While there’s certainly no express lane on the Chinese language learning journey, it’s important not to be intimidated by the challenges ahead!
For instance, my brother-in-law came to visit me here in Shanghai once, and he remarked upon the language by saying, “it’s just like….what? Huh? I have no concept of how that could possibly work.” The first step in breaking through that language barrier is to get over the “what? Huh?” hump, and it’s actually pretty easy. Here are five quick and simple ways to get your feet wet in your daily life and sound like a pro doing it!
1.) Use your dictionary to find street names.
If you’re in a cab having trouble with pronouncing the street names properly, punch the pinyin into your dictionary – most streets in big cities are named after places elsewhere in China that are listed in most electronic dictionaries. Your dictionary can tell you the tones of the street name so that the driver will understand you. It’s also a good way to practice your tones, but failing that, you can simply show him the characters in your dictionary and he’ll know just where to go!
2.) Talk really fast!
It sounds a bit counterintuitive, but Chinese speakers are actually pretty accustomed to dealing with people who speak Mandarin as a second language, as many Chinese, especially in rural areas, grow up speaking their local dialect as a native language and only learn Mandarin in school. If you’re unsure of the proper tones, try to smooth it over by talking quickly. Think of the English equivalent: if you can’t hear someone clearly, your brain naturally substitutes the most likely possibility based on what it can hear and understand (in your experience), right? Chinese speakers do the same thing, so you’ve got a good shot at being understood if you speak quickly and confidently.
3.) Use exclamations (!).
Mandarin is rich with fun (and funny) exclamations and filler-words you can shout out or add to the beginnings and ends of sentences.
Some great examples are the classic “āiyā” (哎呀!) , used to demonstrate surprise or frustration, and “wā!” (哇!) , roughly equivalent to the English “wow!” but also used to express sadness or dismay (“哇哇哇,” for instance, is a common way to show crying or complaining in written form). These are rarely taught in formal Chinese programs, so using them in everyday speech suggests that a natural, casual tone that will make it easier for native speakers to understand you, even if you have other tone and pronunciation issues.
Others to note are “yā” (呀) for sounding surprised (though this is used primarily by females) and “a!” (啊, with the tone varying based on location/speaker) for starting a sentence, expressing casual surprise or adding on to a name when addressing someone (e.g. “lǎowánga 老王啊 , qǐngbāngwǒyíxià 请帮我一下…”) .
4.) “Share” the thanks (谢, xiè)!
This one is for the absolute beginners. Your first word in Chinese is likely to be “xièxie” (谢谢, “thanks”) , but it’s actually a fairly hard one to pronounce, especially for beginners!
Here’s a quick easy way to nail that pronunciation: try pronouncing it like the English word “share” but with a serious Boston accent. I’m talking Ben Affleck in Good Will Hunting serious. It’s a tip I’ve given to visitors (including my brother-in-law, a Boston native) and it has worked well. Here’s an example of proper Bostonian pronunciation of “share.”
5.) When typing pinyin into your electronic dictionary, always include the tone numbers.
So instead of just typing “dianying” (for “电影”) , type “dian4 ying3.” It sounds really simple but is tremendously helpful in memorizing tones associated with words because it teaches your brain not to think of Chinese words as a string of English letters, but rather as a unique sound that is simply represented by those English words.
It’s a trick I used to take my pronunciation from painfully bad to entirely acceptable, something I couldn’t have foreseen a year or so ago, and it pays off quickly. Getting your tones down pat is a huge part of tackling Chinese, way more so than things like stroke order or advanced vocabulary in my opinion, so try entering your pinyin with numbers and see if it works for you.