Of course there are no short cuts. To be fluent in another language requires dedication and hard work. But that journey can be made a little easier.
There are many websites which offer free language resources. The BBC in particular has a vast selection of pages on its website. As well as basic introductions to Mandarin Chinese, there are simple language lessons aimed at all ages.
The website also contains links to many external resources such as China Central Television which has online language lessons.
YouTube has a wide variety of videos which can familiarise you with the language. The quality of such uploads vary, but there are some professional and well constructed videos that will certainly help anyone trying to learn Chinese.
One great site is YoYoChinese which, in addition to its YouTube channel also has Facebook and Google+ pages with frequent lessons and updates.
Indeed there are many helpful streams on all these social networks. Searching for a few keywords like “learning Chinese” on Google+ brings up many great pages. Facebook is less easy to navigate or search but there are still some useful communities such as Learning Mandarin Chinese.
Beyond learning websites there are a great number of helpful tools available online.
Perhaps one of the most useful is Google Translate. For those who can recognise some Chinese characters the inbuilt Pinyin input method is particularly useful. The site also provides audio so that you can listen to the translated phrase or word.
For typing Chinese on a computer, Google’s Pinyin input tool can be installed, though it only works on Microsoft Windows 7, Vista & XP. Apple Macs also have Pinyin support buried away in the settings.
Of course machine translation is not perfect. While single words may be correctly translated, sentences can often return some very strange results.
Nonetheless Google Translate can be a life saver, especially if installed on your phone or tablet whilst travelling.
Anyone stuck in a country with only a small grasp of the language will feel somewhat lost without some form of translation aid or a phrase book. And for those with an Android device, translation is made so much easier with Google’s offline language packs. Sadly, Apple devices do not support offline translation, so you will need a data or WiFi connection if you use an iPhone or iPad.
There are a few pitfalls with either platform however. The first is that with non Romanised alphabet based languages there is no help with pronunciation if using offline. Thus an English to Chinese translation will only give Chinese characters. This needs to be shown to the person with whom one is conversing rather than being read to them.
Furthermore, for good two way translation one really needs a Chinese character recognition App. Google’s Pinyin input method for Android is satisfactory, but many Chinese prefer to write characters rather than type. One good input method is the SCUT gPen App, a handwriting input method released by SCUT-HCII Laboratory of South China University of Technology.
There are some Chinese input methods in the Apple store for those using iPhones or iPads.
It can be a little slow and cumbersome to flip between input methods and swap between languages, but a conversation can be achieved with a little patience. Swapping between input methods is a little more tricky with iOS devices, and you will have to enable the ability to use these inputs in the settings as well as checking the box to show the input method in the menu bar.
For single word translation, Pleco Chinese Dictionary is perhaps the best free example. The app is available for both Apple devices at the iTunes store and for Android at Google Play or via the developers own website [The only drawbacks concerning Google’s offline language packs and Pleco’s database are that they’re quite large, so they could eat a large chunk of your device’s memory].
Just like Google Translate, Pleco can be used to translate English into Chinese, or vice versa. It can also be used offline. However Pleco can only do single words or short sentences. Nonetheless it can prove extremely useful especially where some words have different meanings depending upon context. The app also provides character input, so it may prove useful in helping learn some of the 50,000 characters in the Chinese language. Of course you really only need to memorize about two or three thousand characters to read a newspaper, though University-educated Chinese will normally know up to 8,000 characters!
Learning the characters is certainly fun, and should you manage to commit enough to memory in order to read a restaurant menu, you’ll certainly impress many Chinese people. But it’s more important to learn the spoken language before becoming bogged down with Chinese characters.
Even with all these tools, there’s no substitute for actually being able to speak the language and for learning with a professional teacher. However, these websites, online resources and apps will certainly help, whether you’re a beginner or intermediate level student.