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Tips for easing into Chinese
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By Alan Simon

It's easy to be daunted by Mandarin, so heed the words of Summer Xiang and Ben Johnson. They each offer excellent advice for first-time students.

Xiang teaches Mandarin to several of us at China Daily and encourages even full-time workers with little spare time to have a go. "If you don't have much time, don't worry," she says.

"Concentrate on simple sentences and you will still find it very rewarding when you communicate with the locals.

"Learning the language is important because you are living in China. This country has a long history and a different culture - if you can speak the language it will make your life much more interesting."

Nor does Xiang think reaching a basic level in a short time is too far-fetched. "If you work hard at it you could speak basic Mandarin in six months to one year, no problem," she says. "You're living in China, so you have the perfect environment to pick it up - you can listen to it everywhere and speak a little to someone every day."

Incidentally, Mandarin is the key dialect in China, spoken or understood by about 70 percent of the population and growing all the time, so it's the best one to learn.

Xiang says learning the four major tones is key to making yourself understood - words spoken in the wrong tone mean completely different things and often leave the listener utterly confused. This is an eye-opener for an English speaker, for whom tones are mostly irrelevant.

Johnson, a fellow China Daily journalist, is an example not only of what is possible with dedication but of the rewards that come your way.

He has just returned from a week-long holiday in Qingdao, a city in eastern Shandong province, bubbling with enthusiasm. "I had one week of not being able to speak English to anyone," he says, "and just consolidated everything I had learned.

"I was interacting with locals all the time. They were just coming up and wanting to talk to me. I couldn't have made the trip if I hadn't learned Chinese. It would have been too difficult."

Johnson only arrived in Beijing 14 months ago and credits his fast progress with the Taipei Language Institute. Mastery doesn't come cheap, though. He reckons he has racked up 66,000 yuan ($9,640) in bills there so far, equating to 600 one-to-one lessons at 110 yuan ($16.1) an hour, and has spent an equal amount of time on private study. For the first 10 months he studied oral Chinese only and switched to learning the Chinese characters three months ago.

"The more I learn of the language, the more I become Chinese," he says. "I am now reading the same stories the Chinese grew up with when they were at school."

The former rugby player says imposing a strict self-discipline on his studies came naturally. "I used to go training when my mates were out having a drink," he recalls. "It never bothered me. I am perfectly happy doing my own thing for hours on end."

Sure, there are times when it all gets too much - people speak too fast, phrases and sentences are too hard to remember, so Johnson advocates what he calls "the Baghdad approach" to his studies.

"Keep the tanks rolling - move on," he explains. "Don't get caught up in the minor details. The Americans didn't stop when they reached Baghdad, they kept going, past people, past the army, past anything. In other words, if you get stuck, just move on and don't get frustrated."

So if you're a rookie, weighing the pros and cons of spending precious time and money on Mandarin, Johnson has a final word: "It's well worth it. People really warm to you when they find they can communicate with you."

I am such a rookie and I say amen to that!

(China Daily September 5, 2008)

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