Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Chat your way to better Chinese

Chatting is often frowned upon as being flimsy and a waste of time by people with traditional views on education. This attitude is often carried into the classroom and perhaps also remains in the minds of language learners like you and I. After all, chatting with someone, even if it’s in Chinese, is much less serious than studying a textbook or writing an essay, isn’t it? Chatting leaves no permanent mark, no paper with a grade on it and perhaps not even a lasting impression and therefore it can’t be good for serious language learners, right?

Wrong! I think chatting is one of the best ways there are to improve in a language, especially at beginner and intermediate levels. I have already written a little bit about this in my article about using social media to learn Chinese, but this article is specifically about chatting.

If we assume chatting in a text-only manner, it still encompasses two of the main skills we need: reading and writing. It also has a strong indirect impact on speaking, because chatting online is pretty much the same as talking, at least when it comes to vocabulary choice. Since most people use phonetic input systems, we also have to remember the pronunciation of what we write. This is not bad for something which is supposed to be flimsy and time-wasting.

11 reasons why chatting is underrated as a learning tool

Chatting has a number of advantages, some which are shared with other activities, but I can think of nothing else that combines all of the following advantages into one activity. Chatting offers or is…

  • Suitable for any language level, because the topic and the complexity of the chat is infinitely variable. I remember chatting with strangers during my first week of Chinese. I didn’t get further than asking who they were, where they came from and how old they were, but that was still thrilling. This is real communication from the start.
  • Extra time to think about what we’re going to say, thus increasing the range of words we can use, which in turn is helpful for transferring words from the passive to the active vocabulary. It’s scarier to use a new word in speech if you’ve never used it successfully before. Using the word when chatting is a good first step.
  • An opportunity to notice new words. In flowing speech, it’s sometimes hard to notice new words, especially if you have to struggle to understand the main ideas. The brain sort of edits them out. Reading these words help you notice them. This is similar to reading comics, which also has lots of spoken language in written form.
  • A relaxed form of practice because most people don’t feel that chatting is a formal practising session. Being able to practise written Chinese without having to come up with a topic, spend hours writing an article about it and having it corrected by someone, is quite good. Not all the time, but occasionally.
  • Manageable in difficulty and duration. It’s possible to postpone essay writing for days, simply because it’s a quite serious endeavour, but chatting for a few minutes is much easier. It won’t teach you to write essays, but it’s still good reading and writing practice.
  • Reading Chinese in bite-sized chunks. Reading in Chinese can be intimidating for beginners, but reading what the other person is typing is much more manageable, both in difficulty and length. Also, most native speakers automatically adapt their level to your understanding, making it gradually harder as you improve.
  • The option of using dictionaries without interrupting the flow of the conversation too much, mostly because the flow is slower and isn’t interrupted as easily. If we get lost, we can just reread the previous lines. This might make us able to talk about more advanced topics.
  • A written record of our conversation. Sure, you can record audio as well, but it’s much harder to handle and awkward in some situations. Chatting sessions are excellent for benchmarking purposes, you just need to activate the logging function. If you’ve used the same program or website, compare your logs!
  • A chance to spot errors, especially in the links between written and spoken Chinese. When people speak, you can’t be sure which characters they would have used to represent that word or sound, but when chatting, this becomes obvious. Sometimes the opposite problem occurs, i.e. that we’re unsure of how a character actually sounds!
  • The option of hiding behind our computer screens. Not being face-to-face means that shy people can interact with strangers in a natural manner. Getting to know someone a bit online first might be a good way of preparing for a real meeting.
  • More fun than other forms of practising, mostly because of the above factors. That chatting is fun doesn’t make it less worthwhile! Studying is supposed to be fun, that’s the only way you will spend enough time doing it.

I think the last point is perhaps the most important one. Traditional education has somehow embedded itself in our minds and some people think that fun must somehow be less serious. Studying can be fun at the same time as being very serious indeed.

Writing beyond chatting

Still, we need to understand that any method we use to learn anything is going to be limited. Even though some things overlap between writing essays and chatting, this doesn’t mean that we can ignore the former and put all emphasis on the latter, at least not if we want to be able to write essays. As we have already seen, chatting can help us with many things, but it’s not magic. The purpose of this article is to show that chatting is more than just a way to kill time and that chatting definitely has a place in the daily routine of the serious language learner.

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  1. J says:

    Do you know anywhere online I can find people to chat with?

  2. Taha says:

    Greetings from France!

    Great article! Chatting allowed me to learn a lot of new vocabulary. I suggest ‘Hello Talk’ app on iPhone for that. It allows English speakers to chat with Chinese natives – and there are TONS of them! You’ll soon have too many chinese friends who want to chat with you. I really give 10/10 to this app and I’ve been using it everyday. It support hanzi to pinyin and also translation, so learning new vocab is extremely convenient.

    Another option is italki.com, which also allows you to chat with chinese people and get them to correct your written texts.

  3. Angel Huang says:

    Completely agree with the conclusion that “chatting definitely has a place in the daily routine of the serious language learner”.

    Regular text chatting helped me personally to develop confidence and basic communicative competence in Swedish.

    I have also been using it as part of a strategy to give my Mandarin students opportunities to transfer learning from the classroom to the real world. This, in turn has resulted in obvious motivation boosts for many students. I have, however, noticed that the more confident ones tend to prefer moving to audio and video MESSAGING after a while in situations where that’s appropriate. This still isn’t 100% real-time communication, in the sense that f2f conversations are, so just like text chatting it is great for developing complexity and adds the element of pronunciation-related practice and feedback.

    Anyway, your post is absolutely spot on Olle, and I would definitely encourage learners of any language to make use of non-real time (as well as real-time) chatting for the multiple reasons and benefits you’ve included here. It is an easy and fun way to make language learning an integrated part of your life.


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