When I moved to China, I knew I had to make learning Chinese a priority. Living in a city like Shanghai, it’s easy to get away with a “thank you” (xiè xie,谢谢) and “I don’t know” (wǒ bù zhī dào, 我不知道 ) and many do. But as an expat, I think it’s worth it to at least try and learn some basic communication. So I did.
Within around 4 months of study, I’ve been able to reach around HSK level 2, i.e far from fluent, but I can order takeaways without my order getting messed up #success, understand when locals are talking about me #laowailife and have basic small talk past the fact that I’m American and my favorite fruit is an apple.
Unfortunately, I know myself. And learning Mandarin solely by textbooks was a sure fire way for me to throw in the towel before I could even learn that nobody actually says “Nihao ma?” (seriously….no one). So, on my own journey to keep it interesting, I’ve found methods that not only helped me learn faster and sound more natural, but understand Chinese culture on a new level. So, without further a-do here are….10 Unique Ways to Learn Chinese
1. Work on your tones, like a LOT.
My first Chinese tutor explained tones like this…
“Learning the tones is like the foundation of a tree. If it is weak, the tree will not be strong.”
I thought it was beautiful. But I must’ve gone tone deaf (literally), because my tone struggle is real.
But I know there’s no magic pill, except repetition. Because there’s only so many times you can hear a word pronounced in a certain way before it becomes the most natural way for you to say it (regardless if you have the speaking skills of a small child who probably has better tones than you). I use an app called Pinyin Trainer for 10 minutes a day. It’s only $2.99 and comes with unlimited drills and review practice. Perfect to help train your ear for fluency.
2. Think & Talk to Yourself in Mandarin
I’ve always heard the importance of thinking in a new language, but I never understood the why. A study by the University of Chicago showed that when we think in our target language, we’re actually becoming smarter in that language. Because even if you don’t know much vocabulary, digging in your brain bank will force you to use critical thinking skills to put two and two together. Don’t know where to start?
Try these prompts…
- Introduce yourself for the “first time” in the mirror in Chinese
- Explain your daily routine in Chinese to your yourself as you’re doing it
- Visualize a common situation you might find yourself in in China or with a native speaker and think about how it’d play out
If you find yourself unable to make full sentences, don’t be afraid to think/say what you can and translate the rest!
Which leads to my third point…
3. Don’t Learn Vocabulary, Learn Sentences
Okay. Maybe that’s misleading. Because you obviously can’t make a sentence without vocab. But if you’re not learning it along with a common phrase then it’s basically like filling your brain with all the ingredients, but no recipe. Luckily the HSK Online app comes with both. For every word, there’s a practical sentence. Not to mention REAL past HSK exams and tons of listening and reading practice. It’s a one-time purchase to unlock all the features, but it pays back instantly in my opinion. Try it out for free first and see how you like it! After that it’s about $35 for lifetime access.
4. Make Chinese Friends On and Offline.
I know the offline part isn’t feasible right now. But emotional connection is the glue you’ll need when you start questioning why you’ve decided to learn the hardest language in the world. In this case, I think less is more. Which is why I mainly stick to these two apps….
My favorite! A matchmaking app for language learners. Just put in your native language and a target language to get matched with locals instantly.
This app means business. They’ve got podcasts, audiobooks, and lessons to brush up on your Chinese before using the “Exchange Feature” where you can have conversations will locals. You even get a conversation report after with feedback!
Remember, as a general rule of thumb (and human decency) don’t just become friends with someone for the purpose of learning a language. That’s called a tutor. This is also why it’s important to connect with people who share at least some common interests with you outside of the language barrier.
This is actually a Chinese dating app, and essentially a big rip-off on Tinder. But based on the advice I gave above, when I realized I wasn’t looking to date, I deleted it. But if you are, it’s a great way to meet locals, practice speaking and make sure you have some common interests to talk about before your big date.
5. Use WeChat Like This
Now that you’ve made Chinese friends, chances are, you’re on Wechat. I won’t go through the process of getting it set up. But if you need to make an account – which every Chinese learner should, you can watch here.
Next time you’re texting your friend why not see if you can answer their messages WITHOUT heading to Google Translate – or at least see what words you can understand before you do. If you’re comfortable, you can also start using the voice recording function to talk with them. This will not only stimulate a live conversation, but help you learn how to listen to Chinese speakers on the phone (it’s a lot harder). Remember to ask your native friends to correct you!
The best Mandarin resource I’ve ever found. If you do nothing but binge-watch their channel, take notes and repeat, I guarantee you’ll be conversational in no time. Their channel focuses on getting learners from Beginner to Intermediate level using real-life Chinese. From vlogs to street interviews, need-to-know phrases and best conversation starters, it’s a life-saver for any serious learner.
And the best part, it’s totally FREE! But as a thank you, they do have a donation option on their website, which you should totally use 🙂
My favorite videos…
7. Watch Foreigners Speak Chinese
There’s something extremely motivating about watching another foreigner speak Chinese, especially fluent Chinese. The “I can do it do” feeling arises (and a slight tinge of healthy jealously).
Some of my favorite videos are…..
Xiaomanyc 小马在纽约 (His whole channel is about speaking Chinese to locals, love it!) Chinese Speaking White Guys Catch Gossiping Nail Salon Workers Red Handed
But honestly, there’s a whole genre of Mandarin speaking foreigners on Youtube. So just get to searching!
8. Netflix & Chi(nese)ll
I’ll be honest. I don’t know if I can claim watching Chinese soap-operas as “studying”, but with this amazing extension, I actually can!If you’re ready level up your Netflix and Chi(nese)ll download Language Learning with Netflix. This automatically puts two subtitles on your show. One in your native language. One in your target; i.e Mandarin. This way, you can follow along in both languages perfectly, star new words and even pause for prononication! Although the translations won’t always match up perfectly, it’s a great way to start learning new vocab and colloquial phrases.
Also, a cultural tid-bit, but one thing you’ll notice about the majority of Chinese shows is there’s always a large element of romance…like….always. As someone more into dry-humor (think The Office meets every British show ever), this makes my options pretty limited, but if you don’t mind getting a bit sappy I recommend watching…
Not on Netflix:
9. Listen to Music
Before I decided to learn Chinese, the thought of Chinese music was foreign to me – metaphorically and well, literally. Now my morning routine isn’t complete without blasting some Chinese R&B (bless you Khalil Fong). Remember we talked about emotional connection? Well, memorizing the lyrics to your favorite Chinese song is guaranteed to make you feel more in touch with the language and the culture. Make sure you listen to the same genre of music you do in English so it never feels like a chore.
Here are some of my favorite Chinese playlists…
And literally anything by Khalil Fong
10. Embrace Not Sounding Like A Native (Because You Aren’t!)
Last but not least, get extremely comfortable with the fact that you’ll probably never sound “fluent” in traditional terms. But the more I learn Chinese, the more I realize, that’s not the goal in the first place. Connecting with native speakers should be your first priority. Perfection doesn’t exist. And a perfect accent doesn’t either. Trust me, being a foreigner that speaks Chinese is cool enough!
You took to time to learn about a language and culture completely different from your own. So, embrace the laowai 老外 in you. The you that sometimes struggles to tell a second tone from a third. The you that spends your free time practicing characters and stroke order. The you that is learning one of the hardest languages in the world, and embracing the journey.
世上无难事，只怕有心人 shìshàng wú nánshì，zhǐ pà yǒuxīn rén
Nothing is impossible to a willing mind
Don’t forget to read more living abroad tips here!