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!

Asking the experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese

Most of us use textbooks and go to class in order to learn Chinese, but this is merely the beginning of a journey or a method to reach something farther down the road. The real goal is to be able to understand and produce Chinese as it is used by native speakers out in the real world; the textbooks and the courses are simply stepping stones making the journey easier.

deepwaterHowever, there is a problem. Chinese is quite different from English (or other Indo-European languages) and without any guidance at all, it’s hard to make sense of an unmediated immersion environment. One of the most frequently asked questions I hear from students is how to approach real Chinese (usually meaning authentic or non-learner oriented). They feel that what they have learnt is of only limited use and that the way Chinese is so much more complex and varied that what they have learnt, making it hard to just dive in, feeling that drowning is a more likely outcome than learning how to swim. In a sense, there is a gap between classroom Chinese and real-world Chinese, both in terms of difficulty and actual content.

Still, there are many people who have bridged that gap (including myself) in Chinese or other languages. There are also teachers that have helped students to bridge the gap. Rather than presenting my own opinion on Chinese immersion in the usual manner, I wanted to ask these people what they thought about it.

As you can see below, the answers are many and varied, but they have one common denominator: Immersion is about doing, it’s about trying and winning through. It might be scary, but the only way to learn to swim is to get wet. Many also stress that even if it looks frightening, it’s actually not that bad and there are many thing you can do to make it easier. This is encouraging; can we bridge, the gap, so can you!

The question I asked was this:

How do you bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion?

Now, I didn’t offer any definition of what I meant with “real immersion” or what constitutes “classroom Chinese”, because I wanted breadth and variation. Thus, the answers vary not only in their actual suggestions and advice, but also in how they interpreted the question. some people reject the idea of the gap altogether, which of course is a valid approach!

Expert panel articles on Hacking Chinese

This type of panel question is an experiment here on Hacking Chinese, so if you like it, please let me know. If you have questions that you would like to ask a similar panel in the future, leave a comment or send me an e-mail. Enough for me now, though, here’s a list of the contributors with links to their answers:

You can also read my afterword here.

mindingthegap

Mind the gap!


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.”

Why do Chinese learning classes use scripted textbooks while many of the most successful learners swear by immersion through real-world content?

It’s because real-world content is a double-edged sword and you can easily cut your arm off. The potential benefits are huge – it’s more fun, more memorable, gives you insights into Chinese culture, and teaches you natural conversational Chinese. On the other hand, the challenges are also great – real-world content is just plain difficult and not designed for beginners.To make it work and take full advantage of the benefits of immersion and real-world content, what I did for myself was create an efficient workflow that let me:

  • Find content that was appropriate for my level and matched my interests
  • Get enough support (“scaffolding,” as they say) so that I could truly digest that content
  • Review those words in context and at the right time
  • Continue to find new content which had the right level of vocabulary overlap with words I had already learned through this workflow

This sounds like a lot of work and it was. Ultimately, I got tired of piecing together various tools and websites and so I decided to create a solution from scratch which was built specifically for this purpose. If you would also like to do this the easy way, I would recommend that you try language immersion through FluentU.



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.

The gap between “book learning” and “street smarts” is a common problem for language learners. In my sixth month in China I met a young guy from England in a hotel lobby. He had done at least one year of formal Chinese study in England but was having difficulty communicating with the receptionist. I was able to help translate for him even though I’d never taken any Chinese classes. Or was it because I’d never had any classes?

My language learning had been entirely reactive. In other words, I was constantly drowning in the “real world” of Chinese and only kept myself afloat by learning things that were most essential to me (including how to communicate with hotel staff).

All language instruction books (including my own) share the same fundamental flaw: the authors are just guessing about exactly what learners “need to know” and the order they should learn stuff in. Some of those guesses are pretty accurate (the numbers, pronouns, “hello,” “thank you”, etc.) but then comes that endless ocean of vocabulary and grammar that just continues into the horizon: the real world of Chinese language. It’s no surprise that language instruction texts often leave learners feeling unprepared for real world interaction. How was the author to know what you were going to encounter in the real world?

It was very early in my first months in China that I learned the word for “manhole cover” (下水道口盖子xià shuǐ dào kǒu gài zi). Why? Because in Nanchang, the city I was living in, manhole covers were frequently stolen and sold for scrap metal leaving road hazards for cyclists such as me. I saw that happening around me in the real world, wanted to talk about it in Chinese, and learned the necessary vocabulary and grammar to do so. But what first-year Chinese textbook author would ever think to include that little nugget?

All this means that there is only one solution to the gap between book-learned foreign language and the real world usage of that language: you. You are the bridge. Only you know what you want to say. Gazing out across the huge ocean unknown language stuff can be scary. Books and classes can give you the basics of how to use the oars and a compass, but there’s no substitute for just getting into the boat and pushing off.



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.

Language immersion is not only thought of as the Holy Grail of language learning, it is also the most common excuse I hear to not learn a language. “I just don’t have the environment for that.” If you don’t want to learn a language, that’s fine, but don’t blame it on not having the proper environment. With the proliferation of the internet and legally free downloadable software, basically anyone can create an immersion environment. Having said that, let’s talk a little more about the different types of immersion and when they are appropriate.

There are at least four types of immersion: listening, speaking, reading and writing and they should occur exactly in this order. Immersing yourself in a language in the wrong order will cause damage that may take years to repair (voice of experience speaking). The first type, listening, is not only the most important, but also the most neglected. Modern education is so focused on the written word that we’ve bought into the ridiculous idea that languages are best learned by reading and writing. Idahosa Ness does an awesome job of describing this problem and how to free yourself from it here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/sound-rehab/ .

I’ve spent the last 20 years learning languages and even left a career as an engineer to pursue a language related career. I’m currently in my 8th year of graduate school at National Taiwan Normal University. That is to say, I use and have been using Chinese a lot on a daily basis for an extended amount of time. I can say with a high degree of certainty that my biggest mistake learning Chinese was learning with my eyes rather than with my ears.

The optimal way to learn a language is to first immerse yourself in listening and mimicking the sounds you hear. “But I can’t hear all the sounds! How am I going to say them correctly!” You can’t hear all the sounds because you haven’t done enough listening and mimicking! Everyone who learns a language has to suffer through ear training (or ignore ear training and speak with a terrible accent for the rest of their lives).

How do you know if you aren’t doing enough listening? If, on average, you are thinking in terms of written symbols rather than actual sounds, then you aren’t listening enough. You have to develop a habit of always paying attention to the sounds of the language you are learning. But, guess what? This will also improve your grammar! Real grammar in the mind of a native speaker is sound pattern. The more you pay attention to the sound patterns, the better your grammar will be.

So what should I listen to? Listen to natural speech, like internet talk radio or tv shows and movies (as long as they aren’t too melodramatic). You use Audacity to record internet radio or movies, etc. and then listen to these recordings over and over. You can also make your own mp3s to download to a hand held device.

What should I listen for? Listen to the rhythm of the language, notice how sentence pitch changes with time; listen for short pauses; listen to what the vowels and consonants sound like. For Chinese tones, don’t think of them in terms of numbers, but listen for the rise and fall of their pitch.

Immersing yourself in reading should be put off at the very least until you have mastered the sounds (including sentence level sounds: intonation, rhythm, pitch, etc.) of the language. How long that takes depends on you and how much time and effort you put into it.

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Benny Lewis – National Geographic’s Traveler of the year and professional language learner. Join along on his adventure as he attempts to learn Japanese this year.

I make it all about connecting with a real human being as soon as possible. You can get a free exchange with a Chinese person one-on-one, or you can get a good teacher who lives in China for as little as $5 and get real immersion, even if it’s via Skype. By facing a real human being you will be forced to stop thinking so much about getting everything precisely right, and start to “get by” and see that making mistakes is a necessary part of the process.

If your priority is less spoken based, then take your passion and make it something real. Read a comic book, watch some videos online or a movie – whatever you plan to use the language for, use it that way now and get used to it rather than studying until some non-existing “ready day”. Today is the day you need true exposure.



Furio is a heavy Longjing tea drinker, a writer and an entrepreneur. You can find him at saporedicina.com, where he writes about traveling, living and working in China.

The problem with Mandarin and immersion is that if you never start reading and listening from “real” sources (that is sources that aren’t specifically meant for foreigners) you’ll never become fluent, whatever “fluent” means to you. With respect to “reading” and “listening,” I found that watching movies in Chinese language with Chinese subtitles was my best bet.

Wouldn’t I get bored, if at the beginning I couldn’t understand anything? Not really, because I was watching movies that I had already watched with English subtitles (and thus I already knew what was going on) or extremely easy to understand, such as Ocean Heaven. This is also the way I learned English, a language I never studied at school (I studied French, don’t ask me why because I don’t know).

With respect to “speaking,” unless you find a topic you love and stick with it till you master it, you’ll most luckily end up frustrated. Once you master a topic, however, you can slowly move to other fields.

The “field” that worked best for me was food. I’m obsessed with food and I would learn anything about it. I’m a sponge, when it comes down to food vocabulary. So I know how to say “I want a medium cooked steak” or “If you put monosodium glutamate on my salad I won’t pay the bill.” There are many names of vegetables that I only know in Chinese, such a “baicai.” How to call it in Italian, my mother language? No idea.

One last thing. I’m not suggesting that you stick only to one topic during your conversations or only watch movies you already know. Talk as much as you like and watch whatever you want. But if you feel frustrated or tired, then switch to English, or in the long term you’ll burn out.



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

Well, for me, my immersion came in the form of a graduate program in history in Taiwan. The nature of the beast meant that I had to immerse myself in the material–forcing me to bridge the gap between textbook and classroom to real immersion in an organic and no-less-than incredibly intimidating way. It was admittedly a traumatizing situation to be put into as it was literally sink or swim going in. So, of course, my experiences entering a “real” immersion environment may be different than others as my situation basically forced it upon me.

That being said, the best advice I can give to anyone wanting to make the switch: find something you enjoy and go with it! Love T’ang era poetry? Dive right in! Want to figure out Oracle Bone inscriptions? Break into it (well, not literally, they don’t take kindly to that at Sinica!). Don’t be intimidated by what people may say is “above your level” or that “you’re not ready for it yet”. Instead, enjoy the finding out the secrets and the magic behind the characters and the language. Just take it slowly and enjoy every step of the journey!



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.

It’s easy to assume that if you’re outside of China then you’ve got no chance at getting immersion. This attitude could be unhelpful, because if you’re going to class with a Chinese teacher than that’s one chance at immersion right there! My advice would be to see class time for what it really is: your chance to speak and listen to as much Chinese as possible in a “live” situation, and ask your absolute best questions (without using English as much as you can help it).

I think it’s actually a waste of time to spend your classes mulling over Chinese and discussing it in English. Analysing a language is generally not very useful for speaking it well. In my experience, the amount of questions someone asks in class doesn’t seem to correlate that much with their language ability, unless they’re using the target language to ask the questions. The point is that languages are a very different kind of thing to other topics that you learn using classes and textbooks. Languages are a skill more than they are knowledge, and you acquire skills by doing more than anything else.

You can’t play piano with theory alone, and you can be a great pianist with no theory at all. Even better, there aren’t many pianists in the world, but everyone is a native speaker of a language. This is something your brain is set up to do, if you just give it the chance to practice.

My general point here is that immersion isn’t the goal in itself. The reason immersion works is because it forces you to actually use your target language, no matter what hang-ups or hesitations you have about it. It puts you on the spot. Once you realise that that can be a goal – being forced to produce Chinese on the spot and being forced to understand it on the spot – you can aim to create these ‘immersion’ opportunities for yourself.



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.

Although this is going to sound somewhat facetious, for me I found the way to bridge the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion was through real immersion :-) That worked well for me, and I’m a big believer in getting good at something by practicing that skill.

When my Chinese was at an intermediate level, I was lucky enough to be in a position where I was in China, and had a lot of spare time, and so I went looking for people with similar interests to my own (martial arts in this case), and ended up spending a large amount of my week surrounded by people who couldn’t speak English and who weren’t interested in learning, and who would be speaking to me and instructing me entirely in Chinese.

It was a bit overwhelming at first, but it didn’t take too long to adapt, and being immersed in that environment did wonders for my Chinese listening and speaking abilities, and really helped bridge the gap from textbook to real Chinese.

I realise not everyone has the luxury of being in the position to do that, but luckily with the Internet, it’s trivial to create a good language environment for yourself – TV shows, radio, books, newspapers, language exchange partners, and more are all readily available online. Simply find content that you are interested in, and make an effort to try and understand it. It will be difficult at first, but the more you do it, the easier it will get.

Important Note: This is assuming you already have a good base to start from and you are trying to ‘bridge the gap’ between that and native content. Jumping straight to native content won’t be so productive if you don’t already have a certain level of Chinese, so if you’re just starting out, you’re going to be better off following a textbook or other program.

I’m also a strong advocate of drilling specific skills. For my first few years of learning Chinese, I’d mostly avoided drilling because I saw it as ‘dumb’ learning. However after later trying it and seeing my reading, listening and speaking make great improvements, I’m now a firm believer in this for boosting language skills to the next level. I’ve written about these drills on Chinese-forums previously, so won’t repeat them here, but this post of mine has links to a number of other posts of mine containing drills for specific skills.


Jacob Gill (高健) – Graduate student at National Taiwan Normal University for Teaching Chinese as a Second Language. Lecturer in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s Chinese Department. Academic Advisor for Skritter and blogger at iLearnMandarin. A Global Citizen, a life-long language learner and a full-time geek.

They provide a safe space to explore and learn about the world around us. Objectives are neatly organized into bullet points on a syllabus and broken down into a series of activities and assignments that help accomplish a given goal. Along with classrooms, comes teachers and textbooks. They too share the goals of learning, exploration and discovery.

In a language classrooms, teachers and textbooks often come with a certain degree of standardization, vocabulary lists, and lots of drills to help cover students along the way. They help provide a crucial foundation, but often fall short of the raw reality of an authentic language environment. With regional accents, slang, and the average speed with which native speakers communicate, it’s easy to get lost and frustrated along the way. So how to we bridge the gap between these two spheres of language learning? One way is by being mindful of the gap that exists, and then leaping over it to new and uncharted territories.

How can we really learn about given giving and receiving directions, without first getting ourselves a little lost? What better way to learn restaurant etiquette and atmosphere than by trying a few dishes from a local restaurant and fighting for the bill. For me, the most successful way to transition between classrooms and textbooks to more authentic situations is by harnessing the power of context.

Context is the greatest weapon we have for facing any situation. It allows us to make guess about what is being said, and to communicate with others using more than just words. Body language, hand gestures and a smile can go a long way to helping increase comprehension. Context allows us to apply past experiences to situations that are filled with sentences and words we don’t yet understand.

The biggest hurdle to moving beyond textbooks is often times the fear of failure or the unknown. By forcing ourselves into new situations, however, the dialogues become our own, and new vocabulary words are given a name, a face, an emotion. Most importantly these words are given a context that can be drawn upon over and over again.

If you’re looking for a place to start, try using personal hobbies or interests or maybe even a topic you’ve covered in class. Be mindful of what you know and what you’d like to learn. Start with a simple word or phrase, and give yourself a mission. Be flexible as you explore and open to making mistakes. Most importantly, just be willing to take the risk in the first place. Trust me, the reward is well worth it!



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.

There’s no need to “bridge the gap” because there should be no gap in the first place. Learners should start with immersion from day one and then add in textbooks down the road once they’ve had significant exposure to a language in context. Only then will grammatical explanations make much sense and have any chance of sticking.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to live in an area where Mandarin Chinese is spoken to immerse yourself in the language. The advent of Skype, YouTube, podcasts, blogs, online news, eBooks, etc. allow you to immerse in your target language for free, everyday, anywhere in the world (assuming you have Internet connectivity).

If you can move to Taiwan or Mainland China, all the better, but don’t let your zip code be an excuse for inaction. In today’s world, the only obstacles to fluency in a foreign tongue are motivation, discipline, and time on task, not where you happen to live or whether or not you can afford language classes.



John Pasden is a Shanghai-based linguist and founder of AllSet Learning, dedicated to helping adult learners overcome the major obstacles they face learning Mandarin Chinese. He’s also been blogging about learning Chinese for over 10 years on Sinosplice.com.

The truth is that no materials—textbooks, podcasts, videos, whatever—are entirely appropriate for any individual learner. That’s why it’s essential that the active learner adapt all materials to his own specific needs. Obviously, a good teacher is a tremendous help in doing this, and any good Chinese lesson with a teacher will involve bridging the gap between the language introduced in the study material and the language the learner can actually put to use.

At AllSet Learning we spend a lot of time selecting the study materials most appropriate for a given learner. That way, there’s less “bridging” that needs to be done by teachers, fewer additional vocabulary words that need to be introduced, fewer outdated or irrelevant terms to be filtered out, etc. More time in the lessons can be spent practicing applying the material to real-life situations.

For the independent learner (especially in a foreign language context), this issue of selecting materials is a huge challenge, and it probably involves a lot of time sorting through potential material. Recognizing that most textbooks are pretty outdated (how many textbooks currently in use never cover the words 手机 or 网络?) is a good start. The big question is then whether or not the material is truly useful for you, the learner. Usually HSK word lists and chengyu stories are not the most useful material. Neither are blindly selected frequency lists. What material is going to get you talking to Chinese people the fastest, about the thingsyou care about, adding to your motivation to keep improving? That’s the right material to study.


Keoni Everington (华武杰) is from the USA and is currently the web and marketing director for The World of Chinese magazine in Beijing, China. He has over 20 years of experience learning Mandarin through study at various universities and long stints in Beijing, Shanghai, and Taipei.

Based on my own personal experience learning Mandarin, I found the best way to bridge the gap between textbook/classroom Chinese and real immersion is to live in China for at least one year and using “forced immersion” with native speakers. When I say forced immersion, I mean creating an environment in which you are exposed to the language on a regular basis and establishing friendships and exchanges with local Chinese.

Actually living in China is an important step towards real-life immersion, but in certain settings such as university campuses, hotels, office towers, and tourist areas there are many EFL speakers to interfere with having a pure Mandarin environment.

There are many aspects of living in China that can aid in language immersion that I took advantage of such as chatting with taxi drivers, haggling at the market, watching Chinese TV and films, reading Chinese comics, learning Chinese songs, and writing a daily Chinese journal. For now, I’ll just focus on two foundation pillars I used to build my Mandarin with.

The first pillar of my immersion was to establish several weekly one-on-one language exchanges with native speakers, at one point I had five different language partners each week. We would decide to speak about an agreed upon subject for a half hour entirely in Chinese and another half hour entirely in English or perhaps an hour in each language. The key was being able to speak and listen exclusively in Chinese without any English interference during that time.

The second pillar was to make many Chinese friends that understood my language goals or ideally could not speak English at all and spend time hanging out and conversing about everyday subjects that came up naturally. The key was setting the tone early on that we would always speak Chinese together and they eventually would get become habituated to the concept of only speaking Mandarin with me.

Here’s an interview with me on our website talking in more detail about my experiences learning Mandarin.



Mark Rowswell (大山) has been called “the most famous foreigner in China”, where he has worked as media personality and cultural ambassador for over 20 years. Today he is seen more as a cultural ambassador between China and the West. To many people Dashan is a prominent symbol of “East-meets-West”, of finding a common ground between the two cultures.

With language education, it’s important just to get out and start using the language, however limited your abilities, as soon and as much as possible. Language learners tend to spend too much time in class or buried in their textbooks and too little time trying to just use the language any way they can.

I think one of the best things about my Chinese lessons in the early years was that my teachers at U of T stopped using textbooks after the first two years. In my view, textbooks are really only good for a beginner level, to teach you the basics how the language is structured, and it’s important to go beyond that as quickly as possible. By that, I mean starting to learn from materials that are not written specifically for language learners but are the ways people in that language group actually use the language between themselves.

Whether it be starting to read newspapers or very short stories to listening to the radio or even learning songs in a Karaoke, talking to taxi drivers, striking up a conversation with anybody — get out and use the language. These days, with dictionaries and reference materials you can easily access from a smartphone, people who want to learn a foreign language should throw away their textbooks as soon as possible and just throw themselves into the language. Create that language environment if you have to, even if it’s only a virtual environment online.


Niel de la Rouviere has been learning Chinese for almost 6 years. He blogs as Confused Laowai and has created HanziCraft, a next level Chinese character dictionary after doing research into Chinese characters for his Master’s degree.

I’ve always felt that authentic and non-authentic materials both serve a purpose. So that in sense bridging the gap is more about walking about paths at the same time. The problem with real immersion is that the content is very different from the classroom environment. That’s why you’ll have to do some digging to find the right content.
 
I remember in my third year at University, our Chinese teacher gave us a novel and TV series to watch for class. We would have to make a summary on each chapter every week. A chapter usually corresponded to one episode. Even though the TV series was a soppy-over-the-top Chinese drama about girls, I really enjoyed this kind of learning as opposed to the standard textbook affair. I would watch the episode and then read the chapter. The level of Chinese was a lot higher than mine was at the time, but since we only needed to make summaries, this was a great way to explore and immerse in authentic content.
 
In that sense, when the time is right, find something that you can absorb content-wise, but don’t be too hard on yourself. Just make sure you get the idea right. With this you get used to natural content while still making sure your not completely overwhelmed.



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 I’d warn against a mindset of “I’m immersed, therefore I’m learning.” We all know people who’ve spent years in what should be a perfect language learning environment, yet somehow fail to make much progress. What do they fail to do?

First I think is a failure to pay attention and absorb. What do people actually say and do in the situations you’re in? Sit near the counter in a fast food place and listen to how people order food, or how the cashiers shout the orders back to the cooks. Stand near the doors on the bus and listen to how people buy their tickets or ask the conductor how to get to wherever. Note how your colleagues greet each other and how age or status affects that. Adopt that language.

It’s kind of remarkable how people can fail to do this. I was in McDonalds once eating with another foreigner, who was complaining about how they never seemed to understand his order for fries and he always had to point at the menu. Somehow he’d never noticed everyone else was asking for 薯条, not the 土豆丝 he was requesting.

Second, they meet their own low standards. “I get by.” “People understand me.” That’s great, and in Chinese it’s no small achievement. But how much repetition and clarification do they need to do. Can they walk into a shop for the first time and ask for an item without pointing and get it first time? What about a longer conversation with someone who isn’t used to talking to them? Are there tell-tale delays in what is normally the smooth back-and-forth of conversation? Watch out for warning signs that your Chinese might not be as good as it could be, and deal with them. Which brings me to…

Third, they ditch the textbooks and teachers, as why would they need them now? But good books and teachers will always be useful to speed your progress through the language. As you become more of an independent learner you might use them more for trouble-shooting and to make sure you aren’t accidentally missing out great chunks of the language – but don’t bin the books.



Sara Jaaksola has been living in Guangzhou since 2010 and on her blog Living a Dream in China she offers advice for life, love and language learning in China.

Taking Chinese classes for five years now, feeling like your textbook Chinese isn’t really fit for the life outdoors, is more than common to me. I have two excellent and free ways to tackle this problem.

The first is, watch television. Look for new dramas with plots about the life in modern China, with vocabulary that people in your age and circles uses. By watching TV you learn how Chinese people speak in real situations, not like dialogues in your textbooks. I personally started with dating shows (most well known being 非诚勿扰) as their language is on the easier side, then I continued to series like 裸婚时代. Right now I’m watching 小 爸爸.

The second tip is to get a Weibo, Chinese Twitter, account. New, popular and hip things, words and photos spread quickly on Weibo which makes it a great tool to learn both language and culture. For unknown characters or words, copy the message and read it with Pleco’s Pasteboard Reader for example. Follow users on topics you are interested in, for example I like photography and cats so I follow 照片这样拍 and 大爱猫咪控.

With TV and Weibo you can immerse yourself in Chinese listening, reading and writing no matter where you are.



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.

One thing to remember, structured classes and textbooks should always be viewed as a starting point. Very few people can achieve real immersion using textbooks. They don’t have the scope or the time to teach you everything you need. Textbooks and classrooms provide structure, help you build a solid foundation, and hopefully fill in whatever gaps you have in your language skill set.

To bridge the gap, learners have to encounter Chinese frequently (preferably daily). By encounter Chinese, I mean see it, hear it, speak it, or write it. If you’re outgoing, then talk to friends, co-workers, classmates, or anyone you can find who speaks Chinese. If you like reading, then learn through books, magazines, weibo, etc. If you like hanging out at home, then watch Chinese TV (offline or online).

You can encounter real Chinese no matter what your level is, but remember to set your expectations properly. If you’re a beginner you might only catch the occasional word. That’s normal. And try to enjoy yourself when using Chinese. The more fun you have the easier learning Chinese will feel.



Yangyang is the founder and on-camera host of Yoyo Chinese, an online education company that uses simple and clearly-explained videos to teach Chinese to English speakers. A previous Chinese TV show host and Chinese language professor, Yangyang is also one of the most popular online Chinese teachers with more than 5 million Youtube channel views.

Bridging the gap from textbook/classroom Chinese to real immersion is one of the most common problems my students face. Many of them don’t have the opportunity to study in China or to converse with native Chinese speakers and they spend lots of time rehearsing and memorizing how to ask questions in Chinese like “What is your name?” and “Where are you from?”

Often, they only practice hearing one kind of response to these questions, so that when they actually get to ask a real Chinese person, they can’t understand their answers, or the person is speaking too fast for them to catch every word. After studying so hard in a classroom, this problem really catches a lot of students off guard.

I solved the immersion problem for my students by creating a special course in the Yoyo Chinese curriculum called Chinese on the Street. In this lesson series, we interview real Chinese speakers right from the streets of China so students can be exposed to the kind of authentic, non-rehearsed dialogue they will hear in a real Chinese conversation. The people we interview are not asked to slow down or enunciate their speech, so students get a chance to hear different pronunciations and different ways of asking and answering the same question. We offer pinyin and Chinese character subtitles in addition to detailed lecture notes and English translation for students to follow along until they understand every word.

Most of my students say this is their favorite course because it gives them some insight into the real China, they get to see some Chinese culture and become accustomed with how real Chinese people talk. Our students find that after immersing themselves in our Chinese on the Street course they are much more prepared to interact with Chinese people on the spot.

In response to the enthusiasm for Chinese on the Street we are also using the same authentic Chinese dialogues as source materials to teach Chinese in our upcoming Intermediate Conversational Chinese course. In this course, the student watches a Chinese dialogue clip and then I offer clear and concise explanations for each word and phrase of the dialogue. This new format will be coming out in November, so keep an eye out!

Chinese on the Street can be used in conjunction with the Yoyo Chinese curriculum or as supplemental material with any other Chinese study program, you can check it out by visiting www.yoyochinese.com.


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.
 

First out, we have some hands-on, concrete advice for what to do by 陆咔思:

  • Listen to Chinese-only advanced podcasts from sites like Chinesepod, cslpod, and some relatively easy podcasts for native speakers, and audio books for Chinese children
  • Read articles and books written for native speakers on a computer/phone in an annotated way that makes reading them much easier (with http://chinesereaderrevolution.com)
  • Read bilingual articles (eg from the New York Times)
  • Read translations of books I already read before in English (so I won’t get confused about the content even if I don’t understand the language at some point)
  • Watch TV Shows with first with English subtitles (especially for historical shows that use difficult ancient vocabulary), then with Chinese subtitles
  • Chat with chinese people via QQ/skype/etc

Second, OneEye’s example of how to approach both real speaking and real writing shows that even if it isn’t effortless, it’s very rewarding:

I picked an easy manga (亂馬1/2) and an easy TV show (智勝鮮師) and worked with them until they actually were easy. With the TV show, I transcribed the entire first episode by hand into a notebook, highlighted words I didn’t know, defined them in the margins, and used it as a textbook. It took a lot of time, but then when I watched the second episode, I understood really well and only had to look things up here and there.

Third, Anonymoose questions the entire question in this way:

I think speaking of a “gap” between textbooks and authentic material is singling out a universal natural phenomenon and regarding it as a problem particular to language learning. What I mean by this, is that any time you embark on something new, there will always be a lot of new stuff to learn, the so-called “gap” than needs bridging. But why single out the gap between textbooks and authentic material? What about the gap between not knowing any Chinese and picking up your first textbook? Or the gap between your first and your second textbook? Or let’s say you practice reading about architecture (from authentic materials) in Chinese. If you then start to read about botany in Chinese, you will also experience a gap.

Although Tysond’s post is too long to quote in it’s entirety, I still think you should read it. He breaks down the problem into speed, vocabulary and contexts and offers several ways of dealing with them. He says this about vocabulary:

Preparing for situations by pre-studying what’s likely to come up. Getting a haircut? Lean about washing, blow drying, cutting, styles, length, etc. Visiting a temple? Learn about temples, religion, Buddha, in advance. I was in a bath-house the other day and didn’t realize in advance that I should probably learn the words regarding to scrape all the skin off my body and apply stinging salt to it afterwards. Painful lesson.

JustinJJ mentions the Chinese Word Extractor and explains the importance of spending some time finding the material most suitable for you. This would have been impossible in another age, but nowadays when many learners have most of their vocabularies in apps or computer programs, it’s possible:

What I find works for me is spending the time to find material that is at my level, whether it is listening material or reading material. To do this I have a big list of every word I have studied in a text file and can use the Chinese Word Extractor to determine what percentage of the words in a given native material I have already studied. If I know the great majority of the words already (i.e. the text is comprehensible), then it is much more ‘fun’ using the material and motivating and my reading speed is much faster so I can get through more material. If a text is at an appropriate level many other words I can work out by context without having to physically learn them, and over time I can up the level. If material is too hard, I find that the time I put in is not as efficient, as I would get distracted too easily and it would be too tiring, so I think it’s worth spending the time to determine if a text is at a good level for you, rather than finding out after being bored 20 pages into a novel.

Finally, Silent points out that this isn’t always a good approach because you might spend too much time looking for texts rather than reading them:

A potential trap in this approach is you spend a lot of time in searching material rather then to actually reading/study. A more efficient approach might be to pick material about a specific (somewhat narrow) subject from one source as often vocabulary and grammar are subject and writer/source specific. Then slowly expand in sources and or subjects. E.g. from your favorite sport specific match reviews you might slowly expand to other sports reviews, broader articles about your favorite sport, sports business, general business etc.



That was more than 7000 words on immersion. What should we make of all this? I think there are a couple of common themes:

  • You will only learn real-world Chinese by actually encountering real-world Chinese
  • Motivation is an important factor for any immersion attempt
  • Use various kinds of scaffolding to make the immersion easier
  • Textbooks are still useful, but they are just part of what you need
  • You don’t need to live in China to immerse, even if it certainly helps

If you like this post, please share it! If you want to read similar posts in the future, please let me know what questions you’re interested in and if you know someone else I should ask!