Hello and welcome to another installment of the Skritter blog. This week I wanted to share five quick and easy tips that beginners can use to make the most out of the first few months on their Chinese studies. The post is inspired by my 45 wonderful students who are taking Chinese 101 with me at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee this semester. Rather than just give my own students some quick tips, I thought I would share them with all of you who are just getting started on your language learning journey.
1. Write tone marks over everything
When many of us start learning Chinese the concept of a “tonal language” is very foreign and very new. Not only do we struggle to produce four distinctly separate tones, but hearing the difference between tones can be a struggle that we need to overcome as well. Fortunately there are lots of different tactics we can use to help make tones stick. A personal favorite of mine is writing tone marks over characters that appear in a textbook or worksheet. By writing tone marks over Chinese characters we’re helping to solidify the association of a certain tone with an individual character, forcing us to admit that Chinese has tones, and thus that each word or character has a specific pronunciation. It’s also great way to work out some of the tone changes that occur with characters like 一、不. It might take a little bit of time look up new words and their corresponding tones, but having that solid foundation early on will make learning tones for new words a lot easier in the end.
2. Pay attention to radicals from day one
If you want to learn to read and write Chinese, it certainly helps to know a little bit about 214 magical components called radicals. Radicals are some of the most basic building blocks for characters, often representing one or two distinct concepts that help give a character its meaning. Fear not, you don’t need to learn all 214 at once, but simply identifying radicals as you encounter new words is a great way to slowly build up radical knowledge, which will certainly help you differentiate similar looking characters and allow you to “guess” at the meaning of new characters you encounter in the future.
3. Establish a balanced study routine
Learning to communicate, or be fluent, in a language means a healthy dose of four separate skills: listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Often times it’s easy to focus our attention on the skill that seems most pressing at the time or the skill we’re best (or worst) at, but a healthy study routine should focus and drill on each of the four skills. No matter how much you enjoy writing characters, for example, that shouldn’t stop you from reading or listening to a dialogue, or trying to speak the language out loud. Keep all your skills healthy early on and you wont have to go back to shore things up later on.
4. Take advantage of office hours
I’m often amazed at how few students take advantage of office hours or free tutoring services that are offered by foreign language programs. Even if you’re a getting good grades, taking advantage of office hours is a great way to work on any problems you might be having, or just get some extra practice in the target language. The main benefit of office hours is having one-on-one time with a teacher, which can really do wonders for things like pronunciation or working on new sentence patterns you’re learning in class. As teachers we want to help you succeed, so be sure to take advantage of extra practice time while you’ve got it!
5. Review old quizzes, tests, and homework assignments
If a teacher or tutor has taken the time to correct your work, than you should take the time to look it over afterwards. Nothing stings more than seeing the same mistakes happening over and over again. For first year students this is probably the best way to make sure you’re not making small mistakes on your character writing, by either mixing up radicals and components, writing a particular stroke to short or long, or forgetting a character altogether. Reviewing assignments doesn’t take a lot of time, but it certainly is a habit that needs to be acquired. Who knows, it might also give some good material to bring up in office hours as well!
While I’m sure that none of the tips are groundbreaking, I do hope that they’ll help to give all of you just getting started that extra push during the early months of language study. Sometimes even the smallest of adjustments early on can set us up for huge results in the end. Best of luck to everyone, and stay tuned for another blog post early next week!