Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Take responsibility for your language learning now

What I’m going to talk about here might sound so obvious that you might even wonder why I’m writing this article, but I do think it belongs in the “obvious when you hear it but otherwise not” category. In short, I’m going to argue that you are the only one responsible for your own learning and that if you let other people take responsibility for you (such as your teacher or a friend), the results might be disastrous. It took me more than two years of studying Chinese before I figured this out and since I don’t think I can be considered to be obtuse in general, I think that there might be other people out there who will benefit from a reminder about responsibility.

You care the most about your Chinese proficiency

Image credit: flickr.com/photos/marcobuonvino/

Your Chinese level matters more to you than to anybody else, so you should be the one who is in charge. The problem is that most people start learning Chinese in a classroom with a teacher. If you study in your own country, it’s likely that this is your primary source for learning the language. However, shifting the responsibility from yourself to your teacher is a serious mistake. No teacher is perfect and few know your situation better than you do. There are also many reasons why teachers won’t teach you what you need (it’s rarely about incompetence, but more likely for social reasons). Let me give you a good example to illustrate this point.

About not taking responsibility

During two years of studying Chinese, I had a serious flaw in my pronunciation that no one told me about. I had half a dozen teachers and numerous language exchanges who could have told me, but no-one did. Or at least it took two years before someone pointed it out and I started looking more seriously into pronunciation issues. How can a systematic and quite serious error remain unchallenged for so long?

Because I did not take responsibility. I assumed, falsely, that I could just do my best in class and if I did that for long enough, my Chinese would be perfect. Instead, I should have looked at the situation from a different angle, striving towards analysing my own language ability from as many angles as possible. I should have made my goals clear to my teachers and to my helping friends. I should have assumed less and done more on my own.

However, rather than whining about the fact that no-one told me about this specific problem (I blame only myself), I learnt the following lesson:

You are ultimately responsible, what you see around you are just resources that can help you attain your goals

What I mean is that teachers, language exchange friends and textbooks are valuable resources, but they are just that, resources. You should view them as something that you can learn from, not as something that will allow you to sit back and sink into a passive learning style. There might be really good teachers out there who can guide individual students to such an extent that they don’t really need to think about their own learning, but they should be exceptionally rare, bordering on non-existing.

Discuss your learning with your teachers, read what other people have to say (such as what I say on this website) and listen to what your native friends tell you, but even though these might all give you important advice, heeding them or not is your decision. Constantly monitor your own learning and see what you can improve, don’t trust others to do this for you. It’s you who are learning Chinese and thus, you should be responsible.

What I do nowadays and what I suggest you do

There is a fairly easy way to get around this problem. Simply tell people what your ambitions are. If you’re aiming for pronunciation which is okay, but not perfect, say so. Tell them that you want to focus on grammar, correct vocabulary use or whatever, but do tell them what you want to learn. If you want to have good pronunciation, tell the teacher that you personally think that pronunciation is important. He or she will probably be very happy to help you. The sad thing is that this does not appear to be the default attitude.

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. Sara says:

    Good reminder! I think that someone’s own motivation and hard work is the key to master Chinese. If someone studies only for their teachers and to get good grades, then what happens when you stop having classes?

    Unfortunately my self-discipline isn’t too great, but I still understand that if I’m not improving fast enough, there’s only one to blame, me.

  2. Guus says:

    I was analysing my past blog posts yesterday and realised that this is the exact premise that I’ve written my whole blog on. As a language learner, you need to be responsible for your own learning – and the blog (just as Hacking Chinese) then gives resources and ideas that can help with the learning process.

    But just like in your case, I myself took years to figure out that it’s really not about pleasing the teacher or reaching learning goals that are set in some book or curriculum and that I needed to set my own goals, look for ways to attain them, track my progress, and keep trying new ways to learn.

    As often, I’d like to see it broader than just learning Chinese (or another language) and see it as a change in mindset. Schools are slowly transforming themselves to this setup where they become a resource for students who are supposed to guide their own learning.

    But I doubt enough effort is being spent in hammering this message home: “you are responsible for your own learning”.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I agree with you, this is a problem which goes far beyond language learning. Even though I don’t write much about my personal life here, I think you can guess that I have embraced this attitude for everything I do. I feel that that is something which sets me apart from most other people I’ve met. Now, I don’t say that to show how cool I am, I do that because I think such a shift in attitude is possible to achieve for most people. I wasn’t born like that, the insight evolved over many, many years. Of course, writing a blog post such as this one won’t be enough, but I hope it can be a start.

  3. Jenni says:

    I took Chinese for two years in high school, and during all that time, a girl in my class pronounced pinyin syllable “shi” as “shee”. Not once did the teacher correct her. I think this is a big problem with language classes. I’ve had a lot of them during my school years, and so many teachers just don’t say anything when their students make serious mistakes.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Yes, I agree, but to be fair, pronunciation is only one aspect of Chinese and some teachers are required to teach many things (go through a certain amount of chapters, teach a certain number of words), but very few of these official requirements deal with pronunciation. So it’s partly a teacher problem, but it’s also a curricular problem. Still, taking responsibility yourself solves both problems!

  4. Jonathan T says:

    This article is trying to tell you that if don’t take into consent that your Chinese could be better by constantly practicing pronounciation. It tells you an example of teacher that once had these problems with mispronounciation Chinese words. The teacher told ways you can improve your learning of the language, she said that she would speak Chinese to her experienced friends.
    我认为这是一个令人着迷的文章,它告诉我很多关于我如何提高我的中国语文. 我学到了很多新的方法来提高学习中国,比如说话更有经验的朋友. 这个例子被这个老师谁曾经是念错的话,她会说示,于是她开始参加她的朋友和随着时间的推移她的朋友们会纠正她

  5. 达尔文 says:

    Great article! I think you are right, it is a correct attitude no to always blame others. And I totally agree when you mention we should be responsible for our life but there is still a serious problem with this. Because if we are talking about random strangers met on the street or in a Starbucks, of course they won’t even think about correcting anyone but when we are talking of (real) teachers (not tutors in language centers) they are still supposed to be qualified and moreover paid for doing the job.
    Anyway this is often the case with some local teachers who don’t want students to loose face…Another cultural specificity 🙂

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

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