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3 things you need to master Chinese

Everybody has their own methods of learning a language, but we can talk about some general principles to guide your language study, however you like to study.

I’ve identified 3 crucial things you need in order to learn a language to a high level.

1. A lot of input – both listening and reading

To put this simply: the language has to be in you in order to come out of you, therefore you will need as much exposure to the language as possible in order to learn key vocabulary and expressions.

A lot of people complete a course and wonder why they find it so hard to understand people or express their thoughts on different topics, and one of the key reasons is that you just haven’t had enough exposure to the language.

Typically native speakers will be listen to the language for at least a year or so as a child before they even start to utter any words, and even then their powers of understanding are limited.

As adults, we don’t have to wait anything like this long before we start speaking, but we do need time to take in the language.

Second language acquisition experts have talked about the optimum sources to use for input in a language. I find that a generally useful rule of thumb is to try to find texts or listening materials where you can read/understand around 60-65%.

If you can understand almost everything, then you are not going to be learning much. If you can only understand less than half, then you are going to feel frustrated or it is going to take more effort than it is worth to work through that material.

As you read and listen, it’s really important to learn in an active way. Don’t just stick on a CD and tune out, thinking that you will ‘just pick it up’. Try to stop the recording and look up words frequently, listen and read along with a text, or translate what you hear into your native language.

Sometimes, if you have reached a higher level, you can also do extensive listening, where you listen to a dialogue or a radio programme and try to get through a longer section and understand as much of the key points as you can. However, you still need to keep focussed and pay attention to what you’re listening to, so it doesn’t just ‘wash over you’.

If you’re reading, try to look up key words (but you don’t have to be a perfectionist and look up every tiny word that you don’t know). For Chinese there are great reading tools that will give you instant definitions, such as Dimsum Chinese Tools, MandarinSpot or Wenlin

As you are looking up words, you should be putting vocabulary that you think is important with a few full sentence examples into flashcard/vocabulary software such as Anki, or writing them in a notebook. And you have to actually go back to the vocabulary and test yourself on it actively, not just jot it down and forget about it later!

2. Active practice of output – speaking, writing and translation

This is something that many learners do too little of, and I made the same mistake when I started to learn languages.

It’s important not just listen to a lot of Chinese and think you are familiar with a lot of the language, and not practice actively using it yourself.

It takes practice to get your mouth around using the language. It’s one thing to be able to recognise a word, but to be able to say it yourself correctly and form sentences is another. You just have to train yourself.

In an earlier post I mentioned how you can translate texts on your own out loud to practise, practise talking through different topics and record yourself, and find native speakers online to speak to and give you feedback. All of this will help.

Not everybody will want to focus on writing, especially since Chinese is a language with a difficult writing system, but at least learning to type can help you to practise the structures and vocabulary you’re picking up.

Translation may sound like a very technical skill to learn, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, when you start to speak or use a language, you will often find that you are ‘translating’ from your native language into Chinese in your head first, before you produce the output, which is a really important skill to train.

Try to think actively in Chinese as much as you can. Look around you and try to say the names of objects or describe them in Chinese, and look up words that you don’t know.

Try talking about what you’ve done today in Chinese, think through potential dialogues in your head or try to translate conversations in your head that you hear in your native language around you into Chinese.

Just putting your brain through this kind of exercise on a daily basis will help you to think in the language and produce it yourself. It will help to speed up the whole process and make it more natural, so when you need to use the language, you’re not struggling with how to put sentences together.

3. Analysis – feedback and self-criticism

One of the best ways to improve your skills in a foreign language quickly is to analyse your performance and be self-critical, and this is an aspect which many people overlook.

Being self-critical doesn’t mean agonising over your every mistake or being so afraid to get things wrong that you don’t want to speak the language. Making mistakes is a completely normal part of the learning process, and it is through making dozens of mistakes all the time that you learn to improve.

Sometimes, even when you know how to say something and you’ve said it right before, it just ‘comes out wrong‘. This still happens to me pretty often.

Remember that it is very difficult to hear something once and be able to internalise it and start using it straight away, so don’t expect yourself to get everything right, or feel bad when you do make mistakes or forget things.

Try to be aware of what you’re saying as you say it, and to analyse what you are listening to or reading as you go. I’ve written about this in detail in another post.

Another good habit is to actively ask for feedback. Teachers will often want to encourage you and will often stop themselves from being overly critical about your mistakes.

Chinese speakers are often so happy to hear foreigners speaking their language that they are prepared to overlook almost all your mistakes. This is great to continue to motivate you to speak the language, but it’s easy to start to feel comfortable and stop yourself from improving.

Ask teachers or Chinese friends what sounds you are not getting right, what tones you are struggling with, how you could improve your word order and what vocabulary you are getting mixed up. It may be difficult to take so much criticism at the beginning, but when you take on their advice and start seeing really quick progress, you’ll know that it was worth it!

Try also to analyse what you are saying as you are saying it, and try to discover your own mistakes. The other thing you can do is record yourself and listen back with a critical ear. You’ll notice a lot of things you didn’t pick up on when you were speaking, because you were concentrating on what you were saying that you weren’t able to spot a lot of things.

Principles you can apply, whatever specific materials you choose

Whatever courses or methods you are using in your language study, pay attention to these three principles. The best way to improve quickly is to apply your efforts across all three of them.

It isn’t going to work if you just read and listen but are reluctant to start speaking. And if you just try to learn through speaking without having taking on enough of the language, then you’re going to be holding yourself back.

It is the interplay between the three aspects over time that will really work magic and take your Chinese ability to the next level.