How long have you studied Chinese?

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freeimages.com/profile/ambrozjo

The question of how long I have studied Chinese has followed me almost from day one (which was in 2007). It have been asked this question a lot, I have asked others the same question and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about both the question and the answer.

In this article, I’m going to discuss it from numerous angles and my goal is to start a discussion, so I would very much appreciate any comments, thoughts or questions you might have yourself!

f you don’t have time to read the entire article, please answer the first two questions below, it shouldn’t take too long. If you plan to hear me out, please don’t submit the survey now, wait until you have done the guided estimate below and then submit the results.

Note that I discuss the question of how long time we have spent learning Chinese for a number of purposes, the goal isn’t to be able give an accurate answer to random stranger.

The standard/expected answer and why it’s meaningless

When a random person asks another person how long she has studied Chinese, we can be reasonably assured that the expected answer is a number of years. I don’t know about you, but I feel very uneasy giving such an answer because it’s terribly inaccurate. Let’s look at my study background and you’ll see what I mean.

  1. 2007-2008: Foreign language education in Sweden
  2. 2008-2010: Reasonably serious studying in Taiwan
  3. 2010-2012: Self-studying part time in Sweden
  4. 2014-2014: Master’s degree programme taught in Chinese
  5. Now: Using Chinese quite a bit, but not actually studying

So what should I answer? Seven years? What about the summers when I didn’t study much at all? What about the part-time studying on my own between 2010 and 2012, should that count the same as the incredible intense few months in early 2010 or the master’s degree program I’m currently enrolled in?

Other people might have complete breaks in their study history: weeks, months or years when they haven’t studied at all. Counting from when you first started learning is obviously a bad idea in this case, but depending on how detailed your counting is, you might end up with very different results.

The smaller the unit, the more accurate the measurement

Answering in years is obviously a bad idea if accuracy is what we’re after, so choosing a smaller unit is a good idea. I think the ideal unit should be hours, which is small enough to give accurate measurements, but not so small that it becomes impossible to estimate.

Of course, if you’re a real stats freak who log every minute of studying, you could go with smaller units, but that should be extremely rare in the real world. In fact, hours are quite hard to estimate as well. Do you know how many hours you have studied Chinese?

This is an interesting exercise and I think you should take a few minutes to think this through and make a rough calculation. You can also enter this as your “wild guess” in the survey above.

Since this question is also important for almost any experimental research into language learning (we want to know how experienced the students are), it’s also a question that appears a lot in research. You have surely answered such questions before, perhaps in connection with official exams.

Guided recall and better estimates

Research generally suggests that humans are very good at remembering events and specific episodes, but bad at weighting them for duration. We remember what we have done and what happened to us, but we typically don’t have a number attached to that indicating how long that episode lasted. This makes it very, very hard to estimate how many hours we have studied Chinese unless we’ve actually kept a record since we started learning.

A guided approach might help here. It takes a bit longer, but the results are far more accurate. Do the following:

  1. Divide your Chinese learning into distinct episodes, perhaps based on semesters and/or where you were studying.
  2. Try to think back at what your life was like for each of these episodes. How often did you go to class? Did you have lots of homework? Did you speak much with Chinese people? Did you read much? If you have any time logs from this period, that would of course be of great help.
  3. Multiply the number of hours for an average week with the duration of the episode you have chosen (hint: one month is roughly 4.3 weeks). If you have significant periods deviating from the norm (such as a summer vacation), these should be counted as separate episodes.
  4. Add the numbers for all the episodes and you should arrive at a number which is still a very rough guess, but it should be much more accurate than than the guesstimate you made above.
  5. Go back to the survey above, fill in your guided estimate number and submit the survey. Thanks!

I’m not going to list my own calculations in detail here (but I do plan to share them later when I start writing a series about my own learning). Adding all the hours from all my episodes (17 in total) gave me roughly twelve thousand hours. This means that I should have mastered Chinese by now, which o course isn’t the case, so there goes the 10,000 hour rule.

If I had studied as intensely as I did for short periods of time (~70 hours/week), it would take three years and a few months to accumulate those hours. That’s about half the time it actually took. If I had studied at the pace I did when I wasn’t in Taiwan and wasn’t actually studying Chinese (around ~15 hours/week), it would have taken almost sixteen years.

Clearly, counting in years means almost nothing.

Does it matter how long you have studied Chinese?

If you answer in years, I would say no, but if you count in hours, I think it’s interesting. Studying for a few hours a week for years without becoming fluent is natural, studying full-time for two years without achieving conversational fluency is a clear indication that something is wrong.

You can’t compare yourself with people who have studied the same number of years as you but have spent twice as much time (and vice versa). You can’t compare yourself with a younger you that spent more time either, for that matter.

Finally, there is another reason I think counting in hours is important. It highlights the fact that you can live in China for two weeks without spending a single hour learning the language. It doesn’t matter when you started doing something or how long you’ve been doing it, what matters is the actual time you spend. Counting in hours helps us understand that it’s the daily studying that counts, not the date we started learning Chinese.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

speaking
Image source: freeimages.com/profile/ilco

What languages do you speak? Do you speak Chinese? These questions are common and they both involve the word “speak”, even though they typically imply listening ability as well. We normally don’t ask about someone’s listening ability in specific languages, probably because it’s assumed that someone who can speak a language well can also understand it to a similar degree.

Assessing passive and active skills

I think this is true, but only up to a point. There are certain cases where people spend too much time on speaking and as a result neglect listening. The reason is probably that speaking ability is more highly valued and more obvious than listening ability, and it’s also easier to measure intuitively.

To assess someone’s listening ability, you almost need to design a structured test or at least be very active and ask control questions to verify that the listener understands what you’re saying and isn’t just pretending.

Speaking ability is hard to assess as well, but we can form an intuitive opinion about someone’s speaking ability very quickly, perhaps after just a few minutes conversation. However, as we shall see, it’s a lot easier to speak than it is to listen, because when you listen, you can’t control the language content to the same extent as when you speak.

Listening is hard

There are many reasons why listening is harder than speaking, but I’m going to focus on two major points here, one which is specific for Chinese and one which isn’t.

First, Chinese has a very small sound inventory (around 1000 common syllables) and the large number of homophones or near-homophones (words that sound the same or almost the same) in spoken Chinese makes it quite hard to understand. If you haven’t completely mastered tones, the number of perceived homophones sky-rockets.

Second, as I mentioned above, if you’re the one speaking, you can control the conversation, staying clear of areas you don’t know and steering the conversation towards areas you know. With just a few hundred words and some set phrases, you could probably have a conversation with someone and make it appear like it’s two-way communication, but in fact you don’t understand much of what the other person is saying except for the occasional keyword that you trigger on, use a few set phrases to express your opinion, improvise something using the words you know and then ask the other person a question in return.

This will work fine and you’re very unlikely to be found out except if someone is actively and competently probing your speaking ability. This mean that a video about how well you speak a language is pretty pointless, so if Scott Young just sent me a video of his proficiency in Chinese after 100 days, it wouldn’t have interested me much. However, after meeting him in person and talking with him in Chinese, as well as knowing that he also passed a formal exam (HSK4), I was quite impressed. A short video can give you a glimpse of what someone has achieved, but never more than that.

Listening ability is much more important than speaking ability

The problem with all this isn’t that I think a lot of people actively try to fake speaking ability or present themselves as being more proficient than they are, it is that it’s possible and you might even be doing it without realising that that’s the case. After all, impressing a teacher will give you a higher grade. This focus on speaking might make you skimp on your listening practise.

Don’t do it.

Speaking ability is important, but listening ability is essential. Speaking ability is mostly about using things you have already learnt, combining them together to communicate with others. This of course requires skill and practising speaking will help you do this more quickly and with less effort.

The problem is that you don’t learn many new things by speaking, you learn new things through listening, reading and/or studying. Of course, a conversation consists of both speaking and listening, but I’m convinced the listening part is actually much more important. Hearing mostly your own voice doesn’t teach you much.

Improving your listening ability accelerates your learning

The reason listening ability is so important is that it accelerates your learning in a way that improving your speaking ability does not. The more you understand of what’s said to you or what people say around you, the more you learn. This is very similar to the argument I’ve made earlier about knowing many words, which is indeed an important ingredient in listening ability.

Apart from this, I personally think that understanding what’s going on is more important for social integration than being able to express yourself. If you’re in a group of native speakers, it’s very hard to fit in or have fun if you don’t understand what people are saying; it doesn’t help much that your speaking ability is good, because what you say will be mostly monologues about topics you’re familiar with.

If your listening ability is very good, on the other hand, you can follow what’s going on and be a part of the group. Sure, your contributions to discussions might be limited in the beginning, but that will change gradually. In the meantime, you will learn a ton of Chinese just by understanding what the others are saying.

Writing and reading

Even though this article is about speaking and listening, most of the concepts here can be applied to writing and reading as well. In general, active abilities like speaking and writing are much more obvious to the listener/reader, whereas passive skills like listening and reading are more indirect. Still, a good reading/listening ability is the foundation of a good writing/speaking ability.

Is speaking more important than listening when learning Chinese?

No. It’s tempting to focus mostly on speaking when learning a foreign language. I know many beginners who spend a lot of time trying to say the words in the textbook, but very limited time trying to understand those words.

There’s nothing wrong with speaking from day one, I definitely think that’s a great idea, especially not if you have an immediate need of being able to speak with people where you live, but you shouldn’t allow that to overshadow your listening practice too much.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that only knowledge which you can express counts. If you’re serious about learning Chinese, investing a lot of time in listening ability will give you better returns in the long run.

More about listening ability on Hacking Chinese

Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Diversify your listening practice

Language learning with a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend

Without going into too much personal details, I’ve had my fair share of language learning with a Chinese-speaking partner. Since this is a topic that comes up fairly often and I have a few words to say about it, this is precisely what I’m going to do. I think that many people, both native speakers and other learners, misunderstand what it means to learn Chinese from/with a loved one.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/Cieleke
Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/Cieleke

So that’s why your Chinese is so good!

One of the most frustrating statements I’ve heard (and keep hearing quite often) is that after someone learns that I have a Chinese girlfriend, they exclaim something like: “Oh, so that’s why your Chinese is so good!”

There are many ways of responding, but since most people don’t really care, I mostly just smile and nod. Yes, sure, that’s the main reason.

Of course, the real reason my Chinese is reasonably good is because I’ve studied like a maniac, lived in Taiwan for four years and taken academic courses entirely in Chinese half that time. In fact, the cause/effect relationship in my case is reversed, I would never have been together with my girlfriend now if I didn’t already speak Chinese when I met her!

The problem is that people somehow think that having a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend means that you’ll learn the language by magic. This is just wrong. There are some real advantages, especially for daily conversation, increased fluency and (hopefully) a good model for pronunciation, but you improve mostly because  you practise a lot, not because of the nationality of your better half. In a sense, this is the same as immersion: you don’t learn Chinese simply by living in China.

Another potential problem is language choice. I think people in general tend to choose to communicate in whatever language is most convenient, which very likely isn’t Chinese if you’re a beginner. I know many mixed-nationality couples in Taiwan who speak almost exclusively English. This doesn’t make sense from a language-learning perspective (or at least not from your point of view), but it makes sense from a human one: Most people don’t fall in love because they want to learn a language, so they tend to use whatever language works best, not the language they are trying to learn.

Practice makes perfect

The main benefit of having a Chinese partner is that it’s a very fun way of exploring the language. We naturally feel a stronger desire to communicate with people we love and that means that we can keep at it for much longer and with stronger incentives to learn. A partner is usually (but far from always) more supportive of our language learning and might therefore be superior to random stranger or language exchange partner when it comes to helping you with your Chinese.

I often argue that learning Chinese needs to be fun and finding a Chinese girlfriend or boyfriend is definitely an awesome way to do it. I would personally never dream of finding one for this very reason, however, but I might be old and conservative. As long as everybody’s informed and is on the same page, I suppose it’s okay.

Another benefit with having a Chinese partner is that it increases your minimum daily study time. Just by managing daily conversations and discussions in Chinese is bound to teach you something, even if you’re an advanced learner. You gradually build up the feel for the language. Even if you’re too lazy to study, you still learn. This is harder without a partner, but can be managed in other ways, such as using games, sports or other everyday activities you don’t necessarily count as studying.

Some suggestions for how to learn with a partner

Don’t forget that your partner is a person, too. Just like friends, you can’t take them for granted and if you start treating them as your personal teacher or dictionary, you will run into problems very soon. I’ve found that the best way to equalise this relationship is by offering something in return. I do ask my girlfriend quite a lot of question about Chinese, but I also receive a fair number of questions in return regarding English or Swedish. This feels okay.

If both of you are very interested in languages, you could probably talk about that all day without feeling bored. If that’s not the case (I know, there are some strange people out there), I suggest limiting language learning to specific times. Don’t focus on your pronunciation 24/7, instead choose a time when the two of you try to fix your tones or whatever. If your partner is willing, s/he can then later correct you, but don’t push it.

What you won’t learn

Obviously, there are huge areas of the Chinese language that you won’t learn at all just because your special one happens to be Chinese. This includes character writing, reading speed, proper pronunciation (if s/he doesn’t speak Mandarin clearly), culture (unless you talk about it in particular) and writing in general. You will probably improve your ability to converse about everyday life and your fluency should increase quite a lot, but to reach an advanced level of Chinese, you need much more than that.

What if  I don’t have a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend?

Even though there seems to be some advantages with trying to communicate with people you love (as opposed to trying to communicate with a stranger or a language exchange partner), I’m convinced that the main advantaged with having a Chinese-speaking partner is that it makes studying more practical and enjoyable. As I said above, it’s a little bit like living in China versus staying in your home country. Going to China will make a lot of things more convenient, you won’t need to try as hard as if you stay at home. Still, there’s nothing that stops you from creating an immersion environment at home!

Similarly, there’s nothing that says you can’t learn Chinese very well without having a partner who speaks Chinese, but it means you need to be more active and involve Chinese in your daily life as much as possible in other ways. This is not impossible, it’s just slightly more inconvenient. Try to find other things that motivate you to learn and that makes learning Chinese a joy, then make them parts of your everyday life to as high a degree as possible. In my article about the three roads to Chinese mastery, “having your social life in Chinese” is indeed one of the alternatives, but you can achieve that without a partner who speaks Chinese and there are two entirely different options available as well.

Conclusion

In short, learning Chinese with a partner is indeed very good, but it’s not a magic bullet that will solve all your problems. You will still need to study, you will still need to practice, it’s just that some of the things you need to learn will be more enjoyable and you will hopefully be more motivated to learn. That’s worth a lot, but you can find other fun ways to learn and other things to drive you forwards.

How to reach a decent level of Chinese in 100 days

I have been inspired by many people in my life and in many different areas. When it comes to learning things, Scott H. Young runs one of the most interesting blogs I know I have kept an eye on his various projects and thoughts about how to get more out of life for at least five years, so when he said that he would now turn to learning languages, I was eager to see what would happen. When I saw that Chinese was one of the languages he had chosen to learn, I was thrilled!

scottvatandme

In this guest article, Scott shares some of his learning experience in a practical and easily applicable way. He reached a very decent level of Chinese in little more than three months, including passing HSK4 (yes, including reading and writing). If you want to evaluate his speaking skills, there are several videos in this post, one of them with Scott, his friend Vat and me speaking Chinese here in Taipei a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

In this post I’m going to try to dissect the specific methods I found most successful for reaching a strong conversational level of Chinese, after just a little over three months of private study.

First though, if you haven’t seen it, check out the mini-documentary Vat and I shot about the experience of living in China/Taiwan and learning Chinese. I owe a debt of gratitude to Vat for painting an excellent picture of what life was like and the Chinese we managed to reach.

Beyond that video, however, I want to go into more detail and give you the strategies I found worked best so you can use them yourself if you plan to learn Chinese or any other language.

Side note: I’m indebted to the many people who helped inspire and encourage this project. Benny Lewis, who first wrote about going up against Chinese in only three months. Chinese-Forums member Tamu, who wrote about challenging the HSK 5 after just 4 months in Taiwan. Additionally long-time Chinese learners John Pasden and Hacking Chinese’s very own, Olle Linge, offered a lot of advice in designing this project, and I appreciate the time they took for interviews, which I’ve included below.

What Level Did I Reach, Exactly?

In May, just a little shy of three months in China, I wrote the HSK 4 and passed with a 74% (Listening: 82%, Reading: 77% and Writing: 62%). For those unfamiliar with the HSK, it is the largest official exam for Chinese as a second language. It is divided into six levels with HSK 1 being the most basic elements of the language and HSK 6 as the highest level.

According to the organization that conducts the HSK, an HSK 4 is equivalent to the CEFR’s B2 designation. However, personally, I believe this is an inflation and it is probably more like a B1.

The HSK does not test speaking ability, but both Olle and John Pasden of Sinosplice.com were kind enough to sit down with me for an unstructured interview. I believe these clips are representative of my Chinese. I’m by no means perfectly fluent, but we were able to carry on a decent conversation in both cases with minimal friction.

Interview with Olle Linge (HackingChinese.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

Interview with John Pasden (Sinosplice.com) from The Year Without English on Vimeo.

John’s interview was filmed in Shanghai, just before I wrote the HSK 4 and Olle’s was filmed three weeks later in Taipei.

Speaking more generally, I believe my level of Chinese is sufficient to deal with most basic necessities of living, travel, make new friends and have interesting conversations entirely in Chinese. I can also read most of simple emails, menus and signs, although my reading still lags behind my speaking ability.

I’m still not at a level where I could easily understand group conversations, movies, television or read books or newspapers.

Obviously, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving native-level functionality with the language, but I feel the level I did reach has enormous practical benefits.

How Much Time Did I Invest, Exactly?

Before arriving in China, my studying time was exactly 105 hours. I’ve included this as an hourly amount, rather than a specific time period, because it was spread over a few months and I was also concurrently studying Spanish and Korean while working full-time.

In China, I studied fairly aggressively from February 16th when we arrived, until around May 10th, when I wrote the HSK 4. Although I went on to spend another three weeks in Taiwan, I did no formal study at that time and spoke in English with Vat (taking a break to finish the video before starting Korean).

My studying routine in China was to study six days per week with roughly the following activities:

  1. Private tutoring 1-3 hours per day.
  2. Anki (MCC Deck + my own deck for HSK vocabulary) 80 minutes per day.
  3. ChinesePod listening practice (last two months) 2 hours per day.
  4. Textbook study (first month) 2 hours per day. (Textbooks used: New Practical Chinese Reader, Complete Mandarin Chinese, Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar and Side by Side Chinese & English Grammar)
  5. Skritter handwriting (last two months) 30 minutes per day.
  6. Miscellaneous drills 0-2 hours per day.

Once you include breaks, I’d say this amounts to a solid full-time schedule. Although, there are undoubtedly people who could have studied much more than I did.

Aside from minimal work to maintain my website, which is my full-time job, I was entirely focused on learning Chinese.

Beyond my studying, I also had a few good friends and many acquaintances in China with whom I only spoke in Chinese. Movies and television shows I also omitted from the tally of total time spent. I watched a number of Chinese movies, a few seasons of 爱情公寓 (English title iPartment), and some Chinese music.

If I had to do an estimate of total time invested, I would estimate around 350-400 hours of study in China (plus 105 hours prior to arrival), another 150 hours of actual Chinese usage outside of my full-time studying and perhaps another 100 hours of Chinese media of some kind (television shows, movies, etc.). However the hours of immersion are much easier than the hours of studying, once you’re past the hump of making friends in the language.

I believe the methods and schedule I outline is something anyone could implement, provided they are living in China and studying Chinese full-time (either in classes or privately). Obviously, if you need to work in English while in China, you may have to adapt these methods to suit your schedule.

Exact Methods I Used to Learn Chinese Efficiently

Chinese was a far harder and more interesting challenge than previous languages I’ve learned, such as Spanish. With Spanish, aside from some time with a tutor and light grammar study from an exercise book, I learned everything from immersion. Chinese, on the other hand, erected many barriers that made immersion in the beginning stages often frustratingly difficult.

My philosophy towards learning anything difficult is, if at first you don’t succeed, break it down into smaller pieces and try again. When I frequently hit frustrations in trying to learn Chinese quickly, I reverted to that motto and broke my sources of frustration into smaller units which I could set up drills for and improve in isolation.

Early in the challenge, when I found myself unable to correctly recognize and pronounce the 4 tones of Chinese, I turned to pronunciation specific drills. Later, when I found that my listening ability was hindering my Chinese much more than speaking, I spent a bulk of studying time doing targeted listening drills.

It’s important to note that these drills and exercises had immersion as a background. I don’t think I would have been successful if I had used them in isolation—that is without spending hundreds of hours having real conversations with Chinese people, listening to real Chinese media and living my life mostly in Chinese.

I won’t labor the point about immersion, because I’ve written about it before, but if you’re struggling with this half of the language learning process, see this article I wrote for John Pasden’s Sinosplice.com for specific steps you can follow.

Methods I Found Most Useful

I tried dozens of different methods for learning Chinese, from textbook study to pronunciation drills, vocabulary lists and grammar exercises. Ultimately, I narrowed down my studying to just a handful of methods I thought were the most broadly useful. They were:

1. Full-sentence, audio-included Anki decks

I opted for a set of Anki decks organized around learning characters. Although character-learning isn’t a necessity for reaching a conversational level, I felt the fact that these decks harmonized listening, vocabulary, sentence patterns and character recognition, made them the most useful resource I used.

I mostly didn’t create my own Anki decks, aside for a specific one to master HSK vocabulary prior to my exam. I also mostly ignored any decks that lacked audio or full sentences.

I also adjusted the studying parameters for the Anki decks. Normally a first-time card has a one-day “good” review and a three-day “excellent” review time. I adjusted these to three and ten days, respectively. I also reduced the leech threshold to three failures before a card was pulled from my deck. (Side note: I also increased the spacing between cards in Anki’s settings, but discussing it with Olle we’re not sure whether that’s good advice. In general, don’t change settings unless you have a good reason to do so. Nonetheless, I had 84.1% correct on mature cards which isn’t substantially different from Anki’s default goal of 90%)

The result of these tweaks meant that I was spending less time memorizing the cards and more time exposed to new ones. This exploits the 80/20 rule, by quickly eliminating too-difficult cards that waste your time and pushing too-easy cards far ahead.

Taking these decks allowed me to, using only 116 hours in China and 70 hours in Canada, learn roughly 1800 characters and see them used in a few thousand example sentences. Because the decks also separate listening/reading/production as well as single-character/sentence, I was also quizzed on each element separately.

My one regret with how I handled this part of the learning phase, is that I didn’t learn the radicals early enough. Probably my first 500 or so characters, I had only learned a handful of radicals. Once I learned the radicals, my mental model for chunking characters had changed and it became harder to recognize ones learned using previous mnemonics. My advice: if you’re serious about learning Chinese, learn the top 100 radicals as soon as possible, since it is the best foundation for recognizing them correctly down the road.

2. Listening drills

For listening drills, I started by just listening to ChinesePod episodes. My feeling was that these are nice passive resources, but they are too long to be easily used for improving your listening ability until you get to the upper intermediate level where both hosts speak almost entirely in Chinese.

Instead, what I did was download the dialog-only files for hundreds of episodes. These usually run around a minute or so, and I would listen to each one a few times, then go through the Chinese-character only text and try to read it, and finally go through the English translation. Then, any characters, words or sentence patterns I didn’t recognize, I would jot down in a notebook.

It typically took about 5-10 minutes to do each file, and I did around 250 in this way. The ChinesePod files are quite good because they use very natural sounding, conversational Chinese. Most other learner resources try to be overly clear and well-spoken, so when you listen to actual native speakers, you struggle to make a match.

This was my second most productive drill I used in China, and I’d recommend it to anyone who feels their listening ability isn’t top notch, and isn’t at a level to really get much benefit from native media yet.

3. Pronunciation drills

Pronunciation wasn’t the main focus of my time in China. Despite wanting to make it a large focus from the beginning, it wasn’t important enough relative to vocabulary and listening to make it a large amount of my daily time usage.

Despite that, I did find a small amount of pronunciation drills to be invaluable. I truly believe that getting even an adequate pronunciation in Chinese is quite hard, especially if you train poor habits from the beginning.

The first thing I did was look up anatomical charts which note tongue position for various sounds in Chinese that we do not have in English. These were very helpful because I got into the habit of moving my tongue into a different position for the q/x/j sounds than the ch/sh/zh sounds which mostly sound the same in English. It also helped me learn how to do the Chinese “r” differently from the English “r” which can be a problem for anglophones.

Next I worked on tone-pair drills. I made the mistake of doing these on my own in the beginning, which inadvertently had me pronouncing my second tone too much like a third tone. I worked with Olle to go through a specific pronunciation test to see if I could pronounce the sounds right, at least in deliberate isolation. The first time I had some tonal errors, mostly related to this 2nd-as-3rd-tone problem, as well as a couple isolated problems with the phonetics themselves.

After a few weeks with drills with tutors, I redid the test and got a good score. This hardly means my pronunciation is perfect. First, the test was mostly designed to see if I was making errors that would be large enough to cause confusion with native speakers, not accent reduction. Second, the test focused only on individual words in isolation, a much easier feat than getting all the tones right with unfamiliar vocabulary in a long sentence.

Pronunciation is probably one of the few areas with language learning that fixing mistakes as an intermediate or advanced learner is extremely hard. So even though Chinese can feel completely overwhelming and tones feel like a side concern, I completely agree with Olle that getting them right (even if just in limited isolation) is something beginners should allocate time for.

4. Conversational tutoring sessions

Tutoring was also very important, but not in the way most people think of tutoring. In China I ended up having three different tutors, two in-person, and a third via Skype using iTalki. My goal with tutors was to spend as much time as possible having real conversations with them, and a minimum of drills, exercises and the things tutors normally emphasize.

I bring this point up because many language teachers actively avoid using this method. Chinese teachers go through years of training teaching mostly passive students. As such, they’re used to guiding the student through exercises, grammar points and vocabulary. Many of the tutors I’ve encountered actually feel having conversations is a waste of time, and I’ve been interrupted in sessions where a tutor insists that we now “get back to work” after a conversational segue.

Therefore, if you’re an active student who is doing independent study for grammar, vocabulary, wasting tutoring time on such activities is going to hurt your progress, even if your teacher pushes you towards it. I suggest being upfront with your tutor from the start about what kind of class you want to have and don’t be afraid to get a new one if your tutor stymies your attempts at having conversational classes.

Other Methods

I emphasized the above four because I felt that they comprised (a) the most important studying I did in China and (b) they are activities many students do not do. I did use a textbook in the first month as well as a portion of my tutoring time in typical classroom activities, but my guess is that the average student spends too much time on these rather than too little.

What Can a Reasonably Dedicated Learner Achieve in Three Months?

Overall, I do believe that reaching a decent conversational level in a three months is possible for a reasonably dedicated learner, provided they follow the strategy I outlined.

Vat wasn’t at the same level of Chinese as myself after three months, but he could still have conversations about day-to-day topics without strain and deal with most issues related to living and travel in China. Vat’s approach was considerably less strenuous than my own, and he worked on other non-language learning projects at the same time (including the videography for our mini-documentary).

For learners who aren’t able to devote themselves fully, I think stretching the same strategy over a longer period of time could have a similar impact. If you’re teaching English in China, for example, and need to speak English for 8 hours a day, I imagine you could apply my approach to 2 hours per day in your spare time and probably see the same results in 6-8 months (given you also pursue immersion in your spare time as well).

Similarly, I believe someone learning in a classroom environment, but outside of China, could still arrange conversational exchanges via iTalki.com and the slowdown from not being within the country would be modest. The only challenge would be maintaining the motivation, since you have less pressure to learn Chinese.

Going Forward with Chinese

At the end of my stay in China, I was left with an impression that I really didn’t have enough time there. Not because my level was inadequate, but because the vastness of Chinese language and culture really deserves years of study, not a few short months.

Switching from a high-intensity period of study to a low-intensity, habitual, type of studying can be tricky. Now, my goal is to set up regular interaction with Chinese. Even if I have to return to real life and can’t devote myself full-time to learning Chinese, I feel I’ve established enough of a base that continuing progress can be done largely through real interactions with Chinese people and Chinese media, making it more enjoyable to keep learning.

A big thanks to Scott for this guest article! He is the author of Learn More, Study Less. If you join his newsletter, he’ll send you a free copy of his ebook detailing the general strategy he uses to learn more efficiently. This includes language learning, but certainly isn’t limited to it!

How to find out how good your Chinese pronunciation really is

Something that have made me very frustrated throughout my Chinese language studies is the way my own Chinese ability has been evaluated by teachers and institutions. As a beginner, I felt frustrated because the tests only focused on a very small part of the language. This turned out all right for me because I learnt the rest because I was interested enough, but it wasn’t okay for students who were less independent. I wrote about this problem in this article: The importance of counting what counts. Arriving in Taiwan, I wasn’t happy with the way that the written language seemed to be much more important than the spoken.

praatThe problem hasn’t gone away, however, and even in my current master’s degree program, I feel that teachers have very strange ways of evaluating proficiency. I have also heard numerous students complain about their current language courses.. In some cases, a teacher claims to evaluate skill A, but is in fact evaluating skill B.

Case in point: Evaluating someone’s pronunciation by having them read very difficult characters they might never have seen before. If a student fails this test, you don’t know if it’s because he lacks skill A (pronunciation) or skill B (character recognition). Thus, it’s a very poor method to evaluate a student’s pronunciation. The same goes for reading aloud in Chinese; if the student fails, you have little or no idea what’s wrong, it could be because of problems with reading speed, character recognition, grammar or any number of other problems.

We need to know what the problem is before we can fix it

If we’re going to improve our pronunciation (or anything else for that matter), we need to know what we’re currently doing wrong. If we don’t know that, we might make small improvements just by practising more, but in many cases, you might actually perpetuate bad habits because you aren’t even aware that there are problems.

If we know what the problem is, we can make a concentrated effort to solve it. We can read about the problem, we can have other people help us and so on. Thus, I think it’s essential that Chinese teachers use proper methods to evaluate student pronunciation.

Methods to avoid

Let us look at three methods I have encountered that aren’t very good:

  • Reading tongue twisters might be great fun, but it’s not a good way to assess pronunciation. These phrases are designed to trip up native speakers, which means that apart from containing sounds you might find difficult to pronounce, they are objectively hard to pronounce, meaning that they contain rapid changes between phonetically either very similar or very different sounds. I would never ever make an l/r switch in any language, but if presented with twenty syllables only consisting of these two initials, I might still make a mistake. Does that mean that I need to work on my rs and ls? No!
  • Reading difficult characters seems to be a popular way of evaluating the pronunciation of native speakers. The pronunciation test teachers in Taiwan have to take includes a part with single characters and disyllabic words. These characters are not common (meaning that I have native classmates who can’t read all of them). To be honest, I have no idea what this has to do with pronunciation. This is character recognition plus the ability to remember the sound and tone of those characters, it’s got nothing at all to do with if you can actually pronounce the sounds or not. If pronunciation is the goal, use very easy characters and/or Pinyin.
  • Reading unfamiliar text aloud is very hard, especially in Chinese. Reading aloud involves many skills and actual pronunciation isn’t likely to come very high up the priority list for most second language learners. As frequent readers might remember, I have written an article about this. In short, reading aloud is only a good method to test pronunciation if you’re allowed to preview the text beforehand or if you read texts that are really, really easy.

How to test pronunciation

I’ve spent the majority of this article bashing existing methods, which is a bit unfair if I don’t provide any guidelines for what to do instead. In fact, testing pronunciation is relatively easy, which makes the above methods seem even more quaint. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • For the basics, test only pronunciation (provide Pinyin)
  • Be familiar with the content (preview) or use very easy texts
  • Be familiar with the language structures used
  • Start from single syllables, but move to disyllabic words as soon as possible
  • Learn basic tones before you start meddling with intonation

How to evaluate the results

When you have a recording of your pronunciation, there are at least three ways you can receive feedback. Doing all three is of course the best if you have the time and the resources to do so.

  1. Give it to a native speaker without telling him/her what it’s about: If they can understand what you’re saying, you know that you’ve got basic communication right. This is very easy for long sentences and very hard for single characters, because context makes it easier to guess what you’re saying. Thus, this method is best used for single syllables, disyllabic words or minimal pair bingo.
  2. Give it to a teacher along with a transcript: The goal here isn’t merely to check if the teacher can understand what you’re saying, instead you want the teacher to actively look for mistakes. Of course, these mistakes can still be sorted into different levels (wrong, understandable but not perfect), so ask the teacher to focus on the more serious errors first.
  3. Listen to it yourself and note any problems: While we’re speaking Chinese, it’s very hard to monitor everything at once and a lot of attention is spent on word choice, word order, what the other person is saying and so on. When you listen to a recording of yourself speaking, you will be able to pick out many problems you didn’t notice when speaking. I’ve written more about why and how to do this here: Recording yourself to improve speaking ability.

Conclusion

What I have written about in this article is relevant for both teachers and students alike. As a student, you have to realise that your teacher might not have the time or the ability to help you with your pronunciation and that you need to take responsibility yourself. As a teacher, you should try to be aware at all times what you are actually testing. Finding out what the problem actually is the first step of any sensible plan for improving!

The three roads to mastering Chinese

There’s a lot of talk about fluency in the online world of language learning. What does it mean to be fluent? What’s the best way of becoming fluent in a language? How fast can you get there? I find these questions interesting and I have discussed them before, but today I’m going to talk about another word that carries even more punch: mastery.

In my opinion, fluency simply means that you can communicate more or less without hitches, it says nothing about deeper understanding of the language. Mastery, on the other hand, isn’t something superficial and it’s something that takes many, many years to achieve, even with full-time studying and the best of methods. I know many people would be content with just being fluent, but bear with me, I do think that what I have to say about mastery is applicable to fluency as well, it is one stop along the way to mastery after all.

What does it mean to master Chinese?

Again, to avoid this article being mainly about definitions of words, I will just state that in my opinion, mastery is what educated native speakers have of their native language. Thus, mastery doesn’t imply that you know everything (no-one does), but it does mean that you have a really good grasp of the basics plus extensive knowledge about the language as it appears in speech and print today.

Image credit:
Image credit: Thomas Pate

Can we reach such a level as second language learners? I think so, even though it will always be hard to match the intuitive feel for colloquial language that native speakers have, as well as the more emotional and associative side of words. I think we can reach clear and relatively accent-free pronunciation, but truly mastering intonation and tones is really hard. That doesn’t bother me, though, I think we can come close enough. According to this definition of mastery, I have mastered English as a second language, even though that’s of course easier than Chinese because of the linguistic distance to Chinese.

Three roads to mastering Chinese

Below, I’m going to argue that there are only three roads to mastering Chinese. This might sound like a very small number, shouldn’t there be many different ways? I don’t think so. The important thing to understand is that mastery requires a truly massive time investment, far exceeding a normal university degree or the ten thousand hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about. This being the case, we need to have a very strong motivation to keep spending time with Chinese. I have only come up with three different ways of achieving this, but if you can think of something else, feel free to leave a comment!

Road to mastering Chinese #1: Using Chinese in your job

If Chinese is an integral part of your job and you encounter different native speakers on a daily basis, you are sure to learn a ton of Chinese. Naturally, you will learn more if you actually focus on studying a bit on the side, too, but the exposure and amount of practice you will get will accumulate over the years even if you don’t study. Most people spend perhaps one third of their time either working or on work-related things, so if this involves Chinese, you will get to 10,000 hours and beyond in no time.

My case is a bit special here since I will probably end up working a lot with the Chinese language, but not necessarily working with Chinese people or using Chinese as the operational language. For instance, if I write articles like this one, I don’t learn any Chinese at all. Still, teaching is a very powerful way of learning. I learn a lot from student questions and my own studying is also largely guided by what I feel is difficult to explain. Teaching Chinese is a good way of learning Chinese, especially if you have Chinese colleagues!

Road to mastering Chinese #2: Cultivating a genuine interest

Some people spend more time on their hobbies than they do on their jobs. If you can make Chinese the target of such a strong interest, you’re likely to be able to reach mastery sooner or later. This will power all kinds of useful process, such as turning most of your life into Chinese. Instead of listening to Western music, you listen to Chinese music. Instead of reading books in English, you read everything in Chinese. You might also move to China, but this isn’t necessary (more about this later). With a moderately strong interest, you can get pretty far, but you need a genuinely strong motivation to reach mastery.

I qualify only partly. I don’t think Chinese is the most interesting thing on the planet and there are many other things I also like (gymnastics, writing and reading fiction, Rubik’s cube, etc.). Still, I have a tendency to be really interested in something for a few years and then switch focus. Chinese is so far the only exception. I have studied for about seven years now and even though I’m of course less enthusiastic than during my first semester, I still think Chinese is  fascinating!

Road to mastering Chinese #3: Having your social life in Chinese

In the draft of this article, this third and last road to mastery was called “marry a Chinese-speaking man or woman”, but I found that to be a bit too narrow. The point here is that a majority of your social interactions need to be in Chinese and for many people, this means marrying a Chinese-speaking person, but it is of course conceivable that you could achieve the same by only having Chinese-speaking friends. Naturally, simply having someone who speaks Chinese around doesn’t mean anything, of course you need to speak Chinese as well. This gives you the opportunity of really learning the spoken language, but probably does little for your reading and writing.

Even though I’m not married, I’m still doing pretty well in this area. My girlfriend is from Beijing and most of the people I speak with (apart from her) are Taiwanese. After moving back to Sweden, I will probably have less Chinese-speaking friends, but I still think a significant amount of my social life will be in Chinese. To truly reach a high level this way, one probably needs to live in a Chinese-speaking environment, though.

You don’t have to live in China

I have argued elsewhere that living in China is overrated and that  you can equally learn Chinese at home (at least in theory) and this is true for mastery as well. Of course, many things will be a lot easier if you live in China, such as marrying a Chinese person, working with Chinese or maintaining a strong interest in the language. Many of these things might happen automatically, but if you’re not living in China, you will have to make an effort. Still, it’s a matter of different degrees of difficulty, not a matter of possible or impossible.

Different roads, different destinations

It should be obvious from the above discussion that mastery is a pretty broad term and that it incorporate a lot of different skills. The roads I have talked about in this article aren’t equal when it comes to these skills. For instance, a strong interest is probably the only thing that will make fully literate in Chinese and what kind of job you have in Chinese matters greatly. For instance, compare my situation with someone who works with interpretation.

Still, I think it helps thinking about different roads to mastery. It’s not the case that you have to choose one of them or that you can’t reach your goal if you miss some component, the goal here is to show that since we need to spend so much time, we’d better find ways of doing it that really matter to us and that make Chinese an integral part of our lives, not just something we study.

I love you, but sorry, you speak the wrong language

It’s also the case that we have different amounts of control over our choice of path. Most people, me included, certainly don’t choose their partners based on the language they speak (“sorry, I do love you, but you speak the wrong language, bye”). We have more control over what we work with, where we live and whom we choose to hang out with, but that’s still dependent on many other factors. Finally, even though we can cultivate and maintain a strong interest n the language, it’s hard to create one from nothing or control what we feel about studying Chinese.

That being said, we can make an effort to try to find the way towards mastery that suits us. I don’t know if I will ever reach a level of Chinese comparable to my English (or the English I knew when I graduated from university), but I’ll be sure to do my best and keep you updated about the process!

How to Approach Chinese Grammar

Earlier this spring, I asked an expert panel a difficult question: How should we learn Chinese grammar? As I hoped, the answers were as insightful as they were diverse. There are many ways of learning grammar and all have different strengths we can add to our own study method. One of the experts I asked is John Pasden, well-known for his blog Sinosplice, which was one of my main inspirations when I started Hacking Chinese. As someone who has spent a lot of time and energy creating the Chinese Grammar Wiki, it’s only natural that John thought that the few hundred words available for the expert panel article weren’t enough. Therefore, he decided to write a standalone article about how to approach Chinese grammar. And here it is!

What to Expect When Learning Chinese Grammar

allset-deIt’s best to approach a new, unfamiliar topic without too many preconceptions, but there are two that I hear a lot in regards to Chinese grammar, so I think it’s better to briefly address them both:

  1. “Chinese doesn’t have grammar.” OK, this is just silly. If there are no rules for how to string Chinese words together, then you could never be wrong, right? Although that sounds nice, it’s just not possible.
  2. “Chinese word order is just like English word order.” While it’s true that there are some basic similarities, and you can easily find examples like “I love you” that match word for word, it’s not hard to disprove this. Even basic words like 也 (yě) will constantly trip you up if you don’t use them the Chinese way.

You’ve also probably heard that Chinese grammar doesn’t have verb conjugation, or plurals, or cases, and a bunch of other stuff that we language learners generally associate with “not fun.” What does all this add up to? It means that for someone who speaks English, Chinese grammar is not going to stress you out too much. But still keep your eyes out for interesting features and patterns different from English. You will find them.

The Learning Curve

I once compared learning Chinese grammar to learning Japanese grammar. My conclusion is that Chinese grammar starts out pretty easily and ramps up gradually. (Don’t get too smug, though; while you’re not getting flummoxed by Chinese grammar, Chinese tones and characters are ravaging your poor little brain.)

The great thing about this is that it means “get out there and talk” is a great strategy. If you’ve got the vocabulary and a few basic patterns down, grammar is not going to be your biggest obstacle. If you can’t find someone to talk to, then get reading as soon as possible.

I recommend the following learning strategy:

  1. Learn basic grammar patterns
  2. Extend your knowledge with experimentation and input
  3. Go back to grammar resources when you get confused or some grammatical issues just really starts bugging you

Let’s look at each in detail.

Learn Basic Grammar Patterns

You can find these in any grammar book. It’s stuff like:

要 + Verb = “Want to [Verb]”

or

Noun1 + 比 + Noun2 + Adj = “Noun1 is more [Adj] than Noun2”

Sure, if you dig, you can find all kinds of weird exceptions and advanced forms, but to delve into those right away is to waste the advantage provided by the gentle learning curve. Put another way, it’s kind of hard to communicate in a language that requires verbs to be conjugated if you haven’t learned to conjugate verbs at all. But here’s this language that doesn’t require conjugations and has all kinds of simple patterns. Why would you not want to just jump right in? Don’t make it more complicated than it is!

If you’re learning from textbooks or podcasts, they may or may not dwell on the finer points of grammar. As a learner, though, you can choose to take just what you need and get out there and start talking. “Pack light.” You don’t need to finish reading up on all the exceptions of each grammar point in order to have a conversation.

The Chinese Grammar Wiki was designed with this principle in mind. Rather than a “grammar course,” it’s a “resource.” In other words, reference it when you need it. If you don’t need it, great! One of the Chinese Grammar Wiki’s key design elements is to break grammar points down by levels. This can be tricky, because often there are finer points of a particular word’s usage which actually go beyond the basic usage of the word. Often, books will group these all together, a practice which confuses and discourages learners.

allset-activeThe solution we generally favor on the Chinese Grammar Wiki for cases like this is to keep the basic grammar point at the lower level, then create a “sequel” grammar point at a higher level. Obviously, the two will be linked, but the point is to provide a level-appropriate explanation for the lower-level learner so that he can “get in and get out” quickly. (Of course, if that learner wants to go clicking down the grammatical rabbit hole, Wikipedia-style, we won’t stop him.)

One example of this is Wanting to do something with “yao”, which is at the A1 (Beginner) level. Higher-level learners that take a look at this grammar point will be thinking, “hey, wait a minute, there’s a lot more that 要 can mean in Chinese!” Very true. We hold off until level A2 (Elementary) to introduce Auxiliary verb “yao” and its multiple meanings.

The point is to just take what you need and go use it.

Extend Your Knowledge with Experimentation and Input

Once you have your basic grammar patterns and vocabulary down, and you’re out there practicing your Chinese, there are a few other things you can do to get the most out of the experience.

  1. Focus on meaning when you speak. Use the grammar points that you think will get your point across. If they do, then great. That’s a good sign. If, however, you’re repeatedly using the same grammar point to express a certain idea, and no one seems to understand what the heck you’re talking about, you might want to try another approach, and eventually revisit that stupid grammar point that didn’t work for you.
  2. Listen for recasting. Very often, native speakers will give you subtle corrections while conversing with you. Many learners are blissfully unaware of these, but if you tune into them, they can be an excellent way to improve your speaking (and it’s a way more enjoyable way of getting corrective feedback than a pile of homework covered in red ink!).
  3. Go out there and try new patterns. Start conversations specifically to use a new grammar pattern. This kind of experimentation might sound silly and not terribly conducive to real conversation, but the results can be surprising. The way native speakers respond to your shaky, early uses of new grammar patterns will reinforce the meaning and usage of those patterns like nothing else. And you will have awesome conversations.
  4. When you don’t understand, don’t get hung up on it. A lot of times the grammar, though complex, isn’t actually important to the topic at hand. The 把 (bǎ) construction is a perfect example of this. If you really want to learn it properly, there’s a lot to take in. But you can also completely ignore it for quite a while and do just fine. If you’re having real conversations, ignore the pesky grammar patterns until you can’t!

Following these four pieces of advice will allow you to get more input sooner. This will help accelerate not only your acquisition of grammar, but also vocabulary, listening comprehension, and speaking proficiency. The thing about language acquisition, though, is that it is a largely unconscious process. So you won’t necessarily FEEL the effects of the input, but they will be at work in your brain.

As for the conscious part of the learning process, it’s crucial that you get out there and make contact with the real language. It will breathe life into the grammar explanations that you have already studied if you revisit them later. Furthermore, real communication will fuel your motivation to better express yourself and understand the precise meaning of what other people are saying to you. And let’s face it… that’s what grammar is for.

Go Back to Grammar Resources Later

ba-wikiOne of my favorite stories I like to tell is about a client of mine just starting on “Intermediate” material. She was studying ChinesePod lessons, and like many of us, she struggled a bit when she first encountered the 把 (bǎ) construction. The interesting thing, though, was her claim that, “none of the Chinese people I know use this.”

I knew, of course, that her claim couldn’t be true. The 把 construction is a super-common feature of spoken Mandarin, and there’s no way that native speakers aren’t using it on a regular basis. Sure, it’s possible to eliminate it in order to simplify one’s speech, but this client was claiming that the people around her weren’t using it at all. But her feedback actually highlighted an important truth: she wasn’t hearing the 把 construction at all.

And this is one of the things that most fascinates me about grammar: when you’re ready to learn a new grammar point, it will naturally come into focus. Little connector words that you didn’t even hear before will suddenly start to stand out. Although you were once happy to just get the basic gist, your brain will start to hunger for a more precise understanding of the grammar point in question.

When you start to get those “grammar pangs,” that’s when you need to go to your grammar resource, whether it’s Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar printed on a dead tree or the Chinese Grammar Wiki. They say of food that “hunger is the best sauce.” The same is true for grammar. To do otherwise is to invite indigestion.

Thanks, John! I’m sure my readers found this article as interesting as I did. Personally, I think the most important part of your article is the last two paragraphs. Learning grammar based on what you intuitively feel that you need to know has been a guiding principle for me as well. Naturally, this goes both for understanding grammar and for using it yourself. The most powerful way of learning anything is to have an actual need for it before you learn it! If you want to know more about John, head over to Sinosplice and bookmark/subscribe; if you want to learn more about grammar, head over to the Chinese Grammar Wiki!

Image credit: All images used in this article are from the Chinese Grammar Wiki and are reproduced with explicit permission.

Asking the experts: How to learn Chinese grammar

Grammar is something central to learning any language, including Chinese. If someone says otherwise, it’s probably because they don’t know what grammar means, so let’s start with a basic definition (from Wikipedia):

grammar is the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language

Thus, while it’s true that Chinese grammar is different from English grammar or the grammar of other European languages you might have encountered, Chinese certainly has a complex grammar itself and mastering how make words, construct phrases and string together sentences is an essential part of learning Chinese. There’s little do disagree about here, so the big question is as usual not what, but how:

grammar-smallHow should we learn Chinese grammar?

There are many, many different ways of approaching grammar, both from a theoretical point of view and from a practical, student perspective.

Even though the question above is very short, it covers a number of topics. For instance:

  • Is there any difference between learning grammar when learning Chinese compared with other languages?
  • What should students who are studying on their own focus on?
  • What resources are available for learning grammar?
  • Is it important to focus on grammar when learning Chinese or should it be done implicitly?
  • Is theoretical knowledge useful, and if so, how should we acquire it?

There are of course many more things to talk about than these, but this serves as an introduction to the complexity of the question of how to learn grammar. Because this is such an interesting topic and there are so many different approaches, I decided to ask the expert panel and see what other language learners and teachers out there had to say about learning Chinese grammar. They have all answered the question in their own way, so rather than viewing this as a competition between different views on how to learn grammar, regard it as a tour through different available options.

Expert panel articles on Hacking Chinese

As you can see, this is the second expert panel article here and these articles are still very much an experiment. If you have suggestions or thoughts about the format or how to improve it, let me know! If you know someone who you think should participate next time or if you have ideas for different topics to ask, leave a comment!

Here are the participant in this expert panel on grammar. In order to scramble the order a bit compared with last time, I have sorted the answers based on the authors’ surnames (or family names) rather than their first/personal names:



Imron Alston has been learning Chinese since 2001, and in that time has spent a total of six years living, working and studying in China, mostly in Hebei and Beijing. He is an admin on the Chinese learning site Chinese-Forums.com, and is also the developer of a number of tools designed for Chinese learners, including Hanzi Grids – a tool for generating custom Chinese character worksheets, and Pinyinput – an IME for typing pinyin with tone marks.

For me, most of my learning was done through exposure to native speakers and native content, and while this also included following different parts of different text books at different times, I never really had a methodical approach to learning grammar. At times I also read various grammar books, and while it was nice reading them and having various structures explained, it’s never been something that has captured my interest.

Unfortunately what this meant is that as I got better at Chinese, I found myself at a stage I think of as ‘advanced with gaps’. The gaps continue to reduce the more advanced I get, but even now there are times when I find myself having a degree of uncertainty with whether what I’m saying is correct or not. It also means that except for basic things, I’m pretty useless at explaining grammar beyond ‘just because’. It’s quite possible that I would still be in this position if I had paid more attention to things like grammar, but in general I attribute these shortcoming to my lackadaisical study approach early on. For me, I was always more interested in being able to use the language, rather than in the study of the language itself, and looking back I think this hampered my learning to some degree.

If I were going about things again I’d certainly try to be more rigorous in this regard. I probably still wouldn’t dive deep in to grammar in the beginning, but I’d make sure to choose a good text-book series and make sure to work my way through it from start to finish. As a self-learner, the younger me was too concerned about becoming ‘advanced’ and saw using ‘advanced’ level text books and materials as evidence that I’d reached that position. What that meant was skipping past things that probably would have been quite helpful in solidifying my language skills.

I like to think my Chinese has turned out all right despite all of that, but it’s meant the journey has likely been longer than it otherwise might have been. My advice to new learners would be don’t try to rush things, and don’t get so caught up in just trying to use the language that you neglect skills that will help you improve. Keep working at things slowly and methodically, and you’ll set yourself up with a good base from which to continue your learning.



Greg Bell – I’ve currently got two blogs going on the matter, my language learning journey one at zhongruige.wordpress.com and the other detailing my time and work during graduate school here over at brushtalking.wordpress.com (too many blogs, I know!).

To me, the best way to learn Chinese grammar starts in the classroom or with a decent textbook that establishes a firm foundation in grammar. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, but should at least set you right on the basics. Later on, though, I feel it’s best to switch over to material for native readers and just start reading. In my own experience, I’ve found the best way to learn grammar was not through complicated grammar guides, but instead just by reading as much as possible and across a variety of sources (novels, comics, nonfiction, etc.). After a while, I began to internalize the grammar, and started to gain a feeling for the language.

I don’t believe there is any real difference between learning Chinese grammar versus learning grammar for other languages. Although the lack of verb conjugation does make things easier, each language has its own nuances. Through either careful study or full immersion, I believe it’s possible to learn the grammar of any language.

If you’re studying on your own, I believe in the beginning something like AllSet’s Grammar Wiki is a fantastic place to start. When you’re comfortable with that grammar, you can move on to news articles, short stories, or even graded readers if they’re available. In the end, grammar doesn’t have to be too theoretical (sorry linguists!) and can naturally be picked up. As you advance though, it may be good to flip through some grammar books, ideally written for native speakers, and refine your understanding of the grammar of the language.



Yangyang Cheng is the founder and host of YoyoChinese.com, an online Chinese language education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with tens of millions of video views.

Why is learning Chinese grammar important?

I often tell my students that learning a language is like building a house. Vocabulary words are like the bricks for your house and grammar is like the architectural blueprint that tells you how to put the bricks together and in what order. Learning grammar is important because it can give you the freedom to build correct sentences on your own. For example in Chinese, once you know the Golden Rule regarding Chinese word order, you’ll instantly know where to put time and location words and be able to speak with confidence.

goldenrule

When should I start learning Chinese grammar?

The best time to learn grammar is after you already have some basics down. For example, if you already have some decent vocabulary and some experience talking to a native speaker, your next step is going to be grammar.

Where and How should learn Chinese grammar?

We have 12 free gframmar videos on Youtube that you can watch. I also have a program on my Chinese learning site www.yoyochinese.com called “Yoyo Chinese Grammar”. Basically, you can think of this course as the video version of a comprehensive Chinese grammar book, but with lots of pictures/cartoons and clear and easy to follow explanations. The course is organized around different grammatical topics, such as “Chinese word order”, “Chinese negation words”, “how to form a Chinese question” and “how to use the notorious (ba3- 把)” etc. Each topic contains a series of mini lessons that build upon each other. You can either watch all the lessons in order to get a complete picture or skip around and only learn the things that you need.



Hi! I’m Steven Daniels, I’ve studied Chinese for years and lived in China even longer. My interests–learning Chinese, Chinese dictionaries, and programming–led me to create Lingomi and 3000 Hanzi.2 Tips for learning Chinese grammar on your own:1. Buy some material: most textbooks do a pretty good job of introducing grammar in each lesson. For-pay podcasts sites do a good job of this too. Don’t skip the grammar sections and examples, no matter how much you’d like to.

2. Add repetition: copy the grammatical patterns and examples out of your textbooks and put them onto flashcards. Review them like you’d review words or sentences.

Chinese Grammar is taught pretty well.

I’m often critical of standard practices for teaching Chinese, but grammar is one area where I’m not very critical. For those studying on their own, this is a quick rundown of how grammar is taught.

Currently, teachers provide beginners with a light introduction to basic grammar. You mostly learn simple sentence structures. At this stage, Chinese grammar feels pretty easy: in some ways it feels like Chinese barely has any grammar at all (especially compared to most other languages). At this stage, beginners, being confronted with tones and character, don’t have the time or the background to try and fully understand Chinese grammar.

Once a student gets to an intermediate level, they are introduced and re-introduced to Chinese grammar. At this point, Chinese grammar starts getting more difficult (e.g. the many ways to use 了 ). An intermediate student can learn most of the grammatical structures that Chinese uses, but these will still take a while to master.

When you look at advanced Chinese textbooks, there really isn’t a lot of grammar in the traditional sense. Advanced students spend time passively (or actively) reviewing grammar they learned at earlier stages. In addition, advanced students spend a lot of time learning collocations and trying to master when to use one of a variety of synonyms.

There are many different approaches that could be taken with teaching grammar, but they all have drawbacks. Using linguistics to introduce grammar could make learning it easier, but most Chinese learners don’t have a linguistics background. Trying to shoehorn more grammar in at earlier stages would require spending less time on pronunciation or characters — not a good tradeoff. Overall, I feel Chinese grammar is taught rather effectively. Of course, I do have a couple of issues.

  • One possible complaint is textbooks tend to teach grammar once and expect you to master it. Luckily, most teachers will make sure you review it constantly. Like learning Characters, repetition is key.
  • Finally, there aren’t any guides to reaching fluency. Going beyond advanced, students should learn how to go about writing different types of essays–how to structure their argument, how to use 连词 properly, etc. The old HSK’s writing section awarded students who knew how to structure essays in a way that native Chinese learners were accustomed to reading. If writing isn’t your thing, you can still learn these important structures and patterns by looking at Chinese debates online or joining a Chinese debate team.


Ding Yi is the Events Coordinator and full time teacher at Hutong School, the leading foreign owned Chinese language school in China founded in 2005. With an enthusiasm for teaching Chinese language and culture to students from all around the world, Ding Yi loves exchanging fresh ideas and making new friends along the way. He loves the airport, yuxiang rousi, and hiking.

Learning Chinese grammar is a step by step process. What I mean by this is that you must establish the foundations first and then build further on this. I therefore believe that absolute beginners must have a teacher.

Why? Since Chinese history and culture is immensely vast, evolution over time has meant that one character can hold a plethora of meanings – both literally and symbolically. Although Chinese sentences are more flexible in its word order compared to other languages, it is also very important, and so a difference in sentence structure or subtle addition of particles to the untrained ear is likely to cause confusion.

Another important aspect of Chinese is that it is an economical language; only a small number of words are used in order to express maximum power. An example of this is in the use of chengyu, which can be compared somewhat to idioms. Whilst they are often incomprehensible without explanation and seem to lack grammatical structure, these typically four character phrases give an insight into the complexity of the Chinese language.

To learn effectively and thus remember well, practicing speaking with a native speaker beside you is the best tool you can have, more so than learning the technicalities of the theory via a text book. A tried and tested method that I teach my students is to make long sentences when you first start learning the basic concepts of Chinese grammar. This will encourage you to keep to the correct order when attempting your own sentences in real life. All in all, in order to have a deep understanding of how grammar works, you must apply the practical usage in daily life, because actual application is the most important thing. In short, go out and practice speaking Chinese now.



Carl Gene Fordham is a NAATI-accredited Chinese-English translator with a Master’s degree in Translating and Interpreting Studies from RMIT University and a HSK 6 Certificate (the highest level Chinese proficiency certification). Carl currently runs a translating, interpreting and IELTS training school in Melbourne, Australia. He also writes a popular blog about translating and interpreting Chinese called 一步一个脚印.

In my opinion the best way to learn Chinese grammar is through a combination of reading textbooks and conversing with native speakers. Nowadays there are plenty of decent grammar textbooks on the market which can be very helpful, but the focus should always be on how to take what you learn in the book and apply it in real life. This is where the advice of a good teacher or tutor is essential, as the average native speaker friend will not be able to explain the finer points of grammar. But the learner should also take the initiative to put the grammar into practice too. As you start to do this, the grammar will become your own.

Personally I’ve found Chinese grammar to be, on the whole, a straight-forward system, much more logical than English grammar. It is, of course, also highly complex – that is, complex, but not necessarily complicated. The beginning and intermediate grammatical structures you pick up are powerful enough to be used in most situations – this is unlike other languages which require you to memorise large numbers of cases, tenses, genders, etc.



John Fotheringham is a serious “languaholic”, an adult-onset affliction for which he has yet to find a cure. John has spent most of the last decade learning and teaching foreign languages in Japan and Taiwan, and now shares what he’s learned along the way on his blog, Language Mastery | Tips, Tools & Tech to Learn Languages the Fun Way.

First of all, I would like to put to rest the ridiculous myth that “Chinese has no grammar”. Chinese may lack the verb conjugations so prevalent in Romance languages like Spanish and French, but that does not mean that the language lacks “grammar”. Like all languages, Chinese contains a finite (though gradually evolving) set of patterns, conventions, and syntactic rules that allow us to understand—and be understood by—others. Without grammar, languages would just be a chaotic slew of words and society as we know it could not exist.

However, just because grammar is essential for communication, it does not follow that one must spend heaps of time formally studying grammar rules to properly understand and form a language. As Barry Farber puts it:

“You do not have to know grammar to obey grammar.”

One’s ability to understand and form grammatical sentences is based on what’s called “procedural memory”, the brain’s way of storing and retrieving implicit knowledge. Without it, we would not be able to drive a car, throw a ball, or speak a language without consciously thinking through each and every tiny step, each and every time we do perform a complex action.

Many language learners fail to reach functional fluency in foreign languages because they approach language study as an academic subject, trying to force feed grammar rules into “declarative memory” (the kind of memory used to store explicit facts) instead of getting the input and output practice they need to truly internalize the language’s underlying structures. Procedural memories are only formed when you get tons of listening and speaking practice.

I will concede that a little bit of formal study can help prime the brain for the grammatical patterns it will encounter when listening and speaking a language, but this should augment—not replace—the active input and output activities that do most of the heavy neurological lifting. So take a peak at your textbook from time to time if you like, but make sure to spend the majority of your study time listening to Chinese podcasts, watching Chinese videos on FluentU.com, speaking with tutors on Skype, and chatting up native Chinese speakers at your favorite tea shop.



Jacob Gill is a graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Co-Founder of Chinese Guild (add link), Chinese Teacher, Translator, Academic Advisor for Skritter, Summer Coordinator at Academic Explorers and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.

How should we learn Chinese grammar?

Chinese isn’t English, and it isn’t like many European languages, which means that a lot of the things we usually associate with grammar — tenses, conjugation, etc. don’t apply. If the rules we usually use have changed, we have to take the time to understand how the new rules work or interact with what we know, and how to build new connections where necessary. I like taking a more top-down approach to learning Chinese grammar, meaning paying attention to different word order patterns and how/ when they’re used, for example: simple Subject, Verb, Object, sentences, or the more complicated types: ex. subject, when, where, how, action. Ask yourself, how are these patterns similar to my native language, and how are they different?

By understanding the framework of Chinese grammar, patterns will begin to emerge and fall into place leading to quicker comprehension, and also the ability to produce your own sentences fast. Add context to various grammar patters, and when reading or listening in Chinese, try and pay attention to pre-set patterns, and how they’re used in conjunction with each other. In my eyes, people often learn best by doing something, so a key part of “learning” Chinese grammar is actually using the language to be understood. So start producing as quickly as possible, regardless of error!

Focus energy on how words work within, not independent of, grammatical chunks, ex. 因 為…所以…. I don’t think it hurts to spend a good deal of time memorizing these chucks, and basic Chinese Sentence Pattern books can be a great resource. One of the most successful programs I’ve ever studied in spent two hours a day drilling Chinese sentence patterns, and the results payed off in quicker overall comprehension and production all around. But, I think it’s always important to be thinking about ways to connect these new patterns to things you already know and understand. Relate them to conversations you’ve had, certain moods, or various situations, and then go out and use them. Grammar patterns will emerge naturally in conversation, and you’ll pick it up just as naturally if you force yourself to communicate and attempt to be understood. Challenge yourself to use new patterns, and to make mistakes. Ask for feedback, and if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask for help. Be creative, be fearless, and above all, use the language.



Hugh Grigg studied East Asian Studies at university, and is trying to keep up the learning habit long term. He writes about what he learns at eastasiastudent.net , to keep track of his progress and to try and help out other people where he can.

Despite running a website entirely devoted to Chinese grammar, I’m actually in the camp that says you shouldn’t spend too much time explicitly studying grammar. I think it’s important to have a reference available, to be able to ask questions, and most of all to be able to preview grammar points with explanation before you encounter them in the wild. Just as immunisation lets your body prepare to fight off an infection before it does the actual fighting, studying some grammar lets makes you more effective at doing the actual work of getting input and practicing (please forgive my love of terrible analogies). That’s the real work you need to do to learn a language: getting as much input as possible (reading and listening), and getting as much practice as possible (actually trying to speak and write as much as you can). Olle does a fine job of both writing about this and putting it into practice himself.

Our goal with our Chinese grammar site is to help out as much as we can with the process I describe here. We work as a pair (a native English speaker studying Chinese and a native Chinese speaker studying English) and try to explain grammar points as intuitively and simply as possible, but really focusing on giving plenty of natural example sentences. I use these sentences (and others) in the Anki SRS software and rehearse them that way, until the words, patterns and syntactic glue all become very familiar to me and are at my disposal in future. That’s how I study Chinese grammar and it’s the way I’d recommend (although I’m very much looking forward to reading the other responses here!).

I’ll also direct everyone who hasn’t seen it to the Chinese Grammar Wiki, which I worked on in its early stages. It’s an amazing project, and is a little different to our site. Rather than being half-blog, half-FAQ like ours, it’s a full and comprehensive encyclopaedia of Chinese grammar with a super-clear structure and design – take a look!



Ash Henson – Avid language learner, after working as an engineer for 8+ years, left to pursue a language-related career. Currently working on a PhD in Chinese at National Taiwan Normal University. Research interests include Old Chinese phonology, Chinese paleography, the Chinese Classics and excavated texts.

In modern language learning, far too much time is spent on learning to read and write, while speaking and listening are often given the back seat. Reading and writing are important (very important, actually), but should come only after the sound system of the target language has been acquired.

So what does this have to do with grammar? We all learn the grammar of our native language by listening to our parents and those around us talk. Everyone generally agrees that native speakers of a language outperform non-native speakers. Part of this may be due to biological factors (though this may not be as important as you might think, people can and do learn other languages to native or native-like levels all the time), but part of it has to do with the way languages are learned. Sound plays a huge role in properly acquiring a language. Because they can put a barrier between the learner and the actual sounds of the target language, reading and writing too early in the learning process can actually hinder proper acquisition. For example, thinking of tones as numbers if you haven’t yet mastered the actual tone contours puts an unneeded level of abstraction between you and the actual sounds of the tones. Always try to understand the actual sounds rather than the symbols used to represent them (which are useful only AFTER the actual sounds have been acquired).

When we hear non-native speakers make grammar mistakes in our native language, we know a mistake has been made because it “sounds wrong.” What that really means is, faulty sentences (i.e., a pattern or collection of sounds) go against the vast internal database we have of what our language sounds like. How we should learn grammar, then, is the answer to the question, “How do we develop the ability to know that something “sounds wrong” in the target language?”

Obviously, building up an internal database that could match a native speaker would take quite some time, but I think the old 80-20 rule can be applied here. For each grammar structure that you want to master, memorize five sentences that incorporate that structure by listening, repeating and mimicking a native speaker saying those sentences. For tonal languages such as Chinese, you might want to spend some time (perhaps a significant amount) practicing tones and tone combinations before you do entire sentences. When doing these things, you want to be thinking ONLY about the sounds and how to mimic them. You should avoid thinking about things like spelling, meaning, and grammar. Once you have the sentences memorized, go back and look at the grammar rule that they incorporate and you should be able to understand it on a more intuitive level.

We are most vulnerable to influence from our native language when we don’t know how to phrase something in the target language. Spending a lot of time mimicking native speakers in their pronunciation, rhythm, phrasing, word usage, etc. will minimize the influence our native language has the new language and help us to speak the target language in a much more natural way



David Moser holds a Master’s and a Ph.D. in Chinese Studies from the University of Michigan, with a major in Chinese Linguistics and Philosophy. David is currently Academic Director at CET Chinese Studies at Beijing Capital Normal University, an overseas study program for U.S. college students, where he teaches courses in Chinese history and politics.

Grammar is first learned intuitively, absorbing rules subconsciously, by example. Therefore, the absolute best way – really the only way – to learn Chinese grammar is to speak Chinese with Chinese people. Only when you’ve reached a certain level of mastery will grammar rules even make sense to you. So by all means read the grammar books; they are useful stepping stones. But the most reliable Chinese grammar is not in books, it’s in the heads of Chinese speakers. Seek out or create, by hook or crook, an environment where you are constantly interacting with Chinese speakers. If you’re not in China, don’t worry, there are Chinese people everywhere in the world. Find them, befriend them, and talk with them. You can also find them online, on Weibo, or Facebook, or on WeChat, it doesn’t matter. Set up a situation, no matter how artificial, in which you are communicating constantly in Chinese.

Here are some hints on how to make the best use of your Chinese friends to improve your grammar:

(1) Enlist your Chinese friends to actively correct your mistakes. This is not as easy as you might think. Most people are reluctant to correct your grammatical errors, thinking it to be impolite or distracting. In addition, it’s natural for people to care more about content than form — grammar won’t even be on their radar. You may have to keep reminding them – or even beg them – to point out your mistakes.

(2) Work on very specific linguistic goals. “Chinese grammar” is an impossibly broad domain; narrow your goals down to specific tasks. The grammar will come naturally, as different discourse types demand different structures; for example, teaching a Chinese friend how to play guitar (the ba把construction); recounting the plot of “Game of Thrones” (time and aspect); or simply explaining why in the world you’ve decided to learn Chinese (resultative suffixes, the grammar of hopefulness). Whatever it is, begin by collecting crucial patterns and sentences, and worry about the grammar later.

(3) Be attentive to “unconscious corrections” from your friends. When you make a grammatical error, you will often find that the person you are speaking with will, in their reply, take your imperfect utterance and automatically revise it to be in accord with their internal grammar. These “unconscious corrections” are linguistic gold – hoard them!

(4) “Cheat” by Googling. If you’re wondering if a certain grammatical structure you’re using is idiomatic, you can always Google it. If a native speaker produced a similar utterance in writing somewhere on the Internet, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s at least grammatically legal. For example, if you’re wondering how to say “Allow me to introduce myself” in Chinese, you can simply take a few guesses (“让我介绍我自己”, “请让我自我介绍一下”, “我把自己介绍给你”, etc.), and then search to see the range of grammatical possibilities.



Alan Park has been studying Chinese for 13 years and previously worked in China with Chinese clients as a management consultant. Currently, he is the founder of FluentU, a site that brings language learning to life with real-world video content.”

The conventional wisdom on Chinese grammar is that it’s easy. That the hard parts are tones, pinyin, characters – basically anything except grammar. But I think it’s totally wrong. Chinese is more different from English than romance languages, and that’s what makes it hard.

Some of the tricky issues are: unusual word order, new concepts that have no real counterpart in English (eg. 了), and grammar patterns which seem to be deceivingly similar (eg. the de particles 的, 得, and 地, which all sound the same). I would not recommend that Chinese learners gloss over these tricky grammar, and assume that they will figure it out through osmosis.

What learners really need is a targeted approach. First, they should try to understand the underlying concepts with a quality grammar book or Chinese learning website like Hacking Chinese. Then, they should try to collect examples of those grammar points. Then they should be as aggressive as possible in actually practicing them and getting feedback from a teacher. Learning grammar, like learning Chinese, isn’t something that can be done by just passively reading a book. It has to be done through the creation of muscle memory, which comes from falling on your face over and over again.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t supplement it with quality examples and explanations of the concepts. Beginners or intermediate learners might find this blog post helpful: 13 Mandarin Chinese Grammar Patterns and Structures We Love to Hate. We identified some of the most challenging grammar points (eg. the de particles, 会 vs 能, 想 vs. 觉得), and tried to provide concise explanations that would really make the light bulb go off in learners’ heads.



Roddy, who runs Chinese-forums.com, which celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year. The site covers discussions on many topics related to China and Chinese – textbook choices, recommended authentic materials, studying at Chinese universities, and plenty more.

I think if at any point you’re sitting down to “study grammar” then you’re doing it wrong. If you’re following some kind of progressive course (which I’d recommend, even if you’re also getting tonnes of real exposure) that should introduce, explain and apply new structures at a reasonable pace. If you hit something that seems problematic, or you happen to hear something three times in a day and can’t resist looking it up, fair enough, open the grammar book. But otherwise make it a part of all your other learning, not something you do separately.

But each to their own. I’ve probably told this story before, but when I went back to the UK after my first year in China I signed up for an evening course in Chinese at the local university. One of the other students was an elderly professor of history who was, to be fair, awful at Chinese.

Chatting with him during the break one day I asked if he had any plans to go to China. No, he said, can’t imagine ever doing that. Chinese family or friends? Oh no, not that I can think of. Research interest in China? No, no. So why Chinese, in that case? Oh, he said, leaning in to divulge the big secret… I just love the grammar.



Albert Wolfe started learning Chinese on his own when he came to China in 2005. He is the author of Chinese 24/7: Everyday Strategies for Speaking and Understanding Mandarin and a novel faceless and the blog LaowaiChinese.net.

How to learn grammar is both scary and controversial. It’s scary because many adult learners have grammar phobia. (I think it’s one of the top three scholastic fears along with math and tests.) If you don’t feel that way, that’s a huge advantage. If you do, just relax: you’ve already learned at least some grammar!

One of the most important controversies is inductive vs. deductive approaches. But personally I think both are great! So I highly recommend trying to figure out grammar rules from a bunch of sentence examples (inductive) and also reading resources like John’s Pasden’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki (deductive) to fill in the gaps.

One more little tip: learning your native language as a kid and learning a foreign language as an adult are two very different processes. So don’t fall into the trap of over-comparing those two experiences.



Chinese ForumsThis is the only answer not delivered by an individual, but is instead the collected wisdom of Chinese Forums. The thread can be seen here and contains many interesting ideas and useful insights. I have selected a few to include in this article, mostly dealing with areas not covered by the above answers.

Li3wei1 on the difference between learning grammar in Chinese and many other languages:

I’d say in most other languages, there’s a lot of memorising that you have to do up front even to produce basic sentences: verb declensions, genders, irregular verbs. That is not necessary in Chinese, but in Chinese, when you get to the advanced level, there are hundreds of structures and patterns that need to be memorised. So the memorisation load comes later in Chinese than in other languages, at least as far as grammar is concerned.

Adam about the learning sequence:

In my case, I learned “street Chinese” for the first few years. I used characters like 就 and 才 in my speech without knowing why they were there or what their purpose was, just because that’s how I had “heard” it. It was only later, when I enrolled in formal classes that the grammar rules were explained to me. It made a lot more sense to me to see then because I had already observed all the use cases.

And finally, a recommendation from lakers4sho:

For each grammar point that I learn or revise, I write my own 例子 using the structure, not trying to make it as complicated, but actually trying to make it as simple as I can, just so that I can apply the structure correctly. I show the sentences to my teacher (this is important, make sure you ask someone who knows their grammar) and she can tell whether they are correct or not.

That’s all from the expert panel for now. If you have any questions, comments, opinions or experiences related to learning Chinese grammar, just leave a comment! I’m sure you’re not the only one who wants to ask that question and if you share what works for you, it’s quite likely it might work for someone else too!

Learning how to fish: Or, why it’s essential to know how to learn

In a world with perfect teachers and a perfect education system, we wouldn’t need to know how to study Chinese. We wouldn’t need to take many decisions about how to learn and even less about what to learn. The curriculum would be designed and executed in such a way that it made sure that we learnt everything we need to master Chinese. We could just do what was required of us and expect that to be enough.

Image credit: Alexander Warnolf
Image credit: Alexander Warnolf

Unfortunately, as we all know, this world isn’t perfect and Chinese education is in fact very far from being even adequate in many areas. Sure, there are schools that are really good and teachers that do their job well, but there are also lousy institutions and teachers who mostly teach because Chinese happens to be their native language, rather than because they have a passion for teaching and the necessary skills. Even in a very favourable situation, it’s unlikely that a teacher or course will provide you with what you want. You need to take control of your own studying.

This is partly why I think learning how to learn is essential for all adult students, not only those that are ambitious and like experimentation. Even though I realise that you as a reader of Hacking Chinese are probably more motivated and ambitious than the average learner, I do think and hope that what I write will spread to all students eventually. The ability to learn on your own isn’t something you need only if you have no teacher and no course. Instead, it’s a core ability that will determine your success in learning Chinese.

In other words, take responsibility for your own learning now!

Teaching you how to fish

There is an excellent saying in Chinese which pretty much sums up this entire website:

授人以魚, 不如授人以漁
shòu rén yǐ yú,
bù rú shòu rén yǐ yú

This is usually translated as: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” If you take a course, your teacher will provide you with lots of fish and you won’t starve to death. If you read Hacking Chinese and apply what I write here, on the other hand, you will gradually learn how to fish.

In other words, if you have an excellent teacher who can drip-feed you fish (yuck!), you actually don’t need Hacking Chinese. However, since most people can neither afford nor find a teacher who caters to their individual needs, most people still need to learn how to fish. You can of course just try to find other people to help you with every single problem you encounter, but it’s much better to acquire the ability to help yourself, it’s going to take you much farther and puts you firmly in the driver’s seat of your language learning journey.

Teachers and classrooms

It ought to be obvious why most students have to rely on them selves to learn Chinese. In a classroom, the teacher doesn’t have time to do everything. Even in very serious language programs, there are seldom more than a few hours of lessons everyday. If the students are ambitious, the teacher can focus most of the classroom time on things that actually need a teacher (such as improving speaking ability) and avoid things that don’t (listening, reading and vocabulary learning).

In compulsory education or with students with low motivation, much time is wasted on things like:

  • Learning words the students have never seen before
  • Listening to the dialogue in the textbook
  • Reading explanations in the textbook
  • Learning the stroke order of characters

These are things you could (and should) do on your own. If these areas are covered in class, the problem is that students might get the impression that they are already doing enough and that the teacher is providing them with everything they need. This is wrong. There’s simply no teacher or program that can provide you with everything you need. Not only are you responsibly for your own learning, you’re also the only one who has the potential to really understand your own situation.

The journey is long, so you’d better learn how to fish

The reason it’s not true that you can simply rely on your teacher or course is that it’s almost certain that they won’t provide you with enough Chinese in terms of quantity. You don’t necessarily need to study more, but you definitely need to expose yourself much more to Chinese in order to get used to it. To a certain extent, learning a language is about understanding rules and patterns, but this is completely useless if you don’t combine it with a lot of exposure to the surface forms. Knowing a grammar rule is only truly useful when you can understand it in context and the requires quantity of exposure. Obviously, you need quality as well, but in my experience, students don’t really lack this aspect since it is what most textbooks and teachers already provide. Most students lack quantity.

This is particularly true for listening and reading, which will eventually spill over into speaking and writing. The reason quantity is so important for the passive skills is that it’s not only a matter of if you understand or not (binary), but also how fast you can do it. It doesn’t help that you know the meaning of all the words in a spoken passage if it takes you a second to recall each and everyone of them, because you’ll lag so far behind the speaker that you will become lost almost immediately.

Because most courses can’t provide enough exposure, it means that you will be on your own most of the time, even if you’re enrolled in a serious Chinese language program. The better your teacher is, the more support you will have, but very few teachers have the time, ability and willingness to feed you fish all day long, even if you have the money to pay them for doing so. Learning to fish yourself is the only way.

How to learn to fish

Learning to fish requires three things:

The rest is about adjusting the methods to your goals and evaluate your progress, then tweaking or reconsidering your method based on the outcome of the evaluation. This is the start of a never-ending and fascinating journey in the the soul of language learning!

If you want some more concrete examples of things you can try to improve your learning right now, check the following carefully selected articles (or you can check the less carefully selected study hacks category):

  1. How to learn Chinese characters as a beginner
  2. Remembering is a skill you can learn
  3. Learning Chinese in the shower with me
  4. Vocalise more to learn more Chinese
  5. Learn by exaggerating: Slow, then fast; big, then small
  6. Timeboxing Chinese
  7. A smart method to discover problems with tones

Finally, don’t get stuck on just reading about these different ways of learning, actually try them! Now!

Habit hacking for language learners

The longer I learn Chinese (and anything else, actually) the more convinced I become that the minimum study time matters much more than the maximum study time. In other words, I prefer to study a little bit all the time rather than go on a rampage once a week. I have already discussed this in another article, so now it’s time to talk about how to increase that minimum time. The key to success is fairly obvious and lies in forming language learning habits. This makes sure that we learn regularly and that it becomes a natural part of our lives.

Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schedule.jpg
Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Schedule.jpg

Where to start

The obvious place to start when trying to form a habit is to explore and define the habit you want to form. Why do you want it? What benefits will it bring you? What exactly does successful habit formation look like (i.e. what’s your target behaviour)? This is good not only because it helps you understand your goal, but also because it increases motivation because you want to be that better version of yourself with those benefits you just listed.

Baby steps to success

The key to successful habit formation is to take baby steps. The reason why this is a good idea is similar to the thinking behind micro goals, i.e. that if you aim low, you can’t really fail and you have no real excuse for doing so. Then you can gradually increase the volume or the strictness of your new habit until it approaches the target level.

For example, if you want to learn many new Chinese characters, don’t start with trying to learn 20 a day, because the likelihood is that you will do that for a few days and then give up. Instead, start out slow and then gradually increase the load. Actually, this isn’t only a feel-good kind of advice for weaklings, it’s actually based on neuropsychology. The reason this is a good approach is that it seems that the regularity of the action is much more important when forming habits than the exact volume and duration of the task you perform. Thus, if you want to review characters daily, get used to doing that everyday and then slowly increase the number of repetitions. It’s more important that you do this everyday than that you manage a certain number of characters each week.

Three weeks to habit formation?

I think most people have heard about the 21-day rule, which simply states that if you keep on doing something daily for 21 days, a solid habit will form. Actually, 21 this is just a number and tells little apart from that we need time to form habits. From my personal experience, I think the first two weeks after starting to form a new habit are quite easy. The following two weeks are really hard, mostly because the motivation that drove me to try to try form the habit in the first place might have worn off along with the sense of novelty.

Rather than getting hung up on numbers, we should realise that the hardest part of habit formation isn’t the first week and probably not the second either. You can usually get through this just with good reminders (use your phone, calendar, post-it notes or whatever) and some determination. After that, you need a long term plan.

Long-term plans and back-up plans

To really form a habit, we need two more things. First, we need a long-term plan that tells us what will happen after we have formed the habit. The three-week limit above is, as I said, somewhat arbitrary, and you can’t just assume that the habit will stick after three weeks and that you will need no effort to keep going after that.

Therefore, you need to plan for possible problems before they appear. This can be quite easy, making yourself accountable or setting reminders both work fine. Either way, you need to stay conscious of your habit long after the three weeks or you will risk losing it.

Second, and perhaps most important of all, you need a back-up plan. This is where most people go wrong. They only plan for how to form the habit and what to do when they succeed. It’s all or nothing. If they fail, it’s over. This isn’t good at all, because you might very well fail. When you fail, you need a plan.

The easiest way to get around this is to make yourself accountable. For instance, you can promise someone to treat them to a nice dinner every time you forget to do whatever you have promised to do. This means that failing once will be bad for you, but failing twice will be twice as bad. After failing once, you have very strong incentives not to fail again. There’s no such thing as all or nothing.

Rewards and punishments

Even the most basic course in behaviour therapy will tell you that rewards and punishments are key to behaviour change in general. This isn’t something I have experimented a lot with myself, but I will share one insight about each before I round off this article. Rewards tend to be more useful than punishments, but you need to make the rewards immediate and linked to the behaviour in question. What works as a reward for you is entirely individual, of course.

Punishments can be very powerful as well, but be aware that they do tend to increase the stress level. For instance, I once had to finish a freelance writing project and gave my dad $1000 and said that he could keep it if I hadn’t finished the project in two weeks. After not having done anything for two months, I finished it all with time to spare. A bit forced, but it still worked. However, as this excellent animation shows, rewards and punishments don’t always work as we think they do.

Conclusion

Habit formation and behaviour change are of course extremely complex topics and there are lots of books written about the subject. In this article, I have tried to outline some of the basic concepts and some practical tips that I’ve found to work well for language learning. Try them out! If you have other suggestions or links, please share in the comments. People work differently, so even if this works for me, something else might work better for you.

Further reading

I also found these articles about habit formation for language learners:

 7 Ways to Develop Good Habits in Language Learning
How to Create a Habit: A Guide for Language Learner