After having taught foreigners to speak Chinese for more than five years, I have met many learners who come to me who have been taking Chinese lessons for a long time, but still can’t communicate in Chinese at all correctly.
So, how can Chinese students learn to speak good Chinese? In my professional opinion, do the following things to obtain the highest level of speaking ability:
Start by finding a professional teacher who speaks standard, native Chinese. This is better than learning Chinese, as some learners do, from language software. Although language software with a human voice is convenient, you’ll never get the feedback and reinforcement you need from a real teacher who will help you learn to correctly pronounce your Chinese pinyin (set of symbols for basic sounds — Chinese phonetics).
Although the process of learning Chinese phonetics probably only takes two or three weeks, you can never attach too much importance to correct pronunciation. As a beginner, it will be very hard for you to imitate the Chinese sounds correctly, so it’s crucial to a choose a native Chinese teacher to learn Chinese pronunciation.
Spoken Chinese serves to communicate in real life. Most people start speaking Chinese by learning individual words. But, that’s not the wisest way. Start with short and simple sentences, and learn a few very well to become fluent. Therefore, memorize and internalize sentences by practicing them 100 or even two hundred times. Very quickly, you’ll find you’re speaking Chinese as the Chinese do.
If you only learn separate words, then you’ll have to think about grammatical structure while creating Chinese sentences. This takes a lot of time and increases the risk of making inappropriate sentences that are not authentic at all.
Gradually but continuously, add new words and phrases to your vocabulary so as not to limit your speaking ability. A large vocabulary helps you to improve your communication in Chinese. Again, stick to everyday Chinese. Unless you have to, don’t try to tackle professional topics, such as medicine, mechanics and so on. This is hard to to accomplish even in your own language, let alone in Chinese, a foreign language.
Some of my students have trouble speaking in Chinese despite having a big vocabulary and good pronunciation. Why? It’s because they have no ideas or opinions in their minds. So, another thing that Chinese learners should do is collect and memorize other peoples’ ideas on various topics or themes when reading books, magazines or newspapers, whether in Chinese or in their own language.
One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to read material about a certain topic, learn the new words and memorize the author’s point of view, and then talk to your teacher (or language partner) about the topic.
Don’t avoid it. Spoken grammar is the right way to join words together to make new sentences to express your ideas in Chinese. Intermediate level learners should pay extra attention to the grammatical structure of Chinese sentences. Only when you understand the structure of complex sentences will you be able to make your meaning accurate, precise and clear to others.
Few people understand how differently Chinese is spoken by people from different regions of China. The English language is not affected in this regard to the extent that Chinese is. I mean, at least English speakers can understand each other even though they may be from different places of the same English-speaking country. But, in China, it’s totally different.
For example, the people from the Heilongjiang province of China sometimes cannot understand the Chinese spoken in the city of Shanghai, even when Shanghai people try to speak standard Chinese. So, don’t be surprised if two Chinese people cannot understand each other well if they’re not from the same area.
Your partner or instructor can detect the errors that you won’t recognize easily. When talking to your partner, take note of your mistakes whenever they occur. This will help you to continuously improve and avoid using the wrong word or sentence over and over.
No matter how you learn to speak Chinese, don’t be afraid of losing face (feeling ashamed of making mistakes). Nobody is born speaking well. Be bold and speak up!