Can you Cram in a Mandarin Class Before your Trip?
Travel season is getting underway. Many adult students want to learn Mandarin Chinese because they want to travel to China or Taiwan. Normally, a class for a future traveller is the same as a class for anyone else. Students need lots of comprehensible input and repetition to learn Mandarin. If a student just wants to learn Mandarin Chinese for travel, however, they often do not have a lot of time to study. If that is the case, I do have some suggestions what students should study.
Invest your Time in Getting Pronunciation Right
A big source of misunderstanding in China comes from pronunciation. If you are traveling in China, learn the correct pronunciation of the places you will visit. Locals really do have a hard time understanding foreign tourists who cannot pronounce the place that they want to go. James Fallows has a series of blog posts about the pronunciation of “Beijing.” Remember, it is “jing” as in “jingle” not “zhing” as in something vaguely French-sounding.
While brushing up on the pronunciation of your destinations, work on your pinyin. If a travelers uses a phrasebook to get around, knowing how to pronounce the pinyin will only help. Similarly, the phrase book is less useful if no one can understand what you are saying. Normally, I suggest that students learn Mandarin Chinese pronunciation as part of a holistic process. If the student is just looking to use a phrase book better, then this is a good video to learn how to pronounce pinyin. Most common Chinese phrasebooks use pinyin.
Yes, You Should Learn Some Chinese Characters
Fortunately for the foreigner, most signs in China use pinyin. Signs in Taiwan also have Romanization. Thanks to the delightfully cantankerous blog pinyin.info I know that the type of Romanization used in Taiwan is somewhat inconsistent, but it does exist. Despite the fact that people who do not read Chinese characters can get around in China and Taiwan, it is still important to learn some characters.
If you will travel in rural places in China, learn 女 (female) and 男 (male). These characters might be the only label on a bathroom and you will want to get that right! In the big cities, and the smaller ones too, menus often have pictures. But just in case, I recommend that travelers learn a few Chinese characters for different foods. This is especially useful if you have foods that you want to avoid. Learning the character for pork (猪肉) can help a traveler avoid foods with pork.
Keep Learning (Even After You Get Back)
There is no substitute for a long-term class for language learning. It is impossible to skip steps in true language acquisition. However, I hope that these tips help a future traveler to China if he or she only has a little bit of time to prepare.
If you would like to learn Mandarin Chinese for travel or any other reason, please contact us.