Let’s be honest – learning Chinese is not easy. And what could be the most difficult thing for a learner after spending several years studying Chinese? Could it be expressing oneself, having small talk, maybe even reading and writing? For many learners, the answer would be “not knowing how to keep going and stay motivated to learn Chinese”. Many of those who started learning Chinese (or any other language) essentially dropped it after a few months or a couple years. Why? Because it is very difficult to continue once your “hunger” for language, which is so common at the very beginning, disappears. It also does not help that as we go deeper into the learning process, we stop seeing visible results, hitting a so-called language-learning plateau. At this stage, we are still improving our language skills, but the time needed to reach a higher level of proficiency increases a lot and as result, motivation drops.
I have my own experiences with this, and my friends have had similar struggles. But how do you keep going? How can you avoid feeling depressed when it seems like you can never master Chinese?
Find the Why
I truly believe that no advice or strategy will help you stay motivated to learn Chinese in the long run if you don’t have “the why” to keep going. Find your reason to continue. Think about why you even started to learn Chinese. Was it a dream to visit China? Was it career opportunities you thought Chinese would open for you? Was it the calligraphy and art that fascinated you? Now pause and think, do they still resonate with you? If yes, congrats, you are lucky! Grab that feeling and remember it. This “why” will keep you going further.
So first and foremost, find your “why”s.
And now that you have your “why”, let’s talk about “how”.
Incorporate Chinese into Your Daily Life with Minimal Effort
The most common piece of advice and really the most practical one is to create a routine or habit of practicing Chinese and allocating some time for it every week (ideally every other day). While it is definitely the best way to keep going, consistent practice is easier said than done. We all have lives going on, families and friends to meet, work and studies to finish, movies to watch, and so on. So how can you make learning Chinese easy and unobtrusive?
#1 Social Media Channels
Make the Chinese language part of your daily life. Start with simple things, like following more Chinese speaking accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Tik-Tok, or any other social media that you use every day. Ideally, it would work so that when you browse through feeds, Chinese will become the most common language. (For hardcore advancer learners – change your phone’s language setting and every other device into Chinese!)
Practical tips – A Few Instagram accounts to follow
Here are a few examples of accounts that might help you learn the language. These accounts post easy cards with words and phrases, and the more you see Chinese in your daily life, the more you remember later.
And why not follow your favorite singer or actress? Make procrastination in Instagram useful.
#2 Chinese Language Podcasts and podcasts about China
Another way to make Chinese part of your everyday life is to listen to podcasts. There are podcasts that are focused on language, such as Mandarin Bean, Chinese 101, and ChinesePod. Not only can they help you develop listening comprehension but also pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
Language podcasts are useful, but you can also listen to podcasts about China and learn more about the country and culture. There are so many different podcasts in Chinese or about China out there that you can always find one that covers topics of your interest, be it Chinese food, fashion, society, trends, or economics.
Related source: TOP 7 Mandarin Chinese Learning Podcasts: Review and Comparison
#3 Dramas, TV shows and YouTube Videos
Learning Chinese does not need to be serious and boring. Keep developing your skills passively, by watching videos in Chinese. Instead of an episode from Netflix, opt for a Chinese TV show or drama.
Depending on your level, you may prefer to keep English subtitles or just go with Chinese ones. While it is challenging in the beginning, it gets easier with time, and your passive vocabulary develops a lot. You pick up new words and phrases, and most importantly, intonations, something that is very difficult to develop while living outside of China.
While you can find a lot of Chinese TV shows and dramas on YouTube, you can check the following platforms, such as 爱奇艺、优酷、and 腾讯. Though they might require paid subscriptions. And by the way, Netflix is now offering Chinese movies and TV shows too.
1) Record and check
When you see a new word or phrase, write it down and find it in dictionary. I use Pleco, for example. It is a mobile app, easy to use, and it allows you to draw unknown characters. Plus, you can save new words under bookmarks and revise them later.
So after watching an episode and bookmarking new words, review them. Ideally hand write them a couple of times.
- Make sentences
Create a few sentences with each of the words.
And then after few days, check the same words again.
Sounds a bit tedious? It is. But you will be surprised how fast it becomes easier. With new episodes, you will get fewer and fewer new words. As your Pleco bookmarks grow, it is generally good to browse through bookmarks to review vocabulary.
Keep Practicing Chinese in an Easy, Constant, and Structured Way
Having Chinese in your daily life without active studying helps with maintaining language level, but not necessary in advancing it. You will need to put in effort to break through the learning plateau.
#1 Get Social, Get Friends
People tend to be more enthusiastic about studying languages when they can actually use them. After all, we learn languages to be able to communicate and build connections. So, to keep going forward in your learning journey, consider finding a person or group of people with whom you can speak Chinese.
It is great if you have Chinese friends already and use Chinese in your conversations. But can you make your meetings regular? And what about if you don’t have such an option? Luckily, we live in times where you can find language partners and practice Chinese by chatting with native speakers. Check some Facebook groups, your city might have a language exchange club that organizes meetings, and you might meet your next best friend there. Alternatively, you can use services such as iTalki, Tandem, or Hello Talk. You can search for people who have similar interests and then choose different communication methods, including video calls, text messaging, or voice messaging. And everything that was mentioned above, like listening to podcasts about China and watching dramas, will give you more topics to discuss with your language partner.
#2 Read in Chinese Regularly
Ideally, reading in Chinese should become a habit. And as with movies, the more you read, the easier it becomes. Depending on your level of Chinese proficiency, you can choose different resources. Go for news and articles if you are an intermediate or advanced learner. News websites like BBC or NYT have news in Chinese. Alternatively, check Chinese media outlets like Xinhua. Reading news about China will also deepen your understanding of the country.
If you consider reading articles in Chinese too time-consuming for your level, and you just cannot make it a habit due to its difficulty, go for graded reading. There are websites like MandarinBean and DuChinese that offer different kinds of texts for just about every level of learner, from beginner to advanced. Reading a graded text is so much easier than a newspaper article since you don’t need to check every unknown word in a dictionary because the word translations pop up, making the reading experience rather seamless.
Graded reading makes reading in Chinese feel like actual reading rather than constant dictionary word searching or guessing the meaning of every word. Which makes it a great option for continuous practice.
1) Determine your level
While graded texts are much easier than original ones, you should still consider your language proficiency and find graded texts with the level that suits you and does not kill interest. Let’s take MandarinBean as an example, as I more familiar with it as a user. My level right now is somewhat advanced, so I check texts with level of HSK 5 or 6. Since there are always new words in each article, I mainly prefer level 5 for my regular learning content (and HSK 4 level on a lazy day), which makes the reading not too slow and not too difficult. If you are not sure about what your level is, you can check it directly from MandarinBean, as it has HSK test practice to help you determine it. Or you can just try texts of different levels and feel out which fits your needs best.
Before reading, I often listen to the new lesson’s text’s audio first. I would listen to it a couple of times until I get the general idea. One small tip, if you feel that audio is too slow, play it on1,5 speed!
Now, reading is a crucial step and the one that feels (and is) the actual studying. At this stage I already have an idea about the text after listing to it. So here I will open the text in Chinese without using pinyin or translation functions and skim through it while listing once again. I won’t check any words and just mark in my head places or passages that I don’t understand.
Then come the tedious tasks made easier with grading help. I will read the text sentence by sentence or paragraph by paragraph with the help of the pop-up translation as well as Pinyin. And at the very end I will also check the translation, just to be sure if I understood the text fully and correctly.
I used to always write new words in a notebook, and then I would hardly ever look at those words again. The notebook would always be somewhere else. Now, I use Pleco as my e-notebook. Whenever there is an unfamiliar word, I keep notes of it in my Pleco bookmarks. Your phone is most likely always around so that you can go through these words whenever you have a moment. Mandarin Bean also has Quizlet vocabulary lists, which are quite helpful for review too. Creating your own Quizlet lists also works.
If the process looks heavy to you or too long, don’t be scared! You will be surprised to find how convenient and easy it is. MandarinBean’ texts are short, topics are very common and relevant and best of all, you can always select level that fits you best.
#3 Take an Online Course or Find a Tutor
Many people struggle to continue learning Chinese because they lack not (only) motivation but (also) discipline. They learn the language without a structure or timeline. Registering for a course or finding a Chinese tutor are options worth going for in case you cannot manage to practice Chinese on your own regularly. A course or tutor becomes the external force to push you forward.
The internet is full of courses and tutors, and I won’t go into details on how to choose one or what you should take into consideration here. DigMandarin is one such website, and I encourage you to check out their selection of courses
Apart from bringing structure into the learning process, taking a course or learning with a tutor adds another important thing – you can follow your own progress clearly. Finishing a course, passing a test, or getting praised by a tutor gives you an estimation of your performance, which is very important as a visible form of progress. Improvement of language skills on its own can boost your motivation.
#4 Set a Goal and Prize
While motivation might be vague like interest in language, a goal is something concrete. And it is best to have one. Having a goal will keep you afloat and be your guiding light in times of despair.
Setting a goal might sound easy, but in fact, it is only part of the deal. You need to have a plan for how to achieve the goal. And you need to define smaller goals that bring you closer reaching the main goal.
Dividing your main goal into smaller ones
Let’s look at an example. Imagine your goal is to pass HSK 6 in 2 years. Consider what is your current level, and what are the areas you should focus on. You have an HSK 6 study book with 20 chapters. Then roughly you need to study one chapter per month. That is your monthly sub-goal #1. Next, how many words does each chapter have? So then how many new words per week do you need to memorize – that is your weekly sub goal #2. 50 words per week, so per day…I guess you got it.
Every completed sub-goal is a little victory that paves the road to your main destination. And don’t forget to celebrate small victories! Even 5 words per week is already 250 new words in a year. It is not much, but still more than zero.
Related source: HSK Test Guide
So how can you stay motivated and keep learning Chinese? I don’t have a final definite answer. I just tried to summarize above what helped me to keep going and continue studying Chinese for more than 10 years.
I was stuck on a learning plateau for a couple of years, not able to “unlock” ways to continue learning Chinese. I felt like no matter what I did or how much effort I put into learning. I would never be able to become fluent in Chinese. Language lost its magic for me.
My “why” to keep going came to me as my interest in China, its society and culture, developed and grew. And instead of stressing out about how to master the language, I became curious about it. Curiosity, interest in language, culture and country became my motivators.
While I managed to incorporate Chinese into my daily life relatively easy, by following some accounts on Instagram and watching Chinese TV programs now and then, I could not develop discipline for consistent practice. I tried and failed multiple times, and finally realized that learning with a tutor was the best option for me.
How is my Chinese now, after 10 years of learning? Definitely not at the level I wished to be at. Will I ever be fluent in Chinese and pass the higher HSK levels? My answer is “never”. But I no longer stress about it. I simply enjoy the learning process, appreciate the beauty of the language, and explore the culture that the Chinese language opened up to me. For me, learning the language has become not a sprint, but a marathon (or maybe even a life lasting journey).