Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

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

One of the most common myths about language learning is related to the importance of where you are studying, geographically speaking.

Do you have to go abroad to learn the language?

Some people believe it’s necessary, but that is not true. Will you learn the language simply by living abroad? No, you won’t, as proven by the large number of expats in China who don’t speak Chinese or speak it very poorly.

I’ve recorded an audio version of this article if you prefer listening instead of reading:

The truth is more nuanced. Going abroad to learn Chinese will make some things easier, which in most cases means learning more. In general, living in an environment where the language is spoken will boost your motivation and increase your exposure to the language, which is something you can compensate for even if you study at home, but that requires more effort. I’ve written more about this here:

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

What’s the best time to go abroad to learn Chinese?

So, knowing that you don’t have to go abroad to learn Chinese, but that doing so can help, the next question is when to go. If we ignore unhelpful answers, such as “five years ago”, a common answer is “now”.

I believe that this answer is only correct in a small number of cases, however. It assumes that you’re willing to invest a lot of time and money in studying abroad, probably for years. It also assumes that going to China is something you can just do, which is not the case during the current pandemic.

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

While learning in an immersion environment is good, most people are not prepared to stay abroad for many years or settle there permanently. This means that we’re looking at a limited amount of time spent abroad.

In that case, it’s best to study the language a bit before you go. There are many reasons for this, some of which are more relevant to learning Chinese than languages more closely related to your own, but more about this later.

If you use up your opportunity to go abroad as a zero beginner, you’ll run into some problems:

  1. If you go to China without knowing anything at all, you will spend most of your time learning basic things you might as well have learnt at home – Learning a language as a beginner requires you to learn at least a few hundred words before you can really do anything at all. When it comes to the written language, you need a few hundred characters before being able to read even the most basic texts. Learning these words and characters can be done from home. Learning the basic meanings of words using audio flashcards or learning how to write Chinese characters with a fancy app can be done anywhere.
  2. If your beginner courses are taught entirely in Chinese, you might misunderstand or overlook important fundamentals – Normally, the more Chinese you and your teacher speak, the better, but as I have argued elsewhere, strategic use of your native language is essential sometimes. It’s very difficult to get a good grasp of how Chinese characters work or why you keep messing up the tones if you can’t communicate with the teacher. Some teachers of course speak decent English, but since your classmates might not, many schools have rules about not using English. If you are very good at mimicking and focus only on the spoken language, this is not really a problem, but most adults who learn Chinese can’t just pick up the tones effortlessly.
  3. Immersion becomes more useful the more you understand, and is mostly wasted if you know nothing at all  – One of the main advantages of living in a Chinese-speaking environment is that you get exposed to the language a lot. For that to be helpful, though, you need basic listening and reading skills. You’re not going to benefit from seeing Chinese characters on signs and billboards if you don’t know anything about Chinese characters. Likewise, you’ll get more out of the conversations you hear on the bus if you understand at least part of what people are saying. You need comprehensible input, not just input.

Remember, I’m not saying that learning Chinese abroad is bad, not at all; I’m saying that if you have a limited amount of time to stay abroad, don’t waste it on learning things you could equally well learn from home.

Once you have acquired basic vocabulary, grammar and so on, your need for input and interaction in Chinese will increase. That’s when you will be able to make the most out of your time abroad. Delaying your trip to China because of the pandemic, because of personal or professional reasons, is not really a problem.

Why learning Chinese abroad is not a silver bullet

You might have heard about people who go to France for a year and learn to speak decent French in that time, even without studying much, or you might have learnt some Spanish in an immersion environment and felt it “click” after a while. Being Swedish, I’ve met many Germans who have lived in Sweden for only a semester and speak more or less fluent Swedish.

The reason this works is because these languages are closely related. More than half the words in English are of French or Latin origin, so if you spend some significant time learning French in an immersion environment, you will be able to connect the dots and make sense of the language.

Once you’ve learnt a few hundred key words you can associate with words you already know, you’ll be able to pick things up naturally simply by paying attention. You will be able to understand what people say to you, and you’ll be able to reply with increasing confidence.

This is not the case when learning Chinese.

There is almost zero overlap in vocabulary between English and Chinese, a fact most people don’t really appreciate the importance of before they start learning Chinese or another language that is very distant from English. I have argued elsewhere that listening comprehension in Chinese is objectively hard, and the lack of shared vocabulary with your native language further adds to the difficulty.

Why is listening in Chinese so hard?

This is important for the effectiveness of studying abroad. Part of the reason why studying abroad is so good is that you will be surrounded by the language everywhere you go.

But, as I’ve already pointed out, this only helps you if you can make sense of at least some of what you hear. Getting to a point where this is possible takes several times longer in Chinese compared to many other languages.

So, when should you go abroad to learn Chinese?

When you go depends on many factors, many of which are practical and aren’t related to language learning at all, but delaying your stay is not a big problem. Study in your home country and learn the basics before you go.

That will ensure that you know enough words and grammar to make yourself understood, and you will also stand a chance of understanding what people say to you once you go. It will enable you to interact with native speakers and make the most out of your language classes if you choose to enroll at a university or language school. Naturally, the same is true for everyday interactions with locals.

I spent a year learning Chinese in Sweden before I went to Taiwan, averaging maybe 30 hours per week, including all kinds of learning, this means that I had studied for almost 1,500 hours before going. When I arrived, I knew lots of words and grammar, and so benefited greatly from the immersion experience.

How I learnt Chinese, part 3: My first year in Taiwan

Staying longer and beginner learners

Naturally, if you’re willing to stay abroad for an extended period (I’ve spent four years abroad in total), the reason for delaying your trip decreases.

Remember, immersion comes with other benefits, such as a boost in motivation and an easier time finding resources, people to talk to and friends to study with. While you might not need a boost in motivation right away (most students are very enthusiastic when they set out), the ease of access to the language and related resources really do help.

If you go abroad as a beginner, you can compensate for what your teacher might not cover by looking for advice online.

In fact, Hacking Chinese was launched with this very intent in mind. I started to notice things I thought my teachers should have covered or done differently, and started writing about it. I’ve also built a course aimed specifically at beginners, which covers many things your teacher probably won’t go through properly or in a way that you’ll be bale to absorb.

Unlocking Chinese: The Ultimate Guide for Beginners

Still, it might be impractical or impossible to go right now, so just focus on building the basic skills that will allow you to make the most out of your stay once you go!

Have you learnt Chinese abroad? What do you think?

As mentioned above, I moved to Taiwan after having studied Chinese for a year in Sweden. I felt that turned out pretty well.

  • When did you go abroad to learn Chinese?
  • Where did you go?
  • Did you wish you had gone earlier or maybe later?
  • Any advice for other students in a similar situation?

Conclusion

You can learn Chinese wherever you live, but doing so in a Chinese-speaking environment makes certain things easier. However, not going right now is not really a problem, especially if you’re a beginner.

This is a matter of efficiency: you want to make sure you can spend the time abroad learning things you can’t learn as well at home. Basic vocabulary can be easily learnt from home, while having conversations with locals and eavesdropping on conversations on the bus are much easier in China.

Editor’s note: This article, originally from 2010, was rewritten from scratch in September 2020.



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10 comments

  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.

  5. Ben Parker says:

    I went to Beijing for eight weeks in an immersion program (no English allowed) after studying Mandarin part-time for two years (probably 15-20 hours/wk).

    I thought the timing was perfect, for many of the reasons you mention in the article. I had already learned basics and it was a huge boost in motivation. The hour long subway commutes also ensured I had plenty of time every day for vocabulary review 🙂

    Another big factor about how much Chinese you learn abroad is, I think, who you surround yourself with. If I had been spending time with other foreigners who were not interested in learning Chinese, I may not have progressed much. Conversely, if I had had no teachers or language learning peers in China, the native speakers around me probably would not have had any patience with me and I wouldn’t have progressed as well either. With a few dedicated teachers and a group of peers, however, we were all able to get the social support we needed to progress very rapidly, especially in speaking. Without having any precise way to measure this, I would estimate that my Chinese improved as much in those two months as it had in the previous two years.

  6. Franziska Schmidt says:

    Copied from my email (I mostly read your articles in my inbox) and a bit shortened:

    Loved this article! A lot of what you’re pointing out here is not just true for Mandarin, but applies equally well to other foreign languages, even the ones more closely related to one’s native language, if the goal is to reach native speaker level (or get close to it) as opposed to “just” reaching a functional level. I’m a native German speaker and I had English and a bit of Mandarin in school, which laid the foundation, then a language buddy for English in undergrad, plus more Mandarin classes, until I finally ended up going to Beijing for 2 years (2014-2016) and the US (2016-now). I learned a ton in China, but because I primarily develop my language skills through reading, which is rather difficult to do for Mandarin, I’d say I could have gone even later than I did and it would have been more efficient.

    One argument I might add to your list here is that native speakers are often “useless” to a beginner, or even an intermediate learner. Most native speakers have no clue how their own language functions because they don’t have to, they just “know it”. To beginners they won’t be helpful because they can’t explain why certain things are the way they are, and to intermediate speakers, who may attempt to copy their way of speaking, their presence might even be detrimental if they speak a dialect that isn’t standard and the learner can’t recognize that yet. Unless that dialect is the goal, of course… Personally, I aim for a fairly neutral accent in all languages I learn, so it has been incredibly helpful for me to go to China and the US after having spent a significant amount of time learning the local language at home. It enabled me to “detect” dialects, slang, and native speakers, who are simply less educated and don’t adhere to the standard language I am attempting to learn. I think it’s vital for any language learner to know which register they’re drawing from in a particular situation and to be able to switch between them as desired. However, I do realize that most people may not care that much and are learning a language to be understood, not to become a faux native speaker, so this is me speaking as a perfectionist. 🙂

    In general, I believe that the primary goal in cracking another language should be to determine what type of language learner one is and to figure out how to max out one’s strongest skills before traveling. In my English-learning journey, that kind of preparation enabled me to bring my speaking skills up to a functional level and beyond as soon as I had more access to native speakers, even though speaking is my weakest skill and I pretty much refused to open my mouth when learning at home (got me some horrendous grades in English in high school, hahaha). The next time I’m in China, I intend to do the same!

    1. Franziska Schmidt says:

      P.S.: I know that you disagree with me saying that native speakers who can’t explain their own language are sometimes not helpful to beginners. However, in my experience with people trying to learn German, they had tons of questions for me about why certain things are the way they are. For example, certain prefixes mean certain things when you put them in front of different verbs and native speakers seem to know what that means even if the word is made up, which puzzled my German-learning friends. And I had absolutely no idea how to explain it to them, so I tried to give them examples of other cases where this prefix does a certain thing and explain it that way. Unfortunately, they typically didn’t know these examples yet, so I left them even more confused, hahaha. I think the underlying issue is that native speakers know certain things because they’ve seen lots of examples and have subconsciously discovered a rule that explains it all, but they can’t express that rule. So, they end up throwing the full complexity of their native language at the beginner, hoping that they will “see the light” the way they once did, but end up confusing them more.

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