Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

If you can only stay abroad for a short time, don’t go immediately

During my years abroad studying Chinese, I’ve come to a conclusion about when to go abroad to study. This is based on my personal experience, as well as a limited statistics based on other students I’ve met. This idea might seem counter-intuitive, but I’m fully convinced that it’s true nevertheless.

If you can only stay abroad for a short time, then study the language at home before you go

As you can see from the wording, this doesn’t apply to people who can study abroad as much as they want to, nor does is it relevant if you’ve studied many years at home. Instead, I’m talking to those of you who think that the ideal way of starting your Chinese learning is to spend what money you have and go to China without any prior knowledge of the language.

Note that I’m not saying it’s bad to go abroad in general, I’m simply discussing when to do it if you have limited time and/or money.

Why is it a mistake to go abroad without any prior knowledge of the language?

  • You will spend most of your time learning things that are so basic you could have done it at home
  • You might be taught essential concepts by a teacher who don’t share a language with you
  • You lack sufficient vocabulary to be able to do very much at first
  • You will need the time abroad later, when you need immersion more than basic training
  • You can get all the above things in your country, so if you’ve only got a short time abroad, don’t waste it!

These points need some explanations.

First, you need to understand that Chinese isn’t French. If an English-speaking person goes to France and is determined, I’m quite convinced that it’s possible to learn the language to an adequate level very rapidly, perhaps even within a few months. This is because English and French are two languages which are very close (parts are identical or close to identical). Chinese and English, on the other hand, share almost no words whatsoever. Going to France, you can usually get by simply guessing words from English. This isn’t true in China. This does not mean that you shouldn’t speak Chines before you know the basics (you should speak as much as you can, always), but it means that you don’t need to spend extra money to do it in China.

Second, many of your teachers will only know basic English, or sometimes no English at all, which is a very bad way of learning difficult concepts such as pronunciation and grammar. It would be really cool if we could pick up the tones in Mandarin simply by listening, but alas, I don’t think that’s possible for the average adult learner. You need to understand what you’re being taught and that isn’t going to happen if the teacher only speaks Chinese.

Going abroad to study is very good, but doing it immediately is inefficient and a waste of resources

Of course it’s good to study Chinese in a Chinese-speaking environment, anyone can tell you that. It will give you an immediate and personal experience that might make you more motivated and you will also learn more than if you stayed at home, so please don’t think that I’m trying to gainsay that. What I am saying is that this is a question of efficiency, that if your resources are limited and you can’t stay very long, you need to maximise the gains. Make sure you have the basics before you go!

So how long should you wait? A few weeks of intensive studying should be enough. That will will give you basic pronunciation, a couple of hundred words and some grammar. If you don’t dedicate all your time to learning, this might take a few months, but no more than than.

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  1. Fearchar says:

    I’d suggest that that is equally true of European languages. Learn the basics first, and then the new environment will provide you with more than enough stimulus for increasing your abilities. Throw yourself unprepared into the new environment, and it’s like taking a train without buying a ticket beforehand: you won’t be thrown off the train while it’s moving, but you will certainly pay well over the normal price.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think you can go abroad almost immediately for some closely related lagnuages, but in general, I agree. For instance, spending a few hours learning the basic sounds and the 1000 most common words will make it so much easier to learn more once you’re abroad.

  2. lena chen says:

    i’ll be doing an intensive course over the summer. but because my background is chinese i feel like im a step ahead of everyone else. i just need to practice to increase my fluency, and more importantly, my confidence to be able to speak, respond and hold a decent conversation in chinese. rather than starting in chinese, and ultimately having to revert back to english because i struggle to get the correct words out.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      What I write about in this article is only relevant for beginners. As soon as you have learnt the basics, I think intensive courses in China are a very good way of learning. I wrote this article because I want to warn people that learning pinyin, your first hundred characters and basic grammar can be accomplished in your home country, so if you can only go once for some reason, I suggest learning the basics before you go! Thus, I don’t think this article applies to you.

  3. Nidal says:

    Hello Olle Linge,
    I just discovered your site in this late night time lol by typing the keyword ‘ how to learn Chinese faster ‘ actually I am still a beginner but eager to learn faster this language but I guess I have to know that It will take some time ^^ but I believe that practice makes perfect ! Anyway I find this article very interesting as I had the opportunity to study in China this year but the Director of my institute just gave me the same advice u mentioned here she said I need time to learn more vocabulary before going so I delayed that till next year 🙂 happy to read this article today because I was so eager to go there to practice but I realized that I could wasted time I ahree !

  4. Daniel Salgado says:

    I have a question about ‘strategy’. After trying a bit to learn some words in chinese, i’ve come up with the following idea: To focus only in learning speak and listen, leaving aside reading and writing. That way i don’t have to worry about hanyu characters, which are so hard, and can focus on speaking, tone, pronunciation and pinyin…. what would say about that strategy? So you think about 200 words is a good point of reference to star thinking about immersion in china? …anyway, thanks for this tip! I was slowly comming to this conclusion, about immersion. Funny enough, i had this wrong opinion also exactly because of french. I went to france and totally unexpectedly learned a lot of french very easily. I never had any interestedin french but just fell in love because it was so easy and a pleasure to learn… Note: my native language is portuguese, which is much more closely related to french than english, so you can imagine what a breeze it was… So i was having the same notion with chinese. But the hardships of learning basic stuff got m thinking that it wouldn’t be so easy. Anyway, it would be easier and faster to learn on site, but not fast enough for a 30 day trip… like you said, in those 30 days i would learn mostly things i could’ve learned at home in about that time.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Starting with listening and speaking is fine! The difference between French and English is that if your native language is closely related to French or shares a lot of vocabulary with it, you can pick things up fairly easy. That just doesn’t happen when learning Chinese. I don’t want to give a specific number of words or whatever you should learn, but at least enough to be able to talk a little bit about yourself.

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