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Learning Chinese: the Ways to Fluency

Learning Chinese has been one of the most rewarding and most humbling journeys of my life – and it‘s far from over. It took me a first few months to adapt to learning, but I eventually did. Where at first I couldn`t even have a basic conversation with native Chinese people, I`m now confident enough in my abilities to soon pass HSK5. This process took me just 8 months.

The way you study and the techniques you use make a big difference. I want to share some of the tips that I have picked up on my journey and which can make the learning process faster and easier.

1. Consistency is key.

The first and maybe most important advice I can give is to be consistent. Try to study at least 15 minutes every day, since this is much more effective than studying 2 courses twice a week. People overestimate what they can achieve in a short period of time and underestimate what they can achieve long-term.

In my experience making an exception and not studying for one day often results in making an exception for 2 or even multiple days in a row and that can set back your progress significantly. Everybody has 15 minutes a day they can invest into studying, so try your best to stick to that rule.

2. Use good learning materials.

Whether you take real language course or not, I recommend getting extra textbooks for self-studying.

Books:

I used the New Practical Chinese Reader series, which I think is very good. It has a lot of dialogue, texts, stories, and exercises. The grammar is well-explained, and it also has a CD that contains the audio of the dialogues.

Apps:

Anki: a Flashcard app for learning characters and increasing vocabulary.

Pleco: a dictionary with flashcard options and many other features.

Memrise: very good for learning basic words and phrases.

ChineseSkill: in my opinion, the best Chinese learning app out there, since it has a lot of different features, especially the Dialogue-package, which is really good (although not free). It includes hundreds of dialogues for different levels and covering all kinds of topics. You can read them in Characters or in Pinyin, listen to them repeatedly, and all words are explained in English with even dictation exercises. After listening to a dialogue multiple times, I can pretty much remember all the new words that were used; this way, I can often learn around 30 words a day.

Advanced learners should also check out apps like Youku/优酷 (similar to YouTube), iQIYI/爱奇艺 (similar to Netflix), or Weibo/微博 (Social Media App similar to Facebook) to get the same input as native Chinese people.

3. Learning the basics.

I believe having a good foundation in a language is very important, so you should definitely consider taking a course at university or some other formal learning institution. This way, you will have a native speaker teaching you the basics and guiding you through the initial challenges. Among those challenges will be pronunciation and tones. It is really worth putting some extra hours into that in the beginning, so you will feel more confident when speaking later on.

A Study Plan

You should consider creating a study plan for your self-study if you want to maximize your progress. For example, you can choose 1 or 2 days per week in which you study one lesson in your textbook. The other days you can revise and work with the apps. Having a system will help you stay consistent. Make sure you keep revising what you have learned and boost your efficiency.

Practice Speaking

Try to find a language partner or a friend who will practise pronunciation with you and who can also correct you. Also, when studying alone, it can be helpful to read words and texts out loud, pronounce the words slowly and clearly and, to exaggerate the tones. This way, it will stick better in your head and still be clear when you speak fast.

Growing Your Vocabulary

The next step will be to build your basic vocabulary. Personally, I would not put too much attention on characters (except some easy, basic ones) before you get a little bit of a sense of how the language works, since it might otherwise be too much at once and overwhelm you. Stick to your plan, study from different sources, and create a deck in a Flashcard app like Ankidroid where you can place all the words you learn. Write Pinyin (and also the characters, if you want) on one side, and the English translation on the other. These kinds of apps use an SRS (Spaced Repetition System), which means that the cards are repeated in time intervals which are proven to be most efficient for our brains to memorize new information. An SRS will double or triple the words you learn per day/week.

Learning Grammar

The next challenge will be Chinese grammar, which can seem like a mix of very logical and very confusing. Basic sentence structures are not much different from English and the fact that Chinese doesn’t really have articles, pronouns, tenses, and conjugations will make grammar seem pretty easy at first. The problem later on will be that grammar structures and concepts, like the 了-sentence, are so different from European languages that you can’t really translate it to English in your head. So don’t be discouraged if you just can’t make sense of these; your brain will adapt to it after enough revising. My favourite way to learn grammar was to make flashcards (here I prefer real ones) for each structure and repeat them multiple times during the day and before I sleep. I would write the grammar rule on one side and some example sentences on the other side. Then I would read each of these sentences multiple times and repeat them in my head without looking at the card. This way the brain can really soak in these patterns and you will start using them without even realising it.

Studying Chinese Characters

At some point you will encounter Chinese characters, since they are a major part of the language. First, I would focus on reading, then slowly start writing the ones you are already comfortable reading. Again, you should definitely use an SRS flashcard app to learn them. Ankidroid already has a Deck with the 3000 most common Hanzi, which you can download. Try to add 3-10 cards and revise the old ones everyday.

After having learned some basic vocabulary of around 300 words, you should start a new vocabulary deck in which you only use characters and the English translation. It will be very hard in the beginning, but you should get used to characters instead of Pinyin as early as possible.

Many people wonder if they should learn how to write characters, since they will seldom handwrite characters in real life. But if you want to take language classes or the HSK test, then you will have to learn how to write. It will also help your reading: When you only learn how to read a character you will very often confuse similar-looking characters. If you learn how to write them, however, you won’t have this problem. So, although I wouldn’t focus on writing until later on, you should be aware that you will have to start at some point.

Following these tips, you can build a solid vocabulary of around 2000 words (which you should regularly put into your flashcard app), master basic grammar, and reach a level close to HSK 4. At that point, however, you should change your strategy.

Using the tips and techniques I have mentioned above, I went from 0 to HSK 4 in 8 months and to HSK 5 in a little more than a year. This is mainly thanks to the fact that I was spending most of my time in China, attending good classes, and I also had a Chinese girlfriend. I still have a long way to go, but I think this progress shows that you don‘t have to be a genius or spend many, many years to learn Chinese. You can check my experience of leanring Chinese in China here.

Be sure about your motivations though! If you don‘t have good reasons to learn or you are not determined to stick to it to the end, you shouldn‘t even start. But if you really want to learn, I’m sure you can make it. So, 加油!

Daniel Ruminski

Daniel (戴劲)is a German math student with a passion for learning languages. Besides German and English he is fluent in Polish and Spanish and is currently studying Chinese in Shanghai.

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