Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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 and ordinary native speakers in China while staying in your own country, using services such as Italki 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

Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox

I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!


  1. Julien Leyre says:

    Great post! Love the talk to your pet bit – I sometimes use an imaginary friend for the same purpose – but will get my fish involved now :-p.
    I wanted to suggest something extra for the listening/speaking part – take part in language exchange groups. I’m part of an organisation called Language Connection that runs them here in Melbourne – and now also in Nanjing: http://www.languageconnection.org.au. There may be similar groups in other cities, universities or language centres. Facilitated bilingual conversation is a great way to practice listening and speaking – and joining these kinds of groups or meetups is a good way to meet native speakers.

  2. Ben says:

    Hey Olle- Nice post. Do you have any suggestions for Chinese language podcasts? I’m interested in advanced level material or newscasts. Would love to get short doses of Chinese listening practice as I walk around town. Thanks.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Hi Ben,

      If you’re at an advanced level, you could go with almost anything you find online. Try searching iTunes, Google, YouTube and so on. I like RTI for newscasts and other radio programs. The advanced and media lessons on ChinesePod are also okay. You can also check out Voice of America (in Chinese) and SBS Chinese Radio. I will write more about audio resources later, it’s just that it’s such a daunting task to actually write that article. 🙂

  3. MacKensie says:

    Great post! I didn’t know about FluentU, thanks for the resource.

  4. george says:

    I don’t think anyone needs immersion to begin studying a language, nor to continue studying onces they are established in learning the target — immersion at some point is very useful to gain a better understanding of what needs to be studied and how it needs to be studied.

    Immersion brings the student into development of real communication strategies, it can be reward for a lot of isolated effort, and will demonstrate where misconceptions are.

    All my language tapes had Beijing accent Mandarin on them. If I speak that way in Taiwan, people are generally put off. The phonology is much different. One might ponder the differences between the average American from Chicago and from Atlanta. Part of communication is the need to conform to localized phonology or to be recognized as an outsider.

    So, I quickly realized that I had to give up the Beijing idealized accent of textbooks and tapes, and just sound like one of the local folk.

    And it really is up to you whether you want to sound like you are from Beijing, Shanghai, or Tainan. But if you do decide on one, go there to get the real thing.

    I am an American, and I’d never try to sound like an Aussie, a Brit,a Scot, or an Irishman.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      While I agree with everything you said, I think you missed the point a little bit. I don’t think anyone who is able to go abroad to study Chinese will say to themselves “oh, well, Olle said you don’t have to go abroad, so I suppose I’ll stay at home then”. This article isn’t directed at people who are abroad or who can go abroad whenever they want to, it’s directed at people who, for some reason, can’t. Obviously, it’s easier to learn Chinese in Taiwan or China, but the goal with this article was to point out that it’s a difference in degree rather than an absolute division between possible and impossible.

      1. Livonor says:

        True, that’s not a matter of chose, everybody who can move will do so and those who can’t obviously won’t. So it’s kind of worthless trying to state “what’s the best option”.

        And to be sincere I really don’t think that’s being overseas makes things difficult at all, regardless of the location your ability to learn and the amount of things to be learn is the same and so is the opportunities around, you dump English and set your immersion stuff once, and then it takes care of itself: you go to youtube and there’s new interesting videos, you go to the sites and there’s new posts, you to your download site and there’s new animes, everything with a click of distance.

        That’s true even for conversations, you are way better in a WOW guild or something like that than in the streets of a Chinese city, think about it, you at the comfort of your house, having more than 60 people to talk to, have hour long conversations, and you don’t even need to be their friends or anything.

        Also real people is not necessary, good and preferable? Sure, but not necessary. I could speak English before having anybody to talk to, and I just met a guy who did the same with Japanese, he had no Japanese conversations partners,friends and such but could talk just fine. For me all it takes is to always think in the language, both silent and out loud, and, needless to say, don’t forget about correct pronunciation.
        Of course, teachers won’t go around saying you don’t need people to learn how to speak because they are afraid of people taking it in the wrong way.

  5. Brandy says:

    Great post! I’ve been recommending talking to plants or pets to my students for a while, nice to know I wasn’t crazy! Also, I labeled my entire house. Lots of people thought I was a little overboard, but a fews years later, I’m fluent in Chinese and most people who live here can barely order food or communicate freely. So who’s crazy now?

  6. Marisa says:

    Thanks for your blog. I’m learning Chinese in Barcelona, Catalonia.

  7. Christine says:

    For having a reason to write, I made up PinyinSudoku, my website. It has been inactive for a while because I spent more time with Anki and on translating song texts for myself but I might get back to it and publish more. Especially if there were any requests 😉

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.