Scaling a Great Wall: Top 5 Tips for Learning Chinese

By guest author:
Saul Gitlin, EVP-Strategic Services

Kang & Lee Advertising – A Young & Rubicam Brands/WPP Group Company

As a non-Asian student in the 1980’s who graduated with a B.A. in Chinese language and history from Cornell, and an M.A. in East Asian Studies from Yale focused on classical Chinese literature, I became somewhat of a “curiosity”for family and friends. Back then, China was only just starting to emerge from its isolation in the international community, and my own interest in studying Chinese raised many eyebrows – as if I was pursuing a subject which was way out on the fringe, and had little practical career applications.

When I subsequently began my career in business after completing an M.B.A at Columbia in the early 1990s, China was already starting to flex its commercial and political muscles on the international scene. However, even at that time, many of my acquaintances and business colleagues in the United States still viewed my fluency in Chinese as not much more than an unusual topic for social conversation, and an ability that would enable me to order the best, and most authentic food in Chinese restaurants.

That was then, this is now.

In 2006, China’s central and growing role in international political and business affairs is both universally recognized, and constantly making headlines across the world. As a result, the United States has now, finally, been bitten with Chinese language fever. In cities across our country, Chinese language programs are rapidly emerging to address the needs of busy business professionals who are looking to fast-track a working competency in Chinese.

At the same time, the recently enacted National Security Education Program’s Chinese K-16 Pipeline Project has injected new urgency to the development of Chinese language education at the primary and secondary school levels, and our media has already begun to broadcast images of elementary school students engaged in Chinese dialogues, and forming their first written Chinese characters.

According to Claudia Ross, my first Chinese teacher at Cornell, who is now Professor of Chinese at Holy Cross College and a twice past-president of the Chinese Language Teacher’s Association, the 2005 academic year witnessed an unprecedented spike in Chinese language enrollments at colleges and universities across the country. Our institutions of higher learning are now scrambling to keep up with this emerging demand, and Fall 2006 enrollments in Chinese courses are expected to reach record levels.

Against this backdrop, my own Chinese language fluency has suddenly placed me in the position of “trusted advisor”for colleagues and students who are increasingly seeking me out for advice on how to best learn this language. So, from one long-term student of Chinese, to all those who aspire to achieve a working knowledge of this fascinating language, here are my top five insights:

1. Understand that Chinese, while difficult, can also be very easy to learn.

Most people believe that Chinese is one of the most difficult languages in the world. In some senses, this is true. The Chinese writing system is non-alphabetic, comprising thousands of pictographs called “characters,” which need to be studied and internalized through rote memorization and constant reading and writing over a long period of time. Additionally, Chinese is a tonal language, meaning that changing the shape of one’s voice over a single syllable can actually generate multiple words with multiple meanings. The most famous example in Mandarin Chinese is the syllable “ma” which, depending on how it is pronounced, might mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or the verb “to scold.” This is a feature of the spoken language which does not exist in the same form in Western languages, and therefore can pose great challenges to many non-Asian students.

However, what most non-Chinese do not realize is that the language boasts one of the easiest grammars in the world. Sentence structure largely mirrors that of English (subject + verb + object). Verbs exist in a single form, with no conjugations whatsoever.

There is no gender, no plural nouns, and while mechanisms do exist to express tense (e.g. past/present/future), they are much simpler than those of any Western language. American students who are much more familiar with both Spanish and French would instantly find Chinese grammar refreshingly basic, and much more accessible than those languages.

2. Learn Mandarin, not Cantonese.

There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of regional and local spoken Chinese dialects which have developed over the long period of China’s classical history when transportation was rudimentary, broadcast media non-existent, and most people lived and died within a small radius of their birth places. Although speakers of all Chinese dialects share the same, non-phonetic written language, many of the dialects are mutually unintelligible when spoken, giving rise to the unique ability of Chinese speakers from different regions to write to each other, even when they cannot speak with each other. Among Chinese who have emigrated, the two most common spoken dialects are Mandarin and Cantonese. For example, within the largest Chinese communities in the United States, each of these dialects accounts for roughly half of all speakers.

For non-Chinese seeking to learn the language, though, Mandarin is the clear choice. Mandarin, the predominant dialect in Northern China, is the official language of politics, education, and media in both Mainland China and Taiwan, and it is one of the four official languages of Singapore. Even in Hong Kong, which historically has been a Cantonese-speaking area, Mandarin use is on the rise since the return of China’s sovereignty in 1997. In Mainland China, the Chinese word for “Mandarin” translates as the “common language,” and outside of the Mainland it is most often referred to as the “national language” both these terms are indicative of the broad reach which a competency in Mandarin can afford a speaker. Fortunately, for students of Chinese, Mandarin is also arguably the easiest of all the Chinese dialects to learn, owing to a tonal structure which is much simpler than that of Cantonese and most other dialects.

3. Speak first, then decide if you need to read and write.

Given the complexity of the Chinese written language, contrasted to the comparative simplicity of the grammar, prospective students of Chinese would do well to focus on learning to speak first, and only then tackle the written language if their studies or business require them to do so. While the tonal character of the spoken language is a challenge, this can be mastered fairly quickly, in contrast to the many years needed to achieve a working familiarity with the several thousand written characters that most educated Chinese adults have learned. Of course, most Chinese language programs simultaneously teach both the spoken and written language. It is up to the individual student to decide where to emphasize his or her needs.

4. If you do decide to write Chinese, consider learning “simplified” characters.

There are two major Chinese writing systems currently in use in the world — “traditional” or “complicated” Chinese characters, and “simplified” Chinese characters. Traditional characters are the characters which evolved from ancient Chinese pictographs, and which have been used throughout most of Chinese history to modern times. Many of these characters are, at the same time, both beautiful and complex, requiring students of Chinese to spend many hours and nights practicing intricate “stroke orders” to properly form words. Beginning in the middle of last century, the government in Mainland China began to promulgate an alternate system of Chinese writing called “simplified” characters in an effort to dramatically increase written literacy throughout the country. For many characters, this system significantly reduces the number of brush or pen strokes required to form specific words, thereby enabling students to more quickly commit the characters to memory.

Today, simplified characters are the official script of both Mainland China and Singapore, while traditional characters are still the norm in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and within most Chinese immigrant communities throughout the world. While I would still encourage students of Chinese who intend to spend many years developing and refining their abilities to begin by learning traditional characters (and only then overlay a knowledge of simplified characters), anyone seeking to accelerate his acquisition of the written language would do well to begin with the simplified script.

5. Take your studies seriously.

Unlike many Western languages which share some common linguistic roots with English and which can often be learned fairly quickly with a large amount of self-study, acquiring a basic competency in a language as different from English as Chinese requires a high level of commitment and perseverance. Practically speaking, this means that:

  • Unless you have an unusual aptitude for learning foreign languages, you probably won’t learn Chinese in a once-a-week, one-hour private session. Rather, start by looking for an established Chinese language program or workshop. Universities and established language schools are a good place to start. Some colleges even offer intensive courses that cram a full year of basic Chinese into 4-8 weeks. Do your homework to find the best program.
  • If you still seek a tutorial, merely looking for a native speaker of Chinese to study with does not always mean you will obtain the best instruction. Chinese immigrants constitute the single largest Asian American population, representing 3+ million people nationwide, many of whom would be happy to teach new students of Chinese. However, teaching Western students to overcome the unique hurdles of the language is a skill. If you decide on private lessons, look for a native-speaker with proven professional or private teaching credentials, as well as a roster of former student references.
  • Finally, practice, practice, practice. The good news is that those 3+ million Chinese Americans are our neighbors. Once you have developed basic conversational skills, go into the top Chinese communities of our country and speak. Order a lunch, buy a book, chit-chat about the weather, or ask for directions — even if you don’t need any! Westerners who have mastered Chinese will also unanimously confirm that real fluency comes only when one has spent some time in a Chinese-speaking region of Asia. So, get ready for your next business trip, take advantage of the many short-term or long-term Chinese language courses available in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, or Singapore, or just plan a personal or family adventure to Asia.

One of those very famous Chinese sayings says, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”Well, it definitely does not need to take a “thousand miles” to learn Chinese, but the time is certainly now ripe for more Americans to take that first step.

About the Author:
Saul Gitlin is the Executive Vice President of Strategic Marketing Services and New Business for Kang & Lee Advertising, ranked as the #1 Asian multicultural agency by Advertising Age in May 2005. Prior to joining Kang & Lee in 1997, Saul worked for 9 years overseas, including 7 years in senior operations and marketing positions for multinational corporations in the People’s Republic of China. He is completely fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Hebrew, and French. Saul may be contacted at or 212-375-8130.

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9 thoughts on “Scaling a Great Wall: Top 5 Tips for Learning Chinese”

  1. Nihao Saul,

    I’m glad that we share the same view in the 5 points you outlined contrary to most people’s perceptions that Chinese is ‘the most difficult’ language to learn. Fullstop.

    As a 1st generation Australian Chinese with a strong sense of Chinese heritage instilled, (with my mother being a Chinese language cultural ars teacher plus my father being a Chinese calligrapher), I feel dismayed that we have a lot of people wanting to learn but most leaving because of this misconception or irrelevant teaching styles.

    Your article has cleared the mist and supports my mission now to help anyone, anywhere Start Speaking Chinese in 58 Minutes with No Pen, No Paper.

    To Everyone’s Chinese learning success!

    Start Speaking Chinese With Your Eyes Closed at:

  2. Wow!
    Thanks for posting!
    This is really helpful!!

    Im a junior in high school and have already begun to study Chinese character. I decided to put off oral fluency becuase I dont really need it now. I’ll be taking Chinese in college.

    Anyway, these tips really help a lot!

  3. I am a zero knowledge about chinese. What i read clear my mind in many ways. Good tips what you are saying. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I am trying to decide which to learn, Cantonese or Mandarin. I am a native English speaker (United States) and have little exposure to either. I have been doing some research, and it looks like it may be better to learn Mandarin as an overall second language. However, it seems like Cantonese is a language that is needed to conduct business in Hong Kong. At this point I am not doing any business in China at all. My reason for wanting to learn the language(s) is to develop a skill set that will be in demand in the very near future (if not already).

    I was reading that it may be easier to learn Cantonese first and than add on Mandarin (if able to) so as to be more useful overall. This sounds like it may be very difficult to do.

    If I had to choose only one, which do you think I should learn, Cantonese or Mandarin?

    Is it possible to learn both simultaneously seeing as how they share a common written form?

    If it is possible to learn both simultaneously, do you know of (or recommend) any schools (or materials) that teach in this fashion (in U.S.)?

    Thank you for your time. I look forward to your response.


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