During the first few years of my life in Taiwan, I didn’t take any formal training in Chinese, assuming that I would learn Chinese just by being here. I quickly came to realize that that wouldn’t be the case. I actually had to put some effort into it.
The good news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me. The bad news was that there was so much Chinese being spoken around me that I didn’t know where to start.
Basic Greetings and Politeness
I began by learning what I needed to know. Basic greetings, thank you and goodbyes. Vocabulary that I was likely to use on a frequent basis. Using these words and phrases often and actually being understood gave me the confidence to continue my learning journey.
From here, I began to learn the names of objects around me that I was likely to interact with or name on a daily basis. If you’re a teacher, then these may be objects in a classroom. Listen to how students identify them and learn them for yourselves. Start with the most frequent objects and work your way down.
The trick here is to focus on the vocabulary that you’re likely to use regularly since this makes it easier to stick. If you learn a word that you’re not likely to use in the immediate future, then you’re more likely to forget it. Save it for later.
The reason we focus on widely used vocabulary at this early stage is that your brain is still getting used to this new language that is so different from the languages you’ve learned in the past. So it’s important that it’s getting exposed to constant repetition.
Later when you’re more comfortable in the language, you’ll find it easier to learn lesser used vocabulary as new words will now be placed in context of words you already know. Right now at this early stage, you don’t have this context so what can be remembered is limited to what you’re exposed to often.
By now, you’ve learned basic greetings and basic vocabulary that applies to your daily life.Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these terms when people around you are speaking. However there is still a lot that you don’t understand. Instead of trying to learn it all, try and pick out a few words or phrases that you hear often. For me it was phrases like Méi guānxi, bú yòng and kěyǐ.
I didn’t recognize any of the words before or after those, but I kept hearing these words over and over again. I asked the people around me – “What does bú yòng mean?” Slowly I learned these expressions, and started to pick these out even more, now that I knew what they meant.
Answering Basic Questions
You’ll find yourself in situations where clerks or the people around you ask you the same questions all the time. For me, it was at the grocery store, when the clerk would ask me if I wanted a bag, or if I had their store’s member card. Early on, I had no clue what they were asking and generally ignored it (they tended to move on if they sensed you didn’t understand, which suggested to me that their question wasn’t very important to begin with).
Now that your goal is to improve, you’ll need to find out what these questions are. Get someone to come with you and translate exactly what they said, including the exact words they used. There may be a lot to take in, but again since these are questions you’re being asked frequently, you’ll be able to pick it up quickly. In most cases you’re only answering with a méiyǒu or bú yòng so it’s not exactly rocket science. It will increase your confidence though to know exactly what it is they asked you!
Handling Basic Tasks
You are now ready to move into a more active mode. Look for situations in your life that you’ve been able to handle so far with minimal Chinese. Perhaps it was ordering food, or filling up gas. It is now time to find the exact words and phrases you need to accomplish these tasks – no more pointing or miming!
One of the best places to improve in this area is when you’re standing in line. In most cases, the people in front of the line are accomplishing similar tasks – what words and phrases are they using? If that’s not enough, you may need someone’s help initially to say exactly what you want to say.
If the task is complicated then you may have to use a mixture of Chinese and pointing, but at least make the attempt. Over time you can replace the pointing with new Chinese you pick up along the way.
Learning Synonyms and Alternate Phrases
If you follow all the instructions above, you’ll eventually get to a stage where you know the names of all the objects you interact with regularly, and you know all the phrases that get you through the day. At this point, it’s easy to get comfortable – after all, you know all the Chinese you need to know. Imagine if your mom could see you now!
But yet you know that’s not enough. You still have no idea what other people on the street are saying when they are talking to each other. So how do you make the next jump?
It is time to start learning alternatives to what you already know how to say.
You know how to order your lunch box like a pro (you better know how, since you’ve been ordering that same lunch for the past three years!). It’s now time to start looking for new ways to accomplish the same task. When you’re in line and listening to the people in front of you, notice that they don’t all the use the exact same expressions. Some will use an alternate form. It’s now time to start learning what these alternate forms are.
So instead of asking hǎo ma all the time, switch it up with a hǎo bù hǎo instead (yes, be dangerous!).
And while you’re at it, why don’t you try eating something different for a change?
You’re now at the cusp of greatness. You live your life like a boss. You feel like you’re practically one of the locals.
But you know deep inside that you’re far from it.
It’s time now to take things to the next level. Move outside your comfort zone.
Before you start kicking and screaming, remember that you already moved outside your comfort zone by coming here in the first place. Your friends are still back home, liking your Facebook posts from the comfort of their home, but you’re here! So why stop just before the finish line?
It’s time to make new friends. Local friends.
Join some clubs. Volunteer. Do anything – just get out there interacting with people.
Engaging in new experiences will expose you to new situations where you’ll need to learn new Chinese to keep up. The good news is that you already know what you need to do to get up to speed. Follow the same steps you did above. Rinse, wash and repeat.
Supplement with Other Resources
Following the steps above will take you a long way from “just getting by” to being able to master the Chinese you know to experience local life here.
To complete your learning however, I recommend you supplement your learning with 3rd party resources like CLO (of course). This will provide you with additional benefits:
- Vocabulary that you might not have encountered so far (but will in the future)
- Grammar explanations that will make sense of what you’ve been hearing so far (but weren’t able to explain)
- Confidence to explore new situations by preparing you in advance
- Learning proper pronunciation that some locals may not have
If you have any additional tips to learning street Chinese that aren’t covered above, do share them below!