I’m pretty sure all non-native Chinese speakers need some help every now and then. Oh, and I am talking about standard Mandarin Chinese (the kind Beijing speaks according to my laoshi), not one of the many other dialects available to confuse a student such as Cantonese, Hakka, Taiwanese or Shanghainese. For me the vocabulary is not a problem but the writing and tone differentiation can make a guy feel downright foolish. It has been about 15 weeks of study now and though I have come a long way from differentiating between the different forms of ma (马,吗,妈) the difference between third and fourth tone still is a bit of a challenge. I’ll talk about tools to help with that, but first, I don’t want to paint a bad picture for my language of choice so why not talk about the easy aspects of Chinese. For one, no verb conjugation. After taking Spanish, with its multiple conjugations and irregular verbs, not worrying about conjugation is a welcome change. To eat (chi,吃) easily becomes eaten by simply adding the particle le (eaten, chi le,吃了). Also asking a question is as simple as placing the word ma (吗) at the end of a sentence. In English tone implies you are asking a question; “Are you hungry?” would have a rising tone at the end to imply questioning, while Chinese is simply ni e ma (你饿吗). I have a feeling misinterpreting sarcasm and other misconceptions that occur in English writing are very rare in Chinese given the specificity of their writing.
I know it is only a few things, but no one said learning a new language was going to be easy. However, there are some websites to help you on your journey. The first is about.com which can give you all sorts of information on the history of Chinese as well as provide you with background on pronunciation and even a few words. Another good website suggested by my Laoshi is languageguide.org. This site provides simple vocabulary groups coupled with pictures to help in retention. Also, if you so choose, you can listen to vocab for each lesson. Chinese-tools.com is pretty much everything China you could want. From features called “crazy China” to dictionaries and vocabulary this site can fill you with Chinese to your hearts content and you can pick up some culture along the way. My absolute favorite for vocabulary is nciku.com. This site HAS IT ALL! Daily conversations are posted in both English and Chinese along with words of the day. You can look up any word in Chinese, English or Pinyin. Look-ups provide you with definitions, the Chinese character, the pinyin pronunciation and the option to hear it spoken by an actual native speaker. Also, if you want to practice your writing, it has video playback of stroke order for any character you choose. Not sure what a character means in Pinyin or English, you can actually draw it in and get a translation back. If you can’t tell, I love this site.
I hope for all you aspiring Chinese students this gives you some help, and for everyone else, check out the sites and see what you think of the language; it is not as intimidating as it may seem. With the teaching I am receiving in the MIM program and study of my outside resources, I think I am ready to take on China. Chinese vendors beware; I am ready to mai dongxi (buy things 买东西) and bargain for a discount.
Hope this helps you out. Study hard and don’t get discouraged; Chinese is bu tai nan(not too hard 不太难). You can do it!
– Adam 百俊杰