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How to Learn to Speak Fluent Mandarin Chinese – Step 3

Moving from the Beginner/Lower Intermediate Stage to a More Advanced Level

Learning Curve for Speaking Chinese In Parts 1 and 2 of my guide to how to teach yourself to speak fluent Mandarin Chinese, I talk about learning pronunciation and building a solid foundation in the language. I mentioned how it is important not to work too fast at the beginner’s stage. I have made this same mistake myself, I have read through beginners books and thought I understood a lot when actually I just had a basic idea. It is important to work through beginner’s books effectively, not just let the content wash passively wash over you, this is why when I am learning a language now, I always translate the foreign language texts into English and try to translate back from English out loud to test myself. At the start you need to work thoroughly, to avoid a lot of gaps in your knowledge of the language from working too quickly. That is also why I recommend you use 2 or 3 beginners courses, or at least the texts/audio from them, so you get more input and can build a stronger understanding of the basics. This beginner stage might take 6 or 8 months, but what do you do after you are familiar with beginner courses and want to move on?

A lot of language learners get stuck at this stage, however there is no excuse for this, because there are now a lot of resources for Chinese at all levels of study.

At the lower intermediate stage, I would still recommend using graded texts / textbooks, because the learning curve with Chinese vocabulary can be greater than with other languages, and they will also make it easier by providing some vocabulary and giving you clear pronunciation (many native speakers of Chinese do not have clear pronunciation, and this will be hard to deal with at this stage). You need to find texts or audio that is at a +1 level (a stage above where you are currently at), if you find that you don’t know the majority of words you encounter then you need to choose simpler materials.

As with the beginner stage, the most important two things you need are input and practice.

Working on Listening
Listening to Chinese, Practising ListeningI recommend the intermediate and upper intermediate level podcasts from Chinesepod, and also the listening textbooks published by Beijing Languages and Culture University Press, which are available at different levels.  Any audio that has a lot of Chinese content, and a minimum of English chat is appropriate. You can try a few sources and see what you are interested in or what is at the right level for you. Whenever you hear a word that you don’t know, you can type it using a Pinyin input system into a piece of dictionary software, so you can instantly look up words. This is a very powerful technique for the intermediate learner, and it will allow you to tackle audio with increasing difficulty. You can also look up unknown words using your iPhone, iPad, or Android phone. It is a good idea to pause the recordings regularly to look up words using Pinyin. This will help you to remember words more easily, and take you out of the passive frame of mind of simply listening, which doesn’t teach you so much. Enter new words into the flashcard software Anki and review them often to commit them to memory.

Practising Speaking

This is crucial, if you get to the stage when you have a higher level of understanding you need to make sure that you can improve your speaking at the same time. In China I have come across many English learners who can understand a lot of what people say but never practised speaking, their learning was passive for so many years that they are often completely unable to speak. To avoid this, there are several things you can do. You can find native speakers to talk to online. I have heard that busuu, livemocha and italki are all good for this. If anybody has any experience with these or other sites, do let me know.

You can also practice speaking by shadowing/repeating after audio of native speakers, read Chinese texts out loud, or you can even practice conversations by yourself, simulating a real situation, or practice introducing yourself in Chinese.  

It takes time and effort to become conversationally fluent in Mandarin, but if you work progressively, it is perfectly achievable. In another post I will talk about resources for advanced Chinese learners. All the best!