I believe anyone who has spent any amount of time studying a foreign language can agree with me that there are five things to focus on: reading, writing, listening, speaking, and grammar. Here’s how after almost two years of studying Chinese (when I say Chinese I mean simplified Mandarin) the importance of these different focuses have come into play for me: Reading a.k.a Character Recognition
There is no “just sound it out” in Chinese (or any character-based language for that matter). There are different radicals (components that make up a character) that mean certain things, and becoming familiar with these can sometimes help you figure out the overall meaning of a character. For example, 木 (mù) means ‘wood,’ and 森林 (sēn lín) means ‘forest.’ Which makes sense right? Lots of wood equals a forest. On the other hand, 足 (zú) means ‘foot’ or ‘leg,’ and 跟 (gēn) means ‘with.’ Much less helpful.
It’s basically a lot of straight memorization. Of course, the characters I see and use most often I can more easily read.
How to study: read the given text
Writing a.k.a Character Recall
This is a huge weakness of mine. I’ll even ignore the fact that my handwriting is roughly similar to that of a six-year-old’s, and stroke order might as well not exist for me (there is a certain way one is supposed to write characters: top to bottom, left to right, outside to inside, etc.). Even putting these things aside, I can still write far fewer characters from memory than I can read when they are put in front of me.
It’s difficult because every single stroke matters. Every dot, dash, and line. This is because without that one dot, you could change the entire character’s meaning. For example: 大 (dà) means ‘big,’ and 太 (tài) means ‘too, overly, excessively, etc.’ Both are commonly used, but not at all in the same way. The more I learn the easier it gets, but it’s very difficult for me to recall all the initially random-seeming parts of a character. Before I associate the character with its accompanying sound and meaning it might as well be a child’s scribbles.
How to study: write on a topic, forcing you to use what is useful & repetition repetition repetition
Listening and Speaking
Of course this is perhaps the most vital for communicating with others, so it’s what I tend to focus most of my energies on. In my mind, these can be further broken down into:
Vocab. Of course I can’t say anything if I don’t know any words. So improving my word bank is one of the most valuable things I’ve been able to do with my study time. The easiest way to remember is to use them! The words I use most often in conversation are the ones I never have to worry about come test time.
Pronunciation. Chinese is a tonal language. In these languages pronunciation takes on a whole new level of importance. For example: mǎ can mean number (码) or horse (马), má (麻) is a generic name for hemp or flax fibers, mā (妈) means mother, mà (骂) means to scold or abuse, and ma (吗) is a question particle. One can see why it could be bad to mix these up. It also doesn’t help that there are many instances like that first mǎ where one sound with one tone can have multiple characters and meanings.
I may be worse at this than writing characters. The importance is not lost on me, but I just can’t seem to remember the correct tone in addition to the word itself. I get to talking, and the tones just don’t happen. It doesn’t help that I also have trouble distinguishing between the tones when others are speaking too. In conversation one can usually rely on context, and everyone seems to be pretty gracious in understanding that tones are difficult for westerners.
How to study: listen to recordings & get a language partner
Chinese grammar reminds me a lot of Yoda. Bear with me. The subject and object are backwards from English, and time comes first. For example, “let’s go eat lunch together at noon” becomes “noon us together go eat lunch.” There are lots of other rules, nuances, and differences. Some are easier, some are more difficult, and some are so different as to have no English comparison. Unfortunately, I’m not the best at explaining them. I curse my idiocy in refusing to learn the names of the parts of a sentence in grade school. I thought it was stupid. Now, it’s a hindrance when my teachers are using these terms that everyone should know to explain a concept.
How to study: review notes and graded homework & pay attention when someone is kind enough to correct
So where's the fun?
Preparing for this endeavor, I kept forgetting about the actual “study” part of the semester. And honestly, I still do. Don’t get me wrong, class is vitally important. But the best thing about focusing solely on language for a semester means that best way for me to study is: go out and have fun! I just have to make sure I’m having fun in Chinese. It's not too difficult when living in such an international community. When we make a point to ignore English (which most people seem to have knowledge of) our only common language is Chinese!