11 things I wish I knew before starting to learn Mandarin

Learning Mandarin can be a loooong-term endeavor. Looking back on at least 8 years of learning Mandarin, there are a lot of things I wish I could have worked out earlier. I’ll share them with you, hoping that some of these points are helpful.

01. Surround yourself with motivated learners and people who want you to succeed

More often than not, people in your social environment won’t care about your passion for Mandarin. They might even completely fail to understand your motivations to learn this language. I’m not telling anything new when I say that staying motivated is much easier when you’re surrounded by other motivated people. People who share the same goals and care about your success.

The good news is that being surrounded by the right people is not purely a matter of luck. It’s actually up to you to create a better learning environment for yourself. For example by joining learning groups on Facebook and online communities like Quora and Reddit. In general, you will find like-minded people and more experienced learners to team up and share your goals with. Some of them may be preparing for the same HSK exam as you are. Also forums like Chinese Stack Exchange and Chinese Forums allow you to connect to other learners, ask for advice and share knowledge. The bottom line is that teaming up with other motivated individuals (and native speakers!) makes learning Mandarin easier, more fun and rewarding.

02. Don’t trust your teacher to tell you everything you need to know about Mandarin

Everyone has heard of “never trust a doctor”, but how about “never trust a teacher”? How can there be a transfer of skills and knowledge without trust?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust your teacher. I’ve had some excellent teachers that felt responsible for my progress and did more to support me than I could reasonably expect from them. But teachers tend to have their own routines and agendas. They like to follow their coursebooks and measure their students’ improvements mainly by test results. Most importantly, they lack the time to give you the support you need, answer your questions and point out personal areas for improvement.

In many cases, they are unaware of useful tools and resources. My Chinese teachers never told me about the existence of essential apps like Pleco, Skritter and Anki for instance. They never told me that my pronunciation had serious flaws. They never told me how to increase my reading speed and deal with other practical problems.

I don’t blame them. I’m thankful for all the support they gave me. At the end of the day, we ourselves are responsible for our learning success. No one else. Gotta problem? Chinese class too slow, too fast, boring, not what you were looking for? I know it’s not always as easy and straightforward, but don’t wait till someone else presents the solution to you. To find it yourself and grow in the process is much more rewarding. Find answers on Chinese learning forums or blogs for example. I found that almost every issue I encountered while learning Chinese, somebody else experienced before me.

03. Invest in learning tools

Language learning is not like ten years ago. Online tools and apps become increasingly important and reshape the learning journey. When you seriously start learning Mandarin, you probably want to spend some money not just on books but also on tools and apps.

The English-Chinese dictionary app Pleco (or alternatively Hanping) is an absolutely essential learning tool – with lots of add-ons that include flashcards and graded readers. Anki and Memrise are popular apps for flashcard learning. They allow you to create your own series of flashcards and track your learning progress. DuoLingo, LingoDeer and HelloChinese are more gamified apps to study new characters, sentence patterns and more.

It’s up to you which apps you want to reward with your trust and money. Obviously, apps aren’t the solution to everything. In most cases, they can’t replace qualified teachers and tutors. However, they can be a valuable extension of your learning. It all depends on your language goals, learning style and time schedule. For instance, if writing Hanzi isn’t that vital to you, you probably don’t want to pay $14.99 for a monthly subscription to Skritter. If, on the other hand, you’re serious about improving your reading skills, apps like The Chairman’s Bao or Du Chinese might be worth paying $45 – $55 for a half a year of tailor-made reading content. If you know which app to pick to work on a certain language skill, you can speed up your progress in unexpected ways. Although you might want to know what you can get for free first:

Learning Mandarin the low budget way - learning resources that you can get for free

04. Finish Pinyin base camp before moving on to Hanzi

Many people ask what’s the right time to start learning Chinese characters, because they can’t wait to dive into them. In my modest experience, there’s no optimal moment. However, I know all too well how easy it is to waste precious time on Hanzi when your Pinyin basis is still sloppy. That includes the grasp of the four tones and frequent tone pairs. Yes, Pinyin isn’t the real deal and you’re practically illiterate if you can’t read Hanzi – that’s true -, but in the long run, investing enough time into a solid Pinyin foundation is worth the slow start.

Learning Pinyin is actually quite fun, because while working on understanding the phonetic system and improving your pronunciation, you can expand your vocabulary without worrying about Chinese characters. Plus, it’s good to know that the number of syllables in Pinyin (for Standard Chinese about 413) is manageable and much less intimidating than the vast amount of Chinese characters.

05. You need to keep working on Pinyin and tones because your teachers won’t

Once you finished Pinyin base camp and can’t bear anymore drills, it’s tempting to close this chapter and never look back. My Chinese teachers seemed to feel the same way, since we would simply hurry on to the next challenge. Less so at my Chinese university: here vocabulary drills and “repeat after me” exercises were common practice. Boring and childish maybe, but useful too if you’re paying attention. Especially since many Mandarin learners seem to think that it’s okay to “speak Mandarin without the tones” or “if you speak fast enough, tones don’t really matter”.

Unfortunately, they matter everything. Just to give one example what can happen if you turn a third tone into a fourth. Instead of saying “Wǒ yǐqián zhù zài Hélán de běifāng” (I used to live in the north of the Netherlands), I said “Wǒ yǐqián zhù zài Hélán de Bèifāng“, which caused my conversation partner to think I used to live in a place in Holland called “Beifang” in Chinese.

It’s also very easy to say that you study Korean (Wǒ xuéxí Hányǔ) instead of Mandarin (Wǒ xuéxí Hànyǔ). A good way to mend such mistakes is by mimicking native speakers and recording your own speech or reading. Don’t hesitate to ask Chinese friends to check your pronunciation (not the whole time of course) and point out mistakes.

06. Drills are actually not that bad

Drills seem to be mostly regarded as a lame and outdated method to learn a foreign language. Many language learners view drills as an outright insult to the intelligent learner who doesn’t gain anything from blindly repeating words and sentences.

I used to feel that way myself. Drills can be effective though, particularly for a language as remote as Mandarin where most newcomers have to start from zero without any point of reference. They help drilling in key vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar points so that you can not only understand, but also actively use them in real life situations. “Passively knowing something” is not enough, you want to know exactly how to say it and when to say it. Drills pull what you’re learning from the “passive corner” in your brain over to the active corner – so to speak.

There’s no shame in putting such drill exercises on repeat while working out or doing some cleaning. It’s relatively effortless and good for retention. Besides, you can’t hardly do enough listening, even simple stuff like “X 在不在”?or “X 在吗?”. It all adds up eventually and becomes usable. You’re intellectual ego protests? Don’t listen, it really works!

07. Read more on your level

I used to limit my reading to relatively complicated texts from my textbook. In other words, I focused on intensive reading above my level as a means to acquire new vocabulary and learn grammar points. Important, yes, but I noticed a strange thing during my first HSK test: my reading was surprisingly slow! Often I’d get characters mixed up or I’d know the meaning, but couldn’t pronounce the character. At the time, I was a pretty dedicated student who spent up to 8 hours a day studying Chinese, so how was that possible?

Well, maybe it wasn’t so much lack of reading, but the fact that I was mostly reading above my level, always rushing to the next chapter to devour new vocab. Instead, I could have been reading a broader variety of texts on my level (98 percent know words) to improve my reading fluency.

A solution to this are free reading resources like:

Or graded readers that allow you to read more on your level. This is a great way of building up reading fluency and while you’re discovering the story, you’ll learn new words far more naturally than when studying a text.

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

08. The power of reviewing is undervalued

Spaced Repetition - retention curve

If you’re serious about learning Mandarin, you need some kind of reviewing system to keep track of everything (or rather the most important stuff). It’s easy to fill notebooks with new vocabulary and sentences, but somehow it’s much harder to re-read and memorize them on a regular basis. If you don’t review however, what’s the point of making notes? In fact, when people talk about language learning, they hardly ever mention reviewing routines.

SRS flashcard apps like Anki, Memrize or Pleco’s flashcard add-on probably are the best solution for the more “analytic” type of learner. Their basic function is to help you remember before you forget. But it should also be said, that “overdoing flashcards” has the opposite effect. Because the more vocabulary you add to your decks, the longer it takes to empty your daily queues. In short, the whole scheme loses its effectiveness. Flashcards should never “tyrannize” your studying. A daily, ten to twenty minutes flashcard session is enough.

At the end of the day, your reviewing method depends on your learning style. For people like me who tend towards a more fluid approach, tons of flashcards somewhat take the fun out of the whole thing. After all, people aren’t machines. But that doesn’t mean regular reviewing doesn’t have real benefits.

09. Listen, listen, listen (it takes a long time to understand a normal conversation in Chinese)

For most learners it takes an awful lot of time to be able to follow an average Chinese conversation. The best remedy against this is listening practice. Especially when you’re not in China, Taiwan or any other Chinese speaking environment, probably the next best thing you can do is creating your own digital, immersive environment and listen to as much (comprehensible) Chinese as you can.

The good news is that as long if you have time and internet, you find an endless amount of resources waiting for you. Just enter 听书 on YouTube and be amazed. Listening is probably what you should be doing when you have a bad day, aren’t motivated or can’t focus. Join other motivated learners in a listening challenge to see how many hours a month you can immerse yourself – a fun way to cultivate a healthy listening habit.

Hacking Chinese listening challenge
These “challenges” are organized by Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com)

By the way, I don’t see why listening shouldn’t include watching. Here are some suggestions and more can be found here:

TV Series

  • 外国人在中国 – CCTV docuseries about foreigners living in China
  • 爱情保卫战 – Mainland Chinese live-show where couples fight out their problems on stage (2010)
  • Happy Chinese – educational melodrama produced by the Chinese TV channel CCTV to teach Mandarin to foreigners (2009)
  • 新葫蘆兄弟 – newer adaptation of the Chinese cartoon “Huluwa” (2016)
  • 惹上冷殿下 – Mainland Chinese “idol drama” called “Accidentally in Love” (2018)
  • 绅探 – Detective series set in Shanghai in the 30s called “Detective L” (2019)

Streaming platforms

  • youku.com – Mainland Chinese online video and streaming service platform similar to YouTube with its own streaming services for TV shows and movies. [free / $$$]
  • tv.cctv.com/live – Watch live Mainland Chinese television just like you’re in China. [free]
  • iQiyi – Mainland Chinese video platform based in Beijing. [free / $$$]
  • Tencent Video – Mainland Chinese video streaming website, also available in English. [free / $$$]
  • ifvod.tv – Movies, series, documentaries and more, usually lacking English subtitles for Chinese. Many “non-Chinese” content with Mandarin subtitles. [free]

YouTube Chinese learning channels

10. Use HSK as actionable goal and benchmark, but don’t focus too much on it

HSK is the standardized test for non-native speakers. It consists of six levels (version 2.0) which compose the main frame of reference for Chinese language proficiency. Mandarin learners focus on passing HSK exams and sometimes come to identify with their HSK level in a way that’s out of sync with reality.

In my opinion, HSK mainly prepares you for HSK, not for real life. After taking the HSK 4 and 5 exams, I found that writing HSK basically is a skill that can be trained. Meaning: a major part of HSK prep is studying the exam and not the language. Moreover, HSK (2.0) doesn’t assess oral fluency – arguably the most important language skill in real life.

Although HSK is doubtless an important certificate, actionable goal and benchmark, I’ve never been a fan of HSK-focused learning. Focus on real life communication skills instead and take HSK for what it is: merely a test.

11. You might reach your goals, but you’re never finished

When I started learning Chinese, HSK 4 (which is supposed to equal upper intermediate level) was my ultimate goal. HSK 4 would be sufficient to have conversations with my Chinese family and friends, survive on the streets of China and so on. If I could only accomplish this goal, I’d be satisfied and move on with my life.

After two years of serious studying, I passed HSK 4 with 287 points, but was I “done”?

Although by this time, I was fluent enough for conversations with my Chinese family and friends, the expected feeling of satisfaction never came. Instead, I realized that I had just entered the great realm of the Chinese language and that I was still nowhere near almost-native speakers to be admired on YouTube.

Don’t get me wrong: you can achieve a lot in two years and it’s worth it – but it seems there’s always some greater goal ahead.

Conclusion – you’ll never be the same

If I could start from zero, would I do things differently? Yes – firstly, I probably would join a serious language program much earlier, instead of starting out on my own. Self-studying Mandarin is not impossible, but you have to know what you’re doing. Self-studying becomes more rewarding when you at least have acquired some basics. Secondly, I would stay at least one year in Mainland China or Taiwan to get that daily practice and input which is hard to get elsewhere.

To wrap it up here, these ten points only reflect my personal experience. Everybody’s different and there’s no ideal way to learn Mandarin. As with most things in life, you have to find your own way and figure out what works best for you.

Thanks for visiting Kaohongshu! I hope you enjoyed this article. Do you have any language learning advice you wished someone had told you earlier? Feel free to leave a comment down below.

Affiliate links

Mandarin Chinese Picture Dictionary: Learn 1,500 Key Chinese Words and Phrases
Chinese short stories for beginners
Reading and Writing Chinese - A comprehensive guide to the Chinese writing system
Chinese For Dummies
Essential Mandarin Chinese Grammar: Write and Speak Chinese Like a Native
Graded Chinese Reader 1000 Words: Selected Abridged Chinese Contemporary Short Stories
Chinese Flash Cards Kit Volume 1: HSK Levels 1 & 2 Elementary Level: Characters 1-349

Disclosure: These are affiliate links. They help me to support this blog, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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Studying Mandarin: politics and motivation

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Westerners foolishly believed that once China opened itself to the world, it would become more like them, but lately strong, CCP led nationalism has been on the rise in China. How do learners of Chinese react to this political situation? Does it demotivate them to learn Mandarin?

Recently, someone send the following statement to me:

In China, I do not have political discussions with Chinese people. If a Chinese person makes a political comment to me, or asks me a political question, I will respond with, “I do not have political discussions with Chinese people“.

I was left to guess what he meant. Was it too uncomfortable to discuss politics? Too dangerous? Pointless maybe?

No matter how many people claim they study Chinese for themselves and their own benefit, this example shows that nobody learns Chinese in a complete vacuum. You study Chinese? What do you think about the social credit system? Not an uncommon question if you are Chinese language student in 2020.

But do the current political situation in China and the international tensions really change anything? Does it make China and the Chinese language somehow less attractive to learn?

In this blog post, I can only scratch the surface of this question. However, I want to shed some light on the discussion by showing how learners of Chinese deal with politics and which arguments they use.

Does the political situation in China demotivate you to learn Chinese?

1. Indifferent: the apolitical learner

bored looking guy holding tablet in a bar
“the apolitical learner”
(Photo by mentatdgt, Pexels)

Some people don’t care about politics. Politics isn’t part of their motivation to learn Chinese. For them the political situation doesn’t change anything, doesn’t matter what they hear on the news or read on the internet. They have their own intrinsic motivation.

For someone with a strong interest in the world of politics, this is hard to believe. How can someone turn a blind eye to the reality in a country? But then again, what composes that reality? How can you ever be sure you know the truth?

2. Fluid situation: the political landscape is ever changing

“If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 70 years ago”

If the current political climate is an influencing factor for learning Chinese, then it was also one 20 years ago (or 50 or 70 years ago etc.). Political circumstances are never stable. If they are part of your motivation to learn Chinese, you make yourself vulnerable. As soon things change for the worst, your motivation is affected.

If you’re interest is in Chinese music or Shanghai cuisine, why indeed be bothered by such external factors you cannot control?

3. The people-does-not-equal-government argument:

Government vs people
“people ≠ government”
(Photo by pixabay)

No matter where you go in this world, people are divided into two groups. Those who govern and those who are governed…

One argument that keeps showing up in this discussion is that we shouldn’t condemn the people for their government, most of all in countries that can’t be called representative democracies.

This distinction indeed seems fair. There is no point in dismissing an entire country and all its people, only because you think you can’t stand its leaders, their views and whatever they are doing (or not doing).

And just because you visit or even live somewhere, doesn’t imply you support or trust the government. So at the end of the day, people ≠ government.

4. Pragmatic

The pragmatist’s view: It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice (Deng Xiaoping)
(Photo by Helena Lopes, Pexels)

News about China – be it positive or negative – affects people’s interest in the country, its culture and language, but not always in the way you would expect.

Based on all the negative media coverage, you could decide to stay as far away as you can from China, never learn the language or have any dealings with the inhabitants of the middle kingdom. On the other side – if you’re more pragmatic – , you might just as well argue that you are going to learn the language and help the people affected by these negative things or at least try to be helpful in some way.

Either way: China is becoming more and more important on the world stage. For the pragmatist learner this is a good thing. He is not limited by ideology or moral judgements about China and doesn’t feel obliged to point his finger at others.

5. Nationalism as a demotivating factor

China is back!

Some people do get demotivated by China’s new nationalism which is creating a climate that is less welcoming and even hostile to foreigners – or so it is said. Party ideology guides you everywhere you go and the cult around XJP is getting more and more obtrusive, not only foreign observers have noticed. Many are worried that China is “drifting off” in a totalitarian direction.

And there is more disappointment. Some longtime laowai have discovered that they’ll always remain “aliens” and outsiders in China, no matter how deep their understanding of the country and its people have grown. Others even fear being scapegoated once China’s economy declines or political and economical tensions between the West and China rise.

Is this kind of nationalism unique to studying Chinese? Can one have the same experience studying other languages like Japanese, Turkish and Arabic which have their own brands of ultra-nationalism and xenophobia? It can be hard if you admire the culture, only to discover you are not welcome and never will be a true part of it. Obviously, this last point is not unique to immigrants in China, but a problem with an universal quality.

6. Love it!

I almost forgot this one. Many people all over the globe admire the Chinese state for its way of driving modernization forward and dealing with rapid societal transformation. They see XJP as an example of a strong technocrat leader.

A post on LinkedIn from a sales manager: He recommends Xi’s New Year’s speech as learning resource and doesn’t forget to post it on his LinkedIn-profile. For me doing this as an exercise at home with your laptop is one thing, boasting about it on social media another. It becomes a political message...

Does it demotivate me?

Yes and no. I noticed it’s all too easy to be influenced by negative news about China. And here in Europe, almost everything I read about China is negative. (“We” are of what China might become in the future when it decides the rules of the new world order). However, our understanding of China is still very limited.

Ultimately, it’s my own choice to pay attention to this negative and biased news or not. I prefer listening to an insightful China podcast, talking to locals or reading a serious book about China. My goal has always been to stay open-minded and understand different perspectives.

For every negative statement about China I can make an equal remark about my own country, Europe or the west in general. I think this is a fair and healthy thing to do. And it’s good to put things in their right historical perspective as well. No, China is not a democracy, not in today’s western sense, but when has it ever been? Why do we always project our own wishes and expectations on others?

Another important reason to not let yourself get demotivated by politics is this: the world of politics is a day-to-day, month-to-month thing, where as learning Chinese is a long-term endeavor. It doesn’t come without a huge investment of time and energy which is why you should get your priorities straight. It actually makes a lot of sense to protect your motivation and keep a healthy distance from politics if it’s starting to become a negative influence. The apolitical positions mentioned above all reflect that.

Furthermore, the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of learning Chinese language and culture(s) is undervalued. There’s seems less and less place for that in today’s world. You have to defend yourself against people doubting the usefulness of your endeavors. If your interest is beyond the mainstream – and it doesn’t even have to be some obscure branch of knowledge – you just don’t fit in anywhere.

Anyway, philosophy, arts AND the study of languages, in my view, should be located above politics. And that doesn’t mean you don’t care and aren’t interested.

Whatever happens in the future, there will be a practical value in knowing the Chinese language. The reasons may vary from work, Chinese family and friends, traveling and hopefully, changing something for the better.

Does the political situation in China affect your learning? Please feel free to comment on this topic down below.