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.


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.

Change your attitude to enjoy life and learn more Chinese

Image source: freeimages.com/profile/catalin82

With the right attitude, learning Chinese in China can make your life a lot more interesting. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense that you can communicate with people around you, which is great, but that focusing on the language can turn things that would otherwise be boring into interesting learning opportunities.

Attitude is the key

As is the case with so many other things in life, attitude is the key. Although we can influence what happens to us to a certain extent, life is chaotic and largely beyond our control.

However, we can influence the way we react to things that happen to us, and this matters greatly. .This is why I have written several articles about attitude and mentality in relation to learning Chinese.

To show you what I mean, I will list a number of scenarios and how different attitudes will make these situations completely different. The difference isn’t only in how much Chinese you’ll learn (which is important), it’s also about mental health. Focusing on negative things burdens your mind, focusing on positive things makes everything easier

I have argued before that you should try to regard the Chinese language as being fascinating and exciting rather than weird and stupid. The same goes for everyday life abroad (you could argue the same for your home country, although I want to stay closer to language learning here).

Scenario #1: Quarrelling neighbours

You’re living in a house where you can hear most of what your neighbours are saying. They seem to be a quarrelsome lot and there’s plenty of fierce arguments and quite a bit of bad language being used.

With the wrong attitude, this would be very annoying. You could complain for hours to your friends how inconsiderate your neighbours are and wonder why they got married if they fight every day. Whenever you’re at home, they would disturb your life and is this really the kind of thing you want to listen to as you fall asleep at night?

With the right attitude, this can be quite an opportunity. You can learn a lot of interesting words from people who quarrel (the above scenario isn’t made up, by the way), even if you perhaps should think twice before using that language yourself. These guys are giving you free language lessons at home, you ought to thank them! Don’t do that, however, I don’t think they would understand. Now, if your neighbours were doing something other than quarrelling very noisily, well, let’s just say you will learn different words.

Scenario #2: Boring lectures and speeches

Scenario: You find yourself in a situation where you have to listen to someone droning on about something you really don’t care about. You have better things to do. This could be a particularly boring lesson or lecture, or perhaps a public speech of some kind, it all depends on what kind of life you lead in general.

With the wrong attitude, this is a waste of time. With some luck, you can get away with reviewing flashcards on your mobile phone without anyone catching you, but if it’s a lecture or lesson, this might be risky (I know most of you would probably play games instead, but I advocate a 先苦后甘 philosophy).

With the right attitude, it doesn’t matter what the guy is talking about, just as long as it is in Chinese. Analyse his dialect, choice of words and sentence structure. This is of course easier if you happen to like pronunciation in general like I do, but paying close attention to how native speakers speak is never a bad idea. And don’t give me the “he doesn’t speak proper Chinese” if it’s not perfect Mandarin. China is a big country and people won’t adapt their language to our preferences, so deal with it. If you don’t understand what he says, focus on the bits you do understand.

Scenario #3: Transport delays

Scenario: You’re going by train somewhere and you learn that the train is delayed by two hours.You’re now stuck in an unwelcoming train station much longer than you intended. It might even be cold and start raining.

With the wrong attitude, this is a catastrophe because now you’ll waste two hours on the train station or on the bus.You can feel how time is slipping away and you need to cancel the activities you had planned for the evening.

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from a train station. To start with, there are probably hundreds of people around, so even if you aren’t the outgoing type who can just start chatting with random stranger, there are plenty of listening opportunities. Train stations also contain a lot of information in written form, so you can also practise reading.

Scenario #4: Long flights, bus or train rides

Scenario: Once you actually get on the train ride described it the previous scenario, you still have a five hour journey to your destination.The train is full of people and there is no internet. If you’re really unlucky, your batteries are running low too.

With the wrong attitude, this is just being on your way to somewhere. You might have brought a paperback in English with you or you might play games on your phone to kill time (murderer).

With the right attitude, you can learn a lot from the people around you. The difference between a train station and a train is that people sitting next to you typically will stay next to you for some time. This both makes it easier to speak with them if you want to do that, but it also gives you more context in case you just want to listen in on what they’re saying to each other. If you don’t look Chinese, they might even talk about you!

Attitude matters

The point is that you have a choice. You probably can’t get your neighbours evicted or make them stop quarrelling, but you can change your attitude. You might find it difficult to avoid boring lectures or speech entirely, so you should do your best to enjoy them. It’s all in your mind. Sometimes, you can’t control what happens to you, but you can change the way you think about it. This is good for your mental health as well as your Chinese learning! If you’ve turned any other “negative” scenarios into learning opportunities, please share them in the comments below!

How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!

studytimeA few weeks ago, I posted an article about study time and why it should be counted in hours and not the more commonly used unit: years. I received over 100 answers to the survey and in this article I’m going to share some insights from the gathered data.

In general, the survey confirmed what I suspected, namely that:

  1. Years is a meaningless unit
  2. People overestimate how much they study

This is not a scientific report, but I do want to say a few words about the data. I have only included replies that answered all three questions, i.e. number of years studied, a wild guess and a guided guess. I deleted several responses that fit this category but were obviously not honest, such as guessing 3000 hours study time but arriving at only 30 hours after the guided estimate in the article. That left about 55 samples that I have used for the analysis here. I also excluded myself.

Years is a meaningless unit to count study time

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, but number of years is almost no indication of how much someone has studied. The range is incredible! We have several respondents who study seriously and clock around 1000 hours per year, but we also have a large group who study less than 100 hours per year. Thus, someone who has studied for one year can easily have studied more Chinese than someone who’s been doing it for ten years. Clearly, number of years is a very bad indicator of how much we have actually studied.

In total, the 55 respondents have studied Chinese for 290 years (5.3 years on average) and guessed that they had studied Chinese for 82196 hours (1500 hours on average), but reduced this to 58 992 hours in the guided estimate (1100 hours on average).

Here are some other random stats that you might find interesting:

  • Longest time in years: 35
  • Longest time in guessed hours: 10 000
  • Longest time after guided estimate: 4500

Note that all these are different people!

People overestimate how much they study

The second point I want to bring up is much more interesting and also has more consequences for learning and teaching Chinese. In general, respondents overestimated their study time by 40% on average (comparing wild guesses with guided guesses). That’s a lot! To give you an intuitive (but meaningless) year-based example, it would be the difference between saying casually that you have studied for seven years while you have in fact only studied five.

Furthermore, it seems people don’t study that much. Perhaps it’s because all the really serious people who are immersed in studying didn’t have time to read the post and take the survey, but I doubt it. As I said, we have a relatively large group of people who average around 1000 hours per year, but that only averages out to about 3 hours per day (including weekends, holidays and so on).

That’s not very much and very far indeed from full-time studying, which I would consider to be at least twice as much. For brief period of time, I have spent closer to ten hours per day, but I don’t think many people can maintain that for very long. I average about 1700 hours per year so far, which is clearly much more than even the most serious readers. I’ve heard many people simply say that I learn quickly because I have a talent for languages. That might be true, but if I’m learning faster than you do, it’s much more likely because I spend, on average, seven times more hours per year.

Conclusion: You learn Chinese by… studying Chinese

I think the ultimate conclusion is related to the one about where you study Chinese. We know that it’s possible to learn Chinese from home without living in China, but we also know it’s possible to live in China without learning Chinese. Where you live isn’t the point.

The same is tor study time. It doesn’t matter, shouldn’t matter, when you started learning Chinese. What matters is how much time you’ve spent with the language since then, and, to some extent, what you have done with that time.

How and why to watch the world cup in Chinese

I often stress the importance of making Chinese interesting and/or fun. This is why I’ve written articles about how to use computer games and sports to learn languages. The reason behind this is that learning a language takes an awful lot of time and if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’s going to be hard to force yourself to study and you won’t learn as efficiently either. If you really like what you’re doing, on the other hand, accumulating hours is much easier..

If you watch the football world cup, you should watch it in Chinese

footballThis is an excellent example of when you should definitely convert an interest or a hobby to Chinese. If you like football, you probably know enough about the game to be able to follow what’s going on even if you don’t understand what the commentators are saying. You’ll understand enough based on context that you will be able to pick up lots of words and phrases without even studying if you watch a lot.

Naturally, the more advanced your Chinese is, the easier this is going to be, but just as Luke wrote in a guest article earlier this month:

The progress of a sporting match can be followed even with the sound turned off, making it an ideal starting place for beginners as you’ll never lose the plot.

Where to watch the world cup online in Chinese

I must admit that I’m no football fan myself, but if I’m going to watch any games, it’s going to be in Chinese. I did some research for this article and found a few sites where you can watch live games (and sometimes also recordings of old games). There’s also plenty of related news, discussions and so on, but I’m mostly interested in streamed matches with commentary in Chinese. I tried these links during the games yesterday and they worked well, but some of them might be region-dependent:

  1. 风云直播 This is a sports channel in general, so when there’s no football, there will be something else (Formula 1 when I checked). There is a schedule in the top navigation bar (节目单) where you can see when matches will be broadcast. There’s a lot more going on than football here.
  2. 新浪体育台 Live streaming, not only of matches, but also with a lot of analysis and discussions of earlier and future games. There seems to be a lot of football even when there are no matches being played, in other words. Seems to work outside China as well.
  3. Search on Soku – This is probably the best method if you’re not looking for live streaming. Many of them require you to be in China or fool the server into believing that you are. I have so far failed to find recordings of old matches freely available outside China, please leave a comment if you know where to find them.
  4. 凤凰网 Portal site for coverage of the world cup, includes lots of news (list), live streaming, match schedule and information about teams.
  5. 搜狐体育 Similar to the other sites, offers a wealth of news and general coverage. There are also old matches to watch, but you have to be in China to view them.
  6. 网易体育 – Contains lots of news, general coverage and live streams. You can also view old matches, but again, it requires you to be in China.

If you have any other suggestions, especially if you know some way of watching old matches outside China, do let me know and I’ll add it to the list! Any other useful sites would also be nice, such as those below about vocabulary for watching football.

Some links to help you with vocabulary

I did a quick search and found several sites that offers basic football vocabulary in Chinese:

You can easily find more using any search engine. Still, only focus on this if you want to. If you think it’s boring, just watch the game, you’ll learn common words soon enough anyway if you pay attention.

Focus on what you understand

If you haven’t watched sports in Chinese before, there will be a period in the beginning where it’s going to be hard. The more you listen, the more you adapt, though, so don’t give up just because you don’t understand much during the first match.

After a while, though, you should start recognising common words and phrases. Focus on these. Focus on what you understand. There will be plenty of things you don’t understand, but that’s not the point here. If you never expose yourself to real Chinese, you will never learn to understand it. Getting used to it takes time.

Beyond football

Personally, I’m not so much into football, so I’m going to watch StarCraft 2 matches in Chinese instead. The StarCraft 2 tournament in Taiwan’s E-Sports League has just entered the playoff stage and is starting to get exciting! Can the Koreans be beaten?

The point is, it doesn’t really matter what you watch, but if you like football, StarCraft 2 or something else, you really should make an effort and try to watch in Chinese instead of your native language. It’s fun and you’ll learn a lot at the same time!

How and why to use television to learn Chinese

This is the first guest article by Luke Howard, whom I met on one of the Hacking Chinese meet-ups here in Taipei. He speaks Chinese well and when he told me that he relies heavily on watching TV to learn the language, I naturally became interested and wanted to know more. I don’t watch much TV myself, so instead of writing about this myself, I asked Luke to write about it. Enjoy!

Television is a valuable asset in the modern language learners toolkit. The medium provides a convenient way to enjoy large volumes of passive listening practice in a stress free environment.

foodThe combination of visual and auditory senses makes the medium accessible to the entire spectrum of Chinese learners, from the beginner through to advanced learners.

I have been watching television (and reading books) as the primary staple in my Chinese learning since I started nearly 4 years ago. With the exception of a 3 month experiment where I attended a University class, I am entirely self-taught. It’s the fun of learning in this way that brings me back day after day.

Watching television is a healthy part of any language learners diet. I hope that by the end of this article, you will have a desire to go out and explore the medium on your own terms.

Why learn from watching TV?

Whether it’s your primary source of study material or just complementary to taking classes, watching TV in Chinese provides an abundant source of native Chinese listening practice. By watching material that you find fun and interesting, your brain will absorb the material in a more efficient way.

Media sources

If you live in a Chinese speaking country, cable TV is usually affordable and provides the most efficient way to access large amounts of content with minimal effort.

For those inside mainland China, 优酷 (youku.cn) and土豆 (tuduo.cn) will service all your needs. Unfortunately, outside mainland China these sites can often stream too slowly to be useful.

If that’s the case, YouTube has a great deal of user generated content, as well as uploads of many popular television shows.

For those that have extra discretionary income, I suggest buying box sets of TV shows that you enjoy. I’ve used www.yesasia.com many times before, and they provide free international delivery if you meet minimum order requirements.

Gotchas and how to overcome them

1. English subtitles

Many box sets and online sources provide an option to display subtitles in English. However, when English subtitles are turned on, your brain will derive all understanding from them, and filter out the Chinese sounds you are hearing. This means they act as a crutch that should be avoided as much as possible.

2. Character recognition

Chinese subtitles, however, are a great asset. They let your brain associate the sounds of the language with their written counterparts. This will only work though if you already have a basic understanding of how Chinese characters are formed (radicals, components etc) and can recognise a small number of common characters. Hacking Chinese has some great articles to get you started on the character learning journey.

3. Losing the plot

Even in the beginner phase, it’s still usually possible to follow the plot and get the gist of what’s going on, just by using the visual imagery. Of course, you’ll miss all the subtlety, but if you choose shows that interest you, this rarely detracts from the enjoyment.

However, you will still occasionally misinterpret what’s going on for an extended period, causing you to lose an overall grasp of the plot. In these instances, I suggest going to English Wikipedia or YesAsia.com (if it’s an older show already in box set form) to read the plot for the show.

Some people may even prefer to read these plot guides before watching the show in the first place. I see no harm in doing so.

4. Names

Names were one of the trickiest parts of learning Chinese for me, and you may or may not have the same experience. Since names are used frequently in television shows, having a strategy to deal with them is especially important.

I suggest using the plot descriptions, and pausing shows when names are used, to create Anki cards with names for each of the characters. Usually the main 3 – 4 character names will be repeated enough not to need this, but it’s very useful for all the rest.

5. Boredom

Boredom is kryptonite for TV based language learners. Learning Chinese with TV is a mostly passive listening exercise that only reaps benefits with massive exposure.

If you let even a little bit of boring content through your filters, it will compound and kill your motivation to keep watching TV at all.

Don’t ever fall into the trap of spending hours finishing a series you originally found fun but now find boring, all just so you can say, “I watched all of show X.” It’s not worth it in the long run.

rgAdd a dash of study

1. Spaced Repetition

Watching television is a natural “spaced repetition” system, in that high frequency words come up over and over again.

Still, in the beginner and intermediate stages it can be helpful to look up some of the interesting words that come up frequently in a show that you’re watching, and then add it to a formal spaced repetition system like Anki.

There are a number of Chinese language learners that I respect a lot who advocate the use of tools like subs2srs. Subs2srs is a tool which automatically cuts the subtitles for a show up into sentences and creates Anki cards for you.

Having tried this a few times, I personally cannot recommend this technique. It creates too many cards and after a while the amount of time I spend inside my SRS outweighs the time I spend in front of the TV.

Still, many other learners have had success using these tools, so your mileage may vary. If it sounds like your thing, consult the interwebs for an abundance of information to get you started.

2. Shadowing

Shadowing is a technique whereby you pick a character from a show you like, and mimic everything he says. Trying to get yourself sounding as close to the real actor as possible works wonders for your Chinese.

Shadowing forces you to focus on grammar and speech particles that your brain usually filters out, helps make you much more conscious of where breaks in speech and pauses between words should go, and provides good intonation and tone practice.

3. Complementary study

A balanced study regime is essential to be most effective in learning Chinese. Watching television is a passive learning activity, and you’ll find that when you hear words (or see them in subtitles) that you’ve recently learnt in a more active study session, your brain will hone in on that word.

At this moment, having seen the word in context, your brain will then decide it must be important to remember and strengthen the association.

Without complementing television watching with more structured learning activities, you’ll lose many of the benefits that come from watching television in Chinese.

Read more…

  1. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 1
  2. A learner’s guide to TV shows in Chinese, part 2

The three roads to mastering Chinese

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

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

What does it mean to master Chinese?

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

Image credit:
Image credit: Thomas Pate

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

Three roads to mastering Chinese

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

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

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

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

Road to mastering Chinese #2: Cultivating a genuine interest

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t have to live in China

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

Different roads, different destinations

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese immersion with Carl Gene Fordham

“My mission from advanced Chinese learner to professional interpreter”

Who wouldn’t be interested in someone who writes under a tagline like that? I have been an avid reader Carl Gene Fordham’ blog and have been following his Twitter feed for quite some time now. Therefore, Carl was also one of the people I turned to with my question about bridging the gap to real Chinese (see Asking the Experts: How to bridge the gap to real Chinese).

It turned out that he had much more interesting things to say that would fit in just a few hundred words. This article is the result of an ongoing dialogue between us that includes both his original answer and some expansions in various directions. In case you aren’t already familiar with Carl, I asked him to introduce himself and this is what he wrote.

Who is Carl Gene Fordham?

cgfCarl 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.

Apart from hearing about his opinions about immersion, I was also curious about how he became an advanced learner, what made him keep going after reaching an advanced level and what advice he has for others who are currently learning Chinese. Now, let’s get into the interview, starting from the most basic thing: textbooks and courses.

To what extent do you find teachers and textbooks helpful for learning Chinese?

The way I see it, the job of a good textbook and, even more importantly, a good teacher, is to provide you with the means to secure a solid foundation in the language you are learning. For me, this involved taking Mandarin classes from mid-primary school to high school, which eventually led to me majoring in Chinese during my undergrad, and studying translation studies at a Masters level. But independent learners can get much the same foundation with the aid of a tutor and, of course, the right amount of motivation. All of this can assist you in developing a decent level of proficiency with only a minimum of bad habits and fossilised mistakes, provided you are truly engaged in the process. This “textbook” or “classroom” level of Chinese, though, has its limitations.

So how do we transcend this limitation, then?

Everyone has their own take on this, but I don’t think it’s really all that complicated. The key to getting really good at a language over a relatively short period of time simply involves using it as much as you can. By “using” I don’t mean reading a book or watching a TV program. I mean making the effort to mingle, interact and converse with as many native speakers of that language as you can find. What this inevitably entails is stepping out of your comfort zone, throwing yourself in the deep end and socialising in the language you are learning.

It sounds simple of course but few are willing to do this. Most language learners, with the exception of a few oddballs it must be said, are incredibly introverted. This is not a bad thing in of itself. Shier people tend to pay more attention to details, picking up more intricate aspects of the language more quickly than their outgoing counterparts. But they do themselves a disservice by sticking stubbornly to outdated ways of learning.

What should we do instead? What new ways of learning Chinese are available?

With the advent of the Internet and social media there have never been more opportunities to learn a foreign language regardless of your geographical location. Many people are shocked when I tell them that I have never lived in China. In fact if I added up all the time I have spent in China over the years on sporadic trips it wouldn’t exceed 4 or 5 months. But it’s really not all that surprising when you consider the sheer number of Mandarin speakers living in Australia and the incredible ease of making Chinese friends online. And that’s exactly how I reached fluency in Mandarin in an English-speaking country. I took advantage of the opportunity to make native-speaker friends both in Australia and online.

But while having that social network of native-speaker friends is important, it is equally important to create your own language-learning environment, or “immersion” if you like. When I first started really getting into Chinese this meant converting as much as of my daily routine from English into Chinese. Since most of my time back then in high school and early uni was spent chatting online with friends I had met in my own country, I made the decision to start making more Chinese friends, mostly through language exchange websites. Soon enough, most of my contacts on MsN Messenger (the IM of the day) were Chinese. Eventually I quit MsN and switched to the Chinese IM QQ. Facebook I got rid of too very early on and to this day I refuse to reactivate my account as I find it a complete time-waster.

Chatting in Chinese online helped me improve my reading skills, as well as my general expression skills and feel for the language. Better yet, it was a good stepping stone to when I eventually started making a larger number of Chinese friends face-to-face. Online chatting is a free, comfortable and unintimidating way to make friends and improve your language level. It also allows you to see very clearly certain things that you may not pick up on when meeting people in real life, and definitely won’t learn in the textbooks, such as common sentence structures and slang. And of course being asked the same half-dozen questions over and over again gives you a great opportunity to try a myriad of different ways of expressing yourself!

I’m personally not that surprised that you can reach a high level without living in China, but I’m sure readers would like to know more. Could you go into more details about this? How did you achieve it?

I still maintain that socialising is the fastest way to create an immersive language learning environment. I have heard of people doing things like labelling items around their home, changing their phone or computer’s system language, putting on Chinese radio as background noise, etc. For certain types of learners those strategies can be very helpful. But in my opinion most people would be better off spending that time actually using the language.

Language is, after all, a tool for communication, so learning how to communicate naturally and efficiently should be your ultimate priority. And the only way to improve that skill – after having already gained a solid foundation, that is – is to strike up conversations with as many people as you can find, either in your city, or online. You’ll soon find out what language patterns are the most common, and how to imitate them most effectively.

I know that some people experience ”language wars”, where they find it difficult to make Chinese people speak Chinese with them instead of practising English. Have you found this to be a problem for you, considering that you’ve mostly learnt Chinese outside China?

I find this question a bit funny to be honest. In Australia, Cantonese and Mandarin are the most commonly spoken languages apart from English. And in the capital cities where most people live this is even more obvious. So you don’t really have to insist on anything.

In my experience Chinese people are very willing to speak Mandarin, to the extent that they often refuse to speak English to me, even after telling them I need a break! And during my time in China and Taiwan, I had the same experience. It’s extremely rare that I come across a Chinese person who flat out refuses to speak Chinese to me, perhaps 1 out of 100. And in any case I’m happy to speak English or Mandarin to anyone – after all, we all want to improve our second language, so we should be patient enough to help anyone who genuinely wants to learn.

Is there anything we should pay attention to while using the language as much as possible?

I recommend taking as many notes as possible, for the simple fact that you’re never going to remember everything you encounter in what may originally seem to be simple, run-of-the mill conversations. Over the years I have shamelessly copied sentences my language partners have said to me, archived them and used them with other people.

Inevitably, people comment that my spoken Mandarin in many cases sounds like a native speaker. But anyone with the passion and motivation can achieve this. You just need to pay attention to the details, and always be curious. My Chinese friends have spent countless hours explaining to me the intricacies of the language, and I am forever indebted to them.

Curiously I have never met a Chinese who got tired of my inquisitiveness. Nor have I come across any of those notorious “English ninjas” that some Chinese learners complain about. In my experience Chinese people are very eager to teach foreigners any aspect of their language or culture. Some even consider it an honour. If you have to teach them a bit of English in return, I think that’s totally reasonable. If they try to dominate the process (I personally haven’t had this problem), simply find someone else – there are millions of other potential language partners out there all over the world!

Now that we have dealt with the basic approach, let’s talk about more advanced students for a while. Do you have any advice for those that are already conversant in Chinese and can survive in most non-professional environments involving Chinese? What’s the next step?

This is a difficult question to answer, because different people have different motivations for becoming fluent in a language. But like any other interest that turns into a passion, I guess you really have to ask yourself how you can turn it into a career, or at least a very active hobby. In my case, I chose to enter the translating and interpreting profession, while also running T/I training classes on the side.

What this means is that I have to use Mandarin every day, both at work and with friends. This makes best use of the skills I have taken so many years to attain. It also means that that muscle in my brain gets the amount of exercise it needs. Otherwise… what’s the point? That muscle would just weaken, and I’d eventually lose all those skills. And anyway I haven’t found anything else that gives me remotely the same buzz as learning – and using – a second language. In the future there may be a third, but so far Chinese is the only language that has truly stimulated me – apart from my first language, English, of course!

What is the next step for someone who has learnt Chinese? What job opportunities are available, for example?

That “next step” could really be anything you want it to be. I’m constantly surprised that the vast majority of people I know who speak Mandarin as a second language seem completely uninterested in the translating and interpreting field. Instead, I’ve met people who are more interested in using Chinese in a diverse range of other fields, from business, to tourism, education, academia and even diplomacy.

This is not that surprising, though, when you consider the sheer millions of people around the world who speak Mandarin – and I’m not just talking about citizens of the PRC, but the greater Mandarin diaspora as well. You simply have to recognise that the employment opportunities for bilingual (and bicultural) professionals are overwhelming. However, these opportunities may not always be obvious; you may have to use your own networking to find (or create) many them. But they are definitely there, and completely up for grabs for anyone who has taken the time to learn about Chinese language and culture.

I personally feel that the more Chinese I learn, the more I realise how little I know (a cliché, I know, but still true). How do you keep motivated to continue improving?

For me personally motivation has never really been an issue. I honestly cannot remember a time in my life when I wasn’t interested in learning Chinese, and languages in general. I’ve studied many other fields, from music, to theatre, to film, to journalism, and even law, but Chinese is the only subject that has sustained my interest over such a long period of time.

For those learners who may be feeling “unmotivated”, the only advice I can give them is to hang in there. The beginner and intermediate stages may be frustrating or even monotonous at times, but trust me when I say the hard work you put in will be worth it when you have your first fluent conversation in your second language, or read your first foreign language book. It’s absolutely thrilling.

Do the strategies you use now differ from those you used as a beginner/intermediate learner?

Probably not actually. I mean obviously now I’m fluent in the language I’m not attending classes and poring over textbooks, but I still use the same methods to learn as I did in the beginning stages. I still socialise with Chinese people as much as I can. I still ask questions whenever I don’t understand a word or phrase. I still take copious amounts of notes. I still enjoy reading Chinese texts out loud, practising how I can make my Mandarin sound as clear and professional as possible. I’ve found all of these strategies useful ways to boost my proficiency, as well as my confidence.

I can’t see myself abandoning them any time soon. But I still acknowledge there are plenty of areas I could still improve on. For example, although my listening is already quite good, I often find very formal Chinese difficult to understand. Not to mention my Chinese handwriting which resembles a primary school student’s, and all those characters that I always forget how to write. But improving these two skills would require many hours of intensive practice, and that’s something that I don’t really have time for at the moment. Maybe sometime next year I can make them a priority.

Solid advice and interesting thoughts overall! Could you perhaps summarise the main points of your approach and offer some practical advice?

To sum up, you’d be mad not to make the effort to make Chinese friends to help you along your language learning journey – and the more, the merrier. If you combine that with a solid “textbook” foundation, some careful note-taking and a curious mind, you’ll quickly find yourself in the ideal language-learning environment to attain fluency in Mandarin.

As for practical advice, everyone of course has their own way of learning a language, but this is what I recommend:

  1. Beginner’s stage: Get a good teacher and a good textbook. Learn the basics, and get a good foundation. Time frame: Around 6 months, if you work hard.
  2. Intermediate stage: Start making friends who speak the language, preferably native speakers. Practice conversations with them. Ask questions and take notes. Memorise anything you find practical. Watching TV shows/movies and listening to music/radio may also be useful to improve your fluency. But nothing should take precedence over conversation practice, in my opinion. Apart from improving your reading level of course, as this skill is essential to making your learning more efficient. Time frame: 5-10 years.
  3. Advanced stage: Figure out the best way to put all you’ve learnt into practice – either as a career or a hobby. The main thing is don’t let all that hard work go to waste. Time frame: Rest of life.For some learners, this outline may seem controversial. I know there are those who think that fluency can be attained in a matter of months, and not years. But the way I see it, to be truly fluent in a language, and especially one as complex as Chinese, 10 years is a more realistic time frame. But so what? If you enjoy it, do it. You don’t need to worry about how long it’s going to take if you’re having fun along the way.

I think that the time frame you set depends on your goals. For people like us who have made Chinese part of our lives and careers, Chinese is definitely a life-long journey, but we shouldn’t forget that it’s perfectly possible to achieve a lot in a shorter time span. To each his own!

I’d like to thank Carl for sharing his experiences and advice with us. If you want to know more about him and learning Chinese, you should bookmark his website and subscribe to his Twitter feed now!

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.


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.


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!



Immersion at home or: Why you don’t have to go abroad to learn Chinese

While most people claim that it’s essential to live in the country to learn the language, the fact is that this isn’t a prerequisite for reaching an advanced level. For instance, I have spent a total of two weeks in English-speaking countries and yet I think my English is quite okay. There are numerous examples of people who have attained high levels in various languages from home, which means that anyone saying that you have to go abroad to learn a language properly is simply wrong.

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

However, it’s obvious that people who study in China on average learn Chinese faster than people who don’t, so people who say that it’s important to go abroad (including myself) have a point. What’s going on here?

The answer is quite simple: Learning a language quickly is about immersion (or, expressed even more bluntly, the number of hours you put in), but this concept, while related to living abroad, isn’t synonymous with it. Let’s look at two cases to prove the point:

Why it’s harder to immerse at home

While you can immerse yourself in a foreign language in your own country, it is significantly more demanding to do so. You will meet with numerous problems, such as:

  • Your family and friends don’t speak the target language
  • People will think you’re weird if you go too far
  • You need to actively create an immersion environment yourself
  • There will be fewer spontaneous exposures to the language
  • You’re not being directly exposed to the culture
  • You don’t need to learn the language to fit in
  • It’s harder to diversify the immersion environment

The reason people tend to learn faster abroad is because it requires less effort

None of the above problems is insurmountable, they can all be overcome with strong determination and some creativity. And this is the key: the reason people learn faster abroad is because more of these things are done for them, and since humans are lazy by nature, it figures that people who go abroad learn faster. This doesn’t mean that you have to go abroad, though.

How to create an immersion environment at home

The main problem with immersion, especially if you’re learning Chinese, is that it’s hard to find immersion material that you can actually understand. It will take you some serious time to understand talk shows or radio programs. However, there are many things you can do before you reach that level. Let’s look at the five elements of language learning to see how you can succeed even while staying at home:






Taking courses and finding teachers

Remember that studying abroad or at home is completely unrelated to whether you’re enrolled in a formal course or not. You can find teachers both in your own country and in China. In fact, you can easily find teachers in China while staying in your own country. using services such as Live Mocha. More and more language schools have started to offer online tutoring as well.

Self-studying is a much more complex topic than there is room for in this article, so I have a series of articles on self learning planned and those will come online later as I finish writing them. In essence, regardless if you stay at home or go to China, you definitely need real people to talk to and direct feedback on your language, especially pronunciation. Learning a language from home is harder, but it’s not impossible.

Further reading

14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

This is the third part in my miniseries about listening to music in Chinese. So far, the following articles have been published. It is likely that there will be more articles in the future when I have discovered more great music I want to share, but since I have covered most of the music I want to cover, I’m not likely to write more about it soon.

  1. Why learning Chinese through music is underrated
  2. 12 songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  3. 13 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons
  4. 14 extra songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons (this article)

If you still want more music, you should be fine on your own. You can also check out this list from Chinese to Learn. It contains lots of songs with introduction to the artist, lyrics and so on. Also, don’t forget to check the comments to the other articles. There are some good stuff in there I simply don’t have room for (I don’t want to make these articles overcrowded).

The following is the same introduction as that found in the previous article, included here for clarity.

Click here to skip directly to the music.

Not everybody will like everything, but you will like something

The purpose of this article is to get you started on using Chinese music to learn Chinese Therefore, I’ve picked a wide variety of music and included links to YouTube versions of these songs. There might be better versions out there with more suitable subtitles and so on, but the goal here is to introduce you to good music, not teach you the lyrics.

Image credit: sxc.hu/profile/ba1969

I have used four criteria when selecting the songs:

  1. I think they are good in some way (which is not related to lyrics)
  2. They are unique in some way (voice, instruments, style)
  3. They represent a genre which isn’t mainstream
  4. They have interesting lyrics

Note that I don’t claim that all songs and artists are famous (although most are) in China. Neither do I claim that they are all good for language learning purposes (I might not even like listening to them, but you might!). The goal is to find music you like, which is, in my opinion, more important than finding the perfect song for language learning. If you like all kinds of music, then pick a song I’ve written “clear Mandarin” or similar next to.

If you want to recommend other artists or songs to me or other readers, please leave a comment!

10 more songs to learn Chinese and expand your horizons

黑豹 – 无地自容

There seems to be a number of fairly famous bands who made lots of good rock music roughly two decades ago. I find this much more agreeable than most modern rock music I’ve listened to. Also check out 崔健, who has already been mentioned in this article.



Taiwanese reggae! This was the first time I heard someone singing in Mandarin with a Jamaican accent (which is obviously adopted when singing). The song contains some Taiwanese, but is almost entirely in Mandarin. 讚!

Yaksa – 末路

The intro says metal core, but the comments on YouTube says this particular song isn’t metal core, but that the rest of the album is. Since I don’t have a clue what metal core is, I’ll just avoid the debate. For the purpose of this article, it’s enough to say that this song is quite good and sounds like normal rock to my ears.

唐朝 – 封禅祭

More rock, but this time heavy metal. I have listened to a fair number of their songs and this one stands out. I find it clearer and more pleasant to listen to than the others. The lyrics are reasonably easy to hear as well (even though the singer has the characteristic metal touch).

韩磊 – 向天再借五百年

This ballad is about as powerful as it gets and feels very Chinese. Not necessarily favoured by the kids of today, but ask their parents!

万能青年旅店 – 大石碎胸口

This band is great. Pop with a touch of rock and perhaps a shade of jazz. Some songs are (almost) only instrumental, but others are suitable for language practice, such as this one. I like almost all songs on this album, which is called 万能的喜剧.

回聲樂團 – 巴士底之日

This is about as close as I can get to what I think of as modern “rock”. As such, it serves as a base for finding more music in this direction. I find it difficult to explain exactly why I like this particular song, but for some reason, I do.

1976 – 顏色

Post-rock. This is far from being the best post-rock produced in the Chinese speaking world (check Sugar Plum Ferry for instance). The problem is that most of this music is instrumental and thus not very good for language learning. If you have other suggestions, let me know!

盧廣仲 – 早安晨之美

Pop and about as 愚蠢 (stupid, silly) as it gets, but it’s still enormously popular (and, I admit, a bit catchy). I have a feeling this is the kind of music many like, but don’t own up to in public. Very clear Mandarin, here with on-screen lyrics.

草莓救星 – 想不到

Rock of the softer variety. Also has on-screen lyrics and relatively clear mandarin. I should also add that this music video is awesome, well worth watching even if you don’t like the music.

孙楠 – 拯救

I’ve always been a sucker for piano in pop music. That combined with the singers voice makes this otherwise not so memorable song quite memorable. Actually a ballad I like!

苏阳 – 贤良

I thought the beginning of this song was a bit boring the first time I heard it, but since it was recommended to me as being unique in several ways, I kept listening anyway. That was fortunate, because the song only gets better and better, not only as the song progresses, but also the second, third and tenth time listening to it. It’s some kind of folk song, but with modern elements. Don’t miss the lyrics (and the video).

Planet map/星球地图 (?)

I can’t really find any information about either the artist or the song, but it’s pretty good. It’s some kind of electronica/pop.

龚琳娜- 忐忑

This shouldn’t really be included on this list, simply because it’s impossible to use for language learning (or anything else for that matter). I include it for it’s weirdness and because it’s, for some strange reason, popular.