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Tips for Learning Chinese from Chinese Pop Culture

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A popular Chinese TV show

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The traditional way of learning a language is to sign up for classes and follow along with the teacher and your classmates, working through textbooks and workbooks and listening labs. But this sometimes-dry approach isn’t the only way to pick up Chinese. Although you’ll still probably need some help from external sources, you can definitely pick up a lot of the language the fun way: by studying pop culture.

Films and TV Shows

Chinese films and TV shows can be a really fun way of improving your language skills while being entertained. But they can also be an extremely frustrating undertaking if you pick the wrong ones, especially at first. If your goal is language learning, you probably want to choose something that...

  • ...is set in modern-day China. Those historical epics are fun to watch, but they’re full of classical Chinese phrases that aren’t going to be too useful in everyday conversation, and there’s no use in learning the Chinese word for “eunuch” before you learn how to hold conversations about more common topics.

  • ...is about everyday life. Even if the film is set in modern-day, if you choose a military drama you’re going to end up learning a lot of military phrases that you may not have much use for. To learn everyday language, pick a film or TV show that focuses on more common problems. Chinese TV sitcoms may not be all that funny, but they’re often very useful for this purpose. Conversely, if you want to learn vocabulary related to a more niche topic, picking a film about that topic is a good idea.

  • ...features Mandarin-speaking actors. This one can be a little tough, because the Mainland and Hong Kong film scenes often intertwine, and this sometimes results in films where some actors are speaking in Mandarin and some in Cantonese, or heavy accents are involved because not all of the actors are native Mandarin speakers. As fun as Hong Kong cinema is, pick films and TV shows by mainland directors and you’re often going to get more “standard” mandarin to study from.

  • ...you’ll enjoy watching. If you find something that fits the other three requirements here but you hate watching it, that’s no good. The advantage of studying Chinese using pop culture is that it’s more fun, so if the show or film you’ve picked isn’t fun, pick a different one!

Learn a KTV Song

KTV -- the Chinese name for karaoke -- is a rite of passage among all foreign travelers to China, and if you ever intend to spend any length of time at all in the country, you’re certain to be invited out to chang K (唱K) -- to sing karaoke songs. Most karaoke places have English songs too, but studying Chinese pop tunes can be a great way to increase your vocabulary and impress the heck out of your Chinese friends when you break into song in fluent Mandarin.

When picking a song to study, you’ll want to at least start with something slower and simpler, without too many lyrics to puzzle through. So as much as you may love the rap stylings of Jay Chou, his work might be better off avoided at first. For your first song, a classic choice is “The Moon Represents My Heart” (月亮代表我的心). It may not be the newest or hippest song in the catalogue but it’s slow and pretty easy to learn, and any KTV is sure to have it.

Since your goal is to learn the language, though, do be careful that you’re not just memorizing sounds. As you learn the song, be sure you understand what each character of the lyrics means. This can be a little tough with some songs as lyrics sometimes include poetic turns of phrase that aren’t common in everyday speech, so if you need help, ask a friend.

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