The Dos and Don’ts of Learning Chinese

The Dos and Don’ts of Learning Chinese
Jul 12, 2023 By Susie Gordon ,

The path to speaking fluent Chinese is an undeniably long and rocky one, as any learner will tell you. While everyone has their own methods, techniques and tactics, no matter what level you’re at, there are some definite Dos and Don’ts of learning Chinese. Let’s take a look.

learning Chinese

DO practice whenever you can

Taxi drivers, colleagues, friends, strangers on the street… It may seem obvious, but if you want to progress with your Mandarin learning, you’ll need to treat every interaction with a Chinese person as an opportunity to practice. You’d think this would be easy, but in China’s more cosmopolitan cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, you might find many of your potential conversation partners will want to practice their English on you, instead.

With perseverance and a disregard for self-consciousness, however, you should be able to spend a good part of your day speaking Mandarin. Even if your friends and colleagues speak better English than you speak Chinese, make an effort to practice with them whenever you can. You may find it a little embarrassing to start with, but when you see how thrilled they are at your efforts and the incremental progress you make just by getting used to saying the few phrases you know, you’ll see the longer term benefit.

DO learn tones

Facing the prospect of learning tones, as well as everything else, can be daunting for native speakers of non-tonal languages. However, if you get into the habit of learning each new word as a bundle (sound, tone, character) it’ll pay off in the long run. While you can get away with a few dodgy tones here and there if your context is clear, they do matter. The same sound said in an incorrect tone can mean something completely different to what you intended, resulting in, at best confusion, at worst, outrage.

That said, confidence and fluidity is arguably more important than rigid tone-obsession. If you concentrate too much about pronouncing each word in the perfect tone, your sentences might sound slow and stunted, and people still won’t understand you. It’s best to reel off your statements quickly and with confidence but be ready to repeat any misunderstood words in the correct tone if necessary.

DO use a variety of resources

These days, there are tons of different resources for learning Mandarin, ranging from apps, to podcasts, to publications. Ask your friends and colleagues for recommendations, try a bunch and commit to the ones you like the best.

Use any free time you have to keep Mandarin in your mind. Listen to Chinese podcasts while you’re working out at the gym or walking the dog. Do your flashcards on the bus to work. Read one Chinese news story a day on the toilet. Get into a Chinese soap opera. Mandarin is very much a language that needs to be nurtured on a daily basis and every little thing you do will contribute to your gradual improvement.

DO ignore show-offs and flatterers

Everyone knows at least one linguistic show-off – an expat who’s only been learning for 10 minutes but whose Mandarin is already practically native (or so they believe). They will scorn the efforts of lesser talents and speak effusively about the ‘fact’ that learning Chinese is actually really easy. Ignore them, concentrate on your own studies and take these claims and opinions with a pinch of salt. The only thing this person probably has over you is a whole bunch of confidence that has propelled them to practice the Mandarin they have at every opportunity, regardless of how correct it is. If you’re going to take anything from this type of expat, take a bit of this confidence.

What has most probably happened with your show-off friend is they’ve fallen into the very common trap of thinking they’re better than they are. This is easy in China, especially when almost every Chinese person you meet will compliment you on your incredible Chinese after only a “ni hao”. Sure, enjoy the compliments as they come, but keep things realistic and don’t turn into the type of show-off that makes other learners feel rubbish about their slow progress.

DON’T waste money on second-rate teachers

Just as there are plenty of second-rate English schools knocking around in China, there are also plenty of freelance Mandarin teachers who are cheap but just not very good. Some might have super strong regional accents that will slow down your learning process, while others will just be under-qualified or not really passionate about the work.

If you find yourself constantly reading from a textbook or trying to get some form of animation and encouragement out of a very bored looking tutor, it’s probably time to fork out a bit of extra cash for a professional. You usually get what you pay for in China.

DON’T cling on to pinyin

For brand new Chinese learners, getting to grips with pinyin (the mostly commonly used Romanization method of Chinese characters) is hard enough. The thought of actually starting to learn characters can seem like an insurmountable challenge. There are so many of them and there’s really no easy way to remember them.

If you never move beyond pinyin, however, your rate of learning will grind to a halt pretty quickly. Just think about how many possible meanings there are for the sound “yu”. Without the specific Chinese character to identify which “yu” you’re dealing with, it could mean a dozen different things, and there’s only so far context will stretch.

Set yourself a target of learning five new characters a day while revising what you’ve learned previously with apps/flashcards. You’ll soon see the benefit and reap the rewards when you start to decipher the mysterious code you see all around you every day.

DON’T expect too much too soon

One of the most frustrating things about learning Mandarin Chinese is the glacial rate of progress. Even those of us who aren’t particularly linguistically gifted will find we can probably learn a European language to a fairly decent level within a year a living in a country that speaks that language. Mandarin Chinese is a whole different kettle of fish. It can literally take expats a decade to reach the level of fluency they’d need to comfortably conduct all their business in Chinese.  

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t reach certain life-improving goals, such as being able to negotiate at wet markets and pick a few recognizable dishes out of menus, fairly quickly. As long as you cut yourself some slack and realize that your level will be akin to that of a pre-schooler for the first few years, you’ll hopefully relax and avoid too much of the inevitable frustration that comes with learning a language so alien from your own.

Do you have any other Dos and Don’ts for learning Chinese? Drop them in the comments box below.

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Keywords: learning Chinese


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A very useful article when it comes to motivation. I have tried learning this beautiful language from the basics from online courses from native English teachers like Coursera and Udemy to name a few! I am looking forward to learn how to read, write and speak mandarin and quite often I have seen it is frustrating when I wouldn't understand the tones or ways of understanding new vocabulary in Mandarin. This article definitely is a booster in helping me realise that it does take time to learn a new language and most importantly never to give up! In order to remember and progress I make notes in Chinese language, the way it is pronounced and written and its meaning in English. Once I am confident with the words, I try to form basic sentences. The part I suffer the most is framing the language since I am not very thorough with the grammar structure and how proper sentences can be framed in Chinese. It is very likely I try to form sentences keeping in mind the english grammar structure which I have come to realise is most often wrong. Both the language's grammar structure are different. And I hope one day I can master this beautiful language after I have understood how the grammar structure for framing sentences in Chinese is achieved.

Jul 18, 2023 16:44 Report Abuse