Learning Mandarin Chinese: 5 Great Ideas to Improve Your Skills

Note: This is a guest post by the good folks at the Learn Mandarin Website. They also recently interviewed me for a post on their site about effective language learning methods. 

street games in Beijing


Learning Mandarin Chinese can be undertaken via a wide variety of methods.

Recently, we at Learn Mandarin Now spent considerable time interviewing a number of Chinese language teachers, students and experts in order to find out about the preferred methods to effectively learn Chinese. We are now pleased to share with you five great ideas to improve your learning skills.

However, before we start, we’d like to sincerely thank Joann, from this blog, Outside In, for allowing us to write this post and who also contributed to our recent research.

The top tips can be summarised as:

  1. Learn Chinese by travelling to China

While not everybody can actually travel to China, owing to their particular circumstances, many people say that the most effective strategy is to go to the country and immerse yourself in the language. If you are really serious about learning Chinese and want to improve your skills quickly, this is certainly one of the best options. In fact, we discussed this subject with Joann previously: Learn Chinese in China.

  1. Keep on practicing

If you are not in China, or not able to travel there, there are sites such as Italki where you can still speak with native speakers. As an example, we know of some foreign students who learned to speak Cantonese even though they are not in a city where Cantonese predominates.

Obviously though, if you can get to China to live or work, one of the best ways to improve your language skills when you are there is to talk as much as you can to native Chinese speakers and try to blend into the local culture.

  1. Set attainable targets

While there are many online courses which claim to help you learn Mandarin Chinese quickly and easily, it’s important to remember that, no matter which way you choose, it will take years to speak fluent Chinese.

Don’t rush to try to study advanced Chinese; follow a clear learning pattern, starting with the basics—and don’t expect to know Chengyu or idioms from day one!

  1. Learning Chinese characters is a key element of learning Chinese

Often, students struggle with the dilemma whether to learn simplified or traditional Chinese characters. However, in our opinion, it’s rather more important to simply get started and begin to take some action. If you can master either type of character, you can basically understand the other type.

In any event, learning Chinese characters is an important element of learning and, in fact, we offer some tips and the strategy about how to learn Chinese characters in this interview.

  1. Learning better Chinese is not always expensive

From recent research we undertook with expert bloggers: How to learn Mandarin Chinese, we found numerous sites offering to help students learn Chinese. When we looked closely, it was apparent that most are free or only require a small investment to get started.

No matter which way you choose, please check out our website Learn Mandarin Now as we are always finding new ways to help you learn Mandarin Chinese in the most efficient manner!

Related Posts: 

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Chinese Language Learning Infographic

The folks at Learn Mandarin Now recently queried more than 50 bloggers (including yours truly) about their favorite resources for learning Chinese. Based on the responses, they put together this helpful graphic listing the top ten recommended language learning resources.


What would you add?

Image credit: Learn Mandarin Now

Related Posts:

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Learning ABOUT Chinese (and Language Learning)

My Favorite Language Learning Quotes

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners

Learning Chinese in the 1920’s

As part of her research for a book about Esther Nelson, my friend Noel stumbled upon a digitized version of a Chinese language textbook used by foreign missionaries working in Sichuan Province in the 1920’s. It’s titled Chinese Lessons for First Year Students in West China, by Omar L. Kilborn.


Besides the fact that the romanization is obviously not Pinyin, and that some of the pronunciations seem to be based on Sichuan dialect, a glance at the table of contents reveals just how much things have changed:

Lesson 1: Conversation with a Teacher

Lesson 2: Hiring a Cook

Lesson 3: Hiring a Coolie

Lesson 4: Hiring a Woman Servant

Lesson 5: Giving the Cook his Orders

Lesson 6: Sweeping the Floor

Lesson 7: Washing the Floor

Lesson 8: Dusting

Lesson 9: Arranging the Furniture

Lesson 10: Piling Boxes

Lesson 11: Buying a Sedan Chair

Lesson 12: Sedan Chair Riding

Lesson 13: Travelling by Sedan Chair

Lesson 14: On the Road

Lesson 15: Changing Dollars

Lesson 16: Changing Silver

Lesson 17: Cleaning the Lamp

Lesson 18: Washing Dishes

Lesson 19: The Kitchen

Lesson 20: Setting the Table

Lesson 21: Putting the Food on the Table

Lesson 22: Cooking Eggs

Lesson 23: Cooking the Porridge

Lesson 24: Carrying a Letter

Lesson 25: Carrying a Lantern

Lesson 26: Buying Firewood

Lesson 27: Buying Coal

Lesson 28: Washing Clothes

Lesson 29: Ironing

Lesson 30: The Bedroom

Lesson 31: The Bathrooom

And last, but not least….

Lesson 32: Keeping a Cow



Learning Chinese in the 1600’s

Imagine Learning Chinese Without Pinyin

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

A Letter to Chinese Language Learners






Another Great Reason to Learn Chinese

brain_0Last month I hosted a couple of friends from China for two weeks. It was great having them here, but since they don’t speak English I and a mutual Chinese friend traded translation shifts. Wherever we went and whatever we did, one of us had to be ‘on duty.’

Needless to say it was exhausting. By the time they left my brain physically hurt and it took me about 3 days to put the Chinese side to rest for awhile.

The day they left I stumbled across this article in USA Today highlighting a study that  shows how speaking more than on language may delay the onset of dementia:

The latest evidence that speaking more than one language is a very good thing for our brains comes from a study finding dementia develops years later in bilingual people than in people who speak just one language.


The study, conducted in India and published Wednesday in the journal Neurology, is not the first to reach this conclusion. But it is the largest and comes with an intriguing new detail: The finding held up even in illiterate people — meaning that the possible effect is not explained by formal education.


Instead, the researchers say, there’s something special about switching from one language to another in the course of routine communication — something that helps explain why bilingual people in the study developed dementia five years later than other people did. When illiterate people were compared with other illiterate people, those who could speak more than one language developed dementia six years later.

Suddenly I saw all that mental exertion in a new light.

So if you’re looking for a way to stave off dementia…..LEARN CHINESE!!

Image source: Penn Language Center

How Long Does it Take to Learn Chinese?

Since I’ve been in China for 28 years, and speak Chinese reasonably well, I am often asked 2 questions (by foreigners), neither of which have easy answers.

One is “are you fluent?”

My response is usually “fluent enough to get myself into and out of trouble.”

The second question is even harder: “how long did it take you to learn Chinese?” It’s a tough question, because it assumes that the words “learn” and “Chinese” are easily defined. Unfortunately they are not.

I usually respond that even though I started ‘learning’ Chinese 22 years ago, I don’t yet consider myself to have ‘learned’ Chinese,

When I do training/orientation sessions for newcomers to China, I get a generic version of that question, namely “how long does it take to learn Chinese.” This question is rooted in their enthusiasm and eagerness to learn Chinese, something I love about newbies. Most have visions of becoming functional (if not fluent) in a relatively short period of time.

The trick in responding to such a question is to do it in a way that doesn’t put a damper on all that enthusiasm, yet helps them be realistic about the immensity of the task.

One way to help set realistic expectations (and measure progress) is to use foreign language proficiency guidelines. For English speakers (in the US), there are two major sets of guidelines. One set is produced by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL Guidelines). The other set is produced by the Interagency Language Roundtable, and is used by the Foreign Service Institute, the arm of the US State Department that trains diplomats. It is also commonly referred to as the FSI scale.

The FSI Scale divides foreign language proficiency into 5 different levels, each with a sub-level (1+, 2+, etc). The five are identified as follows: 1 = elementary proficiency; 2 = limited working proficiency; 3 = professional working proficiency; 4 = full professional proficiency; and 5 = native or bilingual proficiency.

To help learners set realistic language learning goals, the FSI also classifies foreign languages according to how difficult they are for English speakers to learn. These charts (courtesy of SIL) indicate how long it normally takes for learners to reach the different FSI levels for different language groups. The three different lines on the charts represent learners with different aptitudes.

You Chinese language learners know where this is going, don’t you?

In other words a learner with average aptitude should plan to spend 50 weeks (@30 hours per week) to reach  limited working proficiency level (2).

Again, I don’t post these to discourage any one learning Chinese but to help you set realistic expectations and goals.

Where ever you are in your language learning, I say JIAYOU! (加油)

What other methods do you have of setting realistic goals and measuring your progress?

Reminder: I have a subscription drive going on this week. If you would like to receive a free copy of my book “Survival Chinese Lessons” subscribe to this blog, then leave a comment letting me know that you have subscribed. This offer expires the end of the day (where ever you are) on October 13.

A Tale of Two Tickets — The Ferry

“There will be Chinese people on the boat,”  said the voice at the other end of the phone line.  For the 5th time in as many days this was the response I got from a travel agent I had contacted asking for assistance in booking passage on a local ferry boat to take Noel and me up the Yangtze River from Yichang to Chongqing.  “You’d better take a cruise ship. There will be Chinese people on the ferry.”


China likes to keep foreigners in their little boxes. There is a box marked “foreign teacher;” one marked “foreign businessman;” one marked “foreign student;” and a very large box marked “foreign tourist.”  Harmony in the cosmos is maintained when the foreigners remain in their boxes and function by prescribed behaviors and norms ascribed to said boxes. Clearly what we are dealing with here is a foreigner who has broken free of her box.  The box in question is “foreign tourist.” Inside that box the approved way to ride a boat on the Yangtze River is to book onto one of the many cruises that cater to foreign tourists. Prices include passage, accommodations on luxury boats, food, and sightseeing.

This is not my intention. I merely want to use the boat as a means of conveyance from Yichang to Chongqing. This is not what foreign tourists do. This is too far outside the box.  HEY FOREIGNER! GET BACK INTO THE BOX. BUY A CRUISE TICKET.

Yesterday afternoon I felt like I had victory (and a ticket) in sight.  I had managed to get through to the CTS office in Yichang and was talking to a nice young agent about my situation. Except for the fact that he was a pleasant chap and had impeccable English, I felt like I had been transported back to 1985. Our conversation went something like this:

Me:  I am trying to buy a ticket on the ferry from Yichang to Chongqing.  Can you help me?

He: Yes, we can help you buy a ticket for a cruise.

Me:  I don’t want to buy a cruise ticket. I just need a ticket to ride a boat to Chongqing. Here is a website. Please open it.  Do you see the schedule for the ferry?  I want a ticket on that boat. See, it has the schedule and even the fare.  I need 2 first class tickets.

He: But there will be Chinese people on the ferry.

Me: I know. I am not afraid of Chinese people. I like  Chinese people. Some of my best friends are Chinese people.

He: I will check.

Me: Thank you.

He. I’m sorry, we do not have 2 day cruises.  We only have 3 day cruises. 

Me:  Did you say cruise?  I don’t want a cruise.  I just want a ticket on a boat.

He: Oh. Well, there is an ordinary boat used by locals, but there will be Chinese people on the boat.

Me:  I know. As I told you before, I am not afraid of Chinese people.  I like them. What time does it leave Yichang on Monday, March 5?

He:  3:30pm.

Me:  What time does it arrive into Chongqing on Wednesday, March 7?

He: 8AM

Me: How much is the ticket?

He: 850 yuan. But that is only the bed. No food. No sightseeing.

Me: Is that first class, in a room with 2 beds?

He:  Yes, but you will have to share a room with a Chinese person.

Me:  No, I need to buy two tickets. I am travelling with another friend.  We want to buy two beds in one room.  Can you help me buy the tickets?

He: (sucking teeth).  I think it will be better for you to come to Yichang and go to the ferry terminal and purchase the ticket yourself. It will be cheaper.

Me: But I am in Beijing, and will not arrive in Yichang until Sunday the 4th. I am afraid that I will go to the terminal and they will tell me there are no tickets.  Then I will have a big problem.

He: Yes. 

Me: If I pay you a service charge, will you buy the tickets for me?  What is your service charge? (at this point I was willing to pay anything, even if it meant paying more than a cruise ticket – as a matter of principle)

He: 50 yuan.

Me:  Great.  How can I send you the money?

He: (sucking teeth)  I must first make sure that foreigners are allowed to buy tickets on this boat. Normally only Chinese people ride this boat.

It was at this point that I switched into Chinese and, mustering all of the political jargon I have absorbed in my 25+ years here, gave the poor fellow a fine lecture:


Not only had the foreigner refused to return to her box, she had now  firmly planted her flag by revealing her ability to speak Chinese. He chuckled (a good sign) and sucked his teeth (a bad sign) and told me he would check and call me back tomorrow.

Those were hard words to hear. I felt I had come so very close to achieving my goal, only to have it (possibly) slip through my fingers again.

What will this day bring?  Will it be the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat?

If this doesn’t work, I call a friend who has a student who has a brother in Yichang.

Stay tuned…

….and if anyone out there knows someone in Yichang who can help, please let me know!

(Image source: f0rbe5)