It’s hard. Very hard. You might say the same for any language though. People are put off by languages that use characters or weird and wonderful scripts over ones that contain letters and sounds similar to their native tongue, but in reality it is just as difficult to become a fluent speaker of German as it is to become a fluent speaker of Mandarin Chinese.
I’m not entirely certain whether there is a best way to do it. I do know that there are certainly no short cuts and that any program or course promising that you will be fluent in a week is not to be believed. Like any language, it is down to hard work. My own Chinese learning started when I was a teenager and my father was posted to Guangdong. I was surrounded by Chinese speakers, all of whom, I was fairly certain, were talking about me and it was then that I resolved to learn.
On my return to the UK, I was fortunate enough to find a relatively inexpensive course in Manchester’s Chinatown, taught by a Ph.D student at the University who had come from China. At that time, with nobody to speak with, I worked on my reading and writing for an hour or two every day. This is probably why, to this day, my reading is still better than my speaking, but once I moved to Beijing, my speaking and listening improved rapidly by being immersed in the day-to-day chatter.
The background I had gained beforehand helped me enormously with grammatical anomalies and nuances which people trying to learn through speaking and listening alone will miss. I recall being terribly disappointed after my first visit to Beijing in 2000 and, having learned Chinese for a few months, not really being able to communicate that well. There is often a great disparity between theoretical language learning and what one hears and says in the real world. I am sure any student of the Queen’s English can back me up on that. I almost take the written language and the spoken as two separate entities, which has served me well, and this is particularly true for Chinese. Once I understood that there were almost two languages, I was able to play them off against one another and use them to improve my overall ability.
My golden rule when I was learning Chinese came from a friend of mine from New Zealand: if people say your Chinese is good, then it isn’t good enough. When they don’t say anything and treat you as a native speaker, then you know your Chinese is really good. So after about 7 years of living in China, people stopped complimenting me on my Mandarin and started asking about my strong Beijing accent. It was then that I knew the hard work had paid off.
My tips for learning aren’t anything new but I would encourage people to avoid socialising (and, if possible, working) in native language environments. Instead, hanging around with Chinese people and speaking in Mandarin forces you to focus. I would also use the written language as a gateway to the spoken language by using some simple texts. There are many books out there but I learned from a really old series of books that were published in the 1980s containing solid exercises in grammar and reading and writing characters without any of the tips and tricks or shortcuts so popular these days.
There are many advantages to learning a language and even though I haven’t lived in China for a while, I still feel proud of myself for toughing it out and it still comes in handy every now and then. Of course, one should always remember that a language is an ever-changing organism and there are no doubt many new slang words that I don’t know, but with a solid foundation, it is always easier to return and pick these up quickly. If you have started to learn and want to give up, my advice is simple—don’t! It is worth it.