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How to get past a beginner / intermediate level in Chinese

I got an email a couple of days ago from a blog reader who wrote “I watched your video where you spoke Chinese and would say I understood about 75% of it, however I know I would have no chance of replicating it if asked to speak.  How often have you encountered people like me who understand quite a bit of the language, even at fast speeds, but can only speak in short, choppy sentences?”
First of all, this is a common and sometimes frustrating part of learning to speak a language, but it is important to understand that it is a completely normal part of the process.
Even after learning Chinese for an extended period of time, I still find that the things I can understand can be much more complicated and fast than how I speak myself, but it doesn’t matter, because I am learning and improving all the time. If you think about it, the situation may be similar for your native language. You may understand a sports commentator speaking really fast, and get almost everything he says, but you would not speak that quickly and you might lack the knowledge and specific vocabulary to talk about the subject yourself.
Think about watching a TV documentary or reading a non-fiction book. By the time you get to the end, if somebody asks you to repeat the content or summarise in your own words, you might only be able to recall or say 5% or a small proportion. You might have understood almost everything, but you cannot commit to memory or recall so much at once.

But why is this problem so noticeable in foreign language learning? It is because at the beginning, everything you are taking on is new information and new vocabulary. Even as you progress, there is a lot more new information to process than listening to your native language.  You learn very quickly but you can’t take the information into your active memory and be able to use it so easily.

The beginner language learner also has a difficult task because you have to get your brain used to the patterns and rhythm of a different language to your own. Understanding it shows you know how it works and being able to speak confidently shows you have internalised these patterns and are able to produce them actively. This takes time and practice.

So how can you get your ability to speak a foreign language closer to your level of listening ability?

The key to this is practice and making your study active rather than passive. I have written about this principle in detail in a separate post, but here are some extra tips for building your spoken fluency.

  1. Speak the language actively as much as you can. The more you speak, the more you are training your brain to form the patterns of the language and the easier they get. You can understand a structure perfectly, but you would be able to use it with ease without active practice, and using it dozens of times.
  2. When you can’t find native speakers online, speak out loud at home. This may sound crazy, but the speaking practice is what you need, however you can get it. Try recording a monologue every day talking about what you have done that day, or choose a specific topic.
  3. Focus on different topic areas intensively at different times. Choose a topic area, say rock music, or something you are interested in. Then go online and read articles in your target foreign language on that topic. Search for videos or TV programmes on the topic, and note down new words and look them up if necessary. Then record yourself talking about the topic or try to bring it up in a conversation. Doing this in stages broadens the range of topics you can talk about and builds your vocabulary.
  4. Try reading articles aloud. Take a magazine feature, an interview or the text of a speech, something which is less like the formal written language, and try reading it aloud. This way, you are getting speaking practice, training your brain to understand more complicated patterns and structures, and taking yourself out of your comfort zone. You will progress rapidly.
  5. Shadow native speakers. When you have a recording that is not too fast (maybe from a podcast or speech, but definitely not a news broadcast), try repeating after the speaker everything they say, but keep going as they talk. It is important to speak out loud rather than whisper to get your mouth used to the rhythm and speed. This can help even if you don’t understand everything you are saying.
  6. Practice formulating ideas in the foreign language. Try reading an article in your own language and then trying to explain it in Chinese or the foreign language. This is a skill more appropriate for advanced learners, but you can start simple. It will really get your head around expressing yourself in the foreign language.

All in all, it is important to get yourself speaking and working actively to think in the foreign language. Don’t worry if you can’t speak as well as a native speaker or use all the words they do. Just keep going, before you know it you will start coming out with phrases you never thought you could use!

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