A Road Map for Chinese Learners:
How to Reach True Advanced Level in Four Years or Less
First Year (Beginning) Chinese:
- l Speak excellent Chinese with accurate pronunciation and tones, OK if in slightly lower than natural speed.
- l Understand basic grammar rules.
- l Be able to engage in communications on topics taught in the textbook orally or in writing. You can express yourself in complex sentences or short paragraphs with limited vocabulary.
- l Recognize 600 or more Chinese characters that form 1,000 or more Chinese words.
- l By the end of the second semester, your oral proficiency level should be Novice High.
- l You should pay great attention to pronunciation and tones to lay a solid foundation to future success. You will have greater difficulties to correct if you have got used to wrong pronunciation/tones.
- l When you read the lessons, you must read aloud because that will help you memorize better.
- l Don't forget the goal is to speak Chinese in a natural speed. It is NOT natural to make too many pauses.
- l It is a bad habit to read the pinyin text instead of reading Chinese characters. The best way is to listen to the audio recording while reading a lesson.
- l For Chinese characters, hand-writing is NOT so important at this stage. It takes too much time to practice hand-writing and therefore it is not an efficient way to learn Chinese. Use computer to write Chinese (full pinyin input to write Chinese characters). Use larger font (24 or larger) to stimulate your memory. NEVER write pinyin with pen because pinyin is just a tool, NOT a form of Chinese language.
- l A very useful exercise is to listen to the audio recording of a lesson and typewrite it in Chinese. Compare the Chinese you created with the textbook if see if there is any mistake.
- l Most of the textbooks of the Beginning Chinese teach Standard (idealized) Spoken Chinese that is neutral (neither formal nor informal). Don't be surprised when you hear native speakers say something differently or even contrary to the grammar rules that are often with limits.
Q and A
Q: Should I consider going to China to learn beginning Chinese?
A: Although some programs in China offer first year classes, I don't recommend because Chinese teachers in the United States often know the needs of beginners better and the environment is not too important for a beginner. If you can only stay in China for one semester or one summer in your 4 years of college, the ideal time should be for Intermediate or Advanced levels.
Q: I just want to learn speaking Chinese so I don't need to learn Chinese characters.
A: Well, you can do that. As I know, however, there is a great chance that you will regret when you want to reach a higher level. I am sure you don't want to be an illiterate. To learn Chinese characters is not so difficult although hand-writing is really difficult.
Q: Some say if you don't use pen to write but use computer to typewrite, you will not be able to memorize Chinese characters. Is that true?
A: Some experiments show just the contrary. Computerized learning of Chinese characters will enhance students' ability of recognize more Chinese characters. Now in China, most people use computer to write. There is no reason for our students to ban computer input of Chinese characters. However, hand-writing is surely a plus since calligraphy has been a significant part of Chinese cultural heritage. The key point here is on this beginning level, it is not worth spending too much time on hand-writing.
Q: I understand there are two writing systems: traditional and simplified. Should I know both? If so, should I start with traditional Chinese characters since, as some suggest, it is much easier for one who knows traditional characters to learn simplified characters?
A: You don't need to learn both in this stage. Knowing both is a goal for advanced learners. You may start with either. Nowadays there are more people to start with simplified characters since there are apparently more people in the world to be using simplified characters. When one reaches advanced level, it is not too hard to learn the other writing system by intensive reading. With computer, to converse one into the other may be as easy as a single click (depending on your computer settings and software). If you are interested in Chinese history and intend to read of many classical writings, to start with traditional character will be a better choice.
Q: Should I try to understand the meaning of each characters of which a word consist?
A: Better not at this stage. I would suggest Intermediate learners to start doing so because then you will have enough characters/words to make analysis.
Second Year (Intermediate) Chinese
- Listening: You should be able to understand normal speed Chinese dialogues and monologues on a many school and everyday life (survival) topics as well as some social issues if the speakers are speaking standard spoken Chinese (no obvious accent, neither too formal nor too colloquial).
- Speaking: You can clearly express yourself in short but well connected paragraphs with some elaborations and limited idiomatic phrases. Your speech should be close to natural speed.
- Reading: You can recognize 1,000 to 1,200 Chinese characters or around 3,000 frequently used Chinese words/phrases (including some colloquial and formal expressions) and read short articles modified for foreign students on topics as mentioned above.
- Writing: You can write simple personal letters, short articles that discuss some common social and cultural issues taught in your textbooks.
- Grammar: You can correctly choose proper structures and sentences patterns frequently used in standard spoken Chinese.
- Cultural knowledge: You should have a better understanding of Chinese culture and society.
- Your oral proficiency should reach at least Intermediate Mid level by the end of the 2nd semester.
- If you take HSK test, you should get at least level 3.
- It is an ideal time for you to study in China on this level. You may consider joining a good intensive summer program in China or stay in China for one semester. If so can accelerate your Chinese learning and reach true advanced level in three years. Obviously, you will have a better learning environment there.
- You have learned most of the fundamental structures and many patterns of the standard spoken Chinese. To understand to use them in the most appropriate contexts is the crucial.
- Patterns and vocabulary are very important for this period so you will spend most of the time in drills to practice the patterns and most significant words. In certain sense, your achievements in this period will be quantitative and this is a preparation for the breakthrough in the next stage.
- Learn some more colloquial expressions not found in the first year textbook and try your best to use them.
- For writing, however, just write what you want to say. Although you may have been exposed to some written style reading materials, it is no hurry to imitate them because you have not yet been given the rules.
- You may start to group the characters you have learned.
Q and A
Q: I am learning many new characters/words each day but I am forgetting a lot words/characters each day too. How could I avoid forgetting these learned characters/words?
A: It is quite natural to forget something old when you are learning something new. The most important thing for you is to use the language to express yourself. Then, you will naturally need both the words you have just learned and those you learned a while ago. A study shows that for Chinese characters 1,500 is a threshold or turning point. After you can well recognize 1,500 Chinese characters, you will not forget old ones when learning new ones because the characters you have learned are enough for you to connect them in a system. In other words, you will know all the characters are connected with a fixed number of radicals and sound elements.
Q: In China I found with surprise that the tones of most Chinese are not standard. Does that mean tones are not so important?
A: The tones of local dialects are surely different from standard Mandarin. But they have their own rules and most of the native speakers can understand the people from other regions. The natural tone differences are expected and will not hinder communications significantly. Unfortunately, your wrong tones may not be identical with any of the known Chinese local dialects so that they will lead to misunderstanding and mis-communication.
Q: Should I try to read Chinese newspapers and magazines?
A: Not yet the time for you since you have not yet learned written Chinese systematically. Try your best to understand the most difficult lessons of your textbook is more realistic.
Q: The 入乡随俗 textbook seems more difficult than most of the other textbooks. What are the advantages of using it?
A: Different from many other intermediate textbooks, this one is designed to expose you with more colloquial Chinese expressions although the grammar system is still based on the standard spoken Chinese. In the last part of the volume 2, you read some articles in written style or semi-written style. This will make you very well prepared for the next stage, the real advanced Chinese.
Third Year (Advanced I) Chinese
- Listening: A milestone is that you will be able to catch the main meanings of authentic Chinese news announcements (radio and TV) although as well as colloquial Chinese used in Chinese movies and TV dramas (without influence of local dialects/accents) although you will unavoidably miss some "technical" details. At the same time, you can understand the speech of native speakers in a wider range of topics even if they use quite a few colloquial or classical idiomatic phrases.
- Speaking: You can express your ideas deeper and more clearly in a wider range of topics with more properly used idiomatic phrases although you are not yet able to make a formal speech without preparation. You can also narrate a well organized story with both elaborate frame and enough details.
- Reading: A milestone is that you can read authentic Chinese writings beyond your textbooks which now consist of authentic or slightly modified reading materials. These authentic writings include: headline news, short news reports, short social/cultural comments, and short stories. However, your reading speed will still be relatively slow (60-100 characters per min.). Now you can recognize 1,500-1,800 Chinese characters or over 5,000 Chinese words/idiomatic expressions. As mentioned above, 1,500 characters mark a turning point: You will no longer forget a lot of "old" characters since you can always link the newly learned characters with the previously learned ones.
- Writing: You can write short (1-2 pages) social/cultural comments in appropriately written style (not as formal as academic writings) and can also write well organized and detailed stories based on your own experiences.
- Grammar: You understand very well the distinction between Standard Spoken Chinese and Written Chinese (not only knowing the vocabulary differences but also the structural differences). You also know something about the distinction between Standard Spoken Chinese and Colloquial Chinese, although not thoroughly yet. You understand the basic rules of how to use Chinese idiomatic phrases.
- Culture: Now you know much better and deeper about Chinese culture and society for both built-in cultural heritages (e.g. idiomatic phrases) and contents.
- By the end of the semester, your oral proficiency level should reach at least advanced low. If you take HSK test, you should get at least Level 5 (6 or 7 is possible).
- In the beginning, you may feel the Written (Formal) Chinese very difficult. That is normal because you have been learning Standard Spoken Chinese. As a matter of fact, they are quite easy since they have almost fixed formats. For example, the news report today is nothing too different in terms of format and patterns from those of 60 years ago. Try to get familiar with the patterns and you will make fast progress.
- Now you need to take some time to reflect on the relationship between Chinese characters and words. Many Chinese characters themselves are single syllable words but some are just word elements used to form multi-syllable words. A word element cannot be used as a grammar unit. Then, you can understand the structure of Chinese words better and when you encounter a new word you have not yet learned, you can guess the meaning by the word elements of which the word consist.
- It is also the right time for you to understand "Sound Elements" within characters. As you know, 85% or more Chinese characters consist of radicals to indicate meanings and sound elements to indicate sounds. To group them yourself and you will learn Chinese characters faster and better.
- Try to read something beyond textbooks. Do NOT read modified reading materials and go to the authentic. Find something in which you are really interested. Attention, they should not be too long (no more than two pages). Guess the meaning of new words before looking at dictionary.
- In writing, try to apply the newly learned patterns and idiomatic phrases. A common problem for Chinese learners is to repeatedly use the 1st and 2nd year patterns and words and to feel that is the most natural. However, Chinese native speakers do not write that way.
Q and A
Q: My oral Chinese still needs improvement so I don't understand why we should pay such a great attention to written Chinese.
A: The Chinese language has four sub-systems and they are all very important: Colloquial Chinese, Standard Spoken Chinese, Written or formal Chinese, and Classical Chinese. If you don't know colloquial Chinese, you will not be able to understand contemporary movies; if you don't know formal Chinese, you will not be able to understand Chinese newspapers, magazines, business documents, and almost all kinds of authentic materials in writing; if you don't understand classical Chinese, you will not be able to fully understand academic papers. After learning 2nd year Chinese, you already have a quite good command of the standard spoken Chinese. It is high time for you to widen your Chinese skills except for Classical Chinese which will be an important part of your 5th year Chinese. To decode the written Chinese is your current task but you will also learn colloquial (informal) Chinese and improve your standard spoken Chinese you have been learning since the very beginning.
Q: Why don't we start learning written Chinese with short stories?
A: Two reasons: First, short stories are not written in typical Written (Formal) Chinese. A common practice is to use a special written style for the narrative parts but spoken (usually very informal) style for the conversations. Second, authors of the short stories have strong personal styles that differentiate from each other. On the contrary, the social/political comments share largely the identical style. So are the news reports. But we shall learn some short stories to use them as models to improve your narrating skills.
Q: Shall we use idiomatic phrases in formal writing only?
A: There are two kinds of idiomatic phrases, classical ones and colloquial ones. The colloquial ones are mainly used in everyday life conversation while the classical ones can be used in many occasions, either in writing or in speech. Even in everyday life conversations, you may use classical idiomatic phrases that may create humorous effects.
Fourth Year (Advanced II) Chinese
- Listening and speaking: You can talk to a native speaker confidently at natural speed in a great variety of topics except for some professional/technical topics. Even if the native speaker speaks with slight local accent, you can still understand quite well. You can speak elegantly in formal occasions although preparations are needed.
- Reading: A milestone for this stage is you will master your skills of fast reading. Your reading speed will be over 200 Chinese characters per minute. You recognize over 2,500 Chinese characters and over 8,000 Chinese words. You can successfully decode most of the new words in given context if they are formed by the characters you know. You can read and respond to academic writings.
- Writing: You can write longer social/cultural comments and short research papers that meet or be close to the quality of publication in Chinese newspapers and journals. You can also write creatively, composing vivid short stories and descriptive prose.
- Grammar: You understand the rules of collocation of Chinese words (quantitative syllable requirement as well as other requirements). You understand the special rules of colloquial Chinese.
- Culture: You will have a comprehensive understanding of Chinese society, culture, and history.
- Your oral proficiency level shall reach at least Advanced Mid. If you take HSK test, you shall get at least Level 7 (But you may try advanced level and Level 9 is not impossible).
- At this stage, the way of your Chinese learning has changed dramatically. You are rather using Chinese than learning Chinese. You get important information from Chinese sources and you communicate with Chinese people in writing and speech effectively. In other words, you should "forget" you are learning Chinese but just do things in Chinese. Don't focus on words, patterns, grammars, etc. Focus on contents!
- For the above reason, you may try to find out of campus opportunities (internship, projects, etc.) that require using the Chinese language.
- Now the task for you is not only how to express yourself clearly but also how to do it better. You need to set up a higher standard for yourself.
- In speech, you need to understand the social linguistic functions of the three styles: Colloquial style shows a close relationship; formal style demonstrates professionalism or sometimes an intention to keep a distance from the listener; the standard spoken style is neutral.
- In fast reading, you don't need to understand every words/phrases. You just need to catch the main meaning. If you really want to understand something interesting, then you should slow down and read every word carefully.
- Believe in yourself. You can publish your article in Chinese. It is NOT a dream but a reality.
- If you have been using simplified Chinese characters, now is the time for you to try to read traditional racters. If you have been using traditional characters, now is the time for you to try simplified characters.
Q and A
Q: I have concerns with learning colloquial Chinese. Maybe it is more proper for a foreigner to speak Standard Spoken Chinese than to use slangs.
A: Colloquial Chinese is not equal to Chinese slangs. It is a more natural and humorous way to speak Chinese. You can pick up the proper words within the system and avoid using slangs. The benefits are not only for your speaking but for your understanding also. By learning it, you will understand Chinese movies and TV series much better.
Q: I don't think my Chinese is good enough for creative writing.
A: To learn creative writing is the most efficient way of improving your Chinese at this stage. The main purpose of writing short stories is not to publish them but to make you a better Chinese narrator. If you really want to speak and write like a native speaker, you should try it.
Q: Is it really important to pay attention to the prosadic/syllabic requirements of word collocations? Does it really matter if I break the rule?
A: Yes. This requirement is part of Chinese grammar system. If put a single syllable object after a formal bi-syllable verb, the problem is not just weird but wrong. This is the time for you to study the rules and get used to them so that you can speak and write in line with the requirements naturally.
Be able to engage in communications on topics taught in the textbook orally or in writing. You can express yourself in complex sentences or short paragraphs with limited vocabulary.
Recognize 600 or more Chinese characters that form 1,000 or more Chinese words.
By the end of the second semester, your oral proficiency level should be Novice High.