Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world and is the key to understanding the culture of over 1.2 billion people. Yet learning Chinese is quite a daunting challenge, particularly as it requires a lot of speaking practice and it can be hard to find someone sympathetic to practice with!
Online tutors can help you with your pronunciation and tones, but if paying for a tutor isn’t quite in your price range, language exchange is a good option for those willing to share knowledge of their native language in return.
Language exchange is an incredible way to dive into Chinese in particular, as you will:
- Learn new words and structures that native Chinese speakers use
- Improve your understanding, particularly of difficult Chinese tonal varieties
- Learn fascinating things about Chinese culture, including the best TV shows, films, books and music that will help your study
- Make new friends in the most exciting part of the world
Here are some top tips for making the most of your Mandarin language exchange!
Find the right partner
English, Japanese and Korean are the top three languages people are learning in China. If you can speak English to a decent level, it will be really easy for you to find a language exchange partner. English is one of the official subjects people learn from first grade in school in China, so you might find that your partner already has some reading and writing skills. They will be really eager to find partners to practice speaking and listening with!
Make sure you find someone with same language level in your native language as you have in Mandarin. This is important to keep the language exchange balanced. It is also a good idea to find a partner who has similar interests or hobbies to you – though bear in mind part of the fun of language exchange is being introduced to some totally cool new interests!
Have a think about what makes your country special – food, traditions, history. These are always interesting things to ask your partner about and compare! A great topic to talk about with a Chinese language exchange partner is food, as the Chinese are very proud of their cuisine (and rightly so!) Another popular topic is festivals and holidays. Do a bit of research before you begin your exchange so you have lots of questions for your partner.
It is worth mentioning that Chinese people are generally super sensitive about political topics, so these are best avoided until you know your partner better.
Decide which language goes first and try to spend equal time with both languages. 20 minutes is a good amount to start with but you’ll need to discuss it with your partner and see what works best. Speaking a new language is really hard work, so don’t overdo it and make yourself speak for an hour the first time! Try to use only the target language when you’re speaking. For example, if your partner does not understand a word immediately, explain it to them using your own language rather than translating. It is also good to have a pen and paper to hand, so you can draw what you are talking about!
Ask your partner to speak naturally, but slowly
Not all words are in the textbooks. Getting to know the most up-to-date slang is one of the best benefits of language exchanges! It is important that your partner avoids using long, involved sentences that might confuse you, but you want to speak like a normal person, so make sure your partner does just that!
Note that when you are coming from English as a native language, it is particularly hard to learn the Chinese tones. For example, with a subtle difference, rain will be fish, bird will be pee. Don’t be afraid to ask your partner to repeat something if you find it hard to understand. Be sure that your language exchange practice is going a long way to help your pronunciation and listening skills!
Recognise cultural differences
With a language exchange, you get an insider’s view on what life is like in another country. You also find out how other people perceive your country and culture! While this is an amazing experience, it can also be challenging at times. It might seem obvious – but watch out that you don’t veer into anything that could be classed as an Asian stereotype, as you could easily upset your partner. Be patient, friendly and open.
This article was first published on DigMandarin.