“Chinese speaking countries share a very different history and culture than the United States (or other English speaking countries). If you want to be able to think in the language, you’ve got to understand how (and what) Chinese people think.”
- Read books about Chinese culture and history.
- Watch period dramas (movies), documentaries, news, and specials on current events.
- Listen to podcasts that teach Chinese by breaking down the language and culture.
- Read books about the Chinese language.
- Listen to music and “study” the lyrics.
- Listen to fun or conversational podcasts in Chinese.
- Learn a different idiom (成語) at least once a week.
- Watch idol dramas, TV programs, talk shows, and new release movies.
- Read blogs (in Chinese or in English) written by people who love China, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia (or anywhere else where there is a large Mandarin speaking population).
Tip in Practice (True Story)
I give this advice, because these are some activities from my daily life. I’m sure there are tons more things that you can do to learn the culture. I’ve spent way more time getting the cultural and linguistic perspectives, because that’s what I’m more interested in. But I try to dabble in history when I can (the fun way).
One word of warning: You have to be very careful about the source of your “cultural knowledge.” It’s really dangerous to fall into a trap of stereotyping an entire culture based what you see on TV programs, because TV is usually exaggerated and made to attract a lot of viewers. This critique is not just limited to pop culture though, you’ll also find dangerous stereotyping in professional language programs. So, take what you hear with a grain of salt and make sure you listen to, read, and watch a diverse cross selection of things. Also, make friends and ask them what they think. But don’t just take one friend’s word for it. She’s not the spokesperson from your target culture, and she could be an outlier. Ask multiple people. Plus, you get to practice more Chinese that way.
History is boring. It doesn’t have to be. There are a lot of period dramas and movies that try to depict great books, wars, or changes in Chinese culture. You can find these movies (or books) in English and Chinese. There are also a lot of subtle references to history in current cultural references, so it helps to know at least a little.
Pop culture and celebrity gossip are for 16 year old girls. Excuse me? Just kidding! Maybe you’re right. There will come a time in which some media will no longer resonate with you. If this is the case, go on to something different. Do you like sports? Then learn about specific athletes and teams. Read the newspaper and watch games. Are you interested in fashion? Learn about designers and go on clothing websites (in Chinese). Are you interested in politics, finance, or technology? Find your big names in those fields and read about them. This is the “culture” that matters most to you.
I’m not a linguist, and I hate grammar. That’s cool too. But it helps to at least read one book that breaks down this information.
- Knowing a bit about the evolution of characters, typically gives you some good tips for memorizing them.
- Learn what Chinese languages and dialects exist and where they are spoken. If you don’t know that Mandarin isn’t the only language spoken in China or in Taiwan or where the languages are spoken, you may run into some awkward situations while traveling.
- Before you learn to write, know the advantages and disadvantages to learning traditional and simplified.
- Do a quick read on tone sandhi, so you know you aren’t going crazy when someone says something in 2nd tone that you could have sworn was supposed to be 3rd tone.
And so on. Find a book that lays out everything and then you can move on with the rest of your learning process.
For fun, consider starting a book club (or a movie club). Watch fun media and then get together with friends and talk about it.
Find someone you can gossip with about celebrities, politics, gaming, and anything else.