Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Why travelling isn’t the best method to learn Chinese

Me at 北京南站 in 2017.

I’ve heard many people say that travelling is the best way to learn a language. This might be true in some situations, but learning Chinese while travelling also has many downsides that few people talk about, so that’s what we’re going to do today.

To put it briefly, travelling is great for learning how to use the language you have already learnt, but it’s not so great for learning new things.

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Five real advantages with travelling to learn Chinese

Before we talk about why travelling is not a good method for learning Chinese, let’s discuss some advantages of travelling to learn a language:

  1. Boost your motivation and your self-confidence – Travelling can be a wonderful way to increase your motivation to learn more Chinese, both in the sense that you’ll be able to identify what skills you need to work on, and that you’ll realise that there’s so much out there to explore. If you knew some Chinese before going travelling, you might also experience a boost in self-confidence, because you’ll realise that you can speak Chinese and that what you have learnt is useful. I travelled around Taiwan for a few weeks after having studied for a bit longer than a year and benefited immensely from the experience. You will also realise that listening ability in Chinese is hard, but that’s a topic for another article.
  2. Contextualise the language you have already learnt – While you can learn the difference between similar words and how to use non-obvious words in a classroom or by listening and reading enough, talking with a wide range of people is more direct. Not sure how people greet each other informally outside your textbook? Hint: It’s not 你好, that’s just one of the things taught in many classrooms and textbooks that’s just wrong. Travelling is a kind of turbo-charged immersion and will expose you to a wide variety of contexts where Chinese is used.
  3. Leave your comfort zone and experience new things – When studying at home, you are in control of much of what happens to you, and you can choose what Chinese to use or get exposed to. This is not true when you travel, because regardless of how well you plan, you will always end up in situations you hadn’t planned for. This is a terrific way to challenge your language proficiency and use Chinese to negotiate whatever obstacles you encounter. Leaving your comfort zone is great!
  4. Experience the variety of Chinese language and culture – Even if it might seem so in your textbook, the Chinese-speaking world is vast and diverse. Normal people don’t speak the way they do in your textbook and not everyone is a college student either. When travelling, you get to interact with a broad range of people from diverse backgrounds, and they all speak the language differently. You’ll also get to experience different regional cultures and languages.
  5. Master what you have already learnt – Regardless of how much time you spend studying Chinese at home or in class, you need to use the language in real-life situations to learn to navigate conversations and get feedback to guide your learning. Travelling is a great way to do this, so if you’ve spent a year studying Chinese in your home country, there’s no better way to spend the summer than travelling in China.

Why travelling isn’t a great method to learn Chinese

While I think all the above is true and I have relied on those principles to improve my own Chinese, travelling to learn a language has some obvious downsides, as well as some less obvious ones. Let’s start with the obvious ones:

  • Travelling is expensive compared to any other form of learning, including heavy use of paid resources and teachers. You’ll get at least 50 hours of one-on-one tutoring for the price of just the flight ticket.
  • Travelling takes a lot of time and most of it is not spent learning Chinese. It also disrupts everything else you’re doing, which you need to catch up on later.
  • Travelling is inconvenient and requires you to do many tedious things that won’t in themselves teach you any Chinese. Filling out forms to get your visa or queuing for a ticket doesn’t help you learn Chinese.

But let’s assume that you have the money to spend, you don’t mind it taking up a lot of your time and you’re okay with the inconveniences too. These downsides are after all true for any kind of travelling, and yet travelling abroad is one of the things people say they like the most!

Travelling will help you apply what you have already learnt

The observant reader might have noticed that most of the benefits of travelling I discussed above are related to Chinese you already know. It’s great to hear words used in context, but only if you understand them, and language variation is great, but if you don’t have a solid variation, hearing a dozen different ways of phrasing or pronouncing something will only lead to confusion. And so on.

The point is that when travelling, you lack the structure and routines necessary to learn new things optimally. For example, being exposed to a word once or twice will rarely be enough, you need repeated exposure over time, preferably in a structured way. A graded reader can do this and so can spaced repetition software, but speaking with a wide variety of people in different contexts typically won’t.

Travelling is great for exposing you to things you want to learn, but it’s not great for actually learning these things. Naturally, this is less true if you’re an advanced student, but in that case, your foundation is so solid that you will be able to pick up things in conversations you have on your journey. As a beginner, this will be hard without pairing it with more rigorous studying and reviewing.

Some things are better learnt at home

With the right methods, you can build a basic vocabulary in Chinese very quickly. This requires focused and structured effort rather than haphazard exposure in a chaotic environment. If you just started learning Chinese, travelling could be a great motivation boost, but it won’t be a great boost to your vocabulary.

Learning Chinese is not like learning a language close to your own; you simply won’t be able to just pick up words by listening to people around you. You will be able to do that at an intermediate level, but if you’re not there yet, don’t expect any miracles from a few weeks travelling in China.

If you are a beginner, I suggest you put in some serious effort before going travelling. Save time and money and use it to travel when it will benefit your Chinese instead. This argument is similar to why not moving to China now can actually be good for your Chinese. Naturally, if you have unlimited resources, go ahead, but most people don’t, so weighing different options is necessary.

Why not going to China now could actually be good for your Chinese

You will only learn Chinese if you actually use it

This should come as no surprise, but to learn Chinese while travelling, you must spend most of your time engaging with the language. Simply being on a train or bus in China won’t teach you anything. I’ve made the same argument for living in China before, which won’t teach you much in and of itself either: You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad

You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad

To summarise, it’s not where you are located geographically that makes you learn a language, it’s how you spend your time and how much you engage with the language.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself:

  • Will I stick to Chinese even when English is a viable option?
  • Will I speak mostly with the people I travel with or the people around me?
  • Will I talk with strangers, or will I stick to myself?
  • Will I be able to use the Chinese I’ve learnt on my trip?

Tourists don’t learn much when travelling

Here’s a definition of “tourist” I find particularly useful for discussing travelling to learn a language:

A tourist is someone who takes a piece of their home country with them when travelling and stays within it.

If you travel to China with family and friends, talking mostly to the same people you do at home, and only interacting with Chinese people when you want to buy something or when there’s a problem to be solved, you won’t learn much Chinese. This can still be nice, but it’s not a good method for learning the language.

In short, tourists don’t learn much when travelling, so don’t be a tourist if improving your Chinese is the reason you travel.

Don’t be a tourist if you want to learn Chinese language and culture

How to travel if you really want to improve your Chinese

It should be clear by now that I don’t think that travelling is bad for your Chinese, but that I do think that it depends on how you travel and what your options are. As I’ve said, I’ve learnt tons of Chinese by travelling myself, so let’s have a look at how to do it if your goal is to learn Chinese:

  • Prepare before you go – The more Chinese you know before you go, the more you will learn. This doesn’t mean you should delay your trip by ten years, but it means that you should try to learn as much as possible before leaving for China.
  • Travel alone – This forces or at least encourages you to engage as much as possible with people around you. Naturally, this is out of the question for many people for various reasons. Personally, I’m way too introverted to enjoy this type of travel.
  • Travel with non-Chinese speakers – This is a less scary alternative. Travelling with family and friends who don’t speak any Chinese means that you need to take care of most conversations with natives. This includes being a mediator and interpreting what your companions want to say.
  • Travel with Chinese-speaking friends – This depends entirely on what kind of friends you have, but if you’re lucky, you will get to see many things you would never have seen otherwise. Native speakers may also function as guides, both to language and culture. Of course, speak Chinese with your friends.
  • Study while on the move – As noted above, travelling can be time-consuming and tedious, but you can use this to your advantage, too! If you’re on a long train ride or need to queue for tickets for three hours, use that time to consolidate what you have learnt. Take notes whenever you can, go through your notes and turn useful things into flashcards you can then review.
  • Consolidate when you get back home – Travelling will expose you to a wide range of new language and culture, usually too wide to take in all at once. This is why you should try to consolidate what you have learnt once you get home. Use the motivation you feel to follow up on interesting things you noted about language and culture.

Conclusion: Is travelling good for learning Chinese or not?

Whether travelling is good or bad as a learning method depends on how you travel. If you know some Chinese and spend three weeks immersed in the language, engaging with local people around the clock, you will learn a lot. Or to be more precise, you’ll activate and be able to use the Chinese you already know much better.

If you on the other hand don’t already have a solid foundation and hope that travelling around China for a few weeks will somehow magically teach you the language, you’ll be disappointed. Three weeks is nothing in terms of engagement and exposure to a language, even if you do it twelve hours a day. If you speak mostly English with your friends or are busy looking at the sights, you might not learn much at all.

Few people will go for the extremes described above, and what type of travelling you do is determined by many other factors. If your goal is to learn Chinese, however, it’s worth thinking things through in advance and planning your travels accordingly. And remember, if you can’t travel for some reason, it’s perfectly possible to learn Chinese from the comfort of your home!

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

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2010, was rewritten from scratch in June 2023.

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  1. Marie says:

    Very true and interesting article.
    When I was struggling to learn Chinese in Paris, how many times did I hear people say ‘Why don’t you go to China?’ with a patronizing tone, implying that if I lived in China all my efforts would be avoided. And maybe I would learn the Chinese characters simply by walking in the streets of Chinese cities !

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard similar comments all the time. People seem to assume that language is learnt by magic just by existing in the country, which is obviously bunk. In fact, I’ve written an article about this that you might like. 🙂

      You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad.

  2. Sara K. says:

    Ha, if I could learn Chinese characters just by walking down the street in a Chinese-speaking area, I would have learned Chinese characters a long, long time ago (I grew up in a neighborhood with many Chinese-Americans and with many signs in Chinese).

  3. David Feigelson says:

    I found Taiwanese in Taiwan (in Taiwan) and Chinese in China (over the internet) more open to friendship than Chinese in the United States. I think language is more about the closeness of the relationship than any particular location.

  4. Julien Leyre says:

    You make a very good point about learning new words vs consolidating what you already know. (Well, you make lots of very good points, as you always do 🙂 – but this one point happens to echo with my own preoccupations more particularly)

    In my experience learning and teaching languages, learning new things and consolidating the known are two different activities, but you need to do both to go towards fluency. I suppose there may be optimal arrangements to progress more quickly and with less perceived effort – but I’m not too sure what they are. Have you written anything specifically on this topic (consolidating what you know, and the best time to do it), or do you know anyone who has – I’d love to look into it more in depth :-).

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