What should I be studying?
I hear this question all the time. Should I focus on more or less grammar? Should I do more or less conversation practice? Should I practice writing characters more or less? The answer, it turns out, isit depends. (Sadly, they never ask, “should I practice more or less basic pronunciation.” I’d say more 95% of the time.) It depends on what your goals are and depends on how far along you are towards reaching those goals.
Mastering Beginner Chinese
When you’re just starting out, three things are obvious: Chinese characters are hard; Chinese pronunciation is hard; Chinese grammar isn’t so hard. The structure is close to English. In many ways, it’s even simpler than English. At this stage, everyone studies basic grammar, and everyone studies pronunciation. Some people give up on characters before they even start. “I only want to learn how to speak Chinese” they say. At first their strategy seems to work. Because they aren’t studying characters at all, they have more time to spend on learning vocabulary, grammar, and on practicing pronunciation. But unfortunately for them, there’s no such thing as “only speaking Chinese”. If you can’t read Chinese characters, you’re never going to have good Chinese.
I recommend beginners spend their time like this:
- 20% on grammar
- 30% on pronunciation/listening
- 30% on reading/writing characters
- 20% on vocabulary
A beginner should be able to read and write +95% of all vocabulary they have learned.
Danger, Plateau Ahead
Intermediate Chinese is the most challenging phase. If you don’t adjust the way you study, you’ll have a lot of problems improving your Chinese. That’s why most people who stop learning Chinese do so in the intermediate stages. If you belong to the “I only want to learn how to speak Chinese” crowd, you’ll start to realize that it’s harder and harder to learn new words. As a beginner, pinyin was abundant. As a intermediate learner, materials with lots of pinyin are basically non-existent. At this stage, most people focus on learning characters, vocabulary and grammar. After all, pronunciation is for beginners only, right?
The intermediate stage is also when you start trying to express yourself. At this point, you start to realize that Chinese grammar isn’t as simple as you thought. You notice your Chinese is “better” inside rather than outside the classroom. People outside of the classroom just don’t seem to understand you very well. It can be extremely frustrating. You’re doing so many things right, but you don’t feel like your making progress. If this is you, I strongly recommend you do more work on basic pronunciation. It seems tedious and slow, but the road to good pronunciation is paved with lots of hard work. If your pronunciation is clear, and your tones are accurate, people will understand you. If you skimp on pronunciation practice or grammar, becoming an advanced speaker will be difficult.
beginners intermediate learners spend their time like this:
- 25% on grammar
- 25% on pronunciation/listening/expressing yourself
- 25% on reading/writing characters
- 25% on vocabulary
An intermediate learner should be able to read (or recognize) 100% of the vocabulary and should be able to write +80%. At this point, you start to really understand characters, which helps with learning vocabulary. Try to spend most of your times on topics that really interest you.
Being a Chinese Master
Once you get to an advanced stage, you know it. Things like reading newspapers aren’t impossible goals, and you start learning how to express your ideas. But it’s not all smooth sailing. You start to notice your Chinese friends speak to you differently than they speak amongst themselves. And sometimes, when you try to express yourself, it comes out in an jumble, and all your friend can say in response is 什么？(what?). At this point you start to realize how important grammar really is. It’s a good thing you didn’t stop studying it. Learning to express yourself properly becomes the single most important thing you can do. If fluency is your goal, then you have to learn to express yourself the way a native Chinese person would express yourself. If you are still holding onto English grammar patterns, then your ideas and thoughts won’t be fully understood.
- 20% on grammar and
- 30% on learning to express yourself properly
- 10% on pronunciation/listening
- 15% on reading (at this point, unless you’re in a situation where you constantly need to write Chinese, you don’t really need to practice writing.)
- 25% on vocabulary
Try to focus your vocabulary study on different topics, and learn to express your opinions and thoughts on these topics. Practice expressing yourself in writing and in conversation. Watching lots of television helps more than you’d expect.
Tell me why these numbers are wrong. How much time should someone spend on each language skill?
- Chinese Newspaper photo by SubZeroConsciousness via Flickr