Humanly speaking, you -- the language learner -- are
the most important factor in the language learning process. Success or
failure will, in the end, be determined by what you yourself contribute.
It is vitally important, therefore, that you take charge of your language
learning program. Plan your study time -- and stick rigidly to it. Program
in talking time -- either straight after class or in the evenings -- and
go out and talk! Try to maintain this balance between 'input' and 'output'
right from the start.
People learn in different ways. Some need to be very
analytical: they need a rule for everything. Others are more intuitive:
they gather examples and imitate. Some need lots of repetition, others
less. You know yourself best and therefore will need to experiment in
order to discover what works best for you. Set out below are some ideas
which should prove helpful to you:
PREPARING FOR CLASS
Learning a new language involves remembering many rules about grammar,
pronunciation and vocabulary. Although your textbook and teacher will
organize this information in certain ways, you will still need to systematize
the material for reference and review. It is also vital that you establish
a regular schedule and stick rigidly to it. Strict self-discipline is
essential to mastering any language -- especially Chinese! However, ensure
variety in your studies by 'ringing the changes' from time to time. Don't
keep on with the same thing until you are bored with it. Here are some
suggestions which should help give you a varied approach to learning Chinese.
Try them out and discover the ones which best suit you:
- Write the vocabulary items on individual cards or slips of paper with
their translation on the reverse side. See how many words you can remember
from the English definition by turning them over one by one; then try
it the other way round. (This game is more fun if played with two or
more people!) Separate out the ones you find hard to recall and carry
them around with you in your pocket, reviewing them while waiting for
buses, standing in line to buy tickets, etc..
- Learn the words in the context of the sentences in the dialogues of
- Say the words out loud as you study them.
- Write down the words you find most difficult to memorize on a separate
sheet of paper and give extra time to them.
- Tape record the words and their definitions; then listen to the tape
several times. Use the 'pause' button to test yourself.
- Associate words with pictures.
- Group them by generic categories, e.g. furniture, foods, etc.; or
according to the situations in which they occur, e.g. under 'Post Office'
you can put stamps, aerograms, printed matter, etc. Another way is by
function, e.g. greetings, partings, thanking, conversation starters,
- Make sentences using the new vocabulary (and grammar patterns) ready
for use in class.
NOTE: with Chinese words, it is as important to remember the
tone as it is to remember how to pronounce it; if you can't remember the
tone, you've forgotten the word!
Always try to obtain cassette recordings of the dialogues and new vocabulary
of your textbooks. First listen to the cassette recording of the dialogue
just to get a feel for the content of the lesson. Use the 'pause' and
'rewind' buttons on your tape recorder to give yourself time to absorb
the content. Only when you have listened to it several times and have
understood the meaning should you try reading along with the cassette.
This will aid fluency and intonation. Listen to the cassette tape as many
times as possible before class -- you can't listen to it too much!
Some people perform better when first given a rule and then told to use
it to make sentences. Others prefer to be given lots of input and deduce
the rules for themselves. Find out which method works best for you. Keep
a notebook in which to write down the major grammar patterns. Then use
this for review, adding any new information you may acquire. Memorize
the key sentences in the dialogues. If there is something in your textbook
you don't understand, leave it for a while. A week or so later, you'll
suddenly discover that you understand it now!
Ear or Eye?
Use both your ears and eyes. Experiment to see if some tasks are better
accomplished through the eye while others are better accomplished through
the ear. For example, you may find that listening to tapes helps you improve
your oral comprehension and memorization of dialogues; but you may retain
vocabulary better if you use flash cards. Remember that applying the same
strategy to all tasks does not work. And try to find strategies that will
help you compensate for your weak areas.
USING CLASS TIME TO YOUR BEST
It cannot be over emphasized that the key to getting the most out of class
time is to be thoroughly prepared -- not only by being familiar with the
content of the lesson but by having any questions prepared beforehand.
As a group, try to work out a pace with your teacher which is neither
too fast nor too slow. If you have tutorials with your teacher and are
properly prepared, it may help if you suggest to your teacher where you
would like to be by the end of the lesson. If there is something you would
like to particularly work on (e.g. a difficult grammar pattern or sound),
ask your teacher if you could spend extra time on it after class (and
remember to show your appreciation!). Keep the classroom atmosphere as
congenial as possible. Learn to laugh at yourself. And don't forget to
thank your teacher for correcting you. Throw yourself into the activities
and imagine yourself communicating in real-life situations. Try to think
in the language right from the start.
Note each teacher's strong points and build on them,
i.e. save your questions on grammar for the teacher who can explain it
more clearly; get the teacher who is sharp on pronunciation to keep a
close watch on your sounds; and the one good on correcting tones to work
with you on them, possibly after class. Have a pronunciation 'check-up'
once a month: ask a teacher to note down all your regular pronunciation
and tonal problems and then work on them one at a time. Make beauty your
Try to be as creative as possible. Experiment with grammar
rules and vocabulary. Don't just use the sentences in your textbook --
try using words in new contexts. When going over the vocabulary in class,
you may find it helpful to see if the word usage is the same in English
as in Chinese (e.g. the Chinese word for 'dormitory' has a wider meaning
in Chinese than in English). Experiment by making sentences using the
word in a particular context and see if it is acceptable. In order not
to frustrate the other students in your class, some of this should best
be done in your tutorial class!
AFTER CLASS -- REVIEWING
Plan your review time. Review at least one lesson each day. Think how
you can use your computer to help you review.
Talk to yourself as you walk around or prepare a meal.
Listen to the tapes over and over again as you ride your bicycle or do
mundane things. Write a story using the new vocabulary and grammar patterns
and get your teacher to correct it. Note the vocabulary you had difficulty
remembering when in class and work on it specifically. This is where flash
cards come in handy. Write up your notes on the new grammar patterns in
Find a sympathetic Chinese friend with whom you can practice
regularly what you have just learnt. And when talking with your Chinese
friends, deliberately use the new words and grammar patterns just learnt
-- don't be lazy and use only what you already know. Your aim is to try
out what you've learnt recently on anyone who will listen!
SOME OTHER USEFUL IDEAS
Why not try out these ideas:
Try and make your learning of the Chinese language as enjoyable as possible
by inventing games for practicing Chinese. Note how others learn -- especially
the good language learners -- and try out their ideas yourself. Ask other
students how they arrange their notes, rules and vocabulary. Ask them
how they organize their practice, where they seek out native speakers,
etc.. If you can possibly learn with someone else, you will be able to
help each other and practice together.
- Label objects in your dormitory or apartment, e.g. furniture, utensils,
- Attach vocabulary lists to the walls of the bathroom and toilet.
- TV programs teaching English to Chinese young people are helpful as
they usually use simple Chinese, often translate the English into Chinese,
and tend to speak at a slower pace.
- Hold an imaginary conversation with yourself -- small children often
do this to great advantage.
- Before going out to buy something, rehearse beforehand the things
you will probably need to converse about; you will find that this will
make the communication process easier and more rewarding. Then, having
purchased what you wanted, go over in your mind the conversation you
just had and try to note what errors you made.
- Record yourself reading the dialogues in your textbook as this will
make you more aware of your common errors and therefore what you will
need to work on.
- Maintain an insatiable curiosity -- every situation is a learning
opportunity! Try to use everything around you to reach your language
- Keep a small notebook in your pocket and jot down new words as you
(The ideas for this article came from a variety of sources;
of particular note is the excellent book 'How to be a More Successful
Language Learner' by Rubin & Thompson, published by Heinle & Heinle.
This book is a goldmine of useful ideas on how to learn a language.)
Where and How to