Using Topics and Scenarios to Make Your Chinese Learning More Efficient

As a Mandarin teacher, I am always delighted to observe and learn from my students. One thing I have noticed in my interactions with my students is how hard most of them have to struggle during the learning process. The courses you take and the textbooks you use can of course be beneficial, but they alone cannot make you a better language learner. Too much time can be used up figuring out the meaning of words, taking notes in class, looking up words in the dictionary, or talking with friends. What you need to make the process more productive is a way to establish a context for your learning and sort your vocabulary.

The learning method I am recommending here will not only help you improve your Mandarin—it will help you learn any language. I call this method topic-oriented learning, since it requires that you study certain cultural topics with explanatory scenarios. This method works particularly well with adults, who (unlike children) are more likely to have difficulties picking up an authentic accent and are frequently distracted by the syntax of their mother tongue.

My students (especially my beginner-level students) also sometimes complain to me that they find it quite easy to figure out the Mandarin I teach them in class, but quite difficult to understand the words that actual Chinese people use in the real world. Why is this so? I believe it is because the teachers tend to use class content that makes use of the limited Mandarin the students already know, which means that the content may be not that idiomatic. To increase their ability to understand how real Chinese people speak, students need to study scenarios that depict actual everyday life. When adults use topics and scenarios to learn, memorize, and practice a language, they usually achieve a much higher degree of success.

Let’s take the topic of “Greetings” as an example. Here are five widely-used ways to greet others in daily life:


As you can see, there are many more ways to greet other people in Chinese besides the familiar “Nǐhǎo” (which of course is the most common polite greeting). If you really want to talk like a native, think about what scenarios would be most appropriate for each of the following greetings.

  1. 你干嘛去呀?(Nǐ ɡàn mɑ qù yɑ?) Imagine that you run into a fellow student on the college campus. This greeting would be most appropriate in such a situation.
  2. 刚回来呀?(Gānɡ huílái yɑ) Perhaps your spouse or your roommate has come home later than usual and you are concerned about them. This would be the best greeting in this case.
  3. 吃了吗?(Chī le mɑ?) If it’s near time for lunch or dinner, try using this greeting with your friends.
  4. 身体还好吧?(Shēntǐ hái hǎo ba) Maybe a friend of yours has been in the hospital; this is how you would greet him or her.
  5. 这么晚才下班?(Zhème wǎn cái xiàbān): In this scenario, imagine that your spouse or other family member has returned home later than usual from work and you have been worried about them.

Exploring these different scenarios should make it easier for you to distinguish the differences among the five different greetings. In addition, imagining a scenario where you need to use what you have learned to communicate with others will make your learning journey all the more efficient and satisfying.

Mengyun Jin

Mengyun (Dream) Jin is a Mandarin Language Assistant (MLA) working at the Confucius Institute in Auckland during 2016. She is a master student from East China Normal University majoring in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics. Mengyun is the contact point for MLA's Auckland wide. She is also involved in compiling website activities and newsletters, organizing social media, managing resources in schools, Chinese competitions and examinations and other Institute related projects. Mengyun also teaches adult students and supports the cultural activities for the school-based MLAs.