Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

The cheapest and most convenient way to improve your spoken Chinese

Speaking a foreign language fluently requires many things to come together at once. For example, you need to retrieve the right words from memory, connect them together in a way that makes sense and then say this with the right pronunciation and intonation.

To speak fluently, you need to do this smoothly and without a hitch. If you need to think about each step consciously, you won’t sound anywhere near fluent, even if what you say is accurate and correct.

Learning to speak fluently

There are many models for how language learning works, ranging from those that put almost all emphasis listening to those that urge you to speak from day one and keep speaking as much as you can.

I think both of these approaches have merits, but if forced to place myself between those extremes, it would be closer to the input-heavy approaches (see this article). The major downside with that approach, though, is that requires a lot input to work well and that it takes some time before it trickles down into your speaking.

Practising speaking can greatly speed up the process. That’s because many of the things that need to come together to enable you to speak fluently, rely on you not just being able to do them, but to do them quickly.

That takes practice. The gears need to be oiled. Memory trace retrieval needs to be sped up.

The first time you try to recall a word from memory, it’s slow. It takes practice to accustom your mouth and your brain to new speech sounds and tones. Practice makes perfect.

While it might be true that you don’t learn many new things by speaking Chinese yourself, you can solidify, reinforce and speed up your usage of things you actually do know. This is much more important than many people realise!

If you’re interested in reading more about skill and knowledge aspects of learning Chinese and other languages, please check my earlier article about this topic: Learning to unicycle, learning anatomy and learning Chinese.

The cheapest and most convenient way to improve your spoken Chinese

In this article, I will discuss an extreme strategy for improving your spoken Chinese, which consist of only speaking (no listening), or not even that, only thinking about speaking. The cheapest and most convenient way of learning is to speak to yourself.

Yes, you read that right; this is viable study strategy, and while it has obvious limitations and drawbacks, it can improve your speaking ability.

It should be obvious why speaking with yourself is cheap and convenient, but it’s worth highlighting that you can use this strategy whenever and wherever you want. That is not true for any other method for improving speaking ability.

There are of course more expensive and less convenient methods that work better (such as finding native speakers to talk with, hiring a teacher or whatever you fancy), but that’s not the point here. Instead, I want to focus on the fact that this is a strategy that everyone can use at al times.

Why talking to yourself is useful for improving speaking ability

Talking to yourself is useful for the reason I mentioned above: it speeds up processes that need to be quick in order for you to speak fluently. It will of course not teach you anything you didn’t already know, but it will grease the wheels.

Most people do already talk to themselves in their native language, for example when trying to solve a difficult problem, considering pros and cons with a complex choice or when preparing for a presentation or speech. I do this all the time myself.

Chinese speaking abilityThere is some research (see e.g. Berardi-Coletta, Buyer, Dominowski & Rellinger, 1995) suggesting that verbalisation can make problem solving easier, but that it’s not because of the speaking itself, but because of what mental gymnastics you have to perform to be able to say something aloud. I haven’t found any studies in this area that deals directly with speaking a foreign language, though, but it is of course well-known that much needs to happen in your brain before any sound is even produced.

The main reason why speaking to yourself is beneficial is that you speed up things that can otherwise be painfully slow.

This is very clear when teaching: If I ask a student a question and she struggles to answer because she can’t retrieve a particular word I know she has learnt, she will eventually produce it, but it can take ten seconds or more.

Subsequent retrieval times are greatly reduced. If I ask the same question the following week, she might still struggle if she hasn’t reviewed or used the word between lessons, but it will certainly take much less than ten seconds this time.

What to talk about when you talk to yourself

With a good conversation partner, speaking is easy and there’s no lack of things to talk about. When you speak with yourself, however, the responsibility is entirely on you. So what should you talk about?

Fortunately, there are many options. Here are some I like:

  • Narrate what you are doing or what is happening – A fun challenge is to set a rule for yourself that you have to name everything you touch in Chinese before you touch it. See how far you get every morning without encountering something you have to touch but don’t know how to say in Chinese! I wrote more about this here: Vocalise more to learn more Chinese. More advanced students can describe what they are doing, what other people are doing or what’s going on in the vicinity.
  • Comment on things as they happen – Don’t just describe what happens, comment on it. Think of it as you’re being the narrator of a movie where everyone can see what happens and you’re doing the verbal commentary. This is similar to the inner monologue of a novel.
  • Solve problems and make choices – Apart from being useful because you solve problems and make choices, doing so in Chinese can actually improve both your speaking ability and your problem solving. As Daniel Kahneman highlights in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow (which you really should read if you haven’t already; there is a Chinese version: 快思慢想), cognitive strain makes people think more objectively. Speaking a foreign language definitely counts as cognitive strain; see this BBC article for an overview of the benefits of working in a second language.
  • Imagine or invent dialogues – Just like many people do for an important interview, go through what you want to say in advance, imagine what the other person might say and how you can respond to that.
  • Get better at counting in Chinese – Learning the numbers in Chinese does not mean that you can count. Can you count backwards? What about retrieving random numbers quickly? What about big numbers? Count things in your environment: count your push-ups or how many measures of water you add when you’re baking. If it’s too easy, skip every other number. Read more here about why you probably aren’t as good as counting in Chinese as you think.

There are probably many other things you can do; these were just a few examples of what I have tried myself. If you come up with any creative ideas, please share them below in the comments!

Speaking aloud vs. speaking in your mind

Some of the activities above don’t work well in public spaces.

Imagine sitting on the bus in your home country, seeing a stranger getting on, but as he does so he says “I take a big step from the pavement onto the bus, now I swipe my public transport card, I see there are still some credits left, now I move further back in the bus, that guy looks a little bit weird I don’t want to sit next to him”.

Some of the benefits of talking to yourself can be reaped even if you don’t speak aloud. Many students ask questions about how to think in Chinese, and this is what I usually tell them. Start trying to have an inner monologue in Chinese. It probably isn’t as good as actually speaking aloud, but you still need to retrieve vocabulary, grammar and so on. You will also highlight things you don’t know how to say for later learning.

As I mentioned before, some research suggests that the speaking is not the important part, but rather the mental processes that lead up to speaking. I’m not educated enough in cognitive psychology and neuroscience to speculate what kind of importance (if any) this has for second language acquisition, but it would be an interesting topic for research!

Recording yourself

If you really want to improve your speaking ability cheaply and on your own, I recommend recording yourself. If you haven’t tried this, you definitely should! Even without a teacher listening to your recording, you can probably spot many errors yourself and improve without spending a cent on tutoring. I’ve written more about using this here:

Recording yourself to improve your Chinese speaking ability

References and further reading

Berardi-Coletta, B., Buyer, L. S., Dominowski, R. L., & Rellinger, E. R. (1995). Metacognition and problem solving: A process-oriented approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition21(1), 205.

Peñarredonda, J.L. (2018).The huge benefits of working in your second language: Working in another language can be awkward and challenging, but it has a surprising number of positive side effects. Available on BBC Capital: http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20180525-why-using-a-foreign-language-could-make-you-better-at-work

Short, E. J., Schatschneider, C., Cuddy, C. L., Evans, S. W., Dellick, D. M., & Basili, L. A. (1991). The effect of thinking aloud on the problem-solving performance of bright, average, learning disabled, and developmentally handicapped students. Contemporary Educational Psychology16(2), 139-153.


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One comment

  1. Andrew1267 says:

    The famous Hungarian polyglot Kato Lomb mentioned in her book “How I Learn Languages” that she always talked a lot to herself when she was learning a new language. So if we are to learn from the great, we must conclude that speaking to yourself is really a very useful technique!

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