vocabulary

Yes, you have to learn words. The best way is to hear and see a lot of the language.  And actually, the more characters you know, the easier it is to absorb vocabulary. More on that later.

6. Grammar

Chinese grammar is  easier to learn than that of a  new Western language.  It has no verb tenses or conjugations; no singular or plural; and no declensions (like Russian or German). Simply stated, the words do not change in any way.  Remember those French irregular verbs? and the German der die das? Throw them out. They are not needed here. Chinese does have some new concepts, but they are easily grasped.

7. Word order

Chinese word order is different from ours. Simply listen and model what you hear. The expression “Long time no see” actually comes from Chinese. Easier to say  than “it’s been a long time since I have last seen you”, isn’t it?

These are all the things you need to consider initially: the “What ” of Mandarin. The next part in this series will begin to deal with the “How”.

Intelligent grammar practice is still vitally important in language learning. It is still one of the most powerful tools at a student’s disposal. These days, there is a lot of material on language learning online. Many people are emphasizing the importance of intensive listening work.  Numerous sites make great learning videos available. There are delightful podcasts, filled with humor, vocabulary and cultural knowledge. Some writers are actually saying that 90 percent of the work can be done simply by listening to a lot of recordings of natural language. They say that the need to learn grammar formally comes later.  Vocabulary, they say, is King. Your level of knowledge of a language is defined by how many words of vocabulary you know.

I agree with them to a certain degree.  Lack of vocabulary knowledge is a crippling blow to communication and understanding of a new language. However, I have found in my own learning, that a clear and precise understanding of grammar allows for a much deeper and active kmnowledge of a new language. I found that understanding native speakers, catching the gyst of what I was hearing did improve my capabilities. It definitely improved my pronunciation and allowed me to form my own sentences much more naturally. It also taught me  high-frequency expressions and language mannerisms. All this is quite useful. However my capacity to speak and form intelligible sentences seemed limited – on the level of syntax – by how much of that syntax I had absorbed unconsciously and intuitively. I somehow knew how to say something: unconscious competence. The problem with this approach is that is can be random and passive.
I have found that good practical grammar practice goes a long way towards developing my fluency systematically. The three steps I like to use are the following. 1. Study and understand a specific pattern. 2. Learn how to use the pattern reliably. 3. Do a lot of “English to the New language” translation. Translation is frowned upon as a learning tool by many. Yet the ability to translate compentently demonstrates a deep and real knowledge of a language. When you are bilingual, translation can be almost instantaneous and flawless. It can also be a great learning tool.
My favorite structure for practicing involves using a good recording with numerous examples of the new pattern being learned. The best format is “English – pause – new language – pause – new language – pause.” This allows me to look for the translation in my own memory and set of tools, to compare it to a native version; and finally to repeat it twice if I am incorrect or not sure. It instantly lets me know what my capacity is. If I try to say”I have been working here for two years” in Chinese or in French, I can either do it or not.
So although it may not be in style, I find grammar drill practice to be vital and extremely powerful as a learning tool. Done intelligently, it is akin to practicing a basic sport technique until it becomes automatic. The trick is to do it in an interesting way.

(A post about how to use the Google Translate Tool to practice a language.) I recently decided to brush up on my Chinese. I always roll with laughter when I see “Learn Chinese in 7 days” programs being advertised.

Whenever you learn a language, the great limitation is vocabulary – in speaking and also in understanding. Trying to increase my own fluency, I just created the following technique for  practice.

I was listening to a guided meditation in English and was trying my best to translate what I was hearing into Chinese.  I was vitally hampered by my lack of vocabulary.  I played with my English-Chinese dictionary and then my Chinese English one for a while. (The great danger in using a dictionary – paper or electronic – is that it may give you a completely different or inappropriate translation. That’s why you should always translate  in both directions.)

Led by my curiosity, I went on my computer and started using the Google Translate Tool to test my own knowledge and learn new words.  I usually find the tool’s results are remarkable, especially when translating  European languages – close linguistic relatives.  With Chinese, the accuracy is more limited but still useful.  I started typing sentences in English and reading the Chinese translation.  I would then take the Chinese translation and plug it back into the tool to retranslate into English.  (This catches many gross mistakes.)

This taught me a lot of useful expressions and vocabulary. The next step will be to run them by a native, to see if I found the right words and how natives would use them. Fortunately I love being laughed at.

The important thing to remember –  if you decide to play with this technique – is to use very short and non-ambiguous sentences.  “The woman laughed at the dog” is much safer than “Although he feared the elevator had begun to malfunction, he rushed out to the street in search of a new diagram.”  The more complex the grammar, the more likely an incorrect, hilarious translation.

If you use this system with care and a big grain of salt, you can test your capacity to generate sentences while learning new vocabulary.  It is a fast and fun way to develop your capacity to express yourself. It is definitely not 100% or even 80% accurate but it is still amazing. The next step is to check with a native of course.

blowing language bubblesHow do you get back into language study after stopping for a while? Life can get in the way, and before you know it,  months have elapsed without your doing any study. Shame, guilt, and grief set in. Discouragement: the great enemy! These emotions are obstacles to be dealt with.

So how do we resume study seamlessly?

The first part is mental. Remind yourself it is normal to take breaks. Even after years of not using a language, we can relearn what we had learned  ten or twenty  times faster than when we started out. Vocabulary fades really fast if we don’t use it – even in our mother tongue.  But we can easily relearn words we used to know. I always found that grammar stayed in place dormant and was pretty easy to reactivate.  It’s the same thing with pronunciation. Your mouth and your ears remember.

The best way to reawaken a language is to reconnect with the familiar. Find your old recordings and podcasts and just start listening. Be passive. You are recreating an echo. It is useful to have the written texts as well.  Refresh your eyes as well as your ears.

The other best way is to find brand new fun materials that attract you. The internet language tools available keep multiplying: movies, videos, tubes, games… There is an endless wealth of language resources.

The third best way is to connect or reconnect with the culture of the language you want to learn. Find meetup groups on the internet and go play with natives and other people who want to learn. There is no substitute for being involved with other people.

So in with the old and in with the new. Within a week or two you will be amazed how much you have recovered of your previous knowledge.

A Tear from Japan I often hear this complaint from students learning a language: “I can’t understand anything”!  Yes, it can be frustrating when you have been studying hard. It can be discouraging and embarrassing. But do not worry: comprehension will come. Sometimes you need to hear something 12 times to hear and remember it!

I have a student from China who is learning English. She studied English for 10 years but initially could not understand much.  She had just arrived from Sichuan and was quite  frustrated.  After 6 weeks of daily practice, she is able to understand and we can now enjoy interesting and humorous conversations together.  It is not that she has learned that many more words or that much more grammar; it is simply that her body is actually beginning to hear and compute the English language.

I also remember coming to the US as a 13 year old.  I had studied English in France – for 4 years – but my initial experience was of an incomprehensible wall of sound. Aaargh!  So you who are learning may occasionally feel discouraged: “I really can’t understand anything! What’s wrong with me?”  Nothing! Your body and your psyche have just not yet begun to take over the comprehension of the language.  Remember that it is not the conscious mind which actually creates and comprehends language. It is a subconscious function out of your actual control. All you can do is expose yourself to that wall of sound and hang in there.  Keep studying grammar, learning words, etc!   It can be very uncomfortable, but know that when the click takes place, you will begin to track and know what is being said to you.  Forever!

This is a very exciting place to be.  It is much easier to accomplish this process if you are having real interactions with natives.  Fortunately, these days, natives can be found everywhere with online video calls. The internet can instantly transport you to the country of your choice. In my days, we had to practice speaking uphill and in the snow.

So hang tough in that incomprehensible wall of sound; and know that understanding will come.

girl meditation We think of meditation as a spiritual practice or as a tool for reducing stress.  But what do they have to do with learning a new language?  Actually, meditation is the ability to be fully focused on whatever activity we are engaged in in the present moment.  An artist captivated by his work, or an athlete fully associated in the body and its every movement and nuance are meditating.

The antithesis of meditation is multi-tasking.  I am riding my motorcycle while  texting my friend, eating lunch and planning my afternoon meeting.  The problem with that is lack of depth.  The biggest challenge through time in learning a language is remembering thousands of words and their proper context.  It is virtually impossible to do this efficiently without creating deep associations.  Without associations memory melts like snow in the sun.

What are the principal elements of meditation?  Focus.  Relaxation.  Comfort.  Effortless patience.  Pleasure.

We have already mentioned focus: the one-pointed concentration on a piece of information and the use of multi-sensory associations.  This really is the great key.  Which do you think you would remember faster: your neighbor’s social security number or the number to a Swiss Bank account in your name containing $500,000?  The difference would be the focus applied to memorizing.

Relaxation and comfort are also vital.  Stress is really a form of pain.  Can you dance  if there is a nail poking through the sole of your shoe? So get comfortable.  Study in a place you enjoy, a place which relaxes you and makes you feel comfortable.

Effortless patience is an interesting one.  Meditation gives you the ability to be fully present in your body, to enjoy the physicality of the moment you are living, to let your thoughts move through as clouds in a Summer sky.  Every physical, mental or emotional experience that surfaces becomes the source of your meditation.  Applying this to memorization is very fruitful.  You are fully associated as you process, code and imprint the new words.  Someone who enjoys reading poetry would automatically do this.

Pleasure is the direct result of all the other aspects, whether you are sitting in meditation, painting a portrait or learning new vocabulary words.

So there you are!  Meditation is another powerful tool to be applied to learning a language.

internet 00100101Twenty years ago, if you wanted to learn a language, you bought a book and a cassette series, and you looked for a teacher in your city.  With the Internet explosion of the recent years, there are treasures beyond all imaginings for the language learner.  There are organizations, schools, individuals, blogs which provide us with countless tools: podcasts, games, lessons, language exchanges, free materials etc.

What this means is that you can customize your way of learning exactly to your own specifications.  You can work alone, with others, online, at home, anywhere and any way you like.  If you find one learning style boring, there are many others to choose from.  And there are so many people willing to help and share their knowledge and their tools.  Yes, there are entities who may think of us only as consumers and sources of income.  They make seductive promises so that we buy their products.  But there are also many people who are sharing information out of kindness, joy and a desire to help.

With the onset of IM, Skype video calls, etc, we are able to communicate directly with anyone in the world instantly.  Instead of Bali, Morroco or Italy being days and thousands of dollars away, they are within instant reach – and for free.  So as we organize our learning, we can easily expand and connect with people who speak the language we are learning.  This is the delightful gift of the Internet to the language student.  Have fun in your treasure hunt!  and if you want to practice your new language online, you can contact me at my school, Focus Language.  Our prices are reasonable and we will help you shine in your new language. Jean-Paul

st jean port copyWe normally think of efficiency, brain enhancing substances, extraordinary software and stream-lined cutting edge methods when we think of improving our learning capabilities.  There is an entirely different aspect of learning which I have encountered in my long  career as a student and a language learner: Love, Beauty and Nature.  We are so efficient, having become multi-tasking masters and super-focused planners.  We may be doing more, but are we actually becoming more accomplished?  Are we more fulfilled and happy?  I believe the answer is we are not.  Being an artist, musician, meditator and lover of nature, I have followed a very different path: I require the presence of beauty, fulfillment and pleasure in all the tasks I undertake.  Cast me into hell and I will paint on the walls of my dungeon, I will write poems about the beauty of the rising flames, and I will breathe my awareness of the present moment.

Yet, in spite of following paths considered less desirable or dead-ends by many in our efficient, goal-oriented society, I have succeeded in becoming fluent in eight or nine languages.  I do study hard – sometimes almost fanatically – but I am able to maintain my focus and happiness through time.  Looking back on how I became accomplished in multiple language, I notice some common elements and patterns.  They are perhaps obvious and easy to apply but they are at the core of my success in learning languages.

Love, Beauty and Nature

Learning a language is a subconscious activity.  You may work like a slave in Roman salt mines but you cannot impose the absorption or integration of a language onto your brain/mind.  The more you experience the beauty of your new language, of its sounds of its grammar, of its culture, of its world view, the easier it is to keep a powerful,spontaneous and unending desire to improve your skills.  I have had highly intelligent language students who became very frustrated in spite of their urgent need and high motivation to learn a new language.  They lacked one thing: the actual desire to learn and a genuine attraction for their new language.  They were in purgatory or jail, waiting to be released with a new skill at their command.  Painters love color, creative programmers love the elegance of their code, lovers love their beloved.  Language learners must also be in love with the object of their pursuit.

Language is music, mathematics, theater, history, culture and art rolled into one.  Ignore this, and even if you learn a new language, you will miss much of its depth and the pleasure of knowing it.

What do nature and breathing have to do with the intelligent pursuit of learning a language?  Everything  in my case.  Separate me from access to nature and I feel restricted and incomplete, while the breathing techniques I use daily (from yoga and qi gong) improve my brain functions, relaxation and general health.  They allow me to concentrate powerfully on the object of my study without normal fatigue.  Without nature and breathing meditations I would be a pale insubstantial  shadow of who I am today.

At a later date, I will write in more detail about this accessing of the right cerebral hemisphere.  One of its consequences is the experience of bliss in ordinary circumstances. Poets and artists routinely experience this phenomenon. It can only enhance whatever experience you are engaged in.

You must naturally discover your own path of beauty and bliss as you apply it to your language learning.  Yet, the more powerfully you access it, the easier and the more effortless your progress will be.

Moon_GateWe want to invite you to join us for Online Language Classes.  It is probably the most convenient way of practicing a new language. It lets you have a class from home whenever it is convenient for you.

Speaking a language, hearing it, and interacting with native speakers are the vital steps that allow you to make a language yours. It is often a challenge to arrange this. Online classes make it incredibly easy. We must still learn new vocabulary and grammar to  expand our knowledge, but  a new language only becomes integrated when we speak it and hear it frequently. Online language are an amazing way to do this.

All you need to set up your online language classes with us is Skype  and a webcam. (Skype is a phone, IM and video service: It takes 5 minutes to set up and costs $4 a month) Online video calls  allow us to meet with anyone on the planet and have a personal, productive multi-sensory experience effortlessly.

Call us at  (630) 333 9513 or Email us for a free consultation and trial class. Finally begin to  practice your new language regularly.

bleu blanc rougeLearning a language is a time-consuming project. It can seem that there is always a new verb form to learn, a new vocabulary word we need to know. It is therefore important to appreciate what you have already done, the parts of the language you have already acquired. Our subconscious  learning machine builds on its own success.  It is important to let it know it is accomplishing its task satisfactorily.  Self-criticism can often lead to discouragement.  When you are learning, you know that it will take you at least a few months to get comfortable.  So take that into stride and often review what you have already accomplished.

When you set – flexible – goals for yourself, remember you are working on several things at once: pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, comprehension and speaking ability.  You might excel in one and feel quite mediocre in another.  Acknowledge what is working well and evaluate what you will need to do to learn better in certain areas.  You can approach it analytically or intuitively: it doesn’t matter. Simply make sure that you give yourself enough recognition to stay on track as you explore your new language.

Focus Language Chicago and Phoenix offers classes in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Hindi and Mandarin Chinese.