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:
- You can live in China for many years and not learn much at all
- 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.
For more about the second insight, check 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!
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:
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
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:
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.
Editor’s note: This article, originally published in 2011, was rewritten from scratch and massively updated in October, 2023.
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