Why you should learn Chinese in Chinese

14110181271432669791Relying on your native language when learning Chinese is natural and one of the main differences between adult and child language learning. As adults, we already have one or several languages in place when we start learning Chinese and we also have complex knowledge of the world around us.

This leads to huge amounts of mostly unnoticed positive transfer.. You don’t need to learn what a cat is, you just need to know what it’s called in Chinese. Thus, using your native language to learn Chinese is an advantage and the main reason that avoiding it completely is a bad idea.

Learning Chinese in Chinese

However, this doesn’t mean that Chinese lessons should be held in English or that relying extensively on English to learn Chinese is good. Quite the opposite is true. You learn a language by using it, so from the very start, you (and your teacher) should make a serious effort to use as much Chinese as possible. Not 100%, that would be impractical, but the closer you can get, the better.

One of the first things you should learn to say in Chinese are those sentences you use to learn. A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself saying something (anything) in English a few times, you should learn it in Chinese instead. I’m not going to give you a list of classroom phrases in Chinese here, but just to show you what I mean, here are a few examples:

  • How do you say X in Chinese?
  • What does X mean?
  • Sorry, I don’t understand.
  • …can you please say that again?
  • …can you please speak more slowly?

(There are many lists with classroom phrases, check this, this, this and this.)

Note that you don’t necessarily have to be able to say all these things yourself. Students seldom need to say “open the book on page 54″, but they definitely need to understand such sentences. Only learn to say the phrases you use yourself, at least to start with.

Classroom phrases in Chinese

These sentences are very, very important, on the same level as introducing yourself and asking basic information about other people and your surroundings. They should appear early in all textbooks and all teachers should introduce them long before the students are actually ready to understand the grammar and vocabulary used in them.

Still, this is rarely the case. I have seen a few textbooks that have a separate prologue with such phrases and this is great, but most textbooks have nothing to offer in this area. Some teachers still do it on their own, but don’t count on it. In any case, the point is that the best way of learning Chinese is to use it, and the best way to use it is by saying things you would like to say anyway. Common classroom expressions should be in Chinese!

The reason you should learn these phrases are that you’re wasting free review time if you don’t. By knowing the meaning of these, you start being able to communicate in Chinese immediately. Because these phrases are so common when learning Chinese, you don’t really need to spend much effort learning them. Sure, it might take a number of repetitions before they sink in, this won’t be instantaneous, but the highly repetitive nature of the phrases means that you will learn them soon enough. If you keep saying them in English, you will never learn.

Advanced learning

The more advanced you become, the more Chinese you can use. For instance, starting using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries is an important but fairly difficult step, something I have written more about in this article: The Chinese-Chinese dictionary survival guide.

Other examples involve listening to Chinese-only podcasts targeted at language learners (such as ChinesePod), which is excellent practice. You often learn more from hearing the hosts talk about the dialogues than you do from the dialogues themselves.

Conclusion

I think the point should be clear: Use Chinese to learn Chinese. It shouldn’t be 100%, don’t be afraid of translating things if that saves a lot of time, but never rely on English more than you have to and always learn common words and phrases in Chinese.

Will a Chinese-only rule improve your learning?

chineseonlyMany language schools have a “Chinese only” rule, which means that neither students nor teachers are allowed to speak anything but Chinese on campus. The obvious goal is to make sure that all teaching is done in Chinese and that students practise as much as possible by avoiding their native languages, even during breaks.

You can of course also create a “Chinese only” rule for yourself, regardless of what your school requires of you. This post is not about language schools in particular, but about enforcing 100% Chinese language use in general.

While everyone agrees that immersion is great, is a “Chinese only” rule really as good an idea as it seems? In this article, I’m first going to look at some pros and cons, then present my conclusion.

Why having a Chinese-only rule is a good idea

The main advantage of committing to a Chinese-only rule is that it’s likely that you will speak more Chinese if you do that if you don’t. Learning a language is to a large extent about using what you know to express yourself, even if the words and grammar you know are limited. This is exactly what you practice if you force yourself to speak Chinese, even in situations and about topics you really don’t feel comfortable with. Leaving your comfort zone is the best way of learning anything.

Furthermore, by committing to speaking only Chines,e you avoid establishing habits and situations where you use English. For instance, with a Chinese-only rule in place, you’re not going to hang out with other expats who use mostly English. Instead of playing ball with some American guys, you’re going to have to find local players. Practising sports is just an example, but a very good one. Avoid the expat bubble, don’t be a tourist.

The benefits of binary choices

Students are often shy, lazy or both, which means that they avoid speaking Chinese even when they have an opportunity to do so. Without speaking, you will never learn the language, so speaking more is a good idea in general. Having a rule that says that you can only speak Chinese gives you no choice, you have to speak. If you just “try to speak Chinese more”, you’re much more likely to end up speaking English.

This is related to a psychological effect that I would like to explore further in future articles. In general, it seems like binary choices are easier to both to make and to later maintain, compared with choices that are more open. If you have a rule that says “100% Chinese, 0% English”, that’s that, there’s no discussion. You know what it means and everybody else does too.

If you instead create a rule that says “90% Chinese, 10% English”, things get more complicated. How do you count? How do you know if you actually spend 90% of the time using Chinese? Should you count per day? Per week? Can you “save” time for later periods? And so on. If you instead commit to only Chinese, you don’t have to deal with all these issues.

Advantages of using Chinese-only rules in classrooms

Before we move on to the disadvantages of Chinese-only rules, we need to briefly look at two classroom aspects, one related to teachers and one to students.

First, it’s easy to forget that having a conversation at a very basic level with a beginner is demanding not only for the student, but also for the teacher. Therefore, without a Chinese-only rule in place, it’s tempting for teachers to give up earlier and use English instead. This is sometimes warranted (see below), but not always.

Second, in classes where students come from a variety of language backgrounds, the only language everybody has in common is Chinese. What other language is the teacher supposed to use, English? What about the students whose English isn’t so good or who don’t like speaking English? Thus, in some situations, enforcing a Chinese-only rule is a practical considerations, not one related to what is best for an individual student. The rest of this article, therefore, assumes that there is a real choice to be made.

Why having a Chinese-only rule isn’t a good idea

This part of the article is slightly more controversial, because to be honest, I’m not a fan of Chinese-only rules. With all the advantages listed above, how can I support such an opinion? Let’s look at a few of the main disadvantages of adhering to a Chinese-only rule:

  • Weak explanations – Learning languages is to a large extent about being exposed to and gradually learning to use various words and sentence patterns. However, some things really need to be explained to be learnt properly (pronunciation, grammar, characters). This is very hard to do entirely in Chinese. I have met many, many students who simply don’t know even the most basic things about pronunciation. I doubt this is because no-one has told them, but I strongly suspect it’s because they were taught in Chinese and simply didn’t get the point. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is in many of them.
  • Hidden misunderstandings – When you don’t understand something and know it, you can ask questions or seek the answer elsewhere, but when you don’t know that you don’t understand, you have a problem. This happens often when a teacher tries to explain something in Chinese, but the student’s listening ability is not up to par. They both think that the student has understood, but that is in fact not the case. Sometimes, you know that you didn’t get everything the teacher said, but you simply don’t want to ask again, so you’re left with only a vague notion of what was going on. Vague notions are very hard to remember.
  • Wasting time – Most of the time, using Chinese to convey meaning is the point of language learning, but not always. Sometimes, you or the teacher just wants to get the meaning across as accurately as possible. If I correct your tones, I want you to be really sure that you understood what I meant; I don’t really care if you learnt the related Chinese vocabulary along the way. I could have explained what you did wrong in Chinese, but it would have taken ten times longer and the risk of misunderstanding would have been much higher.
  • Harder to integrate knowledge – One of the biggest advantages of learning Chinese as an adult compared with as a child is that you already know a lot of things about the world. You don’t need to learn all these things from scratch. Sure, describing the meanings of words in Chinese can be great fun and is an excellent way of practising, but it’s not very efficient. Translation allows you to draw on your existing knowledge of the world. You can draw parallels to other languages, translate abstract words for which definitions are hard to understand, use English to verify that you really understood what you just read. And so on.
  • Risk of drowning – Language immersion is great, but it should only be done to an extent you can survive. Feeling uncomfortable because you haven’t adapted yet is fine, it’s even good for you, but burning yourself out or quitting learning altogether because the pressure is too high is obviously not so good. If you enforce a Chinese-only rule, you need to make sure that you have safety valves that allow you to vent frustration. If you’re a brave soul with lots of time on your hands, kamikaze-style immersion is great, just make sure it isn’t an actual suicide mission!

Conclusion

I don’t like Chinese-only rules because they are inflexible. The ideal proportions will vary depending on your level of Chinese, but let’s say 90% Chinese and 10% English is desirable, those 10% of English can really make a difference. At the same time, decreasing the amount of Chinese from 100% to 90% is not going to affect the amount of Chinese you use or are exposed to much.

That being said, the psychological effect regarding binary choices mentioned above means that I think that imposing a Chinese-only rule is mostly a good thing, even if you don’t end up following it in all situations. Scott Young went to Chinese with about 100 hours of preparation and wrote this about his failure to use Chinese all the time with his friend and roommate:

Even though I wasn’t able to maintain the no-English rule with Vat, I still maintained it with nearly everyone else I met. One of the big reasons to use the no-English rule is to avoid forming your social groups out of people who can’t or won’t speak the language you’re trying to learn. Had I not done that, I believe it would have been much easier to just spend my time in China with other expats and only make friends with Chinese people whose English was decent.

 This hits the nail on its head and leads to the general solution: Chinese-only should be the default mode you use for almost all situations. You can then create a small list of exceptions where you think English is essential for one reason or another. This can involve speaking English with a specific person, during a certain class or once a week when you hang out with other foreigners. The rest of the time is Chinese only. This means that you can reap most of the benefits offered by a Chinese-only rule, but still have enough flexibility to make use of English when it’s truly necessary.

What do you think? Have you tried a Chinese-only approach? Did you decide to do so on your own or was it a requirement where you studied? How did it go?

Launching Hacking Chinese Resources

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where you could find Chinese learning resources, blogs, tools and apps, all suitable to your level and preferences? I think that sounds great, so I today I’m proud to announce the launch of a new section of the site, simply called Hacking Chinese Resources.

weblogobanner21-short7-resources

The idea is very straightforward: You select what kind of resources you’re interested in and the site will generate a list of most popular resources that match your criteria. Below, I have provided a brief demo:

Chinese learning resources at your fingertips

Here are the ways in which you define what type of resource you’re looking for (you don’t have to care about all of them):

  1. What’s your proficiency level? (e.g. beginner, intermediate, advance)
  2. What topic are you interested in? (e.g. listening, speaking, vocabulary)
  3. What type of resource do you want to find? (see below)

The site is very broad in scope and includes five main types of resources:

  1. Information and advice (Hacking Chinese would show up here)
  2. Resource collections (where you can find collections of videos, articles, etc.)
  3. Resource highlights (particular videos, articles, etc. that are very good)
  4. Tools and apps (games, dictionaries and other apps and tools)
  5. Social learning (forums, language exchange, chatting and similar)

Here are some examples of how Hacking Chinese Resources can be used:

  1. You are a beginner who wants to learn vocabulary and want to find tools and apps that can help you achieve this. There are currently 15 resources matching your request.
  2. You are an intermediate learner who wants to find listening material suitable for you level. You can check either resource collections or resource highlights. The first tag is for sites that collect lots of material and the second is for individual files, clips, videos and so on.
  3. You are an advanced learner who wants to improve your speaking ability (pronunciation, perhaps), but you’re not sure how to go about it. The information and advice category is for you!
  4. You want to find Pinyin-related resources. You simply search forPinyin and find 16 resources that matches your query.

If you want to get updates on Twitter, I have set up a new account that posts new update regularly: @ChineseLinks.

Think this sounds cool? Want to participate?

Hacking Chinese Resources is run on an invite-only basis at the moment, so even if everybody can use the site like I have described above, you need to be invited if you want to post resources, discuss or vote. The reason is that I want to expand this section gradually and deal with potential problems as they appear. If you want to join the fun, please leave a comment to this post and tell me why you want to be invited (don’t forget to fill in your e-mail address).

hcrWhy Hacking Chinese Resources?

The motivation to create this section of Hacking Chinese sprung from a genuine need. Even though there are many sites where you can share learning resources, they are all mostly focused on the short term, usually in the form of discussion forums, social news sites or feed aggregators. I will continue using these sites myself and my aim is not to supplant them. Indeed, you can find all of them listed as resources already.

Even though Hacking Chinese Resources have similar functions, that’s not the main point. Instead, a carefully thought-out tag structure, filters and a search function are intended to create a permanent archive of useful resources that are easy to find whenever they are needed.

Still under development

Hacking Chinese Resources is still under development, but most things should work relatively well. If you have comments or feedback of any kind, you can just leave a comment here or contact me in any other way.Also, I don’t know about all cool resources out there, I need your help! If you want to participate in this project, contact me in some way and tell me why you want to join. I also need your e-mail address. If you want to read more about the tag structure, please check this document.

The future

Hacking Chinese Resources is still under development. There are lots of problems we know about that we want to fix in the near future, but please report any bugs or other things you would like to see on the site. When I say “we”, I mean myself and Stefan Wienert, who has helped me with the coding and is also hosting the new section (read more about the design process on his blog). I’m also grateful to Julien Leyre, who offered invaluable feedback on the tag structure, as well as to all the people on the Hacking Chinese feedback list who helped me with the site before today’s release.

I hope Hacking Chinese Resources can be a valuable asset to students and teachers of Chinese all over the world. In order to make that come true, I need your help. If you don’t want to participate yourself, then at least help me spread the word by sharing this article or Hacking Chinese Resources on social media or telling your friends about it!

Why good feedback matters and how to get it

Feedback is an integral part of learning a foreign language and there is no doubt that we need it to improve. While it’s certainly possible to learn a lot with simply a lot of exposure to the language, both when it comes to spoken and written language, it’s very hard to increase accuracy in speaking and writing without feedback.

wrongAs adult learners of Chinese, we have experience with at least one other language and that means that we constantly make assumptions about how Chinese works which might be incorrect. We need feedback from other people to correct these problems. This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to pronunciation (it might sound good to you, but not to a native ear), but it’s also true for speaking in general as well as writing.

However, giving good feedback is not easy and it’s perhaps even harder to receive feedback it well. I have already written about the art of being corrected, so now it’s time to write about the other end of the exchange and discuss how to give feedback. This article isn’t meant for teachers only, though, because as a learner you can use these ideas to increase the quality of feedback you receive from your language exchanges, class teachers or private tutors. The quality of the feedback can be improved tremendously by following a few easy principles, but let’s look a little bit closer at the problem first.

What bad feedback looks like

When I was an upper-intermediate learner, I took a course in written Chinese that was awful in many regards, but the worst part of the entire course was the feedback we received from our teacher. I usually spent more time trying to understand what I had done wrong than I spent writing the essay in the first place.

Now, if this time was well spent trying to figure out good ways of expressing myself in Chinese, fine, but I actually didn’t understand what I was doing wrong at all or why the teacher wanted me to change something, so I ended up giving the essay to other native speakers for feedback. They sometimes didn’t understand either, but they still managed to help me improve the essay.

The reason the feedback was so bad was that the teacher didn’t use a sensible notation system. If something was wrong, she underlined it with a red pen and that was it. That meant that the only thing you knew when you saw that read line was that something in that sentence was wrong. Syntax? Vocabulary? Collocations? Logic? Something else? Does the sentence just sound a little bit strange or was it completely wrong? I didn’t even know where to start.

Why good feedback matters

Misunderstanding feedback is catastrophic, because it might lead to the unlearning something which is actually right, while ignoring the actual problem. For instance, I might think that the teacher don’t approve of the verb-noun choice in the sentence, and then make a mental note not to write that again, whereas it is in fact the word order of the sentence that is wrong, which I might fail to notice entirely.

One very common problem is not indicating if the sentence in question is just plain wrong or of it just isn’t very idiomatic in Chinese. This matters because if you (incorrectly) think that what you wrote is totally wrong, this might screw up your mental representations of Chinese grammar and syntax. If it were clear from the feedback that you sentence is actually quite good, albeit rarely used by native speakers, your confidence for grammar and syntax might actually be reinforced by the correction.

Some guidelines to use for more useful feedback

Instead of complaining about bad teachers I’ve had, I’m going to share with you some easy steps to take to improve the feedback you give (if you’re a teacher) or that you can try to persuade your teacher to use (if you’re a student):

  • Different shades of wrong – There are numerous different ways of being wrong and knowing which one it is helps quite a lot. Let’s look at three of them, in decreasing order of seriousness. First, your teacher might not understand what you’re trying to express at all. This is typically marked with a question mark and usually requires a discussion. Second, the sentence might be understandable, but obviously wrong in some way. This needs to be clearly shown, preferably using a special colour like red. Third, a sentence might be technically correct (i.e. follow syntactic rules and be sound in general), but simply not part of what Chinese people say. Use another colour to mark this, perhaps blue.
  • Writing too much or too little – The theory of how context and language interact to form meaning is called pragmatics. Among other things, pragmatics cover how people try to hit the sweet spot between saying too much and too little when communicating with others. If you say too much, you will come across as verbose or boring: if you say too little, people won’t understand what you say. The tricky thing is that this is different in different languages. You might think your paragraph is perfect, yet your teacher thinks it lacks certain things and contain too much of something else. The language might be correct and idiomatic, but you’ve missed the third level of communication: pragmatics (the first tow being semantics and syntax). Use another colour to indicate this kind of problem, like green.
  • Don’t correct everything – If you’re a teacher and are dealing with average students, don’t correct too much, because nothing is more depressing than receiving a paper where the red ink used exceeds the black ink used to write the essay. Instead, focus on systematic and serious errors. Leave the fine-tuning for later. For some students, it might be okay to correct more, but I doubt that it’s beneficial even if the student is mentally strong and won’t feel depressed. There’s a limit to how much we can take in anyway.
  • Don’t always give the right answer – The  teacher shouldn’t always give the right answer, at least not immediately. If the student makes a mistake the teacher know that he can actually correct himself, there’s no need to spell it out. Thinking about a problem and solving it leaves a much deeper impression than just being fed the correct answer. However, it should still be clear what the problem is, we don’t want to end up in the situation I described in the introduction to this article.
  • Be aware that there are different kinds of mistakes – This requires that the teacher knows the student fairly well, but knowing what kind of mistake the student has just made is crucial. The main distinction between mistake (the student actually knows the right answer, but failed this time anyway) and error (a systematic problem that will occur in all such situation because the student doesn’t know what is correct). I’ve written more about this here: Four different kinds of mistakes: Problem analysis.
  • Give positive feedback and praise now and then – If you encounter a sentence which is really good compared with the average level of the text, the teacher should let the student know. Personally, I’m very keen on learning what I do wrong and don’t mind heavy criticism on things I say or write as long as I’m given a reasonable chance to know what I should have said or written instead, but even I think that receiving praise now and then feels great. Don’t overdo it, though, and never praise erroneous sentences. Use a pretty colour like pink and add a short, personal comment.

Naturally, I have only given examples here. It doesn’t really matter exactly what method the teacher uses to let the student understand where the mistakes are and what to do about them, as long as the student can understand without spending hours and needing to consult other native speakers. Colours are perhaps most suitable for digital correction, but special symbols or coloured pens should do the trick on paper.

Feedback is precious

When reading your essay, the teacher might understand very well what you have done wrong and might know how to help you. It’s a pity if that potential help got lost on the way because of bad standards for giving feedback. If you follow the guidelines in this article, the quality of the feedback will increase, and, as a result, the amount of Chinese being taught or learnt will increase as well!

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!

Focusing on tone pairs to improve your Mandarin pronunciation

Tones are, without doubt, one of the hardest parts of Chinese to master and many students struggle with them even long after leaving the beginner stage of learning. Understanding the basics of tones in Chinese isn’t that hard and most people can do it relatively quickly with the right kind of instruction and some practice, but it’s not easy to translate this knowledge into actual speaking ability. I also make tone mistakes sometimes, although I have become much better at spotting them and the number of mistakes keeps on falling.

I believe that mastering tone pairs is crucial for all students. In this article, I will do two things: First, I will explain why tone pairs are so useful. Second, I will give you more tone combinations that you can possibly wish in the form of tone sorted HSK and TOCFL vocabulary lists.

tonepairs
T1 + T3 and T2 + T1 pitch contours in Praat.

Tone pairs

One problem with they way tones are normally taught is that way too much time is spent on single-syllable words. This becomes an even bigger problem if the third tone is taught as a full falling-rising tone, which will lead to problems because that’s not the way it’s normally pronounced. Therefore, the best way of practising tones in Chinese is to move to words consisting of two syllables as soon as possible.

Naturally, you can also practice sentences and intonation, but that’s something different and if you find tones are hard to grasp in the first place, reading a long sentence and superimposing intonation certainly won’t make things easier Mastering tone pairs is a must!

Practising Chinese tones in pairs

The reason disyllabic words are great is that most tone changes(sandhi) rules apply, but a single word is still short enough to be focused on properly. It also makes sense to focus on these words because modern Chinese has a very strong preference for disyllabic words, meaning that if you know all possible combinations really well, getting pronunciation in sentences right is mostly a matter of practise.

What I mean by this is that if you don’t get the basic two-syllable combinations, you might not learn to produce correct sentences at all, regardless of how much you practise. If you do learn how to handle disyllabic words, you will probably be able to produce good sentences simply by paying attention and speaking more Chinese since you already have the basics down.

If you’re a complete beginner or feel that you don’t know the basics at all, I suggest you head over to Sinosplice and check John’s Mandarin Chinese Tone Pair Drills. He offers a few examples for every tone combination, as well as explanations and audio.

Another thing to remember is that your tones might not be as good as you think. I think all students should try doing a blind test at least once, meaning that the listener doesn’t know or guess the right answer and can’t pretend to understand. You will most likely find that there are problems you weren’t aware of, even if  you’ve studied Chinese for a while (some problems are really hard to spot without feedback). You can use my tone bingo game for this, which is very good at catching pronunciation problems and is quite fun as well.

This is not enough, we need more!

Both when I learnt tones myself and when I teach other people, I find that this is often not enough. After having discussed this with a number of classmates, it seems like both students and teachers alike have this problem: In order to practise tone pairs, we sometimes have to come up with a large number of examples of any given combination, which is not easy, especially not if we want to use known or familiar words!

However, this problem is solvable, because it is possible to write a script that sorts a word list according to the tone combinations. Since I lack the necessary coding skills to write such a script, I approached my good friend Magnus Falk with this problem to see how hard it would be to achieve. No problem, he said.

It actually turned out to take longer than he thought, but we now have a script that works fairly well. We still haven’t worked out how to implement the script on the website yet, but if you really want to play around with it on your own, all necessary files are available on GitHub (the tone sorter is written in Python). If you just want more tone combinations than you’ll ever need, just keep on reading.

More tone combinations that you will ever need

If you download and run the script yourself, you should be able to sort any word list by tone, but since most people probably don’t need that and it would be too much trouble to explain exactly how it works, for now I will provide you with a very large number of tone combinations you can use for either learning or teaching tones.

First, I offer the complete lists for both HSK (simplified) and TOCFL (traditional), sorted by tone combination. You can download the lists here:

Please note: These lists are based on the official lists, so any errors are (probably) not mine, unless the sorting itself is wrong. They should be mostly correct, though, the only common problem I have seen is for phrases, but they are quite rare and not the main issue here.

The lists contain words with more than two syllables as well, so if you want to practise three-syllable words, you just need to download the files. The polysyllabic words are of course also sorted by tone! The list also contains monosyllables, but mostly for the sake of comprehensiveness, I can’t really see why anyone would need them.

Second, I for quick reference, I have provided the first 50 combinations of each tone combination below for quick reference. This should be more than what most people need, but if you do want more for some reason, you can just use the download links above. Here’s an index of the words listed in this article. Simply click the combination you want; click “back” in your browser if you want to go back to this navigation.

T1 + T?

  1. T1 + T1
  2. T1 + T2
  3. T1 + T3
  4. T1 + T4
  5. T1 + T0

T2 + T?

  1. T2 + T1
  2. T2 + T2
  3. T2 + T3
  4. T2 + T4
  5. T2 + T0

T3 + T?

  1. T3 + T1
  2. T3 + T2
  3. T3 + T3
  4. T3 + T4
  5. T3 + T0

T4 + T?

  1. T4 + T1
  2. T4 + T2
  3. T4 + T3
  4. T4 + T4
  5. T4 + T0

T1 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 飞机 fēijī
1 分钟 fēnzhōng
1 今天 jīntiān
1 星期 xīngqī
1 医生 yīshēng
2 公司 gōngsī
2 咖啡 kāfēi
2 西瓜 xīguā
3 冰箱 bīngxiāng
3 参加 cānjiā
3 担心 dānxīn
3 发烧 fāshāo
3 公斤 gōngjīn
3 刮风 guāfēng
3 关心 guānxīn
3 几乎 jīhū
3 声音 shēngyīn
3 司机 sījī
3 香蕉 xiāngjiāo
3 新鲜 xīnxiān
3 应该 yīnggāi
3 中间 zhōngjiān
4 餐厅 cāntīng
4 参观 cānguān
4 吃惊 chī jīng
4 抽烟 chōuyān
4 出差 chū chāi
4 出发 chūfā
4 出生 chūshēng
4 粗心 cūxīn
4 发生 fāshēng
4 干杯 gān bēi
4 工资 gōngzī
4 加班 jiā bān
4 交通 jiāotōng
4 郊区 jiāoqū
4 开心 kāixīn
4 轻松 qīngsōng
4 沙发 shāfā
4 伤心 shāngxīn
4 稍微 shāowēi
4 通知 tōngzhī
4 增加 zēngjiā
5 安装 ānzhuāng
5 悲观 bēiguān
5 操心 cāo xīn
5 车厢 chēxiāng
5 吃亏 chīkuī
5 粗糙 cūcāo
5 当心 dāngxīn

T1 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 中国 zhōngguó
2 非常 fēicháng
2 虽然 suīrán
3 阿姨 āyí
3 帮忙 bāngmáng
3 当然 dāngrán
3 刚才 gāngcái
3 公园 gōngyuán
3 关于 guānyú
3 欢迎 huānyíng
3 经常 jīngcháng
3 空调 kōngtiáo
3 刷牙 shuāyá
3 突然 tūrán
3 新闻 xīnwén
3 要求 yāoqiú
3 中文 zhōngwén
3 终于 zhōngyú
4 安排 ānpái
4 安全 ānquán
4 当时 dāngshí
4 积极 jījí
4 坚持 jiānchí
4 将来 jiānglái
4 交流 jiāoliú
4 科学 kēxué
4 批评 pīpíng
4 区别 qūbié
4 森林 sēnlín
4 生活 shēnghuó
4 说明 shuōmíng
4 推迟 tuīchí
4 相同 xiāngtóng
4 心情 xīnqíng
4 支持 zhīchí
4 周围 zhōuwéi
4 专门 zhuānmén
5 包含 bāohán
5 编辑 biānjí
5 超级 chāojí
5 出席 chūxí
5 初级 chūjí
5 窗帘 chuānglián
5 匆忙 cōngmáng
5 单纯 dānchún
5 单独 dāndú
5 单元 dānyuán
5 多余 duōyú
5 发愁 fā chóu
5 发达 fādá

T1 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 中午 zhōngwǔ
2 宾馆 bīnguǎn
2 机场 jīchǎng
2 开始 kāishǐ
2 铅笔 qiānbǐ
2 身体 shēntǐ
3 黑板 hēibǎn
3 经理 jīnglǐ
4 标准 biāozhǔn
4 发展 fāzhǎn
4 方法 fāngfǎ
4 公里 gōnglǐ
4 积累 jīlěi
4 基础 jīchǔ
4 精彩 jīngcǎi
4 缺点 quēdiǎn
4 缺少 quēshǎo
4 申请 shēnqǐng
4 危险 wēixiǎn
4 污染 wūrǎn
4 吸引 xīyǐn
4 相反 xiāngfǎn
4 辛苦 xīnkǔ
4 修理 xiūlǐ
4 邀请 yāoqǐng
4 因此 yīncǐ
4 优点 yōudiǎn
5 包裹 bāoguǒ
5 标点 biāodiǎn
5 参考 cānkǎo
5 操场 cāochǎng
5 充满 chōngmǎn
5 出版 chūbǎn
5 出口 chūkǒu
5 发表 fābiǎo
5 发抖 fādǒu
5 分手 fēnshǒu
5 风景 fēngjǐng
5 风险 fēngxiǎn
5 钢铁 gāngtiě
5 根本 gēnběn
5 工厂 gōngchǎng
5 公主 gōngzhǔ
5 恭喜 gōngxǐ
5 观点 guāndiǎn
5 婚礼 hūnlǐ
5 基本 jīběn
5 肩膀 jiānbǎng
5 艰苦 jiānkǔ
5 交往 jiāowǎng

T1 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 高兴 gāoxìng
1 工作 gōngzuò
1 商店 shāngdiàn
1 天气 tiānqì
1 医院 yīyuàn
2 帮助 bāngzhù
2 鸡蛋 jīdàn
2 生病 shēngbìng
2 生日 shēngrì
2 说话 shuōhuà
2 希望 xīwàng
2 因为 yīnwèi
3 安静 ānjìng
3 超市 chāoshì
3 发现 fāxiàn
3 方便 fāngbiàn
3 干净 gānjìng
3 根据 gēnjù
3 机会 jīhuì
3 街道 jiēdào
3 经过 jīngguò
3 生气 shēngqì
3 相信 xiāngxìn
3 需要 xūyào
3 音乐 yīnyuè
3 周末 zhōumò
4 超过 chāoguò
4 出现 chūxiàn
4 翻译 fānyì
4 方面 fāngmiàn
4 方向 fāngxiàng
4 丰富 fēngfù
4 估计 gūjì
4 关键 guānjiàn
4 观众 guānzhòng
4 规定 guīdìng
4 激动 jīdòng
4 家具 jiājù
4 骄傲 jiāo’ào
4 接受 jiēshòu
4 京剧 jīngjù
4 经济 jīngjì
4 经历 jīnglì
4 经验 jīngyàn
4 究竟 jiūjìng
4 空气 kōngqì
4 千万 qiānwàn
4 签证 qiānzhèng
4 生命 shēngmìng
4 失败 shībài

T1 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 杯子 bēizi
1 东西 dōngxi
1 多少 duōshao
1 妈妈 māma
1 先生 xiānsheng
1 衣服 yīfu
1 桌子 zhuōzi
2 哥哥 gēge
2 妻子 qīzi
2 休息 xiūxi
2 知道 zhīdao
3 聪明 cōngming
3 多么 duōme
3 关系 guānxi
3 清楚 qīngchu
3 叔叔 shūshu
3 舒服 shūfu
4 包子 bāozi
4 窗户 chuānghu
4 胳膊 gēbo
4 功夫 gōngfu
4 接着 jiēzhe
4 亲戚 qīnqi
4 商量 shāngliang
4 生意 shēngyi
4 师傅 shīfu
4 收拾 shōushi
4 孙子 sūnzi
4 消息 xiāoxi
4 知识 zhīshi
5 玻璃 bōli
5 叉子 chāzi
5 称呼 chēnghu
5 抽屉 chōuti
5 答应 dāying
5 耽误 dānwu
5 姑姑 gūgu
5 规矩 guīju
5 姑娘 gūniang
5 夹子 jiāzi
5 结实 jiēshi
5 精神 jīngshen
5 狮子 shīzi
5 梳子 shūzi
5 屋子 wūzi
6 报酬 bàochou
6 报复 bàofu
6 辫子 biànzi
6 别扭 bièniu
6 伺候 cìhou

T2 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 明天 míngtiān
1 昨天 zuótiān
2 房间 fángjiān
2 旁边 pángbiān
2 时间 shíjiān
3 国家 guójiā
3 结婚 jiéhūn
3 离开 líkāi
3 聊天 liáotiān
3 邻居 línjū
3 年轻 niánqīng
3 爬山 páshān
3 其他 qítā
3 提高 tígāo
3 熊猫 xióngmāo
4 长江 chángjiāng
4 成功 chénggōng
4 重新 chóngxīn
4 传真 chuánzhēn
4 房东 fángdōng
4 航班 hángbān
4 节约 jiéyuē
4 毛巾 máojīn
4 皮肤 pífū
4 其中 qízhōng
4 十分 shífēn
4 熟悉 shúxī
4 提供 tígōng
4 文章 wénzhāng
4 学期 xuéqī
4 牙膏 yágāo
4 研究 yánjiū
4 阳光 yángguāng
4 原因 yuányīn
4 直接 zhíjiē
5 曾经 céngjīng
5 潮湿 cháoshī
5 承担 chéngdān
5 除非 chúfēi
5 除夕 chúxī
5 传播 chuánbō
5 传说 chuánshuō
5 服装 fúzhuāng
5 核心 héxīn
5 胡说 húshuō
5 黄金 huángjīn
5 集中 jízhōng
5 决心 juéxīn
5 离婚 lí hūn
5 明星 míngxīng

 

T2 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 同学 tóngxué
1 学习 xuéxí
3 黄河 huánghé
3 回答 huídá
3 留学 liúxué
3 年级 niánjí
3 皮鞋 píxié
3 其实 qíshí
3 完成 wánchéng
3 银行 yínháng
3 着急 zháojí
4 长城 chángchéng
4 成为 chéngwéi
4 诚实 chéngshí
4 厨房 chúfáng
4 从来 cónglái
4 儿童 értóng
4 符合 fúhé
4 国籍 guójí
4 合格 hégé
4 怀疑 huáiyí
4 及时 jíshí
4 零钱 língqián
4 流行 liúxíng
4 民族 mínzú
4 年龄 niánlíng
4 平时 píngshí
4 然而 rán’ér
4 仍然 réngrán
4 提前 tíqián
4 同情 tóngqíng
4 同时 tóngshí
4 完全 wánquán
4 无聊 wúliáo
4 严格 yángé
4 尤其 yóuqí
4 由于 yóuyú
4 邮局 yóujú
4 原来 yuánlái
5 长途 chángtú
5 常识 chángshí
5 成人 chéngrén
5 成熟 chéngshú
5 池塘 chítáng
5 辞职 cízhí
5 从而 cóng’ér
5 从前 cóngqián
5 敌人 dírén
5 繁荣 fánróng
5 国王 guówáng

 

T2 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 没有 méiyǒu
1 苹果 píngguǒ
2 牛奶 niúnǎi
2 游泳 yóuyǒng
3 词典 cídiǎn
3 而且 érqiě
3 啤酒 píjiǔ
3 如果 rúguǒ
4 词语 cíyǔ
4 烦恼 fánnǎo
4 即使 jíshǐ
4 结果 jiéguǒ
4 提醒 tíxǐng
5 财产 cáichǎn
5 成果 chéngguǒ
5 成语 chéngyǔ
5 成长 chéngzhǎng
5 诚恳 chéngkěn
5 迟早 chízǎo
5 传染 chuánrǎn
5 传统 chuántǒng
5 从此 cóngcǐ
5 罚款 fákuǎn
5 合法 héfǎ
5 合理 hélǐ
5 合影 héyǐng
5 急诊 jízhěn
5 集体 jítǐ
5 节省 jiéshěng
5 厘米 límǐ
5 良好 liánghǎo
5 浏览 liúlǎn
5 媒体 méitǐ
5 描写 miáoxiě
5 明显 míngxiǎn
5 模仿 mófǎng
5 难免 nánmiǎn
5 培养 péiyǎng
5 平等 píngděng
5 情景 qíngjǐng
5 人口 rénkǒu
5 随手 suíshǒu
5 调整 tiáozhěng
5 完美 wánměi
5 完整 wánzhěng
5 王子 wángzǐ
5 违反 wéifǎn
5 寻找 xúnzhǎo
5 牙齿 yáchǐ
5 营养 yíngyǎng

 

T2 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 前面 qiánmiàn
1 学校 xuéxiào
2 颜色 yánsè
2 羊肉 yángròu
2 一下 yíxià
3 不但 búdàn
3 成绩 chéngjì
3 城市 chéngshì
3 迟到 chídào
3 环境 huánjìng
3 节目 jiémù
3 结束 jiéshù
3 节日 jiérì
3 决定 juédìng
3 难过 nánguò
3 奇怪 qíguài
3 然后 ránhòu
3 容易 róngyì
3 同事 tóngshì
3 同意 tóngyì
3 文化 wénhuà
3 习惯 xíguàn
3 一定 yídìng
3 一共 yígòng
3 一会儿 yíhuìr
3 一样 yíyàng
3 游戏 yóuxì
4 博士 bóshì
4 不过 búguò
4 材料 cáiliào
4 乘坐 chéngzuò
4 答案 dá’àn
4 得意 déyì
4 国际 guójì
4 寒假 hánjià
4 合适 héshì
4 回忆 huíyì
4 活动 huódòng
4 来自 láizì
4 联系 liánxì
4 流利 liúlì
4 迷路 mílù
4 难道 nándào
4 难受 nánshòu
4 能力 nénglì
4 排队 pái duì
4 排列 páiliè
4 其次 qícì
4 情况 qíngkuàng
4 全部 quánbù

 

T2 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 儿子 érzi
1 名字 míngzi
1 朋友 péngyou
1 什么 shénme
1 时候 shíhou
1 学生 xuésheng
2 孩子 háizi
2 觉得 juéde
2 便宜 piányi
3 鼻子 bízi
3 别人 biéren
3 除了 chúle
3 还是 háishi
3 明白 míngbai
3 盘子 pánzi
3 瓶子 píngzi
3 裙子 qúnzi
3 头发 tóufa
3 爷爷 yéye
4 盒子 hézi
4 活泼 huópo
4 咳嗽 késou
4 凉快 liángkuai
4 麻烦 máfan
4 脾气 píqi
4 葡萄 pútao
4 勺子 sháozi
4 随着 suízhe
4 咱们 zánmen
4 值得 zhíde
5 脖子 bózi
5 合同 hétong
5 猴子 hóuzi
5 糊涂 hútu
5 桔子 júzi
5 粮食 liángshi
5 逻辑 luóji
5 馒头 mántou
5 眉毛 méimao
5 苗条 miáotiao
5 模糊 móhu
5 绳子 shéngzi
5 石头 shítou
5 学问 xuéwen
5 竹子 zhúzi
6 裁缝 cáifeng
6 残疾 cánji
6 含糊 hánhu
6 和气 héqi
6 唠叨 láodao

 

T3 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
1 北京 běijīng
1 老师 lǎoshī
2 好吃 hǎochī
2 手机 shǒujī
3 北方 běifāng
3 简单 jiǎndān
3 起飞 qǐfēi
3 小心 xiǎoxīn
4 饼干 bǐnggān
4 打针 dǎzhēn
4 堵车 dǔchē
4 广播 guǎngbō
4 果汁 guǒzhī
4 奖金 jiǎngjīn
4 紧张 jǐnzhāng
4 烤鸭 kǎoyā
4 可惜 kěxī
4 首都 shǒudū
4 首先 shǒuxiān
4 小吃 xiǎochī
4 小说 xiǎoshuō
4 许多 xǔduō
4 演出 yǎnchū
5 本科 běnkē
5 补充 bǔchōng
5 产生 chǎnshēng
5 打工 dǎgōng
5 感激 gǎnjī
5 拐弯 guǎi wān
5 海关 hǎiguān
5 海鲜 hǎixiān
5 假装 jiǎzhuāng
5 剪刀 jiǎndāo
5 酒吧 jiǔbā
5 卡车 kǎchē
5 启发 qǐfā
5 取消 qǔxiāo
5 始终 shǐzhōng
5 手工 shǒugōng
5 鼠标 shǔ biāo
5 损失 sǔnshī
5 体贴 tǐtiē
5 统一 tǒngyī
5 展开 zhǎn kāi
5 指挥 zhǐhuī
5 主观 zhǔguān
5 主张 zhǔzhāng
5 总之 zǒngzhī
5 组织 zǔzhī
6 把关 bǎ guān

 

T3 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
1 女儿 nǚ’ér
2 可能 kěnéng
2 旅游 lǚyóu
2 起床 qǐ chuáng
2 小时 xiǎoshí
3 检查 jiǎnchá
3 解决 jiějué
3 水平 shuǐpíng
3 选择 xuǎnzé
3 以前 yǐqián
3 有名 yǒumíng
4 本来 běnlái
4 比如 bǐrú
4 表格 biǎogé
4 表扬 biǎoyáng
4 打折 dǎzhé
4 导游 dǎoyóu
4 否则 fǒuzé
4 感觉 gǎnjué
4 感情 gǎnqíng
4 海洋 hǎiyáng
4 减肥 jiǎnféi
4 警察 jǐngchá
4 举行 jǔxíng
4 可怜 kělián
4 旅行 lǚxíng
4 网球 wǎngqiú
4 演员 yǎnyuán
4 养成 yǎngchéng
4 以为 yǐwéi
4 语言 yǔyán
4 准时 zhǔnshí
4 总结 zǒngjié
5 保持 bǎochí
5 保存 bǎocún
5 保留 bǎoliú
5 表达 biǎodá
5 表明 biǎomíng
5 表情 biǎoqíng
5 彩虹 cǎihóng
5 倒霉 dǎoméi
5 等于 děngyú
5 躲藏 duǒcáng
5 耳环 ěrhuán
5 反而 fǎn’ér
5 仿佛 fǎngfú
5 改革 gǎigé
5 果然 guǒrán
5 果实 guǒshí
5 火柴 huǒchái

 

T3 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 水果 shuǐguǒ
2 可以 kěyǐ
2 手表 shǒubiǎo
2 所以 suǒyǐ
3 打扫 dǎsǎo
3 了解 liǎojiě
3 洗澡 xǐzǎo
3 影响 yǐngxiǎng
3 只有 zhǐyǒu
4 表演 biǎoyǎn
4 打扰 dǎrǎo
4 管理 guǎnlǐ
4 减少 jiǎnshǎo
4 尽管 jǐnguǎn
4 老虎 lǎohǔ
4 理解 lǐjiě
4 理想 lǐxiǎng
4 偶尔 ǒu’ěr
4 所有 suǒyǒu
4 往往 wǎngwǎng
4 也许 yěxǔ
4 引起 yǐnqǐ
4 永远 yǒngyuǎn
4 勇敢 yǒnggǎn
4 友好 yǒuhǎo
4 语法 yǔfǎ
4 允许 yǔnxǔ
4 整理 zhěnglǐ
4 只好 zhǐhǎo
5 保险 bǎoxiǎn
5 本领 běnlǐng
5 彼此 bǐcǐ
5 采访 cǎifǎng
5 采取 cǎiqǔ
5 产品 chǎnpǐn
5 处理 chǔlǐ
5 导演 dǎoyǎn
5 岛屿 dǎoyǔ
5 辅导 fǔdǎo
5 赶紧 gǎnjǐn
5 感想 gǎnxiǎng
5 古典 gǔdiǎn
5 鼓舞 gǔwǔ
5 鼓掌 gǔ zhǎng
5 广场 guǎngchǎng
5 缓解 huǎnjiě
5 老板 lǎobǎn
5 老鼠 lǎoshǔ
5 了不起 liǎobuqǐ
5 领导 lǐngdǎo

 

T3 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 米饭 mǐfàn
1 怎么样 zěnmeyàng
2 考试 kǎoshì
2 跑步 pǎobù
2 准备 zhǔnbèi
3 比较 bǐjiào
3 比赛 bǐsài
3 打算 dǎsuàn
3 感冒 gǎnmào
3 可爱 kě’ài
3 礼物 lǐwù
3 马上 mǎshàng
3 满意 mǎnyì
3 努力 nǔlì
3 请假 qǐngjià
3 体育 tǐyù
3 饮料 yǐnliào
3 主要 zhǔyào
3 总是 zǒngshì
4 保护 bǎohù
4 保证 bǎozhèng
4 表示 biǎoshì
4 打印 dǎyìn
4 短信 duǎnxìn
4 法律 fǎlǜ
4 反对 fǎnduì
4 改变 gǎibiàn
4 感动 gǎndòng
4 感谢 gǎnxiè
4 鼓励 gǔlì
4 广告 guǎnggào
4 好像 hǎoxiàng
4 解释 jiěshì
4 景色 jǐngsè
4 举办 jǔbàn
4 考虑 kǎolǜ
4 可是 kěshì
4 肯定 kěndìng
4 恐怕 kǒngpà
4 冷静 lěngjìng
4 礼貌 lǐmào
4 理发 lǐfà
4 美丽 měilì
4 免费 miǎn fèi
4 普遍 pǔbiàn
4 使用 shǐyòng
4 讨论 tǎolùn
4 讨厌 tǎoyàn
4 网站 wǎngzhàn
4 眼镜 yǎnjìng

 

T3 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 我们 wǒmen
1 喜欢 xǐhuan
1 小姐 xiǎojie
1 椅子 yǐzi
1 怎么 zěnme
2 姐姐 jiějie
2 晚上 wǎnshang
2 眼睛 yǎnjing
2 已经 yǐjing
2 早上 zǎoshang
2 左边 zuǒbian
3 耳朵 ěrduo
3 奶奶 nǎinai
3 起来 qǐlai
4 打扮 dǎban
4 好处 hǎochu
4 饺子 jiǎozi
4 马虎 mǎhu
4 母亲 mǔqin
4 暖和 nuǎnhuo
4 主意 zhǔyi
5 尺子 chǐzi
5 打听 dǎting
5 点心 diǎnxin
5 骨头 gǔtou
5 管子 guǎnzi
5 讲究 jiǎngjiu
5 老实 lǎoshi
5 姥姥 lǎolao
5 脑袋 nǎodai
5 嗓子 sǎngzi
5 舍不得 shěbude
5 尾巴 wěiba
5 委屈 wěiqu
5 显得 xiǎnde
5 影子 yǐngzi
6 把手 ba3shou
6 本事 ben3shi
6 比方 bi3fang
6 打量 da3liang
6 恶心 e3xin
6 喇叭 la3ba
6 码头 ma3tou
6 免得 mian3de
6 曲子 qu3zi
6 嫂子 sao3zi
6 妥当 tuo3dang
6 枕头 zhen3tou
6 指甲 zhi3jia
6 种子 zhong3zi

 

T4 + T1
HSK Word Pinyin
2 唱歌 chànggē
2 大家 dàjiā
2 第一 dìyī
2 上班 shàngbān
3 必须 bìxū
3 菜单 càidān
3 衬衫 chènshān
3 蛋糕 dàngāo
3 电梯 diàntī
3 放心 fàngxīn
3 健康 jiànkāng
3 面包 miànbāo
3 认真 rènzhēn
3 一般 yìbān
3 一边 yìbiān
4 差不多 chàbuduō
4 大约 dàyuē
4 放松 fàngsōng
4 害羞 hài xiū
4 互相 hùxiāng
4 降低 jiàngdī
4 竞争 jìngzhēng
4 客厅 kètīng
4 律师 lǜshī
4 耐心 nàixīn
4 现金 xiànjīn
4 信封 xìnfēng
4 信息 xìnxī
4 信心 xìnxīn
4 亚洲 yàzhōu
4 作家 zuòjiā
5 爱惜 àixī
5 爱心 àixīn
5 不安 bù’ān
5 刺激 cìjī
5 措施 cuòshī
5 地区 dìqū
5 对方 duìfāng
5 冠军 guànjūn
5 过期 guòqī
5 健身 jiànshēn
5 据说 jùshuō
5 客观 kèguān
5 辣椒 làjiāo
5 乐观 lèguān
5 利息 lìxī
5 列车 lièchē
5 录音 lùyīn
5 蜜蜂 mìfēng
5 面积 miànjī

 

T4 + T2
HSK Word Pinyin
2 面条 miàntiáo
2 去年 qùnián
2 问题 wèntí
3 地图 dìtú
3 复习 fùxí
3 后来 hòulái
3 季节 jìjié
3 客人 kèrén
3 练习 liànxí
3 热情 rèqíng
3 认为 rènwéi
3 数学 shùxué
3 太阳 tàiyáng
3 特别 tèbié
3 一直 yìzhí
4 爱情 àiqíng
4 按时 ànshí
4 报名 bào míng
4 地球 dìqiú
4 调查 diàochá
4 对于 duìyú
4 负责 fùzé
4 复杂 fùzá
4 共同 gòngtóng
4 过程 guòchéng
4 获得 huòdé
4 既然 jìrán
4 价格 jiàgé
4 进行 jìnxíng
4 竟然 jìngrán
4 拒绝 jùjué
4 距离 jùlí
4 例如 lìrú
4 内容 nèiróng
4 确实 quèshí
4 任何 rènhé
4 适合 shìhé
4 橡皮 xiàngpí
4 幸福 xìngfú
4 性别 xìngbié
4 性格 xìnggé
4 预习 yùxí
4 阅读 yuèdú
4 暂时 zànshí
4 正常 zhèngcháng
4 证明 zhèngmíng
4 著名 zhùmíng
4 自然 zìrán
5 必然 bìrán
5 病毒 bìngdú

 

T4 + T3
HSK Word Pinyin
1 电脑 diànnǎo
1 电影 diànyǐng
1 对不起 duìbuqǐ
1 汉语 hànyǔ
1 上午 shàngwǔ
1 下午 xiàwǔ
1 下雨 xiàyǔ
1 一点儿 yìdiǎnr
2 报纸 bàozhǐ
2 跳舞 tiàowǔ
2 一起 yìqǐ
3 办法 bànfǎ
3 地铁 dìtiě
3 或者 huòzhě
3 历史 lìshǐ
3 上网 shàngwǎng
3 校长 xiàozhǎng
3 自己 zìjǐ
4 并且 bìngqiě
4 不管 bùguǎn
4 不仅 bùjǐn
4 厕所 cèsuǒ
4 到底 dào dǐ
4 地点 dìdiǎn
4 地址 dìzhǐ
4 付款 fù kuǎn
4 号码 hàomǎ
4 后悔 hòuhuǐ
4 记者 jìzhě
4 禁止 jìnzhǐ
4 看法 kànfǎ
4 密码 mìmǎ
4 入口 rùkǒu
4 是否 shìfǒu
4 特点 tèdiǎn
4 效果 xiàoguǒ
4 正好 zhènghǎo
4 至少 zhìshǎo
4 重点 zhòngdiǎn
4 最好 zuìhǎo
4 作者 zuòzhě
5 办理 bànlǐ
5 傍晚 bàngwǎn
5 背景 bèijǐng
5 避免 bìmiǎn
5 彻底 chèdǐ
5 翅膀 chìbǎng
5 促使 cùshǐ
5 代表 dàibiǎo
5 贷款 dài kuǎn

 

T4 + T4
HSK Word Pinyin
1 电视 diànshì
1 饭店 fàndiàn
1 看见 kànjiàn
1 睡觉 shuìjiào
1 现在 xiànzài
1 再见 zàijiàn
2 但是 dànshì
2 教室 jiàoshì
2 介绍 jièshào
2 快乐 kuàilè
2 运动 yùndòng
2 正在 zhèngzài
3 爱好 àihào
3 变化 biànhuà
3 动物 dòngwù
3 锻炼 duànliàn
3 附近 fùjìn
3 过去 guòqù
3 害怕 hàipà
3 护照 hùzhào
3 会议 huìyì
3 见面 jiànmiàn
3 世界 shìjiè
3 忘记 wàngjì
3 遇到 yùdào
3 愿意 yuànyì
3 照片 zhàopiàn
3 重要 zhòngyào
3 注意 zhùyì
3 最后 zuìhòu
3 最近 zuìjìn
3 作业 zuòyè
4 按照 ànzhào
4 抱歉 bàoqiàn
4 毕业 bì yè
4 错误 cuòwù
4 大概 dàgài
4 到处 dàochù
4 道歉 dàoqiàn
4 动作 dòngzuò
4 对话 duìhuà
4 对面 duìmiàn
4 放弃 fàngqì
4 复印 fùyìn
4 购物 gòuwù
4 故意 gùyì
4 顾客 gùkè
4 计划 jìhuà
4 技术 jìshù
4 继续 jìxù

 

T4 + T0
HSK Word Pinyin
1 爸爸 bàba
1 后面 hòumian
1 漂亮 piàoliang
1 认识 rènshi
1 谢谢 xièxie
2 弟弟 dìdi
2 告诉 gàosu
2 妹妹 mèimei
2 事情 shìqing
2 意思 yìsi
2 右边 yòubian
2 丈夫 zhàngfu
3 地方 dìfang
3 个子 gèzi
3 故事 gùshi
3 记得 jìde
3 句子 jùzi
3 裤子 kùzi
3 筷子 kuàizi
3 帽子 màozi
3 为了 wèile
3 月亮 yuèliang
3 照顾 zhàogu
4 部分 bùfen
4 大夫 dàifu
4 肚子 dùzi
4 父亲 fùqin
4 护士 hùshi
4 镜子 jìngzi
4 困难 kùnnan
4 力气 lìqi
4 厉害 lìhai
4 热闹 rènao
4 任务 rènwu
4 态度 tàidu
4 袜子 wàzi
4 味道 wèidao
4 笑话 xiàohua
4 样子 yàngzi
4 要是 yàoshi
4 钥匙 yàoshi
4 叶子 yèzi
5 被子 bèizi
5 大方 dàfang
5 地道 dìdao
5 豆腐 dòufu
5 教训 jiàoxun
5 戒指 jièzhi
5 舅舅 jiùjiu
5 力量 lìliang

Role-playing to learn more Chinese and avoid frustration

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/ardenswayoflife/
Image credit: flickr.com/photos/ardenswayoflife/

I have had my fair share of Chinese language courses, even though it’s also true that most of my study time has been spent on my own initiative outside class. This is generally what I find to work best, limited class time to learn the basics and some theory, and the rest experimenting and learning on your own (as in without a curriculum decided by your school; I don’t mean that you should stay alone at home).

Generally speaking, focusing on meaning is a good idea. That is to say, the goal with communicating is to convey meaning of some sort, rather than performing repetitions drills or being overly neurotic about form (perfectionism is usually not good for you).

However, there are cases when focusing on meaning can actually be a bad thing, at least for some students. Sometimes, what you want to express limits your learning potential.

When focusing on meaning stops you from learning Chinese

Even though an exercise is focused on communication, beginners aren’t able to speak freely about any topic. If you can’t convey what you want, focusing too much on communication can be frustrating.  For instance, I remember teachers (and textbooks) asking me questions like these:

  1. What are people like in your country?
  2. What is a good friend like?
  3. What’s the best book you’ve ever read?
  4. What’s the difference between education in Asia and the West?
  5. Do you think money is important?

Questions like these are common in all language courses I’ve attended (including learning English and French in Sweden). It’s a way of activating the vocabulary and grammar the students have already learnt and encourage them to use them expressing something real rather than just repeating after the teacher or reading sentences in a book. This is good.

The problem is that if you try to answer questions truthfully, you will (depending on your level) run into problems, because the answers are usually more complicated than you can manage in Chinese. If I were to really answer the above questions truthfully, I’m sure it would be hard to find a meaningful in just a few sentences. Talking about complicated things with very few words isn’t easy, especially if you care about the meaning you’re trying to convey.

Truthful answers are sometimes quite useless for language learning

This is how I might reply to the above questions given the vocabulary of a beginner:

  1. It’s hard to say.
  2. It’s complicated.
  3. It’s complicated.
  4. It’s complicated.
  5. It depends.

I’m not trolling here, I think that the above answers are the closest I can get to the truth without giving a very long answer with simple words (after all, you can write a lot with only the ten hundred most common words), but that might be tricky for a beginner in Chinese because of word order, grammar and so on.

Given an hour with a friend, a beginner can probably convey a lot, but given one sentence and thirty seconds to think in class? Not that much, especially not if the teacher requires you to use sentence pattern A, B or C and words X, Y and Z. Trying to follow the instructions and communicate your opinion simply becomes too hard.

“It depends” might be the truth, but it won’t make you learn more Chinese

I actually had a classmate once who answered nearly all questions with “it depends” (得看 was his favourite word). This was because he felt that he couldn’t give a simple and truthful answer. He was right of course, if I say that Swedish people are more liberal than Chinese people, that’s a gross simplification that I feel very uncomfortable with. If I say that a certain book is my favourite, even though I actually don’t know which one is my favourite, it feels wrong. This becomes very tricky when dealing with stereotypes, which is common when discussing nationalities and culture in class.

Faced with this problem, some people resort to English, especially in a non-classroom settings. I have always tried to reply in full, using as much Chinese as I’m capable of, both in class and with language-exchange partners (in fact, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to express fairly complicated things with simple Chinese). However, there’s a better way:

Enter: A new you

Learning a language is like becoming a child again. This is both a curse and a blessing, but in this case, we have a thing or two to learn from children. Faced with questions such as the ones above, children usually give short and clear answers, most likely because they haven’t realised the full complexity of the question. These answers are sometimes really interesting and there are several TV programs and books about how children answer seemingly very complicated questions.

As adult language learners, we’re faced with the peculiar situation of knowing the complexity of the question, but only having the vocabulary of a child. This can be very frustrating.

One solution is simply to stop caring about expressing your own beliefs and views accurately. In other words, step away from who you really are and just select an opinion randomly and voice it or choose one aspect of the answer and ignore the rest. Sure, “being trustworthy” might not be the only true answer to what signifies a good friend, but it’s better for your Chinese than answering “it’s complicated” or “it depends” all the time.

Taking the role-playing one step further

If you really want to go crazy, you don’t need to care very much about reality at all when you answer questions in a learning situation (although I would advise you to alert your teacher and/or classmates before you start doing this if you care about what other people think about you). Answer as if you were someone else.

In reality you’re the only child, so whenever family is discussed, you have no 兄弟姐妹. Invent some! That way you will be able to practise both family terms in Chinese and how to talk about people in general. You can borrow my brother (he’s 25 and designs zeppelins) and my sister (she’s 35 and travels around the world to record other people’s dreams). This way, who you really are won’t stop you from practising Chinese.

Naturally, role-playing can be extremely useful as a learning tool, because you can design whatever personality or situation that you want to practise. As all learners know, it doesn’t take long before we can speak comfortably about ourselves and why we’re learning Chinese (because everybody asks and we give more or less the same answer). Switching personality and/or situation will allow you to explore other paths and broaden your horizons.

I’m a big fan of tabletop role-playing an have been playing and writing games for almost twenty years. Role-playing as a means of learning a language has huge potential, and I will explore this further in future articles, this is just one small example!

A final word to teachers

Please, please ask questions that can be answered. Don’t ask beginners if they think money is important or what they think about Chinese culture unless they can answer these questions meaningfully with the language they have learnt so far. These questions typically demand long and complicated answers.

Some of your students might be happy saying “Swedish people don’t like talking to strangers”, but some students (myself included) hate questions like this because we can’t answer without simplifying things to the point of being untruthful.

Others might feel it’s fine to say that they like Chinese culture because of it’s rich history, but some (again including myself) just feel frustrated by being asked questions that can’t really be answered.

Instead, be specific. Ask if they think that earning lots of money is the most important thing when finding a job. Ask how much money they think they need to be happy. Ask them to describe a specific difference between their own and Chinese culture, preferably related to what you’ve been studying recently. Ask what they think about the Chines New Year and if there are any similar holidays in their country. If you’re going to force students to use specific patterns or words, make sure language is the problem and not meaning.

Ask questions that can be answered without being untruthful. Not everybody likes role-playing.

Drills and exercises aren’t only for beginners

Drills and exercises are intimately connected to what most people associate with studying a language (rather than acquiring it through immersion). The goal of a drill is quite simple, namely to teach  you how to use something actively. I’m not a big fan of drills myself, partly because they tend to be quite boring and partly because I stress input much more than most people I know.

In our program, it seems normal to think that if the student can’t use what he has been taught after the lesson, that lesson was wasted. I don’t agree, but that’s perhaps beside the point. This time I’m not going to bash drills and explain why I don’t like them, I’m going to do the opposite and point out that they are actually quite useful if used in moderation and in the right way.

Drills are actually quite useful

Image credit: John Kennicutt
Image credit: John Kennicutt

The point is that various drills and exercises are very good at what they are designed to do. If you hear someone mention a word or you notice a certain pattern, you might be able to understand it next time it appears, but you’re not very likely to be able to use it yourself.

You need practice to accomplish that. Just as any other skill, speaking a foreign language requires both passive knowledge and active skill, and you can only gain the latter through practice. Only practice won’t do either, of course,  you can’t learn much without having the proper input first.

This is very natural and most beginners spend lots of time with their textbooks and teachers, going through new words and grammar. I think many of us have done thousands of those exercises, perhaps not when learning Chines, but at least when learning other language in school. I’ve sure done my share with English and French! Is there really a shortage of drills in language education?

Definitely not in the standard beginner or lower intermediate setting. However, drills gradually disappear at more advanced levels. Lessons turn into seminars where language is viewed more and more as a means of communication and as long as that tool works, it’s fine. The teacher still corrects the students, but mostly for written assignments.

The lack of drilling is a problem for advanced learners

This isn’t bad in itself, of course, I myself prefer this kind of lesson, but it does mean that advanced learners often stop learning new ways of expressing themselves or keep learning but a reduced pace. I include myself here, because I’m definitely guilty of the same thing. I know tons of words and phrases passively, but I can only use a small fraction of these with confidence.

This isn’t necessarily a problem, because I can still survive academic courses in Chinese and discuss freely in Chinese, but I do so without the variation shown by educated native speakers. Passively, I know perhaps ten ways of saying something, but I usually only use one or two. If communication is all you’re after, fine, but if you want to keep improving, you need to actively explore those other ways of expressing yourself.

Massive exposure and focused practice

In order to change this, we need one of two things: truly massive exposure or focused  practice through drills. The first one is great if you have the time to invest, because if you hear and see words used enough, you will learn how to use them yourself. This is how you learnt your native language. If you think it’s a kid/adult thing, remember that you learnt academic language as an adult rather than as a child. I learnt how to write formal English and Swedish without doing a single drill and the same is possible for Chinese. The problem is that it takes an awful lot of reading.

The other alternative is to focus actively on interesting words or patterns and practice until you know how to use them. This also takes time, but you do get quite a lot of value back, provided that you choose the right words or patterns. This is where it’s invaluable to have a good teacher that will spot your weaknesses and do his or her best to correct them. If you normally use expression X, s/he might prompt you to use expression Y which is slightly more suitable in this situation. This is hard or impossible to accomplish on your own.

Naturally, the best approach would be to do both. However, massive input works wonders in general for all language skills and the value of the drilling you do is related to how much Chinese you read or hear, which means that if forced to choose between the two, I would definitely say that more input is better than more drilling, I’m just saying that drilling has its uses, too.

Which drills and exercises to use

There are hundreds of different kinds of exercises you can spend time with as an intermediate or advanced learner, some similar to those you’ve seen in textbooks and classrooms. The important thing to remember is to not lose sight of real communication, so just because you practice using a specific pattern, you can still communicate with your teacher or language exchange partner rather than merely mimic them or produce random sentences. Again, a good teacher will help you find interesting ways to use the language you have learnt.

Active skill, passive knowledge

The reason I write this article is that I feel that many advanced learners don’t drill at all (I know I don’t) and as a result, the different between my passive and active language gradually increases. It’s only natural that there should be a big difference, but getting stuck in your intermediate ways of expressing yourself isn’t very good if the rest of your Chinese ability is very advanced.

Personally, I don’t consider this to me a big problem, but if I had more time to study Chinese with a teacher, I would focus on drilling important words, patterns or grammar points I understand well, but seldom use. I would also need help with pointing out where I could have said something much more suitable but didn’t.

An alternative way if you have no teacher

One way of getting around the problem of having a teacher to help you is to practise in writing first. It’s easy to get feedback for free online, so you can simply choose a word, pattern or grammar point, write sentences and then receive feedback from native speakers.

When you’ve done this, you will be able to use the words more confidently. I often feel a bit insecure with ways of expression that I have never used myself, even if I have heard them many times before. Using them in writing is perfect for people who don’t feel confident enough to use every new word they’ve just learnt when speaking with people around them.

Of course, it will take some time before practice in writing spills over to  your spoken language, but in my experience, it usually does. However, this isn’t a requirement, merely a suggestion if you want to include written language. Passive knowledge does transfer to active skill quite spontaneously over time, it’s just a matter of how much time you have.

Conclusion

If you aren’t taking any courses and aren’t actively focusing on learning Chinese, but still use Chinese regularly and think it works quite well, you probably still have a lot left to learn. Mastering Chinese requires more than knowing one way of expressing something and even though we can get most of what we want from immersion, I do think that drilling is quite useful to activate key vocabulary, sentence patterns and grammar, even at an advanced level.

About fossilisation and improving your Chinese pronunciation

Having studied a significant amount of phonology and phonetics, as well as focusing my research more and more into pronunciation instruction, the question of so called fossilisation has popped up regularly. It has also been bothering me for a long time.

What fossilisation is and what it is not

In short, fossilisation means that the learner stops improving in a certain area, usually pronunciation (that’s what I’m going to talk about here anyway, but similar arguments can be made for other skills). The facts are quite indisputable: almost all native speakers learn the pronunciation of their native language to functional perfection, most adult foreigner don’t, even after many, many years. Thus, there is a period after which adults seem to stop learning and this is called fossilisation. This effect is often attributed to the fact that most adult students perpetuate bad pronunciation habits (errors) which will then be (allegedly) impossible to change.

fossil
Image credit: David Monniaux

Why I don’t like the term fossilisation

There are two things that bother me here. First, it feels like people use the term fossilisation not only to explain, but also to excuse bad pronunciation, saying that it’s natural, common and not something to feel bad about. I mean, if every adult learner is bound to stagnate at a certain level, why bother teaching pronunciation to advanced learners? This is often regarded as an absolute truth, producing statements like “you can’t reach native-like pronunciation after the critical age” (the definition of which depends on who’s talking).

This is nonsense. I have taught a significant number of adult students, both as a teacher and as a graduate students. I have so far never  encountered someone who can’t improve. I would be very happy if people stopped throwing the word around as some kind of explanation for why foreigners fail to acquire proper tones or whatever. It’s a description and a name for an observed fact and has (almost) no explanatory value at all.

Diminished returns, not fossilisation

If the concept of fossilisation is bunk, we need an alternative way of explaining the fact that many foreigners have severe problems with their pronunciation and is nowhere close to near-native in their Chinese even after many years. I think the answer lies in the infamous principle of diminished returns.

Put very briefly, the better your pronunciation gets, the more time you need to make a significant improvement. I might be able to help a beginner to make huge leaps forward in just a few hours, but if I’m going to improve my own pronunciation in any noticeable way, it requires long and concentrated effort. It’s also the case that improving your pronunciation from “very bad” to just “bad” help your communication abilities tremendously, but levelling up from “quite good” to “very good” actually doesn’t help that much.

Image credit: Jan Spousta
Image credit: Jan Spousta

Another way to look at fossilisation looks like this: The problem with pronunciation is that the more times we make a certain error (failing to pronounce the third tone as a low ton in front of first, second and fourth tones, for instance), the harder it becomes to change that habit later. However, even if this is true to some extent, that doesn’t mean that it’s a law of nature you can’t bypass. Changing pronunciation isn’t necessarily easy, but it can definitely be done.

Why we stop improving your pronunciation

In essence, I’m convinced that the reason most foreigners have lousy pronunciation isn’t because they started learning Chinese as adults or because it’s impossible to learn as an adult. Instead, it’s because most students simply aren’t motivated enough to put in the effort it requires. This is similar to the argument I made in the article about adult vs. child learning (You might be too lazy to learn Chinese, but you’re not too old). Changing pronunciation habits is hard, why not do something more useful instead when people seem to understand what you say most of the time anyway? Still, remember that bad pronunciation always interferes with communication.

I can come up with several other reasons:

  • You don’t have time
  • You don’t know what to improve
  • You don’t know how to practice
  • You think it’s boring
  • You’re too lazy

I’m not saying that it’s equally easy to learn pronunciation as an adult compared to as a a child, nothing could be further from the truth, but I am saying that just because you won’t acquire good pronunciation automatically it doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. This article is about adult pronunciation, child acquisition of pronunciation is something completely different.

What to do if you actually want to improve your pronunciation

You need to solve the above problems, roughly in the order mentioned above. Most importantly, you need to know what your problems are and how to fix them. To do this, you need feedback from a teacher. Obviously, you also need to listen a lot and mimic a lot, but without feedback, you stand little or no chance of improving (think of it like this, if you could improve only by listening and mimicking, your Chinese would be excellent by now).

Most teachers can offer you feedback and corrections, some teachers can explain what you should do instead, a few can help you design a plan to overcome you current pronunciation problems. If you’re very ambitious, you can do most of these things on your own with occasional support. The important thing is that you can do it if you really want to. I’m not going to argue that you should, that’s up to you.