Achieving fluency in the Chinese language is daunting for a non-native speaker. Fortunately, this Herculean task of achieving Chinese language proficiency is achievable by utilizing an approach that is proven, logical, and aligned with one’s purpose for acquiring this highly profitable and intellectually engaging language. Reputable education providers (e.g., Linda Mandarin) offer such an approach. Here are five essential tips as you begin the journey to Chinese language mastery.

One: choose between Mandarin and Cantonese, the two most common Chinese dialects. Are you seeking Chinese language skills for academic, professional, or personal reasons?  As Mandarin is taught in schools in China, those seeking academic advancement should consider the advantages of Mandarin. Entrepreneurs or professionals who want to conduct business in China should also be aware of its predominance in that country. CNN travel offers a good rule of thumb to aid this decision:

There are four tones in Mandarin: high pitch (say G in a musical scale), rising pitch (like from C to G), falling (from G to C) and falling low then rising (C to B to G) — and if you think that’s difficult, there are nine tones in Cantonese.

In Mandarin, there is a whole poem, “The Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den” with just the syllable “shi” repeated 107 times in various intonations.

Note that you can subsequently learn Cantonese after acquiring sufficient Mandarin skills and adapt those skills to concurrently learn both dialects once the fundamentals have been established. Finally, the Language Atlas of China provides a very helpful infographic that tips the favor towards learning Mandarin (Note that Cantonese falls under the Yue dialect).

Two: having narrowed the field to one Chinese dialect, refine your learning goals. The following queries may help in creating a workable plan towards Chinese proficiency. What level of skill do you wish to reach and what available resources are suited to your learning style? As regards your location, budget, and time constraints, what methods of education are available to you (e.g., online real-time learning, pre-recorded videos, modules, face-to-face sessions, or combinations thereof)? What degree of immersion in the Chinese-speaking community do you wish to achieve? Are there certifications that you need to acquire? Outside of formal certifications, what are the indications that would prove that you have successfully reached those goals (such as being able to transcribe an overheard conversation, reading original texts of classics in Chinese literature and philosophy, or fluently writing Hanzi)?

Short introductory courses from free and reputable resources such as the Global Chinese Learning Platform from China’s Ministry of education or BBC’s Chinese Language page can help clarify those issues by allowing you to dip your toes into the type of methods available and identify your preferred approach. Prospective students would also benefit greatly by engaging in trial or taster courses from commercial education providers.

Three: choose a learning program that aligns with your aims and resources. Various learning modes are available at differing costs and durations. Exposure to a range of learning platforms would enable you to identify the most productive approach according to your needs, capabilities, and preferences.

Fourth: Commit to consistent efforts in your chosen program of learning. Note that consistency even with short studying bursts trumps infrequent marathon study sessions. Repeated review of past lessons is vital for ensuring that the information is successfully retained. This approach is supported by the idea of the Forgetting Curve which was pioneered by Herman Ebbinghaus and measures how much information is forgotten over time. Ebbinghaus found that “information is quickly forgotten—roughly 56 percent in one hour, 66 percent after a day, and 75 percent after six days.” (Why Students Forget—and What You Can Do About It by Yukou Terada).

Fifth: Ensure that your learning program incorporates spacing out of information and continual review of past material to maximize knowledge retention.  Terada also states that

When students learn a new piece of information, they make new synaptic connections. Two scientifically based ways to help them retain learning is by making as many connections as possible—typically to other concepts, thus widening the “spiderweb” of neural connections—but also by accessing the memory repeatedly over time.

Your language school should use as many of these five research-proven strategies. First, peer-to-peer explanations should be incorporated into the teaching modules. Second, key ideas should be reviewed periodically. Third, practice tests should be implemented. Fourth, the concepts presented should be varied so as to encourage students to think creatively. Fifth, images should be employed alongside text to make information more memorable.

By establishing clear learning goals that are shaped not just by your desired ends but by your resources, capabilities, and preferences, you become better equipped to seek out effective education providers. Your chosen school must have proven approaches that solidly inculcate lasting language skills to their students. Finally, take advantage of the abundant resources available through your real-world and online networks to continually refresh and strengthen your Chinese language skills.