What is the Secret to Speaking Better Chinese?

How to speak better Chinese?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 on 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 an 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 learniing 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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Categories: Communication Tips

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13 replies

  1. Some very good advices, somehow I see myself in all of them that reflects my main problem in learning Chinese : I am stuck at a point where I never reach the thereshold that would allow me to become autonomous in my learning.

    In my experience in language learning I feel there is two phases. The first one is when you only learn the language but cannot put it actually to practice (that’s the hard part, where I’m stuck in Chinese). Then once you reach a certain level you are not bound to only learn by studying but also (and mainly) learn through practice (when you have attained the thereshold).

    But I feel that with a language so different than our native languages as Chinese, the thereshold is so much higher. Despite my motivation to learn the language, I always end up giving up for some time and lacking the time to actually acquire the most needed vocabulary.

    I’m still for the right strategy to give me the push that will put me the right track to chinese learning.

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    • Yohan, thanks for commenting. I agree its never easy, I spent 2 years in classes before I really started improving. Have you tried finding any events in your local area with Chinese speakers/learners? What about organizing one? As I say in the article, nothing helps Chinese improve like actually speaking it (and learning vocab as you go).

      Another option might be to be as selective with your studying choices as possible (e.g. things to say at the office). Good luck!

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      • You’re definitly, I need to get right to it, practice it and learn as I go. I haven’t tried local events with Chinese speakers/learners, looks interesting but unfortunatly too time consumming as I work and study at the same time.

        As for selective learning, I’ve been actually doing that and that’s what allowed me to make the most progress. My selection was pretty straight forward as I decided to ignore learning to write and read as I found it to hold me back. That got me to make some substantial progress.

        Though in the end what matters I guess is regular work. Anyway, thanks for the good advices 🙂

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      • Actually that’s one of the two reason I want to learn Chinese. The first being that my fiancé is Chinese, and the second is that we will go and live in China after I graduate in my master degree. So, I’ve got one year left to seriously improve my Chinese ! Since you seem open to question, what would you say the minimum level of Chinese would be to work in China ? I’m rather aiming for english speaking jobs, but I feel that Chinese is more and more mandatory to work in China, even in international companies.

        Again, thanks for your comments and advices ! Definitly need to check out your website entierly 😉

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        • Yohan, English speaking jobs may be hard to come by, especially in the big cities, and especially if you want to earn a nice living. Many big foreign companies prefer not to hire new foreign grads anymore based on my own experience living in Shanghai. If you have a good deal of experience in a specific domain, or if you have worked for a multinational in your home country before then it may be easier, however everyone wants to go to China these days, so companies can pick and choose. Also many foreigns in a MNC in China may be at a disadvantage simply by being unable to read and write Chinese…

          There are opportunities out there, you just have to look for them, and have something the compitition doesn’t. Another option is Chinese companies that are going global.

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      • Again, you give me some really good advices and feedback. That’s roughly how I felt things were, but it’s nice to have feedbacks to back that feeling.

        I thought about Chinese company going global but it feels to me that if you don’t speak chinese that’s even harder because it seems like getting a job in that kind of company strongly relies on one’s network. Maybe I’m wrong.

        Well, anyway, you’ve just greatly enhanced my motivation to learn Chinese ! I’ll see how much chinese I can learn in one and half…ish !

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  2. Good tips, Sean. I always find that making Chinese friends who don’t want to practise their English with you is the hard part. Any pointers?

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    • Mike, thanks for the comment. It indeed can be a problem finding those local Chinese friends to speak Chinese with. Here are a few ideas:

      1) Always say “Ni hao” and introduce yourself in Chinese when you meet local Chinese people – you want them to know right off the bat that you are one of the Westerners that wants to and can speak in Chinese.

      2) If there are networking events in the Chinese city you are in, make sure you attend and try yo mingle with groups of locals, who will invariably be speaking in Chinese. I have seen many groups specifically for Chinese returnees (海归) and you might be able to find event listings through Chinese social media

      3) Tell Chinese coworkers that you are looking for a local Chinese friend to practice Chinese with. They may have an idea, or may be able to invite you to gatherings or parties with mainly Chinese speakers.

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      • Mandarin Garden has as free exchange. Just call and they will set up exchanges with thier teachers. I did it for two weeks and it got my chinese back very quickly. It is mandaringarden.org. Aida is in charge of the program and it is free!! Lisa

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        • Thanks for sharing Lisa. That sounds like a good resource for Westerners in China.

          However in general I personally have a problem with language school establishments in China. I feel they overcharge foreigners and don’t do enough to help improve people’s Chinese language skills. And its just a bad mindset to get into – that the school is your ticket to speaking Chinese well. I’d compare this attitude in Westerners to what I see in the Chinese who want to learn English they are so caught up in this “need” to find a language teacher or school that they forget that they actually have to use the language everyday on their own.

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      • I agree with Sean regarding school to learn Chinese. I have quite a lengthy experience at failling to learn Chinese, at some point I thought that the problem was that I didn’t have proper chinese lessons in a school. So I gave it a try. This experience it really didn’t help as I was only flooded by work and things to learn,It was demotivating and frustrating. I love China, I love Chinese people, but I find that Chinese people are really bad at teaching their language. I feel that they fail to understand our difficulties to learn this language, and therefore are not able to really help us learn it.

        The exact same thing happened with my fiancé who is Chinese, she’s not good at teaching the language and she’s absolutly not patient about it. Some of my friends who have chinese wife experienced exactly the same thing (2 other to be precise).

        The best Chinese lessons and advices I received where from non-native Chinese speakers.

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  3. The awkward parts kill me! But I understand what you’re suggesting, that it’s a necessary evil.

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