Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad

A widespread myth about learning Chinese is that you will master the language simply by moving abroad to live in an immersion environment. However, how much you learn is determined by how much you engage with the language, not by your geographical location.

Two important insights follow:

  1. You can live in China for many years and not learn much at all
  2. You can master Chinese without leaving the comfort of your home

In this article, I will focus on living in an immersion environment and what it means for your learning. As we shall see, learning Chinese in China has many benefits over learning in your home country, but none of these guarantee that you will learn much, let alone master the language.

Tune in to the Hacking Chinese Podcast to listen to the related episode:

Available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, YouTube and many other platforms!

For more about the second insight, check Immersion at home or: Why you don’t have to go abroad to learn Chinese.

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

Harmful myths about learning Chinese

Some myths about language learning are harmless, but others can be detrimental to your learning if you believe in them. For example, thinking that native speakers are infallible guides to the Chinese language will make you feel confused and frustrated. I once had a language exchange session where a kind person tried to help me pronounce my family name 凌 (líng) correctly so people wouldn’t mistakenly think it was 林 (lín), which is a much more common family name. Only later did I realise that the native speaker couldn’t distinguish the finals -ing and -in.

Another example is teachers instructing students to pronounce the third tone as a dipping tone, even though it’s actually a low-falling tone in most cases. This is not because the teacher can’t pronounce the tone correctly but because they lack a deeper understanding of phonology and how speech rate affects the pronunciation of tones. I wrote more about this issue here: Learning the third tone in Mandarin Chinese.

Other myths are about how to learn Chinese, and these can have a very negative impact on your prospects. For example, if you think that you’re too old to learn Chinese, you might not even get started, or if you identify yourself as a visual learner and limit your input because of this, you will learn less because learning styles are a myth.

You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad…

Thinking that you will learn Chinese just by moving to China can certainly have negative consequences. You learn by engaging with the language, connecting spoken and written forms with meaning, and communicating in a social context. It’s easier to do that if you live in an immersion environment, but it won’t happen automatically, as proven by the fact that there are many foreigners who have lived in China for years and still don’t speak much Chinese at all.

You can also observe this in your home country, although the details differ depending on where you’re from. Here in Sweden, it’s not uncommon for English speakers to not learn much Swedish at all, and the situation is similar in many other countries. There are also many foreigners in English-speaking countries who don’t learn English either.

In all these cases, it’s because they don’t engage with the language and don’t use it to communicate. The reasons might be very different, but it should be clear that simply living in a country does not guarantee that you’ll learn the language.

…but you might be able to learn other languages this way

The problem with Chinese and other languages unrelated to your native language is that it requires much effort to reach a basic comprehension threshold. If someone without prior experience with Chinese listens to a conversation in the language, it’s quite likely that they won’t understand anything at all. Since the listener will not be able to connect the spoken forms (sounds and tones) to meaning, learning will not take place.

Compare this with living in a country where people speak a language closely related to your own. If I move to Germany, I’m sure that I will be able to understand bits and pieces of conversations around me, even if I have never studied German. The same is true for speakers of English learning Spanish or French, for example. As we listen more, we learn more, and we can gradually build competence in the language.

In Chinese, this does not happen unless you invest some effort to get off the ground. Once you have learnt the basics, you will learn more simply by living in the country, assuming you expose yourself to the language and pay attention.

So you lived there for two years? You must be fluent then!

I lived here between 2012 and 2014. It’s right outside Shida Night Market in Taipei, Taiwan.

As a student, it can be a bit frustrating when people assume you have learnt Chinese by living abroad. Even if it might be true that I spoke the language at some level of fluency after having lived in Taiwan for a couple of years, this is not simply because I lived there! It didn’t happen by magic or osmosis.

Instead, it happened because I invested the time and energy to learn the language. When I studied Chinese full-time, I spent more than ten hours a day on average, doing everything from traditional language courses, individual tutoring and language exchanges, to more relaxed and social forms of learning, including hanging out with friends, practising sports and playing games.

I wrote more about my Chinese journey in a series of articles, starting here: How I learnt Chinese, part 1: Where it all started:

How I learnt Chinese, part 1: Where it all started

I’m sure I would have learnt some basic words and phrases without doing these things, but it’s increasingly easy to avoid the language spoken around you by hanging out with compatriots and leveraging modern technology to stay safely within the social spheres of your home country. The internet has made learning Chinese much easier, but it also provides an immersion escape hatch that might do more harm than good.

How much Chinese you learn is up to you

My first semester abroad was spent in Xinzhu, Taiwan.

What you choose to do with your time while living abroad is entirely up to you, and so how much Chinese you learn depends on the decisions you make along the way. Some of these decisions might not be within your control, and some of them might not even be conscious, but they do determine how much you learn.

Let’s have a look at some questions to highlight different situations and approaches:

  • If you spend forty hours a week teaching English, is it likely that you will learn Chinese as quickly as someone with a job where it’s necessary to communicate in Chinese?
  • If you hang out with other foreigners and speak English, will you learn as much Chinese as someone who socialises with locals as far as possible?
  • If you live with an English-speaking friend, how can you learn as quickly as someone who has found a native roommate or at least doesn’t share a stronger language with you?
  • If you speak English with your Chinese partner, how much are you missing compared to someone whose partner doesn’t even speak English?
  • If you spend your spare time online watching films or playing games in English, how can you expose yourself to as much Chinese as someone who foregoes entertainment in English and tries to find alternatives in Chinese?
  • If you chat with family and friends from home all the time, will you learn as much as someone who went to China before the internet made this possible or who dials down communication with home to a minimum?

As I said, most people don’t have control over all these factors, but you can control some of them and influence others. It’s also a matter of preference, and not everything in life is about learning Chinese, so most of us don’t choose a partner based on their native language or a job simply because it helps us learn Chinese.

These are not binary choices either, so simply choosing options that involve more Chinese will enable you to learn more, even if you cannot go all in. I explored this more in The forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese:

The forking path: A human approach to learning Chinese

Conclusion: You won’t learn Chinese simply by living abroad, but it does help

The most important difference between learning Chinese in your home country and in an immersion environment is the effort required to make the right choices. It’s much easier to practise sports in Chinese if all you need to do is look at your university’s bulletin board, and finding native speakers to socialise with is much easier when there are millions around you.

Living abroad can also motivate you to make the right decisions, as it’s more directly useful to know more Chinese if you live in Shanghai compared to South Carolina or Spain. Nurturing our motivation for learning is important, and some forms of motivation are stronger in an immersion environment.

That being said, your geographical location does not determine how much you learn; it’s perfectly possible to live in China and make decisions that negate most of the potential advantages, and there are lots of people who do this. Similarly, it’s possible to become fluent in Chinese from home, even if making the right decisions there takes more effort. See this interview with Carl Gene Fordham, who became fluent in Chinese and a certified translator without ever moving abroad.

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

Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2011, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in October, 2023.

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  1. toti says:

    That’s a chicken and egg situation, you won’t really improve until you have a social life with locals. you won’t make friends unless you reach a basic level of communication.

    Perfect case : take classes for 1-2 years in your own country before you move abroad.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      You’re right in that this looks very much like a chicken and egg situation, but I don’t think it needs to be. Why? Because you don’t have to choose one and then do the other. There is nothing that says that you can’t improve while having native friends at the same time. Naturally, you will be limited in your ability to communicate in Chinese, but using as much Chinese is possible is still a great way to improve. I think waiting until reaching a decent level before engaging with locals is a serious but all too common mistake.

      If the time abroad is limited, I totally agree with what you say. In fact, I’ve written about it here. Going abroad for just one year and choosing the first is a waste of precious opportunities, because, just as you say, a decent level is needed to maximise socialisation with locals. However, if you can choose to stay abroad any time you like, I think going abroad immediately makes a lot of things easier.

  2. Sara says:

    Another good post! I think that the best place to learn Chinese is in China, but just living in China won’t make your Chinese fluent. Like you, I have also met lot of people that have lived in China for years, but their Chinese is very limited. I really agree with what you said: “You won’t learn a language if you don’t make a serious effort to do so.”

    The key is to interact with local Chinese people in Chinese as much as possible. The best language partners are those who don’t speak any English and therefore force you to use all the Chinese you know. If you think finding Chinese friends is hard, then just start talking with the shop owners while shopping. They are usually very interested in where you come from and who you are, and like chatting when they realize you can speak Chinese.

    The best solution? Try getting a Chinese boyfriend/girlfriend who doesn’t speak English and move in with him/her and maintain your relationship. I guarantee that even your other half isn’t your teacher, you will learn a lot because simply you don’t have any other choise. It worked for me!

  3. LA Guy says:

    I agree that putting yourself in a “must communicate” situation is ideally the fastest way to learn but many aren’t willing to completely change their current location and lifestyle.

    I would like to make slow but steady progress mostly on my own …
    Might have to pursue Internet resources such as Skype, LiveMocha, iTalki etc
    to find partners to practice with.

    LA Guy

  4. Olle Linge says:


    I think you hit the nail on the head here, and this is why most people don’t learn languages very fast (i.e. they aren’t committed enough to actually change their lives). This isn’t necessarily something bad, I mean, my goal isn’t to force everyone to study Chinese 24/7. 🙂

    Still, I think you can learn Chinese quite well from home and in a pace which is suited to your situation. I think most of what I say on this website is relevant even if you study 10% rather than 100% of your available time. Of course, progress will be slower, but it’s still progress! I should say that I still use Skype and MSN quite a lot to practice.

  5. Marcus says:

    I teach English at primary school level and I have to say that it has helped me to grasp a lot of basic Chinese. It only takes looking at your presentation and actually giving it to your students four or five times a week for you it to sink in, at least on some level. I found it incredibly challenging to learn any Chinese in the early days of living here; my first lesson was on numbers and I think back and laugh at all the trouble I had just learning 1-10. Because of this initial roadblock I swore off learning for about four or five months. Even still, I soaked up a lot without any effort and now I’m learning with a more dedicated attitude, I feel that it helped to just let your brain adjust to the characters, to hearing the different tones. I would honestly say that if you haven’t had lessons before you move to a country that doesn’t speak your native language, just give yourself a month or so before you start. It might sound counter-intuitive, but I found it really helped to let the basics sink in of their own accord before actively increasing my knowledge. How do you feel about that?

    1. Olle Linge says:

      If you start studying and feel that it’s too much, by all means, take it easy, but I see no reason to recommend such an approach in general. Of course, arriving in a new country and starting to learn the language is very demanding and will give several kinds of different shocks (cultural, linguistic, social), and if you feel it’s too much, then slowing down might be good. In general, though, I think it’s better to learn in as many ways as possible immediately, i.e. letting things sink in while making an effort to learn.

  6. Wow Olle. Good post. Amazing. How did you manage 80 hours per week of Mandarin? That is impressive and you seem to be a great student. (Not being patronising at all saying this.)

    I agree with what you’ve said. I feel almost ashamed of how little Mandarin I learned during my year in China. I could and should have done much better.

    1. Tony says:

      Good comments here.
      I know learn Chinese is not easy. You need put lots of time and energy to make it looks easier and understandable. Never give up, one day you will find you make big progress in the language

  7. kelake says:

    I get tired of hearing that same sentence myself. Depending on your goals for learning it requires a great deal of effort over a long period of time to achieve a reasonably functional level in the language.

    I’m sure most have heard of the 10,000 hour of deliberate practice rule, but what many people don’t realise is that the key point is not time but deliberate practice. It’s not how much time so much as how you spend your time.

    Unfortunately, if you asked a Chinese teacher in Taiwan the simple question, How do I study Chinese?, more often than not the reply would not be as satisfactory as if you asked your violin teacher, how do I study the violin? When I started studying Chinese I asked this very question, particularly because I was struggling with learning to write characters, she had no advice other than to write more, even though I was writing characters for over 2 hours every single day.

    You blog has more useful suggestions than I’ve ever gained through classroom study.

  8. PhDeviate says:

    I’m one month into an indefinite stay in PRC. I’m almost 2 weeks in to taking one-on-one lessons about 6 hours a week. I need to dedicate more time to practice, but my basic proficiency is only just getting to the point that I can start to do retail transactions. But I think everything you say is true. I was here for 7 weeks last summer and learned maybe 10 words. Now I am closing in on more than 10 sentences, with about 100 characters and counting! It takes WORK. And Anki. Don’t forget about Anki. AnkiDroid and a long round-trip to my yoga studio are a huge part of my study strategy! I also take bilingual yoga classes, and am TRYING to meet people that way…

  9. Kaka says:

    I highly recommend, for those going abroad as standard English teachers with the goal of learning Chinese, to consider teaching as young of an age as possible. I taught in a kindergarten for 2 years (definitely wasn’t my first choice) and, while I am happy to now have a very different job, it was amazing for my Chinese and I experienced much more immersion because I was my students first English teacher, so much more of the classroom was in Chinese than comparable English classrooms teaching older students.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      I think this is good advice in general, but I’ve also heard of schools with strict no-Chinese rules for foreign teachers. IF they are enforced or not probably depends on the availability of English teachers in that area, though!

  10. Harland says:

    China is thick with foreigners who have spent 10+ years there and still don’t speak more than 100 words, mostly having to do with ordering beer. They are especially prevalent in Beijing and Shanghai, where everything is in English and they can live their lives basically like they do at home. They have no interest in China or Chinese culture and consider studying Chinese a waste of valuable time that could be better spent elsewhere.

    Some people look down on foreigners who live here for years and don’t speak Chinese, but I don’t. I pity them. They miss out on so much. Their lives could be richer, they could enrich their lives with diversity, they could have so many better experiences. But what do they do? They sit on the couch, playing Xbox, browsing facebook, and watching the same damn TV shows that they watch back home.

    A common disdainful retort I hear to this: “Maybe they don’t want to participate in Chinese life!”

    I know. That’s the tragedy.

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