Learning Chinese is not mission impossible. In fact, focusing from the start on the right aspects of the language will make your learning easier and even more fun.
As you plan your internship in China, make sure that you don't just focus on the specific job and the company you will work for. Commit also to learn basic Mandarin - or what we call 'survival Chinese' - as an essential component for the success of your China's adventure.
Great. But how to get started?
Three Key Areas to Focus On
1. Learn The Basics Of Pinyin
Pinyin is the phonetic translation of Chinese characters. Call it "spelling', if you prefer. Or, even better, 'spelling with tones' (more on tones below).
Pinyin is our friend! In fact, without pinyin, it would be really difficult for Westerners to learn Chinese. Thanks to pinyin, we are not only able to 'read' the characters but we also know how they should be pronounced.
2. Practice Pronunciation And Tones
One of the key differences between Chinese and the most popular Western languages - such as English, Spanish, German, French, Italian - is that Chinese has tones. Four tones, to be precise - plus a mute one (so, 4+1).
What this means is that a word with the same spelling - for example 'ma' - will actually have (at least) four different meanings depending on the tone used and, of course, four different characters.
Check this out: same spelling, but different tones = different characters = (very!) different meanings
mā 妈 mother
má 麻 hemp
mǎ 马 horse
mà 骂 to scold
ma 吗 no English meaning here (it's a particle used to formulate a question)
Now, while characters are fascinating to study and tell us tons of stories about the culture and the history of China, it is also a very time-consuming effort.
If you want to reach quickly the survival Chinese level that many interns aim for, you may want to leave characters for later and just focus on pinyin for now.
With pinyin, you must also focus on the right pronunciation of tones. Here is where hearing the same sound several times and practicing pronunciation becomes super important (if you want to be understood, that is).
3. Pick Up Vocabulary For Key Situations
There is good news: Chinese, more than Western languages, is very situational. This is because (survival) Chinese grammar is actually quite simple if compared to the complex verb conjugations, rules and exceptions of languages like French or Italian.
Therefore, survival conversations can fairly easily revolve around key-words for specific situations.
This means is that if you develop the basic vocabulary for the most common situations, you will be able to have simple interactions with Chinese people.
A Practical Example: Making Friends in China
Watch the video in this article. The basic vocabulary for making friends does not require thousands of words. Learning a few dozen words around the situation 'making friends' will already get you long way. Once again, the key is to be able to pronounce each word with its correct tones. To do this, you need to practice listening and speaking.
Don't be shy, we have all been there: try out the key words with Chinese people and use their reactions and feedback to improve your pronunciation.
Once you break the ice, you will see how easy it is to make new Chinese friends, some of whom may become your best Chinese teachers.