Many Westerners in China have a love-hate relationship with the Chinese language. No matter whether learning for professional for personal reasons, Westerners all over China and abroad attempt to improve their Chinese language skills on a daily basis but to no avail. Despite having studied Chinese for many years it is common many Westerners to be unable to speak Chinese fluidly or fluently. It is then no surprise that many wonder if they will ever be able to succeed in learning the Chinese language.
In fact, the Chinese language is by no means beyond the grasp of Westerners living in or planning to move to China. It simply takes the right approach and focus. After five years in China I have identified several important factors which can make a big difference in attaining a verbal fluency in Chinese. I list and discuss them below:
Spend Time with the Chinese, Not Westerners
When Westerners or other learners of the Chinese language ask me how to improve their own Chinese skills, they often confess to spending most of their time in China with other expatriates. This is a big problem. Chinese cannot be learned by repeating a few phrases each week in restaurants or on the street. It cannot be learned by going out to Western bars. It cannot be learned by speaking English every day. It can only be learned by engaging in real and in-depth conversations with the Chinese everyday and by immersing oneself in a Chinese environment. Many Westerners assume that by being in China they are immersing themselves in the language and culture and the rest will follow. This is unfortunately not the case. Learning to speak Chinese well takes effort everyday and requires one to make Chinese friends and spend time with them regularly speaking the Chinese language. Even Westerners outside of China can immerse themselves in a Chinese environment by seeking out overseas Chinese communities and surrounding themselves with Chinese video and audio material.
There is No Substitute for Making Mistakes and Feeling Awkward
When attending business events and social gatherings, I rarely see Westerners actively trying and speak Chinese with the locals. The room usually separates out into two groups – Westerners and overseas Chinese speaking English and local Chinese speaking Chinese. This is the easy way out, and certainly not an effective way to learn the Chinese language. The way the Chinese language is learned is by putting oneself in Chinese-only environments, and constantly taking risks to try out new words or expressions. Most of the time one will make mistakes, and will feel awkward or embarrassed. But this is an absolutely necessary part of the Chinese language learning process. How many times do babies fall before learning how to stand? The same applies very much to learning Chinese. When one makes a mistakes it is clear that one is pushing at their own limits. Only through persistence and dedication can one surpass those limits and increase their fluency in the Chinese language.
Don’t Focus on Studying Vocabulary
A question I hear a lot is “Can you recommend a book or Chinese dictionary to study?” From my own perspective, while it is of course necessary for new students of Chinese language to put certain amount of focus on dictionaries and course books, this is a bad frame of mind to get into for those with an existing proficiency in Chinese. With this approach a student of the Chinese language ends up with lots of words that they have never or rarely been put into practice. Even when one CAN remember all the words they have learned, the words are usually not spoken in a sure and confident manner. Instead, I would suggest that books and other study material be instead thought of as tools to assist one’s study of Chinese, not be the sole focus of study. So learn some new words, and then go out into the world and practice using them. When a Chinese person uses a word one doesn’t understand, it’s important to ask what it means, and then remember it. Only by constantly putting newly learned Chinese into practice can it be remembered and mastered.
Decide How Much Chinese is Right for You
In the end, learning any language requires a definite commitment to one’s time. Chinese is especially so due to its characters, tones, and other differences from Latin based languages. And learning Chinese is more difficult when combined with the obligations of work and family. Because of these limits on time many Chinese learners constantly feel that they are spinning their wheels and never improving. Therefore I would recommend that current and future students of the Chinese language consider how much Chinese they both want to learn, as well as need to learn. Instead of constantly trying to learn new words and phrases, pick a set number of words and phrases and concentrate solely on mastering their usage. This and continuous practice can allow Westerners to achieve increased verbal fluency in the areas that matter most to them. In any case, there is one point I hope becomes clear from the above discussion. Learning to speak Chinese may not be easy, but it is simple and straightforward, as outlined above.
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any additional questions about learning the Chinese language? Do you have any helpful examples from your own experiences learning Chinese that you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.
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