Conquer the Mountain
Learning a language is like climbing a mountain. Sometimes it’s difficult, but you always feel satisfied upon reaching the top. Sticking with this analogy, imagine that (for a native western language speaker), starting to learning Spanish or French is like starting from the base of the mountain on Day 1. On the flip side, Chinese is like starting with a journey of several miles along the flat plains before you start climbing the mountain. Why?
It’s The Dang 汉字！
If you learn any language that uses a Roman alphabet, you can start reading from the jump. Unfortunately, Chinese offers no such handicap to the new learning. Instead, you have to completely re-orient your brain to conceptualize radically different components that constitute words. This process is the most challenging aspect of acquiring the whole language, and your “elevation” up that mountain hasn’t even started until you start reading correctly. This can be discouraging for people, but there is a silver lining.
We’re painfully aware of how hard it is to conceptualize this in your early days, but Chinese characters and how they construct words is WAY more logical than roman alphabets. As a result, after you manage to get enough Chinese characters mastered, vocabulary & grammar are more straightforward than you could imagine. Not only that, as with most endeavors in life that are challenging, the reward of Chinese fluency is higher than other languages.
Re-Shaping Your Mind
Everyone knows that learning a second (or multiple) languages gives you more lenses by which to interpret the world around you, and because Chinese deconstructs even the most basic of language concepts (i.e., alphabets) down to their core and builds it back up, you can be sure your perspectives will shift. Your brain will change. You’ll successfully upgrade that which serves you only slightly less than your ability to pay attention: Your ability to think.
The Map to Get up the Mountain
Chinese Study Plan -- Step 1 -- Pronunciation
Imagine that the left side of the graph is today, and moving left to right you have your progress in Chinese over time. Pronunciation is the first step. It should be the first step in pretty much any language, but for Mandarin, it’s genuinely pivotal. There’s good news & bad news when it comes to Mandarin pronunciation. The bad news is that several of the sounds utilize tongue positions & mouth shapes that most westerners don’t use. The good news is that there are only 409 syllables (approx.) It’s for that reason that Pronunciation is master-able (www.mandarinblueprint.com/pronunciation), but will always be a part of your day-to-day life along the acquisition journey. We both still think about pronunciation. Daily. It merely requires far less effort than when we first started.
Chinese Study Plan -- Step 2 -- Characters
Next, get started on characters early (www.mandarinblueprint.com/characters). Hey, do we have your attention? Yes? Do not ignore characters. Repeat: DO NOT IGNORE CHARACTERS. With only 409 syllables, there are too many homophones to reach a high level of fluency without character understanding, but more importantly, you cannot read without characters, and reading is the fastest way to acquire any language.
Chinese Study Plan -- Step 3 -- Vocabulary
As you continue to learn characters, start combining them to learn vocabulary words (www.mandarinblueprint.com/vocabulary). The majority of Chinese vocabulary words are two characters, and if you already have learned said two characters then understanding the new word is a cinch. You can apply other excellent vocabulary learning techniques as well, but often the characters themselves provide a built-in mnemonic device. You just have to know the characters.
Chinese Study Plan -- Step 4 -- Grammar
Of course, vocabulary is only truly acquired after you’ve seen it in context, so after you have succeeded in understanding enough words to create simple sentences, start doing it. You’ve now started the grammar acquisition process because you are understanding messages (www.mandarinblueprint.com/grammar). You know the characters and words in the sentence, and thus you can be sure that the sentence is not full of pieces of information you don’t know.
Sadly, the majority of Chinese teachers do not ensure that you have adequately learned the component characters and words before introducing new sentences, and so your chances to understand the messages drop precipitously. You can’t skip directly to this step and expect to avoid frustration. Luckily, if you build up to it, you can acquire grammar the same way a child does. In other words, you don’t have to learn grammar rules.
Chinese Study Plan -- Step 5 -- Output
Finally, you can start speaking and writing (www.mandarinblueprint.com/output). Fortunately, you do not have to force this process. If you follow this plan, outputting the language will be something you want to do. You need not be a tyrant towards yourself, forcing yourself to speak when you haven’t yet acquired the language to do so. Let nature take its course by inputting first and letting output come naturally, 顺其自然. If you want a professional tutor as a conversation partner, our friends over at TutorMandarin have online tutoring sessions you can use directly from your phone, it’s awesome.