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Things I wish I could’ve done differently when I started learning Chinese

There was a discussion on Reddit about things you wish you could’ve done differently when you started your Chinese language journey. It’s a topic that could give Chinese learners, especially beginners, many enlightening opinions and tips. Of course, the learning experience is very personalized. Some suggestions are not usually necessary or helpful for everyone. So, for several top-mentioned problems, we are also giving our professional suggestions to all learners. 

Topic 1

“I’m still a bit hesitant to practice speaking.”

“Not spent so much time trying to learn EVERY single 汉字 I came across. And less time actually learning how to listen and speak.”

Editor’s opinions:

Many learners have been learning a language for a period of time, and it’s easy to forget that the goal of mastering a language is communication. They struggled with some details and factors of learning the whole language. Although some of those factors are essential and necessary, such as characters, tones and intonations, vocabulary, etc., you can’t ignore practicing speaking and listening. After some time, you might find that even though you have lots of grammar rules or character writing skills in mind, you still can’t talk with people in Chinese. You might even doubt yourself, wondering why you have spent so much time and energy on this language when you can’t actually use it in daily life with people. So, never forget to leave enough time to practice speaking and listening from the very beginning. It will bring you more confidence and determination to keep learning this language.

But how do you improve Chinese speaking and listening skills?

1). Speak out loud and frequently.

Talk to your Chinese friends, coworkers, or classmates in Chinese. Chase every opportunity you have to speak in your target language. You have no idea how precious it is that you can talk to native speakers since many learners have no one around them. They have to pay tutors to speak and listen.

If you have a Chinese teacher, that’s perfect. Try to avoid English when you are with your teacher. They know how to help you practice in a professional and efficient way.

Speaking of this, if you don’t know anyone who can talk with you in Chinese, try to get language exchange partners through apps and websites. Create a language environment for yourself.

2). Never be shy or fear making mistakes.

Try every new word and phrase you’ve just learned while chatting. It’s a great chance to know if you are using them correctly. If you are corrected face to face, be cheerful! You will remember this word for quite a long time or forever, which means you’ve nailed it. No one would laugh at you, especially native Chinese speakers. If you know one, you will find out that native speakers are more patient and tolerant than you might have thought. Don’t be afraid of asking“什么?” or “你可以再说一遍吗?” It’s okay to ask for it. And when you get used to listening to them in Chinese, your listening skills will improve quickly before you even notice.

3). Compare yourself to your old self, rather than classmates.

Even though you are learning in the same class as others, you may find that they are beyond your level. They might have learned this language a long time ago, which makes them seem gifted at learning this language. But your learning goal is not being better than your classmates or others, but mastering the Chinese language. So just look at yourself, if you are doing better than yesterday. Be more patient with your own progress. In the end, you will reach your finish line.

Related reading:

Topic 2

“I feel like I should have focused more on writing and grammar rather than vocabulary building.”

“Paid more attention to elementary level grammar. “

Editor’s opinions:

Grammar matters. Even though you have memorized thousands of vocabulary words, you can’t produce meaningful full sentences without grammar rules. Grammar is like the architectural blueprint, while vocabulary is the bricks and tiles. There are 210 grammar points at the elementary level, 214 grammar points at the intermediate level, and 148 grammar points at the advanced level in the New HSK. Obviously, the elementary level and intermediate level cover about 80% of Chinese grammar. The more you have learned, the more you will find that the most commonly used grammar rules are from the beginning level, rather than the high level. So even if you just started learning Chinese, do not think that you can leave grammar for the future. Constantly learning from the very beginning can build a firm foundation. And it will ease your future study burden.

Related reading:

Topic 3

“Honestly, I should have focused more on pronunciation at the start, but I didn’t really have any money at the time to hire a professional teacher and (very obviously) was not able to figure it out on my own. Leading to me later having to fix some pronunciation issues.”

Editor’s opinions:

When you can converse about some basic daily topics with Chinese people, you may find that they seem to understand all you want to say, even though your pronunciation may not be correct. Is pronunciation so important? Do tones matter? The answer is definitely positive. The daily topics are limited, such as the weather, the time, simple greetings, food, holidays, home countries, etc. For these basic casual chats, native speakers can easily figure out what you want to say. And it might make you feel like “I’m good enough.” The truth is, if you want to go any deeper or more complex in your conversations, they might get lost in your speaking.

At some point when you look back, you just recall that “z/c/s”, “zh/ch/sh” or “j/q/x” really can make big differences in speaking. The four tones and the light tone can easily twist your meanings without noticing. The acquisition of pronunciation is a process of constant intensified practice in speaking and listening. There is a phenomenon called fossilization in linguistics. When you get used to the wrong pronunciation, it is very hard to correct, or you need to make a hundred times the effort to alter them. In most cases, learners get discouraged and feel frustrated when confronted with misunderstanding and confusing faces. Then they don’t want to continue anymore. After all, just a few of us have the courage and patience to start all over again. So, don’t mess around with your beginning pronunciation practice.

There are many online Chinese language videos and courses. Many learners can learn through them until the intermediate-high level. It’s convenient since you can learn Chinese anytime, anywhere for as many times as you want. However, speaking is a bit special among all the essential skills. It needs instant feedback to know if you are doing well.

So, if you can have a real tutor to coach your pronunciation from the beginning, that would be perfect. You are walking on the shortest path. But, if you don’t have the time or money for it, don’t worry. There are many great fundamental pronunciation video courses and drills online. You can learn by yourself at first. Watch and practice them again and again. When you are done halfway or the whole way, book a session with a professional Chinese teacher to analyze your pronunciation and give you suggestions for improvement. You will know what your weaknesses are and how to strengthen them.

Just remember, the later you start, the more effort you need to make.

Related reading:


But note that, this is not to say that other essential skills are not important or could be given up. All speaking, listening, reading, writing, grammar and vocabulary skills are very fundamental and indispensable. The time allocation is flexible and varies on your current learning state. It’s a game of how to plan your learning time smartly and practically. So, it’s important to know when you need to focus more on certain areas than others. You may wonder, what if I just don’t know it? Check your quiz paper! That’s the easiest way to know which part you need to improve more. Or more directly, just ask your teacher. I believe they will be more than happy to help you analyze your learning plan.

You are more than welcome to share your own experience and tips with other learners about what you wish you would have done when you started learning Chinese. Let us know!

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Jing Cao is the chief-editor and co-founder of DigMandarin. She has a master's degree in Chinese Linguistics and Language Aquisition and has taught thousands of students for the past years. She devotes herself to the education career of making Chinese learning easier throughout the world.

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