If you have a burning desire to learn Mandarin Chinese but feel overwhelmed at the very thought, then today’s podcast is a must-listen episode for you.

Yes, to the uninitiated, Chinese characters look like a random pile of squiggly lines.

True, the wrong tones could lead to you inadvertently calling someone’s mother a horse!

But don’t let this scare you away, because today’s guests, Phil Crimmins and Luke Neale, have created an innovative language course called the Mandarin Blueprint designed to take these worries away.

Origin Story

Luke Neale and Phil Crimmins came from the opposite ends of the spectrum when they each started learning Mandarin.

Englishman Luke, a kung fu fanatic, was obsessed with the Chinese culture as a teenager. When he traveled to China, it felt like coming home.

American Phil had no interest in China until a couple of friends went over for a year and decided to stay. Their tales piqued Phil’s interest, so he hopped on a plane and immediately fell in love with the country and culture.

Eventually, Luke and Phil moved into the language teaching world. They met in Chéngdū (成都) and decided to create a learning method that overcomes the many weaknesses of traditional language education. Thus, the Mandarin Blueprint Method was born, which helps independent learners ① develop accurate pronunciation, ② acquire an intuitive sense for Chinese grammar, and ③ more easily remember Chinese characters through the power of mnemonics.

Phil & Luke’s Mandarin Tips

Start By Listening

One way to start language learning is to listen.

Look for low-level podcasts and immerse yourself in listening to the language. You can also find written and spoken Mandarin texts at LingQ.

There, you can see as well as hear the language.

But listening is tedious when you barely understand what’s being said. So, according to Luke and Phil, the very best place to start is with the foundation classes in the Mandarin Blueprint.

You’ll quickly learn to read, write, understand, and pronounce the most common 1000 words in the Mandarin language.

The Hanzi Movie Method for Mnemonics

It’s virtually impossible to learn Mandarin characters by rote. No one recommends that you chain yourself to a table and copy a character 300 times these days. Instead, Luke and Phil recommend using mnemonics.

Have you ever tried to remember the compass points and murmured, “Never Eat Soggy Waffles” to yourself? That’s a perfect example of a mnemonic; assigning something memorable to each word’s first letter is a tried and tested memory technique.

Phil and Luke have explored and experimented with mnemonics over thousands of hours to develop the Hanzi Movie Method. They say it’s a game-changer for Mandarin beginners.

In the Hanzi Movie Method, you build up a funny set of stories based on parts of your life to remember Chinese characters. It’s an efficient and exciting system that builds on things you already know.

“Everything that you’re learning is connected to what you’ve already learned. Not just what you’ve already learned from Chinese… but mnemonics in general is the process of connecting a new piece of information to knowledge you already have.”

Vitally, the system is systemized. One thing builds on another, and there are a fixed number of components to learn. It combines best-practice ideas from several mnemonic techniques into one.

What’s more, it doesn’t take long to grasp the concepts. About ten characters in, they reckon, and most learners get that wonderful “Ahh!” moment.

Once you get it, you can learn to read, write, and pronounce a new character in about 30 seconds.

It’s all in the story

When you create a compelling story, the men say that it isn’t overwhelming to learn to read, write, and pronounce a character all at once.

Before you know it, you’re moving to two-character words and then into sentences.

“A comment that we get every single day from people who are in Level 13 in our course is ‘I can’t believe I’m reading these sentences.’ It’s so thrilling… they only know 105 characters… and they’ve maybe been on the course for a couple of weeks. That’s hugely motivational … it all comes together at that point.”

Learning Tones

Mandarin is tonal, and that can be intimidating if you’re used to speaking a western language because words can have different meanings depending on your tone.

Phil and Luke have built their system with tones in mind.

You choose the most common tone for each character and attach it to a room in your house. So when you meet that character, you might be able to say, “Oh it’s in the bathroom it must be the 4th tone.”

“Learning characters in the mnemonic way will vastly improve your tones.”

Getting to grips with two-tone words.

Tones and characters rarely come in isolation. There are plenty of combinations to master, so it helps to create tone-pair anchors.

There are 19 different combinations in the Mandarin language (1st tone, 1st tone; 1st tone, 2nd tone; 1st tone, 3rd tone, etc.) To master a tone-pair, pick a common word to be an anchor to it. For example, ni hao is excellent for a 2nd-tone 3rd-tone pairing.

Once you have memorized your anchors, you can relate new words to them, changing the syllables but keeping the tone sound. Over time you’ll develop muscle memory for the shape your mouth makes and how it feels to create the sound for each tone-pair.

Use “Shadowing”

Now that you have your anchors in place, you’ll need to practice. Luke and Phil say that shadowing is a terrific technique. Here’s how you do it.

  1. Go to LingQ and find a piece of writing with audio attached.

  2. Ensure that the speaker has the same speech range as you because it’s hard for a man to mimic a woman and vice versa.

  3. Listen to the audio and read along silently at the same time.

  4. Replay the audio and this time, speak it out loud as close as possible to what they are saying.

  5. Do this repeatedly until you can easily talk along with the audio text.

It’s very tiring to shadow at first, but your skill, accuracy, and speed will dramatically improve if you stick at it. Do it for 10 minutes daily, and you’ll see a vast improvement in your tones.

When to start outputting?

There are four components to language; Reading/listening are inputs because you bring language into your mind. Speaking/writing are outputs because your thoughts and words are coming out.

Outputting and when to start is a controversial topic in the language-learning world. Luke says:

“Start outputting as soon as you feel comfortable but don’t force yourself.”

One problem if you’re a perfectionist is that you might never feel ready to speak. The way around that is to start writing first.

Writing is excellent because you have time to think and check that you’re getting it right without a conversation’s immediacy.

It’s essential to get it right because once a habit or concept forms, it’s challenging to unlearn it.

Tom Szynalski from Antimoon says

“I’ve never written an incorrect sentence,” and that’s a mindset that would serve everyone well.

Along those lines, Antonio Graceffo, aka the Monk from Brooklyn, insists:

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent.”

The lesson is, always learn it well and learn it right.

It’s another good reason that the Mandarin Blueprint focuses on correct pronunciation first.

Common mistakes when learning Mandarin

Thinking you’re terrible at language learning because you found it hard in school.

Unfortunately, most school and college courses are constrained by the exam system and aren’t structured for natural language learning.

Asking a native-language speaker how to learn the language.

A native Mandarin speaker, for example, can’t describe how the language works. They know it at an intuitive level.

The answer is to look for a tutor who is fluent in Mandarin but speaks other languages as well. They will have a better understanding of how to learn a second language.

Not hiring a tutor.

A tutor will help you practice speaking and understanding. They’ll find the “holes” in your knowledge. There are plenty of online tutors, but one great place to find them is iTalki.

Believing that you learn a language.

You actually acquire a language by getting used to it on an intuitive level. You don’t need to learn all the theory to speak with and understand other people.

In Mandarin Blueprint grammar makes up about 2% of the course, and they don’t introduce it straight away. After you’ve seen a grammar point in at least ten comprehensible sentences, the course introduces it as a bonus.

Form Habits to Keep Learning and Practicing

To effectively learn a language, you need to immerse yourself in it every day. Phil and Luke have some great tips for that.

  • Listen to podcasts in that language.

  • Read books, comics, and articles written in your chosen language. (Mandarin Blueprint includes graded readers to help with this.)

  • Use Language Learning With Netflix, which displays subtitles in your chosen language.

  • Make Anki flashcards and review them daily. (The Mandarin Blueprint has many premade Anki cards to help with this.)

  • If you’re reading online, take a screenshot of the print and use it to make an anchor card later.

  • Find a language partner on Rhino Spike. There, you can send a text, and a native speaker will record it for you. In return, you do the same for them.

  • Use LingQ as a resource or take their free course.

In Conclusion

It’s tempting to think that language learning is all about products and apps when really it’s about habit and consistency. You can have every app and book on your device, but you won’t progress if you don’t do something every day.

It’s not about being smart or being good at languages. Just get the right methods, consistency, and habits, and you’ll get there, even if it seems like a long journey at the start.

Finally, have fun while you’re learning a new language.

As human beings when we reach a goal, we just add another one on. You’ll never find (longterm) enjoyment from reaching the goal so you must enjoy the journey.

“Have fun; make sure you enjoy the process and the methods you’re using and the people you’re speaking with.”

Awesome Resources Mentioned in the Episode

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